Thursday, November 19, 2009

Recycled: Statement of Purpose, Part 2

Grad school is kicking my butt. So in an effort to keep this blog semi-active over the next few months, until I at least get my legs underneath me to start generating new content, I'll be recycling many of my old posts about the MFA application process. This information is a year old, but I think still very relevant for the upcoming 2009 application season.

So here it is, the Statement of Purpose, technically the most important piece of your application not called the manuscript. But it's also important to keep perspective. Your writing submission will by far be the most important part of your application, period. Everything else, even the Statement of Purpose, will be secondary, the thing that people read after they've decided they like your writing, which means you have a foot in the door to begin with. So keep that in mind. Your Statement of Purpose is a first impression, a way to tell people that you're not crazy, that you're a hard worker. With that, here's the Statement of Purpose I used for my Fall 2008 MFA applications:

My primary goals for pursuing an MFA degree are to significantly improve my writing and to become an integral part of a vibrant, close-knit writing community. To me, both of these goals are intertwined. It is difficult to improve as a writer without the feedback of peers, and similarly, one cannot be a successful member of a writing community without the rigorous application to craft. As such, I have been fortunate to be a part of the same close writing group for the past two years. Through my group’s honest and careful feedback, my writing has vastly improved, and as a result, I have had two of my short stories published: in the Concho River Review, Fall 2007 Issue, and in the Potomac Review, Fall 2008 Issue. I know that without their support, I would not be anywhere near the writer I am today.

By the same token, I understand I still have a great deal to learn. There are many aspects of craft that continue to elude me. For example, I would like to know how to effectively utilize an unreliable narrator, or how to transition from a third-person limited point of view to an omniscient point of view within a single scene. These techniques can only be improved through instruction, careful study, and access to knowledgeable professors. In essence, the intense academic environment provided by the University of Illinois’ MFA program is something that cannot be replicated. I would relish the opportunity to work with and be critiqued by fellow students and professors in such a setting.

In addition to writing, I have various professional and personal strengths to offer to the University of Illinois’ MFA program. Currently, I work as an editor in the newswire industry. In my three years in this position, I have not only been promoted from Associate to Senior Editor, but have also gained extensive experience in the areas of copy editing, professional writing, and documentation writing. Additionally, spending time in a professional environment has taught me the discipline necessary to complete large and small projects on a daily basis. I am more than confident that my real world experience has equipped me with the skills and habits needed to be a successful member of an MFA program.

I am interested in the University of Illinois’ MFA program because of its blend of writing workshops, literature classes, and elective courses on publishing, professional writing, and teaching. The emphasis on a practical range of topics related to creative writing is something that I value highly in a program. I also appreciate the three-year program the University of Illinois provides for its students. While I would savor any chance to study writing at an elite MFA program, a third year would provide more time to research and complete a full manuscript. Additionally, I believe I have much to offer to the University of Illinois. My years of professional experience in copy editing, combined with my personal experience as a contributing member of a close-knit writing community, provides me with a great understanding of what it takes to be a part of a successful program.

Obviously, this SOP varied from school to school. I didn't alter it too much, but I did apply some liberal editing to the last paragraph based on the school, and details specific to each school. I personally think my SOP is a bit wooden, and definitely on the professional side. But then, much of my formal writing experience is steeped in professional and business writing, and I'd be lying if I said that this style wasn't comfortable for me for the Statement of Purpose. Should everyone utilize this voice? Of course not. Being natural in voice and style is important; like writing stories, people can tell when you're faking it.

I should probably include another paragraph of text. Below is a snippet that I placed in some of my SOPs (usually appearing after the second paragraph of the above Statement of Purpose) to the schools that would allow over 500 words:

In regards to my writing, I am interested in exploring the issues of community and culture as it relates to the children of immigrants -- first generation immigrants -- in the United States. I was born and raised in the mostly Caucasian, middle class suburbs of Chicago, yet grew up in a primarily Chinese household. Like my parents, I was not only a minority in name and appearance, but also in culture and community. Most of our family friends were Chinese, I attended Chinese school every Sunday for five years, and we spent entire summers visiting family in Hong Kong. Yet, unlike my parents, being an American was also a far larger part of my identity than it was to them. First generation immigrants are embedded in both cultures, and often, embracing one comes at the expense of the other. To a child or a teenager, this dichotomy is made more complex with issues of identity as it pertains to adolescence and becoming an adult. I want my writing to occupy this space of tension, where to a child, their culture, community, and identity are multi-faceted, complex issues.

