For writers, one of the most stressful parts of moving forward with a grad school application is preparing the creative writing sample, mostly because acceptance to a program depends so heavily upon it. Still, it doesn’t have to be totally painful. In fact, the hope is that because you’re a writer, you love writing, so some of it should actually be fun!
However, unlike how most of your writing has probably occurred thus far — namely, organic — it will help to have some sort of schedule and strategy when it comes to preparing your portfolio, if only because so much beyond that will be completely out of your control. Creating a game plan can help you feel more empowered and focused as your deadlines approach and your applications finally leave your sweaty, shaking hands.
Here’s a list of recommendations to help you get that sample rocking:
1) Familiarize yourself with the requirements of each program you’re applying to. First off, know how many pages your writing sample should be, how it should be submitted, when, etc. Although many programs ask for 30 pages of prose or 20 pages of poetry, there may be variations. Are you required to submit exactly 30 pages, or might it serve you best to submit a stronger sample that’s only 25? Whatever the case may be, never exceed the page or word count. That is majorly frowned down upon.
2) Set a schedule. Do you have enough pages? Will you by the time your applications are due? And are those pages polished enough? If not, set some daily, weekly, and monthly goals to ensure you generate enough material you can live with in time for your deadline, because once it passes, that’s it; you could be waiting as long as another year before you can apply again. And it doesn’t matter if everything you write because you’re on a schedule makes you want to commit harakiri. You need to get words on a page, and there’s sure to be something salvageable once you go back after a month or two of not looking at it. Schedule time for writing and revising.
3) Write. This one may seem to go without saying, especially given No. 2, but I’m saying it because people sometimes think they can’t possibly produce their best work to date under the pressure and/or time crunch. Don’t strive to write new material with the goal of including it in your sample (unless you need to meet a page requirement, of course), but don’t discount it entirely just because it’s new. It may have a place in your sample. Either way, you need to keep your skills sharp for the program you’re about to enter.
4) Revise. Writing is writing, but good writing is all about revising. Even if you have enough solid pages to cover the sample requirement, keep polishing them — if only on a proofing basis. Most likely, though, you’ll do more editing than that and subsequently make some impressive strides with your portfolio. That’s good because you want your sample to represent the best you’re able to do at that point in your career. Now is not the time to get lazy.
5) Know when to stop revising. In the end, you do have a deadline, and that major epiphany about adding a whole new character to your story before you submit your portfolio will simply have to wait. Remember, you only have a short space in which to educate your reader on how to read your writing, so your risks will have to be controlled. Don’t jeopardize completing your portfolio unless you’re absolutely sure your major changes can be pulled off successfully in time. Your energy might be better spent elsewhere.
6) Read. Don’t stop reading…everything. You never know where your next great idea for a draft or a revision will come from. But do be sure to read in your genre to keep your analytical and critical skills sharp; you’ll need them for workshop.
7) Participate in a workshop or obtain feedback some other way. This one was particularly helpful to me. Being that I’d been out of school and writing for several years before applying to the M.F.A. program I eventually attended, I had enough pages generated the spring before my application was due to meet the portfolio requirement, but I wanted to get one more round of feedback in so I could revise heartily before submitting my application. I took a senior-level workshop in the fall before my applications were due to accomplish this. Not only was I able to make some solid revisions on my sample before submitting it, but I was able to obtain an additional letter of recommendation from someone who’d worked with me more recently, which was awesome.
Is there anything that you’ve done or are doing that’s been particularly helpful when preparing your creative writing portfolio for an application? Feel free to share in the comments section below.