2015, Archives, August 2015, The MFA Years

The Process is the Point

Image: moominsean

I got an email from Interfolio today. My subscription is set to expire in three days, so a year minus three days, I got serious about applying to MFAs. When you put money down, you get serious, at least when you live close to the poverty line. The irony is I never logged onto Interfolio after paying. Lesson learnt. Mistake number one. But I’m not much of a tech person, I remember renting VCR tapes, learning Spanish on cassette, highlighting encyclopedias. So I learned the expensive way, Interfolio was not for me, although it sounded good, because it fed on my biggest application fear: organization.

This is what I did, not to say it is the best way, but I did get one acceptance and three wait lists out of seven or nine applications. See I don’t even how many applications were even fully completed. I applied to and paid the fee for UNLV and then they never even sent an email. I feel like suing them. Being ignored is worse than being rejected. Furthermore, I didn’t get my transcript sent in time for Alabama; probably aided my rejection. Organization is not my forte.

As for research, I am far from being an expert, but there are many resources out there and they’re easy to find. MFA draft on Facebook, Seth Abramson’s thorough blog, Poet’s and Writers. You can even pay advisors or take courses. The information is there and not hard to find and if you really want into an MFA you will get there with discipline and patience, maybe not the first year applying, but eventually. So chin up, dear reader.

The GRE is hell, yes, expensive hell. I scored horribly twice. I was educated without standardized tests. My math skills and attention span are grade three. I was even surprised with how low my language and writing scores were, and yet just by completing the test, I felt I was one step closer. Get it out of the way early and forget about it. Or don’t do it and start choosing your program accordingly. The GRE is over-priced ridiculousness, so maybe that says something about the bureaucracy of the programs that require it. On the other hand, if you are an ace in computer based exams, it can only help your odds.

My recommendation letters came fast and easy. I emailed and then called three friends: an ex-employer at a language school who also writes, a TV producer who had directed one of my plays and a colleague where I once held an adjunct position. One of the benefits of being an older applicant is that your friends are established and know your work. I kept in touch with them throughout the process and all of my letters got there in time. The programs are very good at reminding, sometimes their letters arrived before my application. Choose someone you know well and are not afraid to hound, or even better, someone that will hound you.

Choosing samples was not as easy. We all have a thousand stories and a million poems and no one knows which are best. All I can say is, after you chose, copy edit like Chekov. I read my two stories aloud at least thirty times. Tinkering, tweaking, triple checking commas, colons, quotation marks. I sent the sample to friends and my recommenders and had workshopped them prior. Only you know your story, but a third, fifth, fifteenth eye, will do wonders for copy. Another word, don’t change without a solid reason halfway through the application process. Okay, if you think one specific member of the selection committee might like a certain piece, fine, page-counts and formatting changes, but the process of finding your best foot to put forward is tantamount to submitting.

The personal statement, or SOP was time consuming and filled me with doubt and dread. I found samples online and read as many as possible. I wrote a lengthy brainstorm and even paid 100 bucks for “pro” help, which gave me confidence, but wasn’t really worth the money. Cutting it down was grueling. Once again my recommenders proof-read and offered solid advice. Like everything else, only you know what you want and why you are doing it, so tell the truth in your own voice, then copy-edit as much as possible. Obviously, tailor each one to the program you are applying to, look at the faculty, their mission, their work, be serious and professional.          

As for choosing schools, I went funding, location, program and worked my way down the list. I actually enjoyed the process, but eventually was limited by time. Say two hours a day for a month. Go to the program websites, read the director’s message, if you have time read some of the faculty’s writing. MFA draft was a good source for questions that couldn’t be answered officially. In fact, I just met the super cool woman who posted in Draft about UNM. She changed my life.

Transcripts were expensive and slow, perhaps because I am an international. Finding a fax machine in remote Brazil required a day-long bus-ride, so god bless my mother, she helped.

To sum up, if you want it, you will get it, maybe not the one you want, when you want but love the one you are with, right? The decision to apply is greater then the application. If you are just graduated from something and have doubts, don’t do it. Travel, get a job, save money, write, self-study, read, travel. If you have any doubts at all about being attached to an institution, just don’t. If you find the process fills you with bureaucratic rage, then you haven’t been out of it for long enough. On the flip side, if you want time and space and a supportive community to write, always have and want nothing else, then get right in there, but please don’t go into debt. Debt is the devil.

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