MFA Applications Will Kill Your Soul (But Don't Let That Stop You)

, for months now I've been meaning to post a list of things I learned from the MFA application process. But I just didn't have the strength. Now that I'm safely far, far away from that soul-crushing process, I think I'm ready to give it a go.

Here's the knowledge-like substance I gleaned from the whole torrid affair.

1) MFA APPLICATIONS WILL KILL YOUR SOUL. But pleeeease don't let that stop you. It doesn't feel like it now, but there's a light at the end of the tunnel. Or insert uplifting cliche of your choice here.

I applied during the last semester of my undergrad. (I graduated December 2008.) I was trying to finish my senior thesis and get through papers & midterms & finals, and at the same time I was revamping my application list again and again, studying for the GRE, taking the GRE, ordering transcripts, writing endless SOP drafts, trying to figure out how to apply to each school (why why WHY can't this process be more streamlined/standardized?), trying to get my writing sample in order, etc. etc. etc.

That was the longest semester of my life. I'd tried to prepare over the previous summer, but by the time I actually sent in my last application, my list of schools was completely different, so all my summer work ended up being kind of irrelevant. Actually, strike that. It would've been a lot harder without the thinking head start, even if I did most of the grunt work during the semester.

Waiting sucks. Rejection sucks. Not knowing sucks. Knowing sucks. Spending 24 hours a day glued to the MFA Blog, TSE and P&W until you forget what the sun looks like sucks. Second-guessing your writing sample/SOP/application list/reasons for living sucks. The whole process really, really sucks.

In the end, it was all worth it. I got into a kickass program with the funding I couldn't live without, and I am so. freaking. grateful.

If I hadn't gotten in, I would've applied again. I was thinking Teach for America for my Plan B.

SO, anyway, I know it's awful. But you're gonna make it. Or maybe you already have. High five!

2) YOU'RE THE DECIDER. Tom Kealey's MFA Handbook is invaluable. Buy it, read it, heed its advice---up to a point. In the end, the only person who really knows which schools should be on your list is you. (Wait, actually I think that advice is in the Handbook, too.) TSE and the P&W boards can be really helpful, too. But there is no magic list. There is no MFA Monarch who can tell you exactly how to get in at your dream school.


I applied to 9 schools. I got into Minnesota and waitlisted (as in, bottom-of-the-list-don't-hold-your-breath-listed) at Cornell. I got rejected outright by 7 schools, including Rutgers-Newark & UMass Boston & Florida, where the stats and the hype and my professors made me think I had some kind of a shot in hell. I also got rejected by Michigan & Syracuse & UMass Amherst & UT Austin/Michener, where the stats & the hype made me think I'd have just as much luck balling up my application and flushing it down the proverbial toilet. But I felt the same way about Minnesota, and somehow that happened for me.

I guess my point is: Apply where you actually want to go to school, where you can actually get funding, and don't worry so much about the stats & the hype. Just do your best and then sit back and see what happens.

At some point I told one of my letter-writers that I was worried because I felt like my list was too pie-in-the-sky, and that's basically what he told me. I think it's really good advice, and I'm glad I followed it. I didn't apply anywhere I wouldn't have been really happy to end up.

This application thing is so not a science. Follow your heart (and the funding!)

You can see my final rundown here: All Results Are In.

4) SCHOOLS WILL FIND YOUR BLOG. They will find it, they will read it, and wondering if it's having any effect on their decisions will drive you crazy. I was totally convinced that schools would never look for, let alone find my blog. But then I started seeing views from urls at schools I'd applied to---I knew because of StatCounter---ON or close to the days those schools sent out decisions. And then the administrative coordinator at Minnesota confirmed, when I was on my visit there, that they like to take a look at them. She did say that they do it after making decisions, so it has no effect on that, but who knows if that's true at other schools.

If you're keeping an open journal during admissions season, be somewhat careful. I really, really wasn't careful, and I tortured myself over it later. It might be a good idea not to show all your cards, just in case.

See this post: Off the Record (You're Not Out There, Are You?)

