In choosing a graduate school in the visual arts I mentor students towards programs that I see them, and the direction of their work fitting into. In the discipline of ceramics it is my job as a professor to know the other programs available to my students, so I do have educated guidance in this step. In the fields of painting, printmaking, drawing, sculpture, fibers, metalsmithing and wood I am not as well versed. But as a professor in music can have their main instrument be bass they may also know quite a bit about the amazing professor in trombone at another school.
I believe the first step in choosing a school should be the guidance of a professor who has worked closely with you, and has an understanding of your interests and goals. After that initial guidance I then stress the importance of the student's job to do research in their chosen media and look at the professors who they would be working with. Seeing if their expertise may be of interest to them and if the professors’ work is exciting and dynamic to them. The perspective student might also be wise to look at the resume of the main person they wish to study under and make sure they are active in their discipline.
The other great avenue for research is finding out what the present and past graduate students are doing. Make sure the universities you are looking at mentor their graduates after the degree? How many past grads can you find out there as professional artists, professors in academia or other career choices like directors of galleries, museums, or community art centers.
Of course the importance of being prepared to apply to graduate school with a solid cohesive portfolio that exhibits good technical skills and work that exemplifies your best work, with a strong understanding of formalist issues, or utility and ergonomics, and or content is the most important part of a strong portfolio. There are several other issues that the perspective student must take into account with respect to the body of work they are using to apply to any given graduate program. Assistantships and even being accepted into a program is very competitive.
One other tool you need as an applicant is an personal statement about why you are making what your making. An artist statement is a difficult thing to write and there is really no one-way approach to this but there are some do’s and don’ts. I set up a blog that covers some information for my students and one blog entry was specifically on how to get started.
Many students in art have a real aversion to writing. But this is a necessity for you and there are people outside of the studio who can help. The writing center on your campus would be a great place to help with clarity and grammar. Of course any of your professors in art have used their artist statements as reflective tools for years and have had theirs evolve as they made advancements in their areas of research. So give your professors a try also as a starting point. In art we have a capstone class that teaches you some about artist statements and resumes. And in most of the upper division studio classes students are required to work on such statements.
“Why”, is the question you are answering when writing your statement. Maybe technical considerations can be worked into your statement but they really should be separate from why.
The other tool is a strong cover letter related to why you are applying to that particular school. In your cover letter you should try and gently add your experience and knowledge about studio management and technical understandings of the media. Many assistantships in MFA programs have a technical component, such as running the kiln room or glaze lab. So technical knowledge should be addressed to show your assets, but the primary goal of your cover letter is to address why you think you would want to pursue your MFA at that school.
Receiving good letters is important to your application. Make sure the letters you request are from people who you have had quite a bit of contact with. For instance I had one student ask me to be a reference and I had only worked with him for one class. That would not be the best reference. I suggest that you have at least worked with the professor for a few upper division courses. Letters of recommendation could come from other sources from outside of academia but it is not suggested that they come from a place of employment that really would have no connection to what you are going to school for. For instance if you worked at Gallery One and you are apply for an MFA program that would be a good letter. But if you worked at a pizza joint that would not be a very good letter.
Visiting a school is sometimes putting the horse before the cart, but is a great way to get to know people there and them to know you. In the visual arts some disciplines have a national conference once a year. It is really at these conferences that networking and you gain an understanding of what kind of graduate program they offer.
I also think it’s a good idea for students to think about setting up a website where their artist statement, resume and other images of their work can be viewed outside of the application. Sometimes this gives the professors reviewing their application a little more insight into their work.