Tuesday, July 20, 2010

How I Submit: MFA Programs

It's like having a baby, you don't have a baby and become an expert on everybody's baby, but you do become an expert on your own. I'll be all dissociative and just jump right in to the process I used for applying to MFA programs and let your mind make that metaphor work.

Choosing Where to Apply

I read through The Creative Writing Handbook by Tom Kealey and highlighted every program, regardless of location, that even sounded remotely interesting to me. I probably had highlighted about 36 programs. Then I considered location and went back through the schools I highlighted and got my list down to about 22 schools that I was interested in applying to. I also considered where poets I admire were teaching and included those schools on my list if I felt I would just kill to study with them.

Next, I took to the internet and researched each school's website looking for information on funding. I got rid of most of the schools that didn't guarantee full-funding or near full-funding to every student. Also, since I'm a single parent, I checked out the family housing options offered by the schools and dropped a few from my list that way.

By October of my application year, I ended up with a list of 16 schools to apply to. My first deadline was December 1 (I believe). It was time to get my recommenders lined up.

Almost all programs require that you have 3 letters of recommendation sent in. I was finishing up my undergrad degree in a non-traditional fashion so I had easy access to recommenders. I asked one creative writing professor and two English professors to write my recommendations.

Since I was applying to 16 schools, I wanted to make the process as simple as possible. I didn't want to bog my recommenders down and I also wanted control of my letters so I addressed the envelopes to the schools and printed out the recommendation forms that some schools require the recommenders to fill out and delivered this packet of envelopes and forms to each professor. All the professors had to do was insert the letters into the envelopes, sign the seals, and let me know when to pick them up. If I had to do it again, I would do it this way. It pretty much went off without a hitch and I had the letters back before Thanksgiving break.

I got my recommenders thoughtful gifts. One of my professors wore great scarves, so I bought her a scarf. One liked Toni Morrison so I bought her Morrison's newly released book. Another liked Jane Austen so I bought her a DVD I thought she could show in class about Jane Austen. It only took paying attention in class to figure out gifts I thought would be appropriate. They all seemed really pleased and gift giving is fun.

I hated this test. I took it in October. I spent months with flash cards studying vocabulary words. I didn't refresh on the Math because I'd recently taken a math class.

I didn't excel at the test but I think I scored on the high-end of average. I don't believe this test is important, but I do recommend taking it so you can have more schools to apply to.

Sending the Apps Out

I kept a spreadsheet that listed all of the programs I was applying to, the supplemental materials requested, application fees, and deadlines. I also had slots to check off if I'd sent off different parts of the applications (liking having official transcripts and GRE scores sent). I color coded the spreadsheet using red, green, and yellow. Red meant I hadn't started on the app, green meant it was in the mail and done, and yellow meant there was some hiccup (like a department not receiving my GRE scores).

I pressed submit online or dropped envelopes in the mailbox and waited by bonding online with people on the Poets & Writer's MFA message board; Seth Abramson's blog; and the Creative Writing MFA Handbook blog.

I ended up getting accepted outright into 6 programs; waitlisted at 2; rejected by 8. I chose UVA.

What I Would Have Done Differently

I think I did well by having the programs ranked according to my preference so that when acceptance calls started coming, I was able to know if I'd already gotten into somewhere I'd rather go. I got an acceptance in January that was ranked in the middle of my list and there were still a few apps I hadn't sent out that were ranked below it. I should have saved some app fees and not applied to those 1 or 2 programs that I knew I wouldn't go to. I think I was just deadset on carrying out my plan of applying to 16 schools.

That's all I have. Hit me up in the comments if you have any specific questions about applying to programs.


Rachel M. said...

Another thing I would recommend to applicants is Interfolio. This is an online dossier service. I used it to mail my manuscripts. All my recommenders had to do was upload their recommendation one time to this webpage and I could send it out as I was ready. Of course, this does mean that I ignored any "recommendation form", but I'm the first to admit I have issues with authority and I'd hate to end up at a school which required a form in the first place.

I paid for Interfolio for 3 years (40 bucks I think) to keep my recommendations on file so I could potentially recycle them again for PhD season, instead of having to track down professors in a different state who don't remember my writing anymore.

Jessie Carty said...

Great stuff JT! I should do a similar post about deciding what low-res program to go to.

Are you going to AWP next year? I'm hoping to go but I might not be able to afford it but I'm hoping to meet some lovely online people!

JayTee said...

Good tip, Rachel!

@Jessie- Yes, I'll be at AWP this year, definitely since it's only 2 hours away. I'm pretty excited about it. You should definitely post about how you chose your program!

evelyn.n.alfred said...

Thanks for this. When I get closer to my process of applying, I'll probably ask you questions.

evelyn.n.alfred said...

Alright, first question.

Which of the programs on the eastcoast during your search had the best funding (out of the ones you applied to)?

JayTee said...

@evelyn- i didn't apply to some of these but off the top of my head: Brown, UVA, Penn State. Ok so I applied to one of those but those are the ones that come to mind. Get the MFA Handbook and read through it. Tons of info there.

Lisa J. said...

Do you have advice for a nontraditional student (a mother like yourself, but an older one with a toddler!) who hasn't been in the world of academia in nearly twenty years? I did a three-year stint teaching high school English (and Creative Writing) but haven't taken creative writing classes or workshops myself. I live near UVA and would kill to enter the MFA program (fiction) when my little boy goes to kindergarten in three years, but I'm having a hard time figuring out who could write recommendation letters for me since I've been out of touch with my college professors for so long. I'm also pretty sure my undergrad GPA was lower than 3.0 -- does that kill my chances at UVA?

JayTee said...

Hey Lisa,

I think the advantage you have is that you are planning 3 years in advance. That's time to try to sign up for some workshops so you can polish up your writing sample and work with the workshop leaders on getting reference letters. I know UVA Continuing Education often has writing workshops. Also, someone told me about the Writer's House in Charlottesville. If having a toddler makes getting to a workshop difficult, there are online options. Two that come to mind: Stanford Extension & Gotham Writer's Workshop. I've heard mixed reviews on online workshops and didn't take them myself.

Also, maybe you've done some volunteering and/or been employed. This could be an option for a letter. I think they just want to know that you wouldn't be crazy in workshop and give the program trouble. Reference letters (from what I hear) are like 3rd on the list of what they look at behind the writing sample and your personal statement.

GPA doesn't matter. GRE doesn't matter. Nontraditional doesn't matter. Your writing sample is what really matters. Try your best to blow them away!

Lisa J. said...

JT, thank you so much for your answer! I'm sort of agonizing over this decision, so any encouragement I can get means the world to me right now. My problem is that as a stay-at-home mom I have zero money for workshops or classes, so that's going to be a problem. I teach piano on the side but it's hard to find students, so we're broke. I just plan on working my butt off to get some good writing done in the next three years and see what happens. I'll apply to VCU as well, but I'm really hoping for UVA! Luckily my husband is very supportive of this decision and my two-year-old said "Do it, Mama! Do it do it do it!" I'm going to pretend that's a sign, even though he has no idea what I'm talking about.