Caitlin Neely Introduction (University of Virginia ’16)

University of Virginia building
Image: Bob Mical

I started writing poetry when I was 12, but I didn’t begin pursuing it seriously until I took my first creative writing workshop my sophomore year of college. I guess that’s where my MFA journey started. I decided to complete my honors capstone a year early so I could have a chapbook-length portfolio of poems to submit for applications to creative writing MFAs. While I was working on my capstone during my junior year, I went back and forth between applying and not applying. After I was given the opportunity to give two different poetry readings at my university, I finally made up my mind—I was going to apply for an MFA in creative writing.

I applied to 11 creative writing programs in total: Miami University (MA), Saint’s Mary’s College, Chatham University, Bowling Green State University, University of Cincinnati (MA), West Virginia University, University of Virginia, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Ohio State University, University of Michigan, and Syracuse University.

For my statement of purpose, I wrote about how the lessons and skills I’d learned in improv classes changed my poetry and revision process for the better. In retrospect, it was a good choice and a good hook to open up with; more interesting than talking about when I fell in love with writing (I don’t think I can pinpoint this moment anyway).

I agonized over my writing sample (don’t we all?). I write nature-centered poetry that is incredibly short and lyric. And when I say short I mean my poems are normally around five to eight lines long. I think the longest poem in my sample was 15 lines. At first I was worried about showing enough range, so I included a page-long poem and a couple of form poems. However, I ended up replacing them shortly before submitting my apps. I didn’t feel right submitting poems simply because I was worried about pigeonholing myself as a writer. It was a chance I was okay with taking. I wanted to submit writing I would be proud to stand behind and defend.

My waiting period was full of ups and downs, and a few surprises. I left the Draft ’14 Facebook group for a few days after I wasn’t accepted into a program I’d had my heart set on since junior year. I spent the good part of that weekend sulking and binge-watching House of Cards, but two days later I got a call from Miami, and I had my first fully funded offer. At AWP I approached the director of a program I was waiting to hear from and introduced myself. She recognized my name and told me I’d be getting an acceptance call soon. I had two waitlist letters waiting for me when I landed in Cincinnati, one from the aforementioned program and another from a program I’d written off months earlier as a likely rejection.

Somewhere in there I received rejections from Syracuse, Ohio State, and Michigan. You learn pretty quickly to just forget about the rejections, to move on as fast as possible. I can’t remember when I received them, but I know I did.

In late March I was on three waitlists and had three acceptances. I got my last waitlist notification from the University of Virginia. I was talking with UIUC around the same time and receiving updates about my position on their waiting list. It was a stressful time, but it was also very rewarding talking with students and professors from different programs.

I knew UVA was the right place for me when I emailed questions to four current students and received informative, enthusiastic replies from all of them within hours; what they said in those emails helped me make my decision. When I received an offer a couple of weeks later, I accepted. My last notification was an acceptance from Bowling Green. It was nice ending the application season on a high note.

If I could give any sort of advice it would be to put the phone and laptop down and enjoy yourself. I thought my last semester of undergrad would keep me busy and away from any worry, but it didn’t. Also, this process will probably get the best of you at some point, but that’s completely normal. It’s okay to feel anxious, to cry, and to feel like you have no chance of getting in anywhere. No matter what happens, you have to remember it’s fine to feel these things, but it’s not fine to let them take over your life. Your rejections, waitlists, and acceptances do not define you.

Since this post doesn’t feel enough like an introduction, I’ll leave you with a few things I love besides poetry: Cincinnati, Sutton Foster, baseball, television, pop culture, rhetoric and composition, medieval literature, Sondheim, and ballet.

Best!

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