Kris Kelley Studios
artist : freelance photographer


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MFA Application Tips

Today is January 10th and I have just completed application #5 out of 11 applications! As I am nearly half way finished with this process, I decided to take a moment to reflect and jot down some tips for others who may be considering applying to MFA programs to get started. To preface this, I found Excel to be an invaluable tool to keep all of the information, applications and documents organized, so much of my advice and the process it follows utilizes spreadsheets. 

  • Make a folder tree on your computer or file server

I made a folder tree on my computer for my MFA applications. I found that this helped me a lot when uploading my materials and submitting the applications. My folder tree had the following folders:

o   School lists

o   Portfolio pieces

  • Store files for each of your pieces here so that when you are uploading them you can easily find them

o   Statement drafts

o   Supporting documents

  • This should include any unofficial transcripts and your CV/resume

o   Submitted applications

  • In this file I made a subfolder for each program where I am saving my confirmation receipts after I submit the applications. I also put the final draft of my statement for each program here. 
  • Make a master list

To keep yourself organized, make a spreadsheet of your schools and deadlines. My master spreadsheet has the following columns:

o   School name

o   Program of study that you are applying to

o   Application deadline

o   Min/Max number of works/images required

o   Min/Max statement length

o   Program admissions website URL

o   Program application URL

o   Program Slideroom or portfolio submission portal URL

o   Log-in credentials

  • Username and Password for application/slideroom (Note: not all applications have the same requirements for usernames and passwords, so I found this helpful to keep track.)

o   Number of Letters of Recc. Required

  • I also added columns to track who I requested letters from and on what date the request was sent

o   Type of transcript required (official or unofficial)

  • I also added a column to track the dates I requested transcripts from my undergrad institution

o    Application fee

  • Remember to add $10 for every portfolio you will submit through Slideroom

o   Date application submitted

o   Interviews

  • I used this column to indicate if the program conducted interviews and when/where

o   Round 1 notification

  • I used this column to note when the program notifies candidates if they are going to continue being considered for admissions/interviews

o   Round 2 notification

  • I used this column to note when the program notifies candidates if they are accepted
  • Statement of Purpose

Writing the Statement of Purpose is one of the most difficult parts of the application because each school has a different idea of what the statement should include, the length of the statement and the format. Be sure to check the admissions website to get the requirement for your specific program. To help organize myself for this task, I made a word document that listed the following for each program:

o   School and program

o   Statement length (I found this varied anywhere from 250 words-1,000 words)

o   Statement format (could vary from PDF, .doc, unformatted text)

o   I copy + pasted the exact language from the program website which describes what they would like applicants to address in their Statement. I referenced this a lot!

o   Notes about the program that I would like to address in my statement or may help me talk about the program. For me this included unique opportunities available through the program that interested me, school locations, whether the program was very concept-driven or material-driven, whether the program was liberal with interdisciplinary work, etc.

  • Portfolio

o   For the portfolio requirements, I made a second word document for portfolio requirements which included the following:

  • School and program
  • Min/Max # of images/video
  • Preferred image/video format and size
  • I copy + pasted the exact language from the program website which describes what they would like to see in the portfolio. I referenced this a lot!
  • Notes about the program that may help me choose works for the application

Perhaps the most difficult part of composing the portfolio is choosing what to include. First, determine how many images each program requires. Most programs require a minimum of 10 images and a maximum of 20 images. This means that you will need to have 10 pieces/images that are your absolute best, so:

Step 1. Determine your top 10 images/works (this can include detail shots if they are particularly important)

Step 2. Choose 5 more images that are great examples of your work. This will bring you to 15 images.

Step 3. Choose 5 more images that are good examples of your work. This will bring you to 20 images.

I am not going to sugarcoat this. This part of the process was hard. If you have created several series of works (and depending upon the concentration you are applying for, mine was Photo) it may be easier to get to 20 images. Series consist of 3-5 pieces that are related in concept.

After I choose my top 10 images, I then created a “contact sheet” of thumbnails of my top 10 images and 20 other images/works for consideration. I sent this contact sheet to some of my friends and family members, and asked them to choose 10 images/works or 2-3 series which they thought represented my best work and fit best with my top 10 images. This yielded some great feedback and confirmed my initial selections.