A dash of personal background and writing interest. Did it help? To be honest, probably not. It certainly didn't hurt, though. Of all the schools that either waitlisted or accepted me, two (Western Michigan University and Roosevelt) received the "personal" version, and two (the University of Illinois and Notre Dame) received the "vanilla" version. Purdue's case was special, as they asked for an additional written statement answering the questions: "Whose work do you admire? What collection of poetry and/or works of fiction read in the last year have been important to you, and why?" It was fairly simple for me to fold in that one paragraph with some immigrant fiction I had been reading and which were important to me.

In general, I think this is an interesting point, because I had readers who, in general, liked the additional paragraph in my SOP. It gave it a "personal" touch. I, however, was rather ambivalent about the extra paragraph. It felt a little out of place in terms of tone and content. And if a school has even gotten to your SOP, it stands to reason that they've already read and loved your manuscript, and are simply making sure you are a fairly driven, yet normal individual. You hear it over and over again: the manuscript comes first. Which is the reason why, given everything -- the dozens of drafts and the dozens of hours I spent on my SOP -- the Statement of Purpose seems to me both less important and as important as you think. It's fairly important that you try to convey an honest and interesting portrayal of yourself in the SOP. For me, this was utilizing a businesslike approach. Yet, at the same time, there's probably a fairly easy watermark to pass, kind of like a "you must be this sane to ride" type of deal.

But I don't want to dismiss the inherent value in the personal details expressed in the Statement of Purpose. When I first met the Director of the University of Illinois' program, the first few questions she asked me were related to the information and details in my SOP. I was struck by that. In a way, it was her first impression of me as a person, which is something you can never take too lightly.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Recycled: Statement of Purpose, Part 1

Grad school is kicking my butt. So in an effort to keep this blog semi-active over the next few months, until I at least get my legs underneath me to start generating new content, I'll be recycling many of my old posts about the MFA application process. This information is a year old, but I think still very relevant for the upcoming 2009 application season. I like this post because it links to an incredibly valuable resource, a sort of mini-Q&A for the admissions committees, conducted on the MFA Blog last year. It's dripping with information straight from the decision-makers themselves, so I heavily advise checking it out. Also, this post is some random thoughts of mine on the all-important Statement of Purpose. It was put up on February 3, 2009, and is more of a retrospective on the Statements of Purpose I had already written and turned in. Also, stay tuned for my next post, where I will (re)share my original Statement of Purpose. Though it's right there, shortcutted in the righthand bar if you're too impatient to wait! Enjoy!

I've been re-examining the comments on the MFA Faculty Forum I post on the MFA Blog. Now that everyone's commented, I've specifically noticed that there seemed to be a large emphasis (noted by the directors and faculty; the people who make the application decisions) of the value of Statements of Purposes/Personal Statements. In fact, five out of the eleven contributors exactly mention the importance of SOPs in their evaluation process, which has caused me to revise my original thoughts on the SOP.

First, let's get the obvious out of the way. Application season is all but over, and theorizing at this point in the game is little but "armchair quarterbacking." I understand that. But that doesn't mean we can't pore over every single minutiae, every little crumb of research, right? Right.

With that out of the way, I've noticed that one of the reoccurring themes on faculty members' views on SOPs was how it can (or cannot) speak directly to the applicant's desire and commitment to the craft of writing. The most illuminating quote on SOPs to me was what Mary Biddinger of Northeast Ohio had to say:

"I would encourage statement of purpose writers to 'be themselves' as much as possible, while maintaining a sense of audience, of course. The best statements work in tandem with the writing samples, leaving readers with a lasting overall impression. Students are often surprised when I meet them for the first time and remember some detail from their statement, but the good ones are quite memorable."

Some valuable words, in my opinion. What will a great SOP do? Ideally, it will speak to your passions and motivations as a writer. It will tell the reader what is important to the writer, but won't do so explicitly or (to borrow from Holden Caulfield) sound phony. It'll speak from the heart, and although that may sound corny, it's essentially what writers do implicitly with their writing anyways. Why not their SOPs?

