How to Get Into an Elite Photography MFA Program
Over the past two years, I’ve looked for guides and made lots of phone calls to faculty, alumni, and current students to find ways to increase the likelihood of being accepted into a top tier MFA program.
Be it Yale, Hartford, RISD, Columbia, Bard — all of these programs have slightly different expectations, but there are consistencies between them as far as your application process goes. After two years of prepping, I’ve been accepted into a program, and I’ve kept careful notes so I could make a guide to help other people looking to apply for an MFA.
This article won’t focus on your art because that’s not something I can give any real advice on. But rather, this will focus on the application process starting up to two years before you even apply. I will show you the strategy I employed over the past two years to be accepted into the one and only school that I applied for.
I’ve broken everything down into twenty simple (but not obvious) steps to follow to greatly increase your chances. I’ve also included links to my actual application essay, the portfolio I submitted, my notes from my interview and various phone calls, and links to all of the resources I used.
As mentioned, this is broken down into twenty points in seven chapters. We’ll look at: (1) what you can do two years before applying, (2) one year before applying, (3) maximizing your recommendations, (4) how to navigate your essay, (5) making phone calls, (6) organizing your portfolio, and finally (7) handling your interview.
Chapter 1: Two Years Before Applying
I started strategizing two years before actually applying for a school. While you may do so sooner or later, it’s probably a good idea to give yourself time. Getting into a good school is more about just your work, but also showing your face in the art community. Giving yourself a reasonable amount of time (2 years) is a good start.
If you’re coming out of undergraduate, even better, as it’s good to have time away from school in “real life,” navigating your work alone before going back to school.
I’ve been told by various instructors that your late twenties or early thirties is the best time to pursue your MFA. Young twenties can still get into these programs, but usually, it’s not preferred.
Point 1: Brush Up on Your History
You’re going to need to know your photo history if you intend to be in a good program, period. While it’s probably not expected that you’re at the art-historian level, you should probably know all the major artists and movements in the art world.
For me: two years ago I bought a few text books on photography and general art history and read 15-20 minutes a night, making careful notes. Do the same, and take this seriously.
You’re going to be embarrassed if that the interview you’re asked to talk about your favorite movements in photography and you can only name one.
Resource: Here are my complete notes to American Photography: A Critical History. I found this to be an excellent crash course. This Google Doc are my 26 pages of notes from the book. Enjoy!
Point 2: Prime your Mentors
Eventually, you’re going to have to ask your mentors for a recommendation. It doesn’t make sense to ask them out of the blue, though. Two years before applying to my MFA, I asked my mentor Brian Ulrich to give me pointers on my work so that it’d have a chance on getting into an MFA program. I also asked him for recommendations on what grad schools were worth their salt. (He ended up recommending the school I applied and was accepted to.)
Asking ahead of time allows your mentors to give critical feedback on your work that you need to implement to increase your chances to be accepted. It also “primes” them that you’ll eventually ask for a recommendation. It’s less jarring, and a lot more considerate to approach it this way.
Resource: Here are my complete notes from that critique and school recommendation conversation I had with Brian Ulrich two years ago. (Note: It’s sloppy, but you’ll see what kind of questions I was asking. In point sixteen you’ll see the portfolio I submitted, the images in which corresponds to the critique notes here.)
Point 3: Long Term Project
Most programs want to see you investigate a long term project, rather than a disparate collection of images. If you don’t have a long-term body of work underway, start now. You’ll need it in two years when you apply for school. Resist the urge to work on many different projects at once. One, maybe two, is what you should be aiming for.
Nearly every school wanted a long term project as part — if not the only focus — of your submitted portfolio. Plan ahead.
Point 4: Exhibit Your Work
You’ve got two years to have something more on your CV than just your undergraduate program. It doesn’t matter how small the exhibition/zine/interview is, but get some lines in there. The reason? It shows that you’re integrating yourself into the arts community. This is an area that I fell short on and immediately began to start fixing two years ago knowing I’d apply to a program.
Chapter 2: One Year Before Applying
Moving on to one year before you intend to apply for school.
Point 5: Update Your Website
You need a good website when applying to schools. People will check your email signature, see your website, and view it. This includes faculty, current students, and alumni. You are representing not just yourself, but the school. Make sure your website is up to snuff. Don’t skimp on this. Squarespace is a good place to start. Look at the website of artists you look up to and construct your website based on what you see.
In fact, I blatantly copied Bryan Schutmaat‘s website to create mine.
Point 6: Attend Shows, Workshops
If you don’t already know: the art world for contemporary fine art photography is very, very small. Everyone knows each other. I attended a workshop with Jason Fulford at Apeture. Was it a pain to get to New York for it? Yes. Was it expensive? Yes. But I learned a lot, and guess what? His name actually came up during my faculty interview and I had a lot to talk about.
Make your life easy. Go to workshops and shows. Ideally, workshops, because you actually interact with the artists and get to know them. Shows are a close second, assuming you actually start conversations with people.