5) FIND EVERY WAY TO SAVE $$$$. This is a crazy expensive process, and in the end, it's kind of like betting. I'm chronically broke, and I hate betting (why risk not having money I already have for extra money I'm pretty sure I won't win?) So I was all over the money-saving jedi moves.

Michigan, UT Austin/Michener and UMass Amherst will waive their application fees if you send in the proper request form, along with documentation of financial need. This was a big help to me.

Cornell's site said they'd waive their fee in extraordinary circumstances, but it sounded like they were less cool with it than the other schools, and it scared me off, so I didn't ask for the waiver there. I probably should have. There are other schools out there, like Brown, that will also waive their fee, but I mostly just know about the ones where I applied. Doing the research really pays off.

If you get a GRE waiver from your undergrad school (knocks the price of the GRE in half!) a copy of that waiver will usually serve as proof of financial need. That's the easiest way. If you didn't or can't get a waiver, a letter from your financial aid office stating that you're a financial need student (very low EFC, received x percentage of need-based aid, etc.) will do the trick.

Ask the financial aid office at your school about GRE waivers, well ahead of time. As with the application fee waivers, you have to have a significant amount of documented financial need to qualify. And don't forget to always fill out that FAFSA!

Oh! And of course, the most important part: do your research about program funding! (!!!) Do see Seth Abramson's article about funding (here), do consult the MFA Handbook, and do make sure that the info you're getting is still current.

6) READ FACULTY BOOKS, AS MANY AS YOU CAN, AS EARLY AS YOU CAN. Funding (including teaching) had to be first, for me. And then came location. I'm ashamed to say I really didn't manage to start reading faculty works until after my application list was set in stone. But if I had it to do again, faculty would tie with location. After reading faculty works, I really feel like maybe I kinda sorta "get," in some tiny way, why I got in at Minnesota. That could just be in my head, and I still believe that the biggest factor was probably plain old luck, but hey. I feel a certain click, and that's a nice feeling.

That doesn't mean that just because you love somebody's work, they're going to like yours. And it doesn't mean that just because somebody likes your work, you're going to get in at their program. But even if you're strapped for time, like I was, and it comes down to just reading the faculty at the programs you've already decided to apply to, reading faculty work could really help if you're lucky enough to have to pick between 2 or more programs.

Here's the reading list I made up, for the schools I applied to: Fiction Faculty Books

7) COMMUNITY HELPS. But it also drives you crazy. But it also helps. But it also drives you crazy.

I was lucky enough to have a best friend, Sacha, who was applying to Creative Writing PhD programs at the same time I was applying to MFA programs. I think I would've gone crazy without her. If you don't have a friend applying to MFAs at the same time you are, try to find one.

That's part of what the blogs & boards are good for. It felt good to get info, to commiserate and celebrate with everyone else who was going through the crazy ups and downs of the admissions season. I feel like I've met some really awesome people and made a lot of great connections.

But sometimes it's just too much. Try to take it easy. I really, really didn't take it easy, and I think I'm just now recovering. (Ha?) Don't let the information overload/radio silence cycle eat your brain or crush your soul. See this post: Freedom from Information

Well, I think that's about all I can think of, at least for now. I hope somebody out there finds this helpful. You can find links to all the various MFA hotspots at the linkbar up top, and some more stuff at my Minneapolis Links. My linked searches there are MN-specific, but you can always just plug in your own search term once you get there.

For more information/crazytalk/possibly useless advice, check out the labels below, or check out the searchbox in the sidebar. And feel free to comment with questions. I'll try my best to answer, when I have a chance.

And GOOD LUCK! May the MFA force be with you.

#IranElection & The Day MJ Died & Dr. Tiller

Rest in peace, Michael Jackson.

See "Michael Jackson, Pop Icon, is Dead at 50," at the New York Times.

I actually own The Wiz. Michael Jackson singing "You Can't Win":

"You Can't Win," by Charlie Smalls

You can't win, You can't break even
And you can't get out of the game.
People keep saying, Things are gonna change
But they look just like
You're staying the same

You get in way over your head
And you only got yourself to blame
[Chorus:] You can't win Chile
You can't break even
And you can't get out of the game.