I think what I realize now about SOPs is that it isn't necessarily an issue of templating or style. Business-like, casual, conversational -- does it really matter? What matters is what feels comfortable, what matters is that it tells your story, in your own words. If you fake it, people can and will be able to tell. As for my own SOP -- I do plan on sharing it after most of the acceptances have been sent out -- I used a semi-formal business letter approach. But rereading it, I think I can say that I did it not because I felt it was the style or template that allowed me to most effectively maximize my chances, but because it was what felt most comfortable to me in communicating what my writing was about, and what I was all about. And that, I think, is the most important thing.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Recycled: Letters of Recommendation

Grad school is kicking my butt. So in an effort to keep this blog semi-active over the next few months, until I at least get my legs underneath me to start generating new content, I'll be recycling many of my old posts about the MFA application process. This information is a year old, but I think still very relevant for the upcoming 2009 application season. This post was put up on October 18, 2008. It covers my brief and neurotic thoughts on the art of recommendations. Specifically, why you should use physical letters of recommendations over electronic ones. Though I'm sure that emailed recommendations are perfectly fine, too. Enjoy!

My recommendation materials have been, to quote Stevie Wonder, "signed, sealed, and delivered" to my recommendors and I feel great. You'd think that such a thing would be a simple enough affair -- ask your three people to write you some letters -- but as I found out in my research, recommendations, if done properly and on time, are a complicated affair. Can you accommodate the timeline of all of your recommendors? What level of involvement should you have with your recommendors? But out of all the questions I had to answer, the one that was the far most difficult to answer was whether I wanted to send the materials to my recommendors by paper or email.

You might notice that nowadays most major schools encourage their applicants to use their online applications. And in general, this is a great idea, for both the school and the applicant. There's little to no paper or ink used, the computerized applications have a far less likely hood of being lost or delayed, etc. These schools even extend their online capabilities to recommendations. It seems simple enough. Just enter your recommendor's information into an online form, and the school's system will email them instructions on how to upload their letters online. Maybe even answer a couple questions. No muss, no fuss, right? Maybe. When I sat down and really thought about what was being asked of each of my recommendors, I began to realize how daunting the process was going to be. I'm applying to fourteen schools -- which means fourteen customized letters, fourteen cover sheets, fourteen different forms or general questions each school is asking. And while it would seem easy enough to put that into email terms -- electronic forms are easier to handle than paper ones, right? -- several problems rear their heads. For starters, if my email inbox is any indication of how most people keep and organize their emails, then I couldn't realistically expect my recommendors to keep track of each of the fourteen emails the schools would be sending them. Plus, we'd be talking about fourteen emails in the span of 1-2 hours (logging into a school's account and filling out all 3 recommendors' information takes at least 5-10 minutes each), not all at once. If I'm sending emails to someone's account over the span of 1-2 hours, then we'd be talking about fourteen emails intermixed with perhaps a dozen or so other personal emails. And on top of all that consider this note, which is a warning that some schools, like Notre Dame and the University of Indiana, put during their email submission process: Please note that notification emails will indicate "University of Notre Dame - the Graduate School" as the sender but will come from If they use a spam-blocking tool, please ask them to add this email address to their list of known/safe addresses. What? Spam-blockers? What kind of email account doesn't have some form of spam blocking software in this day and age? The opportunities for an email or two slipping through the cracks are simply too great.

I understand that at this point, I probably sound like a raving paranoid lunatic, but consider this: Whose job is it to make the process as simple and easy as possible? Whose job is it to make sure all the letters are received and sent on time without fuss? If a school or two falls through the cracks, who's going to worry about it -- you or the recommendor? Certainly, if your recommendor is a decent human being -- and they all are, or we wouldn't ask them to write us words of praise -- then they might ask about where this or that school's email went, but would you really expect them to look out for your big picture? At the end of the day, you are your own greatest advocate. It's as simple as that. And if you don't do the dirty work, if you don't follow up and make sure that what needs to be done actually gets done, then no one else will.

Which is why I decided to go low-tech and send out the letters by paper. One big package, with all fourteen envelopes and the correct cover letters, and one big manila envelope inside for them to mail the entire thing back to me when they're done. And when I get them back, I'll know exactly where they're going and when, and if something goes wrong, it'll be because I didn't do something right. Am I a control freak? Most certainly. But I'd rather put it in my hands than someone else's.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Recycled: GRE Thoughts, Part 2

Grad school is kicking my butt. So in an effort to keep this blog semi-active over the next few months, until I at least get my legs underneath me to start generating new content, I'll be recycling many of my old posts about the MFA application process. This information is a year old, but I think still very relevant for the upcoming 2009 application season. This post was put up on October 10, 2008, and is my second post on GREs, how they relate to MFA programs, some general thoughts, and preparation. Enjoy!