Point 7: Go to the MFA Thesis for the School!
Every program you’re applying to has a large end of the year thesis show. If you’re considering the school, you must attend this show.
This does two important things:
1. It shows you the work coming out of that program and gives you a good idea if you would get anything out of the school by attending yourself. Seriously. Your work is going to be largely influenced by the other students there. This will tell you a lot.
2. It connects your name with your face. Your ultimate goal with this long-term approach to applying for school is to reinforce who you are so when the faculty sees your application they instantly connect it with you, not a faceless name.
Obviously attending these shows are great for a lot more reasons… but for the purposes of applying to school, this is enough.
Chapter 3: Getting Recommendations
Now we’ll cover getting your recommendations for the program.
Point 8: Formal Requests
Two years ago you talked to your mentors about going to school. Time has flown by. Now it’s time to ask your mentors for a formal recommendation. The key word here: formal. I made a huge mistake asking for a request from a professor I hadn’t talked to in years, over Facebook Messenger… Luckily I realized what I did before he had a chance to respond, and quickly apologized. This may be one of the most embarrassing moments of my professional career.
Don’t make this mistake. There’s a lot on the line for a recommendation. You’re carrying their reputation with you, so treat it with the utmost respect. Here’s the process I followed with the other professors I contacted to write a recommendation:
- Contacted mentor by phone to ask for recommendation.
- Follow up immediately after thanking mentor formally, and including link to current work, artists statement, CV, and any information that will make their life easier. Include instructions of where to send recommendation.
- Write mentor a week before the deadline to remind them, re-thank them, and provide instructions again on where to send
- Write mentor after they submit the recommendation to thank them, again.
- If possible, find them in person and thank them.
I thanked both of my mentors in real life and didn’t stop at just sending an email.
Chapter 4: How to Write Your Essay
There is a lot of weight on your essay. A lot. Your work is history but your essay is very much alive. This is where you get to speak with the faculty directly. I know at Hartford, the essay is weighted in the application process very heavily. I’m sure this is true for Yale, RISD, and other top tier programs.
“What do you look for in applicants? — The most important thing is the letter of intent.” —Robert Lyons, Hartford MFA Director
Point 9: Reinforce What You Bring to the Table
One of the big mistakes I did with my application essay was being too hard on myself with my first draft. Your goal with the essay, after all, is to get the faculty excited about you. Sure, you have things to learn. Sure, you want to improve. And you want that authenticity to come across, but you also want to reinforce to them what positives you bring.
From their perspective, they are looking for a student who will carry the torch of their school and reputation. Someone who will bring fresh ideas to the cohort of new students. Someone who is open to learning, but has something to teach. Make sure that comes across in your essay.
Point 10: Why get an MFA?
Everyone I spoke to — Brian Ulrich, Robert Lyons, Richie Lipscher (previous digital animation head of MICA) — all advised me the same thing: your essay should clearly express why you want an MFA. It’s an insidiously tough question to answer — at least until you really sit down and dig deep. Sure, there are surface reasons, but what’s at the core?
What was interesting is that the recommendations I got from Ulrich and Lyons were nearly at odds with each other. Make sure you talk to the director of your program (point thirteen, coming up) to get a sense of what they expect. Yes, you want this to come from you, but there are a lot of sides to you, and only a meager 1 page to write about it. Tailor your essay based on expectations.
Point 11: Check a Million Times
After you read your essay, read it again, then again, then again. Most importantly: sit on it. A week or two of not looking at it is a good amount of time. After you go away from it that long, you’ll come to the table with fresh new perspectives that have been percolating. You’ll remove things that looked great at the time but add nothing on a fresh gaze.
Most importantly, have your mentors give it a quick glance when you’re satisfied with it. A lot rides on this essay. Make sure it truly represents you.
Point 12: What I Wrote
Here, I’ll be sharing my essay with you. This will give you a sense of what things were important to me, and maybe provide you with some ideas on how to structure your own essay. Keep in mind (obviously) that appropriating my content probably won’t be a good idea. These faculty, especially at good programs, sniff through bulls**t all day. You want to be absolutely authentic with your writing.
Don’t write what they want to hear — write what you need to say.
Resource: Here is my full application essay to the Hartford MFA program.
Chapter 5: Prepping your Application
Sending the application isn’t enough, you need to reach out to the school’s community ahead of time. Here’s how I approached this.
Point 13: Contact the Director
A few months before you apply, you need to reach out to the director of the program personally. Email them requesting a phone conversation.
The goals here are: (1) Get answers to questions you have about the program. (2) Get a sense of how to best maximize your application to the school. (3) Get the director to recognize your name. (4) Get the name of students to contact about the program — more on this in the next point.
This step is very important. Make sure before you call you have a list of questions. Calling the director ahead of time is an important step: it shows you’re serious about pursuing this path.
Resource: Here are my written notes from the phone conversation with Robert Lyons, director at the Hartford MFA. It’s not pretty but gives you an idea of what I was thinking about.