You can't win, The world keeps moving
And you're standing far behind
People keep saying, Things'll get better
(Just to ease your state of mind)
(So you lean back, and you smoke that smoke)
(And you drink your glass of wine)

You can't win, you can't win no way
If your story stays the same
(You ain't winning) No, no
(But it's nice to see you. I'm awfully glad you came)
(Better cool it 'cause, It ain't about losing)
And the world has got no shame

You can't win, You can't break even
Ain't the way it's supposed to be
(You'll be spending), No, no, (Your little bit of money)
While someone else rides for free
(Learn your lesson), ooh,
(Refuel your mind, Before some turkey blows out your flame)

I freaking love this song: "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough"

I remember sitting in the back of the car with my little sister & cousin, singing along to MJ on the radio. He's a tragic figure in many ways, but there's no doubt he was an incredibly talented artist, and he left a profound mark on our culture.

Questlove (of the Roots) has posted some of my favorite tweets so far, he makes really good points. Check out his Twitter page here @questlove
Excerpts below (to read them in order, start at the bottom):

aint never heard a peep about elvis as a 24 yr old dating a 14 yr old priscilla, or his drug problems or anything but him being a treasure.

im emotional now but i dont want the only american news source i watch talking about the controversial period.

elvis got revisionist media treatment. i expect the friggin same for my hero. lemme find out yall gonna paint this mofo as a freak cnn.

but i think its time we let him rest in peace and learn to separate the ART and the ARTIST. --that is the MJ i will forever remember.

that he will get due justice in all the press memorials and whatnot. i know he was mired in controversy the last decade of his life not overwork myself to the point in which i can't even enjoy life anymore. im am devastated over this but we all have memories. i just hope

I don't think I really believe in the benefit of revisionist memory, at least not in a total historical way. *On a personal level, I think maybe sometimes we all need to do it, in large & small ways, just to get by. But I do believe in the power of empathy & forgiveness, whatever the truth is. (See "Worldview" segments at sidebar, especially Dr. King.) And I do believe that sometimes the art is not the artist. I think? I don't know. It's just sad. Maybe it's just that none of us are simple, and that includes the giants among us.


And another thing. I know it's inexcusable that I'm posting about MJ, but I haven't posted about what's going on in Iran yet. So I hope you'll forgive me. I've been sucked into the twittersphere, on that front. (See #IranElection.) The US media was hardly covering it at first, it seems. Twitter pushed the story. (See #CNNFail.)

Rest in peace, Neda Agha-Soltan. She was 26, just a tiny bit older than me, and she died just for standing up for her right to have her vote counted. She went to a protest, and she was shot to death. I've gone to lots of social & political gatherings, but I've always had this luxury, which Neda didn't have: I've never had to fear for my life. Whether it was a marriage equality rally, an Obama phone bank, a pro-choice meeting, or just voting, I never had to go knowing that it was not only possible, but likely that I'd be hurt. Neda Agha-Soltan knew the danger, her friends & family warned her, but she went anyway. Now her face has become the face of the struggle in Iran. Let's all remember her, and all the others around the world who have died and are dying in the name of justice.

May truth & justice prevail in Iran, may peaceful protest win out. We're all connected, and I don't mean that just in some vague spiritual way. I mean that injustice anywhere echoes, and when people realize that & come together, amazing things can happen. See "Social Networks Spread Defiance Online," an article at the New York Times. (Also see "Worldview" segments at sidebar, especially ubuntu.)


And that reminds me: Rest in peace, Dr. George Tiller.
See "Dr. Tiller's Important Job," opinion piece at the New York Times.

Photo from

I just want to say that I did want to post about Dr. Tiller earlier. But honestly, I felt kind of scared. I guess I feel guilty for letting that stop me.

Sacha is a Notable Author!

My dear S. is notable!! ♥

"22 Ways of Looking at Chagall," by Sacha Siskonen

Check it out here, scroll down to the New Mississippi Review.

Notice how close her name is to Robert Olen Butler's?!

You can read her wonderful story at the Mississippi Review Online, here. You might have noticed the link to it in the sidebar, before, under "My Friend Wrote a Story."

