2015, Archives, March 2015, The MFA Years

Making The Right (MFA) Choice

Just more than a year ago, I was invited to – and attended – an open house at Stony Brook University’s Manhattan campus to learn more about their MFA program. Just more than a week ago, I attended their 2015 open house, but this time as a first year student. Standing there chatting with the newly admitted – although many still undecided – students, my cohort and I couldn’t help discussing how much our lives had changed in the past twelve months.

We are all now into our second semester, have several courses under our belt (and on the transcripts) and are even starting to discuss what we might be working on for our final thesis. We’re busy making plans for the fall course load and comparing notes on favorite professors and the many options and opportunities ahead.

Amid the wine and squares of cheese, I also found myself thinking about 2011-application season when I’d first applied to the MFA program at Hunter College but didn’t get accepted. Truth is, Hunter didn’t accept me in 2014 either, so I’m now convinced that it simply wasn’t a good match, and that’s just fine.

But the first time around, it hurt. A lot. I felt like maybe I was lying to myself about the prospect of making writing a major part of my life. I’d always loved to write but I’d never felt close to making a commitment to it. I had already shaped a career for myself with the United Nations, one that I could keep until retirement, so why rock the boat?

Looking back, I think that probably I wasn’t ready in 2011 and no doubt my application reflected that. And, of course, everyone under the New York sun applies to Hunter because it is the least expensive program going, with excellent faculty, but they only accept about a dozen students each year so the odds are steep. In fact, in class the other night, one of our program directors told us that getting into an MFA program is actually incredibly difficult and that, apparently, getting into a fully funded program is statistically harder than getting into med-school. Which is a relief since I never got into med school either. Well, I never actually tried to go to med school, but I digress.

Bringing us back to my 2014 applications, Stony Brook was the first school to respond and the first to offer me an acceptance and, ultimately, where I am now a student. A lot had changed in the years between my attempts at MFA programs, but what changed the most was that I had matured as a writer and was clear on why I wanted to study writing more in-depth. I worked for months on my applications and fine-tuned my statement of purpose until I could nearly recite it from memory. And it worked. I was accepted to five out of the six schools I applied to. Hunter still didn’t want me, but that’s okay. The others did.

In the interim between my application years, I left my 20-year career and completely changed my life. I went from a comfortable salary to an annual budget of less than what I used to earn in three months. I had some savings and then downsized, sold things, took on a variety of jobs and made writing my priority. I committed first to myself as a writer and found ways to write regularly, meet other writers and become a part of a writing community on my own. It was only then, I believe, that I was really ready to apply again and seriously undertake the challenge of spending 2-3 years working towards an MFA.

Once accepted, my process of narrowing down which school to attend forced me to focus on a few key factors: logistics, practicality and best investment. First, I had to come to terms with the fact that it wasn’t the right moment to move back to California so with a lot of anguish, I said no to three schools in my home state and focused on New York where I’ve been living for over ten years. Hunter took itself off my list, so that was easy, and that left Stony Brook and The Writer’s Foundry at St. Joseph’s, walking distance from my house. Very tempting. And they offered me some funding. Very VERY tempting.

Both programs looked terrific and I’m certain that I would have been happy either way, but in the end, I chose Stony Brook because they have a longer history and their faculty is deeply entrenched in the world of writing and publishing. In the final rounds of decision-making, I put on my business hat and thought about what would serve me the best in the long run; which school would help me make the best contacts that might prove useful throughout my writing career. It feels a bit crass even to say that, but that’s the truth. In the end I had to be realistic and think about what was the best investment of my time and money. Two years, maybe three, is a long time and I wanted to be sure I’d come out with something truly useful in the end.

And so my friends, if you’re in that position now, of having the wonderful challenge of picking which program, I hope these thoughts are helpful. At the end of the day, we can all write with or without an MFA, but it is an investment in ourselves so we should make sure we’re getting the best value for our future.

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