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The Six Things You Need To Know Before Applying To An MFA Program

Ben Sloat, Director of the MFA in Visual Arts program, shares the ingredients of a successful MFA program application.

1. Be Specific

I’ll start off with the biggest thing to know: specificity. This means many things: finding the MFA program that’s specific to your needs, doing research to see what each program specifically offers, and then creating an application responding to the parameters of each program. Every MFA program is different, with a different kind of community and culture, so tailoring your application is a strong start.

a small crit group looks at work hanging on a wall


2. Be Consistent

Instead of sharing a portfolio of your work across a variety of disconnected projects, it’s a lot stronger to pick one larger theme to focus your portfolio around. This gives the admissions committee a clearer picture of who you are as an artist; even if the theme crosses different materials and bodies of work. This is preferable to the applications consisting of a “best of” collection, which seem all over the place and not reflective of a particular artistic vision.

students participate in an MFA visual arts critique

3. Have Good Documentation

One of the biggest challenges for a good portfolio is poor documentation, which can really hurt the application. Poor lighting, blurring, discoloration, weak setups, and low resolution images distort and diminish the presentation of work. Having quality documentation of your work is imperative. You don’t have to be very technical: photographing outdoors in open shade against a clean backdrop is a quick and easy solution for even lighting and good documentation.

4. Be Thematic

When it comes to writing your application statement, just as with your portfolio of work, it’s best to be thematic. What are the main ideas in the work? How have these ideas evolved over time? Sometimes there is a tendency for an applicant to focus too much on their narrative developments as an artist, when this should be secondary to introducing the work itself. You are sharing your work with a new audience so make sure to ask yourself, 'what do they need to know to approach my work with a good understanding'?

a small crit group looks at paintings hanging in the roberts gallery

5. Be Current

Though historical work has made a powerful impression on all of us as artists, it’s also important to relate an application statement to contemporary work. The audience for your work is current, and a good MFA program will prepare you to engage with the right contemporary audience. As a result, mentioning a few current artists at the application stage is a key piece of an effective statement.

6. Be In Touch

It can be challenging to find the right words for the statement, the right edit of images for the portfolio, or the right way to share who you are as an artist. Get in touch with the program! An admissions counselor, a faculty member, or better yet, the program director can give you the right feedback to make the strongest possible application, one that is specific to your vision and relevant to their program. Art is an ongoing dialog and putting together a strong MFA application is one key piece towards entering that conversation.

Artist holds up one of her pieces of art.
Ben Sloat, MFA in Visual Arts program director

About the Author

Ben Sloat is the director of Lesley’s low-residency MFA in Visual Arts in Cambridge, MA. Having a multicultural background, his work engages with the hybridity of materials and cultural iconographies. He has had solo exhibitions at galleries in Boston, Berlin, Munich, Taipei, Montreal, New York, Oakland, Nashville, Galway, and Copenhagen. Group museum shows include those at the MFA Boston, Queens Museum, Peabody-Essex Museum, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, and the Dublin City Gallery/The Hugh Lane.

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