Rufi Thorpe, author of The Girls from Corona Del Mar (Knopf), was a senior in college and “touchingly foolhardy” when she began applying to M.F.A. programs.

“I applied to John Hopkins, Iowa, and NYU. I suppose I was not familiar with the concept of a safety school.” Though she was eventually accepted from NYU’s wait list, she’d recently left New York City, escaping a “pretty torturous love affair,” and couldn’t afford to return. The next year, slightly wiser, she applied to five programs, writing a separate personal statement for each.

“I wrote my applications like love letters,” she says. Eventually, she wound up at the University of Virginia, where she studied with Ann Beattie and Christopher Tilghman (the latter was a particular influence) and lay the intellectual groundwork for her first novel.

Choosing a Program

M.F.A. programs have become as competitive as first-rate medical and law schools (in some cases more), but many writers still choose where they apply based on a combination of intuition, ego, geography, fandom, and other circumstances. Thorpe’s application trajectory, full of emotional asides and gut decisions, doesn’t much sound like the kind of advice published on the Poets & Writers Speakeasy (an online forum where applicants can exchange advice) or the M.F.A. Blog. There, you’ll find experts who suggest creating spreadsheets to keep track of supplementary materials, advise applicants to consider schools with great funding in remote locales, and encourage prospective M.F.A.ers to increase their slim odds of acceptance by applying far and wide. Tom Kealey’s The Creative Writer’s M.F.A. Handbook (Bloomsbury), a comprehensive guide to tackling the M.F.A. application process, instructs writers to consider funding, teaching load, student-run publications, among other factors.

Like Thorpe, Matt Sumell didn’t get accepted at UC Irvine’s competitive M.F.A. program (graduates include Joshua Ferris and Michael Chabon) until his second year of applying to grad school. “When I first applied, I was bumming around San Diego and picking my schools based on faulty criteria: girl to guy ratios and was there good surf,” he says. Following a round of encouraging rejections, he did what M.F.A. forums expressly suggest you do not do: he pestered faculty at the places where he was rejected for feedback. The following year, he was rejected everywhere again, except UC Irvine, from whom he received a letter, signed by Geoffrey Wolff, explaining that he was on the wait-list.

Though their strategies ultimately worked, both Matt Sumell and Rufi Thorpe do not advise proceeding as they did. Research is necessary, more so now than ever, with new programs appearing every year. Most schools have a wealth of information on their websites. Online, prospective students can find out who is teaching and when (check closely, since some sites list emeritus faculty members who never actually enter the classroom), how much funding is offered, what the course structure is like (some programs are more academic than others—one tip-off is often how much importance a school places on the GRE), whether students are asked to teach, and the size of the student body. Some programs, like NYU’s, offer live info sessions for applicants who can make it to campus. Would you go insane in Ithaca, N.Y., trapped under four feet of snow all winter, stuck with the same handful of writers for three years? If so, don’t apply to Cornell—though for many, it has been a focused writerly utopia.

Meghan Daum, author of, most recently, The Unspeakable, applied only to programs in New York City. “I wanted to go to Columbia. I didn’t care, obviously, if it was funded or not.” Her M.F.A. experience and the debt it left her with taught Daum to hustle. “I learned how to write for money,” she says. That lesson would keep her afloat, and her thoughtful writing about money—not having it and how she spent it—has become a kind of anthem for many young writers and readers. The takeaway is, perhaps, that applying to and attending an M.F.A. program is a major life decision, and no matter how prepared applicants are, there will always be a measure of unexpected fallout.

Jeffrey Alan Lockwood, an instructor at Wyoming’s two-year M.F.A. program, which enrolls roughly three to four students per genre each year, points out how programs look at applicants holistically. “We do not use a standard or systematized approach to weighting any element of the application. In fact, the elements interact in complex ways and can’t be sensibly isolated into parts,” Lockwood says. “The writing sample is the most important element in most cases... but because all applications are read by two faculty, idiosyncrasies are moderated.” Unlike law school, where a student with high LSATs and a perfect transcript would likely get into all her top choices, M.F.A. applicants sometimes get into the most competitive programs and are rejected from purportedly easier schools. There’s an element of blind luck—of finding the right reader at the right time.

