When I applied to graduate school, I thought I wouldn’t get in. I thought I would apply, receive my rejections, and continue the life that I was living. I had just gotten a job in publishing after several months of internships, and I lived with my partner of eight years by a trio of lakes in a nice, quiet neighborhood in Minneapolis. I attended readings at the Loft and local coffee shops. I made connections and friends in the publishing world as well as friends in the local, literary community. I had a nice life, and I thought I would continue living it. I thought I would still wake up and see Matt’s face every day. I thought I would still run around the lake and see people with their dogs. I thought I would continue strengthening my relationships with people I came to know and cared for. But that’s the thing about making plans; sometimes you follow them and sometimes they just don’t pan out how you expected.
I applied for graduate school because, after a year of applying for publishing jobs, I was always rejected. Maybe it was a sign that I should return to writing. Maybe this was the time to write. This decision to apply for graduate school was a moment, and I didn’t think of the three-dimensional concept of time, and how a decision, which felt small in some ways, would expand and actually expect me to leave the life that I had built, fresh roots in new soil, for three years. I had just moved to Minneapolis two years before. Do you know how long it took for me to actually feel happy in the city? One year. One whole year. And here I was, making this monumental decision without really considering the consequences, actively seeking to uproot myself once more and make things hard. I had forgotten so easily how hard it was to start over.
I don’t want to whine and complain too much. I just wanted to let you know that South Carolina isn’t home yet, and I’m unsure of when it will be. There was a first cool day this weekend, extending into Sunday, and I felt hopeful. I was hoping it was the shift in seasons, that it would be cool this day forward. But I doubt it. I haven’t looked at the weather forecast, but I’ve heard that South Carolina stays hot well into September.
It’s strange because it’s already been more than a year ago that I applied. That I made this huge decision without considering the consequences. I was ecstatic when I got accepted, moving up from the waitlist, into two schools. I applied to six and my process for applying was very simple and very thorough. PW.org used to put out this list of the top 50 MFA programs. The list had rankings for funding, size of incoming class, cost of living, faculty, etc. They don’t put it out anymore, but I started my search here because my poetry professor, the one who believed in me and convinced me to switch from fiction to poetry, gave me some valuable advice before I graduated.
Some people may disagree with this and there are other things to consider. But she told me not to go to a program that didn’t almost fully or fully fund me. That a school and faculty should believe in my work enough to pay for me to go to school to work on my craft. And that stayed with me. When I asked her if I should accept a job or apply to graduate school right after my undergrad, she advised me to take the job. That was a pivotal decision. Taking several years off and getting some job experience was the best thing I could do for myself as a person and as a writer. It gave me some time and distance from the world of academia. I had been in school for sixteen years at that point, and it was time for something different. I’m grateful that I took the job. Now, I have some publishing experience and the time ahead in graduate school will give me teaching experience.
Back to the PW.org list. I figured out which schools almost or fully funded. I decided where I could stand to live. I wanted to write for three years. I also read samples of each faculty’s work at each school on that list to see who I wanted to work with. Then I chose two schools closer to the top (“dream” schools), three in the middle, and one towards the bottom. Here is where I applied:
- University of Wisconsin in Madison
- University of Minnesota
- University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign
- Purdue University
- University of Wyoming
- University of South Carolina
I was rejected from the first four schools. I was waitlisted and then accepted at the University of Wyoming and the University of South Carolina. I was very anxious while waiting to hear back, but at the same time relieved because I was finished putting together applications. It was nice to intern during the day and then have the leisure to work on applications during the evenings and on the weekends. I made sure to ask for cover letters several months in advance and I drafted a personal statement early on so that I would have plenty of time to revise.
This is my advice on applying to graduate school. First, take some time off from undergraduate. Travel, do an internship, get a job, get several jobs, visit your friends who have moved to other cities for jobs and schools. Give yourself distance from the experience of being in school, so you can fully appreciate returning. Life experience shapes you as a person and the more experience you have, the more you realize what you want out of it and the more you realize what you want from school and what to study.
Second, from that job, save some money. Application fees and transcript fees add up. But the real costs come when you’re planning to move halfway across the country (which is what I did), or move at all.
Third, realize the gravity of your decision. This isn’t a thing you decide on a whim. It’s a conscious choice to take a break from “real” life and dedicate years to your writing, and you may be away from the people you love and the places you called home for those years.
I am going to miss my partner. We’re doing long-distance and it’s been a combination of rough and okay so far. I also have no immediate or extended family in this part of the country, and I’ve always been within driving distance of them before. I am a stranger in this place; I don’t love South Carolina and South Carolina doesn’t love me back. But people have been reassuring me that they’ve grown to love Columbia and their program, so I’m hoping I’ll feel the same way in time.