Each residency program asks for different things. This can be cumbersome for you, but these decisions are made unique to each organization's application and selection process, and so it's important that you follow the directions. Double check the application checklist. Send work samples in the format that is requested. Do not send more than what is specified.
You should have a well-documented history of your work. Documentation should be done by a professional, whenever possible. The quality of your materials reflects the quality of your work. It is also important that your documentation is in an appropriate format (eg, slides vs. digital photos; cassettes or DATs vs. CDs). Most residency programs make clear in their guidelines what format you should use. If you're not sure, it's a good idea to contact the artists' community to determine what formats they prefer.
DO NOT submit poorly documented work samples: images that are blurry, fuzzy video, scratchy recordings.
Submit your strongest work. If you're interested in moving in a new direction, and want to show work that demonstrates that, limit those work samples to one or two, in addition to your strongest work.
When planning your work samples, it helps to understand how the selection process usually works. While juries for writers usually have more time with an applicant's work, the selection process for visual artists, choreographers, composers, and other disciplines that will be reviewed in an audio or visual format have some challenges. Images are projected very briefly -- often just a few seconds. Video clips and audio recordings are also given very little time. Each selection panel is generally going through thousands of work samples in a day, so it's essential that your strongest work appears first and that video and audio clips are cued appropriately.
It's hard to judge your own work, so get feedback from some people whose artistic opinions you respect by asking them to look over your work samples. Many schools have career development offices that are available to students, faculty, staff, and alumni, to assist you in putting together a strong application.
Many residency programs require this as part of the application. Even if such a statement is not specifically required, it is helpful to be able to articulate your personal artistic statement. An artist statement should be coherent and brief, not a lengthy, esoteric manifesto of your soul. It is a way to communicate your creative practice and your artistic approach. GYST has a great online resource center for artists of all disciplines, with examples of artist statements.
Artists' communities focus on the process, rather than the product, of art. However, some residency programs ask what you plan to do while in residence. The purpose of a project proposal is not to tie you to a specific project; it is to demonstrate that you've thought through how you might make good use of a residency. It is common (and even expected) that once in residence you will explore other ideas. No one's looking over your shoulder!
Making the case for *this* residency
Many applicants make the mistake of taking a copy-and-paste approach to applying for a residency. While the application process can be daunting, it is important to take the time to get a feel for a particular residency, and to be clear why the residency you are applying to will benefit you more than another residency. Things to consider are: unique geography, size, residency length, access to facilities/equipment, and opportunities for social engagement.
Another pitfall to avoid is providing references that don't really know you but that have an impressive reputation. While some major awards are interested in the who's-who references, residency programs are interested in your seriousness as an artist, your dedication to a creative practice, and your ability to live in a close-knit community of others. If the program asks for letters of recommendation, ask your references to speak to these points, rather than simply what a wonderful artist/writer/composer/choreographer/architect you are.
While many residency programs do not charge fees to artists, it is important to plan for the financial impact of being away from your home/job/regular life for any period of time. This issue is addressed in detail on the next page (see link below).
No one can tell you how you will experience your residency. No two artists' communities are alike, and the staff and other artists in residence will vary as well. While some find isolation to be inspiring, others struggle with the solitude and separation from families. Choosing the right residency depends on what environment is best for you, among many other things. You may find it helpful to ask friends or colleagues who have attended residency programs what their experiences have been, and many artists' communities have "Survival Guides" that will help you to know what to expect. The MacDowell Colony's Roadmap to a Residency offers some insight -- from application to the return to life after a residency -- from ten former artists-in-residence.