Welcome to my random thoughts on the GREs, part two. Part one can be found here. It occurred to me yesterday that I needed to give a little more background to where I'm coming from educationally to give a little bit more perspective on my scores. I graduated from college four years ago from Purdue with a degree in Genetics with a horrible 2.46 GPA. Suffice to say that I have never been a very hard worker. But I've always been a pretty good standardized tester. In the month leading up to my test on September 13, I first took a baseline practice test just to see how badly my verbal skills had declined in college and got a 500-550 score. Following that, I studied semi-regularly on the weekends, taking practice tests, memorizing words. When I was about a week out before the real thing, I went into "hardcore" mode and studied nonstop using the strategies I outlined in my GRE thoughts, part one. Additionally, I did some very light studying on the math and essay sections.

On to the various websites and resources, as promised in my previous post.

Barron's GRE Guide -- This was the first thing I bought in preparation for the test, and was my base resource. It's basically everything you'd expect from a GRE guidebook -- complete with five paper practice tests, one CAT test (on a CD), general study strategies, a "most frequent word" list (weighing in at 333 words), and a much more massive 3,500-word list. To be honest, I have no idea why the 3,500-word list was in there. Unless you buy this book a year to six months outside of the test, there's no way anyone would be able to reliably memorize all those words. And even then, it's not going to cover all the possible words you would potentially see on the test. Simply put, the best way to get that tasty 700+ GRE score is to be generally well read -- something that comes from decades of reading regularly. For the more realistic studier, the "most frequent word" list was by and far the most valuable thing in the book (and something that is in every respectable GRE guidebook -- Princeton, Kaplan, etc.). As I mentioned in my last post, I saw at least 7-10 words on test that were on the list, a larger portion than I would've expected. Memorize that list. At the end of it all, I took all the paper practice tests and the CAT test on the CD-Rom, and got scores consistently in the 600-650ish range. The CAT test I scored a 550. -- I stumbled on this website after I had exhausted all the practice tests that the Baron's guide had to offer. This site has hundreds of test questions (the first ten on each section are free) and one free CAT. There are also four other tests that can be unlocked, as well as the other test questions, for $5. The cheap price of the tests should've been a warning sign, but I didn't do my research and promptly paid to access the rest of the tests. In short, this site is horrible. The practice questions are inexact, vague, and confusing. While I'd never hold the GREs up on a pedestal as paragons of testing standards -- you can always count on their questions as at least definite. It's a very bad sign when you read through the answers of a test and find yourself saying "really?" over and over again. Even worse, there were at least a few grammatical errors on the reading comprehension sections of their tests. So yeah. Not very reputable. To give you an idea of how accurate their internal CAT scoring was, I scored on the five tests as high as 710 and as low as 540. -- Frustrated by, I continued to search online for a resource of reputable (and accurate) CATs to practice, and found this site. They're a pure test site, and offer five CATs to download for $20. I did a little bit of research, sampled a little bit of their free test, and went ahead and paid for their product. Much much better. The questions were better worded, more precise, and, most importantly, had answers that did not leave me scratching my head. My test score range was 540 to 600, a much tighter band of numbers, which is indicative of a more accurate test.

The ETS website -- ETS provides two free CATs for download from their website, both of which I scored 630 on. They can be found here. There's not too much to say, except that these tests come straight from the horse's mouth, and (unsurprisingly) yielded the scores that were most similar to my eventual score. A definite download, since they are free (though not really, since you pay through the nose to just take the test, never mind the $20 fee you pay per school to send the test!) and since they will be most representative of the GRE test you'll be taking.