The Application

So what are the boxes nearly all M.F.A. applicants will have to check off? Once they begin their application? In addition to transcripts and, sometimes, GRE scores, almost every M.F.A. program asks the following of its applicants: a writing sample that’s around 30 pages (usually slightly less for poetry), a personal statement, and letters of recommendation. Some schools, like Columbia, also ask for a critical essay. Guidance regarding the writing sample tends to be rather hands off. Iowa asks that students submit 30–80 pages, but no more than 100—they do not explain how students are to format this work, other than that it should be double-spaced, and do not specify a preference for novels or short stories, traditional or experimental writing. Brown’s Literary Arts Program, widely known as a hotbed for experimentation, obliquely notes that writers may bypass the double-spaced format if “an alternative format is integral to the work.” Reviewing these guidelines, the subtext emerges. M.F.A. programs are seeking talent, and they know that there’s no catchall way to explain exactly what that is. Again and again, program administrators encourage prospective students to focus most of their energy on their sample. Peter Nelson, an administrator at Brown, says that “99%–100% of the decision is based on writing sample.” M.O. Walsh, director of the M.F.A. program at New Orleans University, agrees: “The writing sample is the most important thing. We are looking for vision and potential.”

Letters of recommendation can come from writers who know the applicant’s work, former teachers, or other close professional mentors or colleagues. Maxine Chernoff, director of San Francisco State University’s M.F.A. program, finds them important, but not overwhelmingly so: “They help assure us that the applicant works reasonably well in an academic setting. Most importantly, the manuscript counts.” Walsh places a somewhat higher premium on letters, and notes that “bad rec letters can definitely throw up red flags. We’ll be living with these people for three years. If the rec letter says they’re problematic, that’s a headache we can do without.” Other peripheral materials, like GRE scores and past academic records, are also typically valued well below the quality of the writing sample. “They help shift around rankings and break ties,” says Wyoming’s Lockwood. “Personal statements that make clear that an applicant lacks collegiality or interest in others will also count heavily against a person.” In general, administrators seem to agree that factors beyond the writing sample become important in later stages of the process, once promise has been identified and a student is seriously being considered for acceptance.

Many prospective applicants who are daunted by the importance of the writing sample and are struggling to choose the work that best represents them can seek out the guidance of professional consultants (like those at Sackett Street Writers Workshop or Grub Street), often M.F.A.-trained writers themselves, to help get manuscripts in tip-top shape. There are also a number of non-M.F.A. workshops (like the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program) where writers can get feedback before attempting to enter an M.F.A. program. Austin Bunn, a graduate of Iowa’s M.F.A. program and author of the forthcoming novel The Brink, attended workshops in L.A. and a community class in Queens led by Sam Lipsyte before applying to five schools, including Iowa. “My first response was a rejection from Minnesota,” he says. “Two weeks later I got into Iowa and the Michener Center, which goes to show how highly subjective the process is.”

An element of chance will probably always factor into the M.F.A. application process, in a way that it doesn’t in other areas of study. These are writers we’re talking about, from the applicants to the faculty and often even the administrators. They are moved by empathy and by stories: the ones in the personal statement, the ones in the letters of recommendation, the ones in the writing sample, and the ones that unfold in real time, over the phone. Matt Sumell moved off UC Irvine’s wait-list for a reason that seems torn straight from a short story. When Geoffrey Wolff called one of the accepted students to inform them of Irvine’s offer, he overheard the clanking of dishes in the sink. As Wolff talked, the student kept washing the dishes, and Wolff got so annoyed that he hung up. “Lucky for me,” Sumell says, “someone got on Geoffrey Wolff’s nerves. And my life changed forever.”

Julie Buntin is the associate editor and community manager at Catapult. She attended NYU’s M.F.A. program.