SO, 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.
3) THERE'S NO SUCH THING AS A SAFETY SCHOOL. There just isn't.
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
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.