Notice the wide range of scores that I got on each of the CATs above:

Barron's: 550-650 540-710 540-600
ETS website: 630

The lesson? The GRE's computer adaptive tests are notoriously difficult to emulate without the exact scoring system utilized by the ETS and without the amount of data that the ETS has at their fingertips. My actual score was 650, which was a bit higher than I expected, but one that makes sense in retrospect. It was the score that was closest to the practice tests provided by the ETS. You'd almost expect the other resources to want to underscore people -- which I believe they do -- because it simply makes sense as a business practice; lower expectations are much easier to deal with than higher ones. So what do we take from this? Find and take as many tests as you can afford. But do your research, and stay away from the poor websites. Interpret your scores with a large grain of salt. And most importantly, have faith in your abilities!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Recycled: GRE Thoughts

I've been away for a long, long time, but I've had a good excuse. I've been toiling away, hard at work in grad school. This should be no news at all to anyone who is seriously preparing for grad school, but it is busy. Really busy.

But that's another post. In an effort to keep this blog semi-active over the next few months, until I at least get my legs underneath me to start generating new content, I'll be recycling many of my old posts about the MFA application process. This information is a year old, but I think still very relevant for the upcoming 2009 application season. This first post was put up on October 7, 2008, and is on GREs, how they relate to MFA programs, some general thoughts, and preparation. Enjoy!

Ah, the GREs. The GREs manage walk the frustrating line of being barely important enough to an application to warrant studying for. Many top schools don’t "require" the GREs, but as some websites gently suggest (like Iowa in this link -- scroll down to point 4 under "Other Notes on Admission and Residency Requirements"), scores can often affect funding. And whenever funding dollars are involved, you can be sure that it is important enough to put time and study into. Some insights and strategies I learned when preparing for the GREs:

I took the test on September 13th, and got a 650 on the Verbal, a 680 on the Math, and a 6.0 on the essay section. Verbal, of course, is the big kahuna of the GREs, and really the only score that the schools will care about. My basic strategy for the Verbal portion consisted of two basic rules:

1) Memorize the "most frequent word" lists provided by any of the Barron's/Kaplan/Princeton study books. This was important to my success. Already have a gigantic vocabulary? Great. You'll do wonderfully on the test, and will have nothing to worry about. But for the rest of us, it’s impractical and unrealistic to even attempt to memorize the 3,500 word lists provided by the preparation books. The "most frequent word" list represents a much more realistic and efficient way of targeting words that you'd be likely to see on a test. My prep book's list was a little over 300 words, which I managed to cram in about two weeks before the test. During the test I recognized at least 7-10 words from that list, which was a significant portion of the test.

2) Take as many practice tests as you can. Myself, I took at least 20 practice tests from a variety of sources. I can’t stress how important it was to me to take those practice tests. As much as the ETS would like you to believe, the GREs are not a measure of practical knowledge, but really a measure of well you can take the GREs. The problems on the Verbal section of the GREs, especially the analogy questions, require a large amount of familiarity to have any kind of success. So in addition to the relearning those baseline strategies you’d use for the SATs or ACTs back in high school (eliminating obvious answers, etc.), I was able to improve my pattern recognition of certain kinds of questions through a ton of repetition. Cramming works.

Another tricky aspect of the GREs is the fact that they are Computer Adaptive Tests (CATs) conducted on computers, as opposed to paper tests. What is a CAT? In essence, it’s a test that “adapts” its question difficulty based on how many questions you answer correctly or incorrectly. The more consecutive questions you get correct on a test, the more difficult a test becomes, and vice versa, all to eventually determine your final score. But there's more than that. Since the test uses the thirty questions to zero in on your score, it tends to weight the first 15 questions more heavily than the last 15. For example, before you answer even one question, your initial score, like everyone else's, will be set on the average of the bell curve of all those who've previously taken the test (somewhere around 400-500). If you answer the first question right, the computer will nudge you up into the tier of questions intended for 500-600 scoring folks, and if you were to get it wrong, the computer will shift you down into the tier for the 300-400 folks. As the test progresses, those large point swings will get smaller and smaller as the computer "figures out" the appropriate level of difficulty of questions for you. By the end of the test, a correct question will only be work 10-20 points each. Keep in mind that while my math above is hypothetical (I don’t really know if the point swings are 100 at the beginning or not), the process is the same.

