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How To Prepare Your Portfolio for Writing MFA Program Applications

Congratulations! You’ve finally decided to apply for a writing MFA program, and that’s a huge step when it comes to embracing your dreams of becoming a writer. Sure, not everyone needs an MFA--after all, Hemingway never got one, and neither did Homer--but it will help you a lot when it comes to getting better faster. You’ll have a cohort that will help you out by workshopping your work and recommending writers they think your writing imitates. Professors, experts in the industry and the academic world of writing, will give you advice on where to submit your best short stories and poems, lend an academic eye to your work. And years down the line, having an MFA can help you get published and get teaching jobs.


However many benefits there are to going to an MFA program, the greatest benefit is getting the time and permission to write. And you need to demonstrate that with your writing portfolio. It’s a lot of pressure, but as long as you work hard and write the way you naturally do, here’s how to successfully prepare your portfolio.


Reread your favorite writers--and learn from them


If you look back to what first made you fall in love with writing, it was probably a novel you read when you were a kid. Or a beautiful short story that made you think back in high school: “Wow. I want to write like that.” Whatever it was, it’s authors who capture life the way we see it (or dream it, if you’re a fantasy fan) who inspired us to become writers. So if you’re preparing a portfolio, it’s time to learn from them again and get inspired. And learn, too.


For example, if you’re a fan of Raymond Carver’s short story length, and how simply he can express an emotion in a few simple lines of dialogue, write notes in the margin about how he achieves this. Give yourself a writing exercise where you use the same number of pages or dialogue lines. Maybe you’ll end up as inspired as the writers of Birdman, the movie heavily based on a Carver story that earned four Oscars in 2015. In 2018, only 22 percent of American adults didn’t go to the movies, so getting good at dialogue is a smart career move.


Write every day--and create a routine


They say practice makes perfect, and nowhere is this truer than it is with art. Even a corporate video production company is going to have its filmmakers work constantly, going to film events to learn more about their craft. The same goes for you when you’re working on your portfolio. The year before you apply to MFA programs, set aside time each day to write. Create a routine where you wake up early before work, and write away!


Having the right routine is key. Whether it’s going for a jog beforehand to get pumped up, or meeting up with a friend at a café to write together, it’s worth putting in the time. Considering that a masters degree usually takes one to three years, the strength of your portfolio is going to have a huge impact on your life. So make it count!


Have friends and professionals review your work


Once you’ve worked hard on your portfolio, it’s time to show it to other people. It may be nerve-wracking, but remember that your friends and family are going to care way more about the strength of your portfolio than the person judging whether or not you’re the right fit for their program. Before your writing falls into the hands of an application reader, getting honest feedback on what stories are best and what order would work is important information to get from people who know you and your writing.


Additionally, it’s not a bad idea to join a local writing group or writing class to get feedback from peers and a teacher. Their feedback will be even more critical, and they’ll have good advice about what stories and poems to read to improve your own. Additionally, you can always use a professional editing service. Beware, though--these services might change your voice too much, and paying a huge amount of money to have your writing transformed isn’t exactly the most ethical decision when it comes to applying to programs that think they’ve accepted you for your writing voice.


The more time you give yourself to write and to edit, the more comfortable you’ll feel by the time you’re sending off your application. If you’re lucky enough, you’ll get into a great program and end up selling thousands of copies of your book.


These are some of the best ways to make your portfolio the best it can be for your application. What other strategies do you think would be useful?