I’m not sure about all of you out there, but I am a person who deliberates before deciding on things. And the bigger the decision, the greater the deliberation. I’m not really one for impulse buys, if you know what I mean. So while agonizing is too strong a word, suffice it to say that the decision on where to apply to graduate school was not one I made lightly. If you haven’t yet, you can read about my decision methodology in this post.
Once I had, at long last, figured out where to apply, I started looking into what I needed to do. And let me tell you, it is quite a process.
Dun dun dunnnnnnnnn! Really though, if you stay organized, you can make it through okay. I was reading another blog by someone applying to grad school, and they said that the doubt, confusion, insecurity and stress you might feel while applying to school is a good test to see if you are ready for actually attending graduate school. While I have not yet attended grad school, I’d guess that’s not too far off the mark.
In the last post I mentioned a spreadsheet I kept with detailed information on each school’s program. Now that I was ready to apply, that spreadsheet was converted into a master checklist of due dates and items I needed to submit to each school. The way that helped me best remember what was needed was that each school needed a list of seven items:
1. Application to the Graduate School. This is different than the application to your specific department and contains more sort of general requirements.
2. Application to the Fine Arts Department
Underneath the umbrella of these two applications fall the other five items. Each school is different in how they arrange what stuff goes into the grad school app and what stuff goes into the departmental application. Sometimes you even need to submit a single item to BOTH the graduate school and your department. The other items are:
4. Letters of Recommendation (usually 3)
5. Application Fee
6. Letter of Intent
7. Portfolio of Artwork (15-20 images)
Sometimes there was an extra item:
8. Application for assistantships, grants, or fellowships. If you want to get loans you may also need a FAFSA or other financial type documents. I didn’t mess with that so I have no idea what it entails. But usually the school has a financial aid office to help with that kind of thing.
I have to say that the two things I truly did agonize over the most were the letter of intent and the portfolio. I had actually considered applying to grad school one year earlier but ended up putting it off because I didn’t feel that my portfolio was strong enough yet. I know a lot of people apply right after undergrad with their senior thesis work as a main part of their portfolio, but I waited for five years after undergrad to apply. I wanted to get out in the world and see what I could do, and I also wanted to make whatever work I felt like making for a while, totally free from the pressures of deadlines and such. I waited until I actively WANTED the critique, deadline, studying atmosphere of school before considering applying to go back. I have heard from more than a few people that going in straight out of undergrad can cause some serious burnout, so it seems good to take time off between unless you are confident that you are really ready and have plenty of energy. For me the break time in between was very eye-opening because it revealed just how challenging it is to work as a ceramic artist out in the world. I know graduate school is hard, but in some ways going back to school will seem like a luxury as far as access to studio space and equipment goes. Not to mention that I am very excited for the chance to be part of an active artistic community once again. But back to the application.
The Letter of Intent
I felt a lot of pressure about this letter. Most of the prompts for it from schools were very vague, saying to include “your artistic goals and intent in pursuing graduate study” or some such broad description. I combed the internet for advice on writing it, but most of the advice I found was for people applying to MFA programs in creative writing. Nonetheless, I still found this post by writer Nicole Basaraba very relevant and helpful. Plus it contains a picture of a cute kitten. Always good!
I had to laugh, then, when I tried to ultra-casually ask one of the professors from a school I visited what they wanted me to put in the letter. By then I had written and re-written the letter four times and had had some friends read and edit it for me- thanks Sadye and Kate!! The professor’s response- “We just want to see that you can string two sentences together and that everything is spelled right.” I think she must have caught my hastily concealed horror though, because then she added that they really wanted to know how I thought about my work and what were my goals for developing it, etc. This conversation taught me that I shouldn’t overly obsess about the thing. It is definitely good to edit ruthlessly and stick to the prompt as much as you can, especially if your school’s prompt is more specific than most of mine were. And having others edit is even better. In the end my letter opened with a little bit of history about my professional background, then launched into the motivation, technique, and philosophy behind my work, and finished with reasons why I wanted to go back to school and why I thought that particular school was a good fit for me.
Oh. One other thing that professor mentioned in her answer was, with a dramatic flair- “Don’t say, clay is my liiiiiiife, it’s my passion, I love clay and that’s all I want to do, blah blah blah.” I’m sure committees must read that all the time. I hadn’t put it in my letter because I thought the fact that I was applying to an MFA program in clay kind of made it obvious that that’s how I felt 😉
Now this was The Big One. I had heard, over and over, from very trustworthy and knowledgeable people, that the portfolio was the number one factor in the school’s decision. And that makes sense. You’re going for a Master’s in Fine Arts, so naturally your current art is of great interest to the school. They want to see what kind of potential you have. The problem was that I had also heard a lot of conflicting advice on the portfolio. Submit only your best work, submit only your newest work, no, the committee wants to see evidence of growth so submit something that shows that, submit lots of different types of work, no, submit a cohesive body of work, and so on.
Ultimately I submitted a group of my newest and strongest pieces that all went together as a cohesive body of work. I submitted them in backwards chronological order, most recent to oldest. I included several detail shots in the portfolio. I also did something that I had gotten mixed feedback on, which was to put some functional items in an otherwise sculptural portfolio. Looking at the portfolio as a whole, I felt that the functional and sculptural work were sufficiently related, and even informed one another, so that merited their addition. You can judge for yourself by looking at the work in my 2013 gallery I also submitted some older work.
And now we wait
So, that was the end! After I was done I triple checked to make sure everything got where it was supposed to. Many schools have messages on their websites that say, “the school is not able to confirm receipt of application materials” which is basically to discourage people avalanching them with questions about if their application got there or not. Luckily most parts of the process are online, and they have little confirmations built in, so you can go back and check, say, that all your recommenders responded or that your transcript was sent to the school. The graduate schools also sent emails confirming they had received their part of my application.
So now I settle in and wait for a few months. Think I can stand the suspense? I’m sure I can because I plan to spend it busily working in the studio! Cheers all for reading, and of you are a person applying to an MFA program in visual arts feel free to ask any questions in the comments or you can email me too. It’s quite a process and as I learned, it’s better to do it with help from some friends! One last thank you to anyone and everyone who has helped me out with this. Even if I don’t get in anywhere I have learned a lot and am eternally grateful to all of you. Much love!!