As you can see, the first 10 or so questions are incredibly important to moving into the highest possible tiers, as you can only move your score so much once you get into the later stages of the test. One of the most common criticisms of the GREs is that the test unfairly punishes those who make mistakes early on without much hope for improvement later. But if you go into the GREs knowing this, you can similarly use this to your advantage. With 30 minutes to answer 30 questions, I knew I wasn't going to get every single question right, but I took the extra time on the first 10 questions to carefully answer them and to make sure that I got as many right as I possibly could. In fact, I probably employed this strategy a little too effectively -- at one point I had about 14 minutes to answer the remaining 20 questions -- and had to really rush in order to answer every single question. I had no doubt I probably answered more questions incorrectly on the second half of the test, yet I still got (in my own estimation) a pretty good score. So while it may feel counterintuitive as a test-taking strategy to front weight your time on the test, it really is something worth thinking about.

In my next post I'll go a little bit deeper into the resources and tests I used for preparation for the GREs.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Almost Famous

Check it out. The University of Illinois recently updated the listing of its graduate students webpage here. If you scroll down to the bottom, where all the "First Year" students are, you'll find my picture and undergraduate educational background. I know, it's the same picture as the one listed on this blog, but having my name and photo on a third party website -- a University website! -- is exciting.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Retrospective: Everything Else

Okay, it's about time I tie up all the loose ends regarding my experience applying to MFA programs last fall. I wrote a retrospective on my Statement of Purpose and a retrospective on the very general topic of choosing wisely when making your MFA school list in previous posts some time ago. So what about everything else required in the MFA application process? They are, by my count, the:
  • GPA
  • GRE Verbal scores
  • Critical essay
  • Recommendations
  • Manuscript
Let's go over each of these one by one.

On GPA: I've complained about GPA requirements before, and have come to the happy conclusion, based on my experience with applications and where I had been accepted, that GPAs mostly do not matter. A little background. My undergraduate GPA was a horrible 2.46. Very low. Many schools have a "minimum 3.0" GPA requirement, either explicitly listed on their website or buried away in the graduate school's handbook online. At any rate, my score and many schools' requirements did not engender me with much confidence. So what I did was a hybrid approach. I actively searched for schools that did not have the "minimum 3.0" requirement, and was especially careful to read all the literature available on each schools' website. In addition, for the schools that I had my sights set on which did have GPA requirements, I emailed politely, asking if said requirement was a hard and fast rule, and whether my application would be considered holistically. Those were the schools I applied to.

Looking back on my experience, I think I can confidently say that, in general, the GPA requirement is a grad school one. The extent to which a program can "ignore" a potential candidate's poor GPA is dependent more upon how much latitude that program has within a school. Some grad schools have short leashes on their MFA programs, while others are free to ignore them completely. In cases of Iowa and Michigan, for example, I did not find any language on their websites pertaining to GPA requirements, and in fact, Michigan's website goes out of their way to say that their MFA applicants do not need to complete their "Worksheet for Computing GPA." This makes sense, as both of these schools are top-five caliber programs with tremendous cachet and influence. I can't imagine a grad school complaining about their methods of accepting and screening the students they wish for their programs. So, long story short, GPA isn't a problem if you prepare for it. Make sure the schools you apply to won't immediately disregards your application because of it, and you'll be fine.

On GRE Verbal scores: I've extensively outlined my basic strategies on how to improve your GRE Verbal scores here and here. As to the big question of how important these scores actually are, I'd have to guess that they're not important at all, even less important that the GPA. While the GPA is often used as a minimum watermark for many schools out there, I've only seen one school require a minimum GRE Verbal score, Ohio State University. All the others, with about maybe a little over half requiring the scores to be officially submitted, do not outline what scores, if any are preferable. Personally, I think GRE Verbal scores are redundant to the GPAs. What can a grad school see in your GRE scores that informs your academic (or intellectual) abilities that they can't already see in your GPA? If anything, a GRE scores merely says whether or not you can do well on a really hard test. Your GPA? It represents four years of work and effort and, to say nothing about the babysitting institution of college, it suggests a more "real life" barometer of said work and effort. Yes. What your mom always told you was right, your GPA is important. More important, at least, than your GRE scores.

I do want to temper that idea with this, however: there's NO reason to mail it in with your GRE scores if you can help it. You definitely do not want to give the graduate school a reason, however insignificant, to disqualify your application. And who wants to turn in a GRE Verbal score of 300 anyways? While a high GRE score can say any number of things -- you're smart, you're well read, you take tests well, you prepare -- a really low GRE score can really say only one thing if you're serious about writing: you didn't take the GREs seriously. And if you don't take a test that you know about several months ahead of time seriously, how can a school take your application seriously? Take the test. It sucks, it takes up a lot of brainspace, and it's a waste of time, but it's important. The GREs in a nutshell.

