Ten Things I Learned About Applying To MFA Programs (From Actually Applying To MFA Programs): part two

by That Kind of Girl on March 23, 2011

This is part of a series. For the first entry, click here. If I had to apply for MFAs all over again, I’d wish someone had told me the following:

Ten Things I Learned About Applying To MFA Programs (From Actually Applying To MFA Programs)

MAJOR POINT: Do not be an idiot when you pick which schools to apply to.

Doesn’t this sound self-explanatory? And yet, I was an idiot for so, so many reasons. And just because it happened to turn out well doesn’t make me any less foolish. In retrospect, three things I wish I could go back and tell myself.

2) Most of the top fifty schools have an acceptance rate in the range of 1.0 – 3.0%. Think about what that really means. Draw a diagram or something to help you out. I’ll wait.

What staggers me the most is that, when applying to schools, I actually checked out the selectivity rates of my fifteen primary schools, and thought to myself: “Oh, I’m choosing a great mix! There are definitely some safeties on this list!” All fifteen schools are in the top forty for selectivity. The most selective school I applied to (with recent information) is University of Texas, Austin, which, this year, had a 1.11% acceptance rate for fiction.

But obviously that’s just a pipe dream, and my least selective school with recent information — University of Alabama — is only the thirtieth most selective! Thirtieth! That’s a friggin’ cakewalk, right?!

The acceptance rate for fiction was 2.5%. Yes, that’s a decimal in there.

What I needed to do was shake myself by the shoulders ’til my mouth foamed and shout: “Imagine yourself surrounded by thirty-nine other people! All of these people want nothing more in the world than to be writers, and have worked just as hard as you and have the same dreams! And one of them is Baby Chekov, and he’s totally giving a high-five to Baby Hemingway! And you’re absolutely positive the admissions committee is going to choose you?!” And that’s just the pep talk for my least selective school.

The MFA application process is so selective that schools with 15-20% acceptance rate feels like a comparative cakewalk. 20%. That’s a low F.

Fortunately, had I been able to tell past-me that, I would have consoled her with the advice:

3) There are schools with amazing funding that you’ve never even heard of. And if you haven’t heard of them, a lot of other people haven’t either. Do your research to root out these schools so you have a shot at something with, uh, a more than 2% acceptance rate.

I thought I did a fine job researching. In retrospect, I took about the dumbest tack available. I bought the first edition of The Creative Writing MFA Handbook (an excellent resource, but for pete’s sake, get the updated one); read Tom Kealey’s descriptions of the top fifty programs; circled the ones that matched my funding/duration/ineffable standards; visited the websites and poked around for about ten seconds or ’til I burned out my meth-y attention span, whichever came first.

Using this technique, I narrowed down my list to fifteen schools. And while they’re all amazing schools, it’s a dumb list, because it was limited from the onset to the most selective and hard-to-get-into schools. Which didn’t seem like a problem, ’cause I hadn’t yet given myself the reality-check from Step Two. (Later, I added two slightly less selective schools. One because it had a free application; the other because it was in Boston and, at the time, I thought I might have a reason to keep my options open to staying here.)

The thing I wish I’d known is, while funded programs are obviously going to be the most competitive, there are lots of great funded programs that not as many people apply to, because there are so many idiots like me who don’t do sufficient research to find them. At the very least, I should have looked at Seth Abramson’s list of Top 25 Underrated Creative Writing MFA Programs. And while underrated programs, after being featured in a list like that, have the tendency to become annoyingly correctly-rated, even a quick peek at the 2011 Funding Rankings would have shown me a whole new world of potential schools.

Ohio State? University of South Carolina? Arkansas? These are cool programs. Since I knew over a year in advance that I was applying to programs, I had plenty of time to check each of these schools’ websites and see what they had to offer. Like, oh, I don’t know, a 70% funding and a better-than-1% acceptance rate? Past-self, spend a few weeks doing your research, and stagger your applications to different tiers of schools.

That said…

4) Before applying to a school, imagine that you get turned down from every other school on your list except for that one. Would you still go? Or would you apply again next year to see if you had better luck?

Because the thing is, past-self, there’s a very real chance you might only get into one school. And that’s actually a much better scenario than the equally real chance that you won’t get into any schools.

When I chose to apply to fifteen of the most selective programs in the country, even knowing, intellectually, that they all had miniscule acceptance rates, I imagined that I’d be turning down offers left and right, the only applicant in history to get accepted everywhere. The thing is, everyone fantasizes that will happen to them. And it doesn’t happen to anyone.

