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.
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.