On the Critical Essay: Of the schools I applied to, two required a critical essay: Purdue and Ohio State University. A critical essay, as requested from Ohio State's website is a paper that should "demonstrate the applicant's ability to write clear expository prose and to construct a persuasive argument." It's a good definition as any. General consensus will also tell you that the best candidate for a previously written critical essay (so you wouldn't have to write one ground up from scratch) is one that was written from your time in undergrad school, something, ideally, having to do with literature or literature analysis. For some, this prospect may be simple, having majored in English or English Lit as an undergrad. For many, however, this becomes a tricky subject, as the last time most have written a paper for an English class (as with me) was sometime in freshman year, probably during first year composition or rhetoric. And if your writing quality was anything like mine at eighteen, well... the less said the better. So what to do? Short of majoring in anything other than mathematics or statistics, chances are that the major you did end up with required some sort of paper writing. Mine was genetics, which, unfortunately, was a subject where all the stuff I was writing was far too technical and insular to be of any use to an application committee. I ended up combing through all my old essays (fortunately I never throw anything away), and found a paper on existentialism on a philosophy class I took as a junior. The paper itself was poorly written by my standards today, but it provided a decent skeleton from which to work with. I ended up revising it heavily to bring it up to par, but it totaled far less work and time than if I had picked a random subject and wrote from scratch.

A common question is whether or not subject matter is important. There are some schools that specifically request a paper that is based in literature or literature analysis. This is again a situation where, if necessary, I'd suggest contacting the school for clarification. A lot of times, these requirements are not hard rules, but rather guidelines (like GPA requirements set by grad schools) to steer applicants towards a single set of standards. In general, I'd suggest keeping your critical essay in the general humanities. That an essay isn't about postmodernism or literary theory isn't very important, in my opinion; it seems to me that what a school is using these essays for is to determine whether you can think and write critically about a subject. Remember, these schools are not only asking you to write, but also teach, which often requires are completely different set of skills from creative writing or poetry. Critical thinking and writing, for example.

On Recommendations: I haven't written too much on the art of recommendations, primarily because I did not have the sparkling recommendation from the world famous professor who took me under his/her tutelage in college. In fact, my recommendations were rather run-of-the-mill: two supervisors from work and a writing group member. I can really only say a couple things on recommendations. First, get them done early, as early as possible. It is your responsibility to make sure the schools receive these letters on time and sealed, not your recommendors. They're doing a favor for you, sometimes a tremendous favor, and the easier your make it for them to do their job, the happier they'll be. And it seems to me very obvious to keep your recommendors as happy as possible. Second, make sure you choose the right people to write you recommendations. This is one of those "obvious in theory, but hard in practice" things. Given the choice between a coworker who knows your writing really well and speak on you behalf on a close personal and professional level, and, say... Cormac McCarthy, who just signed your copy of "The Road," I'd suggest going with the coworker. Okay, so that's an extreme example, but I do think there is a certain art in choosing who you want to speak on your behalf. Obviously, you'd want them to be authority figures in your life, people who have seen your work and work ethic. But do you go with the person who knows you very well, but may not have the sterling or relevant background to creative writing, or do you go with the world-famous professor with whom you've taken one class under and may or may not remember your name? An application committee may pause at the famous name on the top of the letterhead, but they'll remember the story about how your insight singlehandedly helped turn someone's story into a work of art.

On the Manuscript: Not much to say here, unfortunately. This is all you, and no amount of offhand blog advice can replace good, old fashioned practice. There's no other way to do it, believe me, I've tried. BUT, if you really want to know: Feedback, critical unflinching feedback, is always good. Take a craft class over the summer. Some are better than others, so do your research. Go to a writer's conference. Found a writing group. The last one is often the best option, because it's free, and infinitely more valuable if you find a great group of people. Pick up other hobbies. It's a good way to give yourself space from writing. But don't procrastinate. (Or try not to.) And write. Write, write, write. Everything else is gravy -- feedback, a support group of friends, family, and coworkers -- but at the end of the day, they won't be the ones producing work, you will. This is by far the most important element of your application, with the Statement of Purpose coming in at a distant second. Make it count. Good luck!