I can’t even tell you how many applicants I’ve watched throughout the season — cool, talented writers, whose writing samples absolutely shattered me — who applied to fifteen top schools with the assumption that, applying to so many, they were sure to get into one. And then, as the months go by, the brutal realization that that’s just not true. Or amazing writers who applied to a ¬†good range of schools, then only got accepted by one. Sometimes with no funding.

It’s grisly out there, y’all. It’s a WWII movie.

Anyway, I got very lucky this season, and wasn’t left with that heartbreaking decision. But just because I was lucky doesn’t mean I wasn’t an idiot. In retrospect, there were a few schools I applied to that, really, I had no business going for. The two-year programs I applied to for name recognition, even though I knew I wanted a three-year program. The program with no funding in one of the most expensive cities in America. The medium-funding program with a dreaded (for me) language requirement. Pretty much any program at a northern latitude, when I know northern winters make me so depressed that I can’t write for four to six months out of the year.

Had I been in the very real situation of only getting into one of those schools, I would have faced the dilemma of whether to accept the offer, or whether to throw it away and go through this expensive, grueling process all over again. A problem that you, past-self, could solve by: 1) really researching your schools, and 2) oh yeah, not being an idiot.

Would this have scared past-me out of the prospect of applying to MFAs in the first place? Of course not. Past-me is a cocky bastard, and that’s what I love about her. Still, I like to think she’d have heeded caution enough to put together a slightly less idiotic list of schools.

Next time, stuff I wish I’d known about putting together the actual application.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

KJ March 23, 2011 at 9:59 am

Congratulations on your acceptances and I applaud you for being honest enough to write this to future MFA applicants. Looking back on the other side of a PhD program, I wish I could tell past-self to look long and hard at the job market and not apply at all (and I’ve been fully funded the entire time).

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That Kind of Girl March 24, 2011 at 12:19 am

Yikes! That’s definitely the concern with education. Especially since so many people are getting graduate degrees just to defer loans from undergrad, and hide out from the job market. Still, spending a few years just collecting and synthesizing knowledge has to, at bare minimum, make us smarter and cooler, right? I hope an awesome job is just on the horizon for you, where you can get full use out of your shiny degree!

Plus — and this is just me being a geek — isn’t it fun sometimes to think about how much your brain cost? Adding a fully funded PhD has to be another quarter of a million dollars of brain, easy. Definitely a good excuse to always wear a bike helmet from now on.

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Hope March 23, 2011 at 10:51 am

I’m going to be applying to PhD programs in the not-too-distant future. I think most of what you said is applicable in that situation as well. Thanks!

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That Kind of Girl March 24, 2011 at 12:17 am

Good luck applying for PhD programs! How exciting! Also, considering the bulk of my advice is: “Don’t be an idiot like me!” I guess it could apply to anyone. ;-) I seem to have to give myself the “don’t be an idiot” pep talk half a dozen times a day. And that’s just before I leave the apartment.

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Poetess March 23, 2011 at 9:12 pm

You listened to Tom Kealey’s advice?! God, I hated that jerk! Took a class with him at Stanford and couldn’t stand him. Keith was so much better.

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That Kind of Girl March 24, 2011 at 12:15 am

I took Novel Salon with Tom and really admired him as a professor. Plus, The Creative Writing MFA Handbook is really the only book of its kind on the market, and, until the blog community that it started, was basically the only resource out there for MFA applicants. It’s kind of staggering, how profoundly his book changed the MFA world, from an applicant’s perspective. I’ve definitely got mad respect for him for that: because of the ripple effect of his book, there’s a lot more information about funded programs, and schools are being forced to be more transparent with their program and selectivity information. As a dude who needed all the help I could get while applying, I owe him a pretty huge debt of gratitude!

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Michelle... March 23, 2011 at 10:33 pm

While I don’t envy those acceptance rates, I envy that you know them. I’m pretty sure the rates for my programs are much higher, but it’s just not out there, which is scary!

ps: love this series so far…if I know anyone applying for MFAs in the future, I’m totally referring them here.

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Ken O March 24, 2011 at 4:34 am

I see what you’re saying about Anton Antonovich and Hemmingway fils applying to the same programs that you have, but “what happens if $prestigious_school1 makes them both offers that they accept, and $PS2 makes them both offers that they reject?” Does $PS2 just have 2 unfilled slots, or does it make an offer to TKOG because she was their first alternate?

