...to get your MFA. Great! Do it. The time and expense are worth it. You'll never get that level of instruction and uninterrupted study time outside of school. It's a fabulous way to spend two to three years of your life. Because nobody asked for it, here's my list of MFA-application tips, skewed toward my experience studying painting and illustration.
Ask yourself why you're going back to school. Is it because your parents think you should? Is it because your friends have graduate degrees and you don't? I decided I needed graduate school after a certain disastrous series of paintings. I looked at my pile of failure and realized I needed to learn how to paint. Knowing that going in was a huge help. It reminded me to seek out the instruction I needed to become a better artist.
How are you choosing your school? Unless you're interested in prestigious teaching positions or curatorships, a school's reputation means bupkis. For the love of Pete, do not choose a school because Matthew Barney went there.
Browse the websites of the schools you're considering. (Or visit them in person if possible.) Does the student and faculty work resonate with you? Is it of good quality? Would you feel good about having those artists as your peers? Look the school up on MySpace! What do students have to say about the programs and faculty? If you have questions before applying, can you get in touch with any faculty? Do they return your emails or calls?
Look at what classes the school offers. (Most schools offer some semblance of a course catalog online.) Is there a curriculum that meets your needs? If you want to study something specific, say, Fiber Arts, will you be able to get that instruction? Keep in mind that "Fine Arts" programs sometimes end up as dumping grounds for students that don't fit in to more specialized programs. It's a good sign when an art school offers more than just "Art." Keep in mind that as a student, you are like a customer. You are in charge of your education, so make sure you get what you need. For me, that meant a lot of independent study and course substitution. So you're an administrative headache. So what?
Now for the application process. Hint: If the school is still requiring slide carousels rather than digital portfolios, say no thanks. It's a good indication they won't be meeting what are now basic technological needs such as wifi, ethernet in dorms, digital projectors for presentations, digital cameras for you to borrow, and so on.
There is no way you can anticipate what the application review committee will or won't like. Don't overthink it. Simply put your best foot, and your best work, forward. If you need to have your portfolio photographed, it's worth having it done professionally. A high-resolution digital portfolio is something you'll be able to use for years.
When you get to school, get to know your professors. They're there to help you. Sure, they're busy. You have a right to some of their time, so insist on it. What if they're not talkative enough at critiques? Ask them for more specific feedback about your work. If you don't get along with a certain teacher, maybe you shouldn't take any more of their classes. (Or maybe you should.) Figure out which faculty members return phone calls, answer emails, show up to meetings. If you're having trouble getting something done administration-wise, the best thing to do is just show up in person. Show up to a class you want into. Show up to office hours for the prof you'd like to meet. The same advice goes for your peers. No student is an island -- your fellow students are there to help you learn as well.
Okay, critiques suck, but you have to go to them. It's your job to help them not suck. Ask specific questions, offer constructive criticism. Don't fall back on "That's nice, keep going," or, "That just doesn't work -- for me." If there's something nobody's saying, make it your job to say that. Do it without being an asshole.
If you know me personally, you know that I have big issues with art school and how it's operated in America today. Here's my argument in a nutshell: It is way way too easy to bullshit your way through art school. Try it -- grab a canvas, dump bodily fluids all over it, lay it on the floor and do an interpretive dance to the recorded sounds of your Uncle Moe snoring. They will. Eat. It. Up. Any monkey can pour a bucket of paint onto a canvas and say, yay, I'm done! It's a lot more challenging to actually make something. Rise to that challenge.
Prepare yourself for being surrounded by Wankers. (If you are already a Wanker, congratulations. You'll fit right in.) Rise above it.
Avoiding the Wanker Effect is very simple. Do the work. Do work that your hero would be proud of. (When I was in college, I realized that if I wasn't making paintings that were as good as a single panel of Arkham Asylum, I was kidding myself.) Good quality work speaks louder than any late-night coffeeshop conversation, any ironic haircut, any cute scarf, any act of Wankerism. If you don't achieve that quality right away, derr, keep trying. That's what school is for. Our reach is farther than our grasp.
Your education is what you make of it. No matter where you go to school, if you put in the hours and the passion, you'll come away a better artist and a better person.
Thanks for listening.
I'd like to hear from you. If you've been through grad school, what tips can you share for people about to take the plunge? If you're thinking of applying, do you have more questions? Let's have 'em.