Point 14: Contacting the Students
If things went well on the phone call, you should have a list of alumni to contact. Now you need to contact them.
You want to learn about their experience of the school. You want to find out any tips to prepare for classes to start. You want to avoid common pitfalls. Most importantly, you want to learn what they got out of the program after they graduated.
Here’s why this is so critical: you will be asked why you think the program is right for you at your interview with the faculty. If you speak with students, you can literally tell them that. You can explain how you spent considerable time researching the program, and you know exactly why and how it will benefit you, referencing the students you talked to and what they got from the program and how it relates to what you expect.
It’s a deadly 1-2 combo.
What was even more exciting that I found out after a conversation with one of the student is often the director will reach out to the students that he gave you the names of to see if you followed up, and what their opinion of you was.
Could you imagine calling the director, getting a list of names (and taking the time of the program director), only to not call the students and then have the director find out about it?
Don’t put yourself in that situation — and 100% frank here — if you’re not interested enough to contact those students to learn about the program you really shouldn’t be applying for an MFA anyway.
Still, sometimes you get busy. Don’t let yourself get busy here.
Point 15: Contact the Faculty
Follow up questions, pack them in an email and send them to one or two of the faculty. Be respectful. There’s no reason to call them or write them all. Keep it brief, contacting one faculty member with an email a month or two before you submit the application is enough.
You don’t want to “shout” by writing the program too often or too long. Keep things professional, and brief. Respect their time. Still, (and I’ll mention again) writing one email to a faculty member with one or two follow up questions is fine.
Chapter 6: Your portfolio
Now it’s time to send your work to the school. Here’s what I learned through my own process.
Point 16: 1-2 Bodies of Work
I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s important. Don’t send multiple bodies of work. Send primarily one, and maybe a second. You want to show the faculty that you can explore an idea over a long period of time. Investigate.
Personally, I chose to show 5 images from an older body of work (to show them some highlights) and 20 images from a newer body of work that I have been working on for the last 3-4 years (to show an investigation.)
Resource: Here is my actual portfolio PDF that I sent in with my MFA application.
Point 17: Concise Statement
If your application requires an artist statement, here’s some advice I’ve come across from educators:
- Keep it concise.
- Avoid “art speak” – you know what I’m talking about.
- Avoid the word “juxtaposition” – AKA, aforementioned art speak.
- Avoid layering abstraction upon abstraction. Write simply and genuinely about your work.
- Focus less on why you started your project, and more about what your work actually says.
Resource: Buy this book and read it before you ever touch another artist statement. It’s actually required reading at Hartford.
Chapter 7: The Interview
At this point, your application and portfolio have won you an interview with the faculty. It won’t be easy. You’ll be nervous. You’ll doubt yourself until you hear back weeks later about a final decision — but we all go through it. Here are three tips:
Point 18: Be Candid
You’re going to be asked questions you don’t know the answer to. Be candid in your responses. They know you’re there to learn, so there’s no reason to hide that fact.
I know I was personally asked about what I saw in my work, and frankly, I gave a terrible “art speak” answer that really was answering why I started making the work, not what I saw in it. I couldn’t recover and just was honest by explaining that I hope to attend the program to better understand my own work – rather than come up with some BS on the spot answer that I obviously didn’t have.
Yeah, I was worried, but I think I’d be more worried if I tried to bulls**t the faculty with even more art speak.
Point 19: Have Specific Questions
The worst thing you can do at a job interview is waiting until the end and have no questions for the employer. It shows them that you’re not thinking critically about the job. It’s the same here.
Make sure you go into that interview with a notebook, pen, and a list of questions written down that you have. Don’t settle with one or two.
More likely than not, they’ll tell you more about the program and answer some of the questions you have written down.
Point 20: Take Risks
Show some courage. In my interview, I asked — effectively — for a critique. I wanted to know what I could work on, assuming they denied me entrance into the school. I wanted their knowledge, their perspective, and their thoughts on my work. And… they denied my question.
But, I asked. I showed them that I truly care about my work. That I want to improve. I showed some risk and dedication. Interestingly enough, they did give me a few things to do and consider: namely to write about more art and to visit the print viewing room at the Princeton Art Museum (which is exceptional, by the way) which I’ve been doing every week.
You’ve Done It
Hopefully, you’ve gotten accepted into your program of choice, and if not you’ve gained some insights into your own working practice. With my application, I made sure why to state not just why I wanted to attend, but why this was the right time in my life to attend.
Consider that when you apply. You may be destined to get your MFA, but the time might not be right. One school or two is enough. And tell them that. I was very bold in telling Hartford they are my own school I have in mind and why.
With all that said, best of luck on your journey!
About the author: Marc Falzon is a photographer who’s currently in the photography MFA program at the University of Hartford. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Falzon is the man behind the YouTube channel Analog Process. You can visit his website here. This article was also published here.
How to Get Into an Elite Photography MFA Program