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Suniverse March 31, 2011 at 10:14 am

Congrats on your acceptances! That’s wonderful.

I actually ended up at my MA and JD programs because they were nearby – and the MA was fully funded. That really limited my apps.

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See Elle Oh March 31, 2011 at 10:24 am

Thanks for sharing your wisdom! Though I’m not planning on any more schooling anytime soon (which means that if I’m hunkered down taking the GMAT six months from now, I’ll be hella surprised…not that that would ever happen) I’m still really glad I read this. I’ll be passing it along to my MFA-hopeful friends (regardless of their art).

And, because no amount of congrats is ever sufficient, CONGRATULATIONS!!! :-)

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Kim April 6, 2011 at 10:07 am

Thanks for your post on yes and yes! I love reading your posts. However, I’m guilting you for not writing here!! Write more! I need my ntkog fix!

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That Kind of Girl April 9, 2011 at 5:54 pm

Consider me officially guilted! Just need to find a cafe with a charger and I’ll knock out a few posts tonight. I just have to figure out what to do with this space since I’ve officially given up on the second year of NTKOGing. (I don’t know what I was thinking. That first year nearly killed me!)

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Kim April 9, 2011 at 6:36 pm

I don’t have any reccomendation on that. I am a terrible blogger and find it odd to write about my life for others. Why would they like to hear about my boring life, albeit an enjoyable life? I make a much better reader. I really enjoy your posts and hope you find something to spark you! The south was a big adjustment to me, being a southern mass native and never really going to the bible belt in my life. Now I live here despite having told myself to get out as soon as I was done with college! Will you be joining us in the southland?

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Kim April 12, 2011 at 1:27 pm

Congrats on yet another amazing yes and yes post! But don’t neglect NTKOG!!!!!

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Mom April 8, 2011 at 2:53 pm

Dear, we are proud of you, but frankly expected no less than the best. We are so happy that you’ll be joining us out West where the weather is so much nicer. And, dear, you KNOW that life is an intelligence test: Buffalo, New York? Still, I was always unsure about that university with the alligators on the web site. I kept thinking alligators? TKOG? Congratulations again.

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Euforilla April 14, 2011 at 5:43 am

Looking forward for part three… and the rest!!!

I’ve awarded your blog, come check it out! :)
http://euforilla.blogspot.com/2011/04/musas-box-with-award.html

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Red Stethoscope April 15, 2011 at 6:50 pm

Sage advice indeed! My cocky-23 year old writer self applied to three or four (or five? I don’t remember!) MFA programs with that same understanding of, “I’ll get into at least one.” Ha! Right. When I changed my career path and ended up applying to medical school, I was a lot more successful (well, obviously, since I am now IN medical school, but you know, interviews and things too…). I think it’s because I assumed that writing programs should be easier to get into. Whereas, MEDICAL SCHOOL was like the holy grail in most of the pre-meds eyes in college! I just put a lot more effort and thoughtfulness into the medical application process. I had no idea that the acceptance rates were 1-2% for MFA programs too. Everything is suddenly so clear now. And also, I identify very much with your former self! :)

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confusedwriter July 17, 2011 at 10:28 am

I just got accepted from the waitlist to Emerson and I am so happy but at the same time I didn’t really get any funding. I know I want to go into an MFA program but I’m really not sure I can justify spending so much cash when there are fully funded programs out there. At the same time, I’m worried it will be my only shot and I’ll regret turning it down later if I don’t get in during round two since MFA programs are so selective. Any advice? I know I have to make the final decision but I’d really like your opinion since it seems like you obviously understand the process, etc.

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Bagel Fairy September 8, 2011 at 3:36 pm

Thank you for these posts. I have been making up my list of possible programs to which I can apply, and the list keeps growing. I’ve pretty much been using the research method you used – I see a school on a list, I click on it, I say, “Ooh, that looks cool,” I add the link to my sheet, and move on. I’m starting to realize I have almost no “safety” schools, and don’t even know how to look for middle-of-the-road schools that are less selective yet well-funded.

You’ve helped me articulate the real fear behind my reluctance to tell people I’m applying to grad school: What if I don’t get in? Or, what if I get in but can’t get funding anywhere? Then I have to go back to those people and tell them it didn’t work out. It shouldn’t be about anybody else, but it’s just the old pride thing. And I don’t think I can rack up more debt than I already have, so I NEED to get an assistantship.

Anyway, I’m sure this original post seems forever ago to you, but it was there for me exactly when I needed it. So thanks.

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