Step 4. After you have chosen your top 20 images/works, create a portfolio spreadsheet, paste the image thumbnail and fill in the information for each image/work

  • My spreadheet included the following:                 

·       Image thumbnail

·       Title

·       Year

·       Dimensions

·       Medium

·       Details

·       Image rank (Do I want this image to be viewed 1st, last, 5th?)


Step 5. Copy the file for each image into the Portfolio Pieces folder of your folder tree.

Some notes about the images/files of your works:

  •  I cannot stress enough that you need to photograph your work well! If you have 3D or installation work, considering hiring a professional photographer to ensure you have high quality images.
  • Make sure the image/video meets the required size and format of the portfolio portal. It would be a shame to try to upload your images and find that one is too big, and then have to re-size it on the fly.
  • Open your images in an image viewer program and ZOOM IN. I found that images that I had cropped in Picasa were very pixelated when I zoomed in when compared to images that I edited in Photoshop, so I did all subsequent editing in Photoshop. Images are typically projected when the committee reviews them, so you want to make sure that they will be clear when projected.


  •  Statements for Works

Slideroom and most program portfolio portals have the option to include up to 1,000 characters of text in the “Additional Details” section. Some programs request that you provide the artists’ statement for each series/work in this section. To prepare for this, write an artists’ statement under 1,000 characters for each series or work.

To determine the number of characters when you are writing your statements in Word, go to Review-> Word Count -> Characters (with spaces). Paste all statements for works in one word document for easy access.

  •  Letters of Recommendation

  • Choosing your recommenders

Be sure to choose three to five people that know you well, know your work well, and can attest to your readiness and fit for graduate school (I say three to five because most schools require two to three letters, and you want to have a couple of backups). Some schools have very specific guidelines for who can write a recommendation, and that will be available on their website/application. Generally it should be a professor, educator, artist or professional in the art field.

  • Asking for a recommendation

If you are at the same institution as your recommender, it may be easier to ask for a recommendation face to face, and follow up with an email. In my case, my recommenders were not easily accessible in person, so I sent them an email. I had been communicating with each of them via email periodically, so I addressed my email in the form of updating them on my current activities and my decision to go to graduate school. However, if you are contacting someone you have not been in touch with for quite some time, the conversation may not come as naturally.  As a former HR Specialist, I know that there are many canned email examples online that can help get you started, however you want to make sure that you personalize each message. Some tips for things to include in your email:

·       Be friendly but professional

·       If you have not contacted them in quite some time, be sure to update them on your current activities

·       Ask first if they are whiling to write you a letter, then, after they have agreed, follow up with an additional email containing further information.

*Tip: Do not assume they will write you a letter and include the application information in your initial email. I made the mistake of doing this once and offended my recommender because they felt I was being very presumptive in just assuming that they would agree. 

·       Once they have agreed to write you a letter, send them an email with the following information about each of the schools you are applying to:

o   School Name

o   School Website

o   Program you are applying to

o   Application Deadline

o   Format of the letter- Some schools have a sheet they ask recommenders to fill out, some schools just request a standard letter

o   School Address (just in case!)

o   How to submit the recommendation- Mail, email, application portal link, etc. *Note: Some application portals require you to enter your recommenders email address(s). They will then send a link to your recommenders for letter submission/upload. Slideroom and some other application portals I used allowed me to track when that email was sent, when it was received, and when my recommender uploaded the letter.

·       It is also a good idea to include/attach the following information in the email:

o   Your current CV/Resume

o   Website or location of your work

o   Examples of the work you will submit

o   A draft of your Statement of Purpose 

o   Dates of any important projects/classes/interactions you had with your recommender. *One of my recommenders was teaching at a different institution years later, and although she certainly remembered my work and the classes I was in, she was not sure of the exact years. She asked me to supply this information, so I did the same for my other recommenders as well and they found it very helpful. 

o   Any additional information that might help them write the best possible letter of recommendation for you. 


·       Don't be afraid to send reminders to your recommenders as the deadlines draw nearer. They have agreed to write you a letter, and in doing so are accepting the responsibility to get your letter in on time. Application deadlines are very strict, and even if one of your letters is a few hours late it could disqualify your application. Some application portals will automatically send reminders, but a friendly reminder email will ensure that your letters are submitted. In extreme cases, you may have to call your recommender to remind them. I once had a recommender that was moving around the country and difficult to reach when applications were due. I had to email, call, tweet and send them a message on LinkedIn to keep them on track with the deadline. 


That is all I have for now regarding the application process. If you have any questions, please feel free to send me an email at!


Kris KelleyComment