You might have seen her blog in my blogroll at the bottom, it's
Those Who Can't Teach.
Check out her latest post, "Take Note," to read how she found out about this honor---it's mind-boggling!

Congratulations, S.

I couldn't be more proud of you, you
author, you.

Multi What?

I want to introduce you to my other blog:

Multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial, multi-multi...

Multi who, multi what? A blog about mixed identity, by one of the world's few (?) Somali-Armenian Americans.

...Tiger Woods is Cablinasian, this lady's Armali.

I've done some renovation, and now I'll be approaching it from a different (more personal) angle. I'm reposting this most recent entry here, because this is an important part of who I am, and because I thought this would be a good way to announce the rebirth of Multi What?


What's an Armali?

To start with, I'm half Somali and half Armenian. I could go with Somenian, but I think Armali sounds nicer, right?

That means I'm half black and half white---like a certain president we know, I have a black African father and a white (ish?) American mother.

oh THAT's healthy!

My mother is a second generation Armenian American (or third generation, depending on how you count it---her grandparents all came to the US from Armenian villages in Turkey around 1915-1920s.) My father is Somali. He was born and raised in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, and first immigrated to the US as a young man. My parents met in Boston, Massachusetts. I have a younger sister and brother by the same parents.

But that's not all!
(Ha, I feel like a game show.)

My mother's first husband was Ghanaian, and I have two sisters by that marriage. So they're half Ghanaian and half Armenian. Their father's second wife is Tanzanian, and my sisters have a brother (my step-half brother?) by that marriage, who's half Tanzanian and half Ghanaian.

My father's second wife was European American, and I have one sister by that marriage. So she's half European American and half Somali.

My stepdad, my mom's husband now, is African American, and I have two stepbrothers (by his first marriage) who are African American on both sides.

My stepmom, my father's wife now, is Somali, and I have a whole lotta siblings who are Somali on both sides.

My mother has only one sibling, my uncle. My aunt-by-marriage is Jewish American, and my only maternal first cousin (he's like my brother) is half Jewish and half Armenian.

My name is Arabic, and I minored in Arabic in college, but English is my only native language. My parents never taught us Somali or Armenian---I really, really want to learn, someday.

I was raised Muslim---I think of myself as agnostic now, just FYI. My mother's family are
(at least nominally) Armenian Orthodox Christian, and since my aunt is Jewish, we kids got to know all kinds of holidays, when we were growing up : )

I have family in Boston, New York, Arizona, Virginia, London, Kenya and who knows where else!

Okay, I know I'm forgetting something...

The Cairo Speech: A New Beginning

Check out the transcript at the White House blog.

Here's my silly Twitter commentary. (Actually starts at the bottom):
  • RT @hrw: Obama Mid-East Speech Supports Rights, Democracy

  • ashamed to say i'm going to pause for sytycdance. but did you notice that he actually SAID THE WORD COLONIALISM?! at the beginning. wowow!

  • Obama "...align our policies with those who pursue peace, & we will say in public what we say in private to Israelis & Palestinians & Arabs"

  • ♥ hearing that Cairo audience applaud him. (um, but i think he just said "hajib." it's hijab, yo.)

  • & he quotes the Qur'an! i'm a secular type, but i grew up Muslim. such a big day: the POTUS quoting the Qur'an! this will make a difference.

  • ♥ that he said as-salaamu alaykum السّلام عليكم (greeting: peace be upon you)! but someone shoulda coached him on his ع'ayn sound, ha : )

  • FINALLY watching video of Obama's Cairo speech...

  • just read the cairospeech transcript on the bus. tears in my eyes. cant wait to watch it after work.

  • RT @whitehouse: The President’s Speech in Cairo: A New Beginning: Watch or read the President’s speech---

  • ahhhh YES! ♥ Obama opened his speech by saying شكراً shukran (thank you in Arabic) to the audience! i'm so proud : )

This is such an important moment. Obama said a lot of things I never thought I'd hear the POTUS say. He was honest, he reached out a hand, and I think this will make a difference.

More on this later.