2015, Archives, November 2015, The MFA Years

Navigating the MFA Application Process: An Interview With Emily Corwin

Image: Steven W.

How many programs did you apply to? How did you narrow your list down?

I applied to nine schools: Alabama, Notre Dame, Indiana, Virginia, Temple, Syracuse, Mississippi, Vanderbilt, Cornell. My list was determined mainly by funding—nearly all the programs that I chose were fully-funded—and also by geography. The Midwest has been home to me since always—growing up in Michigan and then living in Ohio for school. There was a comfort in staying here, but I also felt intrigued by the East Coast and by the South especially. My significant other is from Alabama and I think, by proxy, it felt familiar to me. At the end of the day, though, my top choices were located in the Midwest. It came down to practicalities: I needed funding, I wanted an easy move, and to not to be far from my family.

How did you approach your sample? Did you submit the same one to every program?

I sent work that, primarily, excited me. I sent work that I had crafted over months, with precision and care. I sent work that was pleasure for me, on the page and to read aloud. The poems that I sent were playful with form on the page and they were excerpts of longer sequences, not individually titled. I asked my advisors if they thought sending poems like this would okay, and they said, “Good writing is good writing. A program will be able to recognize that.”

I did “play it safe” though in some regards. During application season last year, I was playing with more fragmentary form, poems that were sonic rather than narrative-based. And while I was eager to share this really fresh work, I recognized that more polished poems, poems with clarity and some kind of narrative thread—this would be the safer bet. I generally sent the same packet to programs—the first half the packet included excerpts from one sequence, the second other half devoted to the other.

Best moment of the application process? Worst moment?

The best moment was when I got the call from Indiana. I had actually missed the call because I was in a thesis meeting with my advisor. We were in a coffee shop and as I left, I rummaged for my phone and saw the unfamiliar number. I assumed it was one of those telemarketing calls! And when I listened to the voicemail, then I thought, this must be an April Fool’s joke, because it was April 1st and I was incredulous. Then, I called Alyce Miller back and I giggled, I squealed upon hearing her voice and the confirmation—yes, it was true, I was in. I skipped down the street, I was so thrilled and grateful.

Worst moment was maybe from the week before, when I received the rejection from Notre Dame. I was on the short waitlist, and I had my hopes up to work with Joyelle McSweeney and to get an inside look at Action Books. They publish such amazing translations and the work of so many killer poets—Lara Glenum, Kim Hyesoon, Aase Berg. But it was not meant to be! Indiana’s MFA, in the long run, is a better match for me, I see that now. The three year program, the emphasis on teaching, the writing community in Bloomington—it’s a good fit! I know it’s corny (no pun intended), but I already feel at home here. I am smitten with this town—the coffee shops, the farmer’s market, the gorgeous campus, and all of my fellow MFAs. Such kindness and comfort and wonderful work being done.

What tips do you have for applicants?

  1. Send a writing sample that you care about.  Send work that reflects something fundamental to you—your nature, your obsessions.
  2. Start early on the personal statement—give yourself more than enough time to craft exactly what you’d like to say.  I would recommend starting statement drafts a couple months before the deadlines, even terrible drafts.  Just get something on paper and play with it over time, whenever you have a spare moment.  When you do apply, it’s reassuring to know that you sat with this document a good while, that it is in the best shape it can be.
  3. Take care of yourself.  Application season is a demanding time—make time to decompress.  Go for walks, get coffee with friends, see a movie.  I remember the instant regret that I would feel after spending $70 on an application—I am not going to be accepted, what I just sent was certainly not good enough, why did I just spend all that money, this is a waste of time.  I would dwell on my decisions, I was hard on myself.  I know how difficult it is to “forget” about your applications, but it can be unhealthy to fixate on what’s going to happen.  What’s done is done—all you can do is continue to live your life.  Be patient with the process and most importantly, be kind to yourself.


Emily Corwin is a Midwestern girl who loves all things pretty and spooky. She is currently an MFA candidate for poetry at Indiana University in Bloomington. Her writing has appeared in Word Riot, Midwestern Gothic, Split Rock Review, The Rain, Party, & Disaster Society, and Bluestem Magazine. Recently, her chapbook, My Tall Handsome, was selected for the Mineral Point Chapbook Series from Brain Mill Press and will be published in Spring 2016.

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