2015, Archives, November 2015, The MFA Years

Navigating the MFA Application Process: An Interview With Ishelle Payer

Image: Sarah Murray

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

I applied to ten programs in total. While it was pricey—well, because it was so pricey—I went for broke, reasoning that I couldn’t afford another round of applications, so I had better hedge my bets.

I was lucky enough that one of my recommenders was willing to sit down and help me to compile and revise my list. Step one was listing the writers that I most wanted to study with, while step two was narrowing down the list of writers to those with appointments at well-funded programs. Step three was shortening the list to the programs and locations we could actually see me thriving in.

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

Given my tendency toward writing very short fiction, I was nervous about sample length, especially given that samples are often limited to one to two stories. That said, the sample that I sent to UO consisted of two stories at a total of twelve pages and here I am, proof that there was something to my recommender’s advice when she said to send my best work, regardless of length or whatever preconceptions exist regarding what a particular program is looking for. You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to guess what someone else wants. Instead, focus on what you know, which is what pieces you’ve written best show your range and promise and speak to the things that interest you as a writer.

I sent longer samples where the inclusion of multiple stories was permitted, again, just trying to hedge my bets. In hindsight, I suspect that brevity is next to Godliness as far as MFA applications go.

Best moment of the application process? Worst moment?

Remember that list of writing faculty that I’d made? The person at the top of that list emailed me with an offer of acceptance…and later had to inform me that what limited funding was available had already been offered and accepted by other applicants. I don’t doubt that I ultimately landed in the right place, but I may still be licking my wounds awhile yet.

What tips do you have for applicants?

When considering a program, look at the work being produced by faculty and alumni. Don’t look at the awards; judge it for yourself. If the work coming out of a program doesn’t excite you, then that’s not the program for you. Seek out the people who inspire you to create.


Ishelle Payer is a graduate of the University of California at Davis Creative Writing Program and is currently enrolled in the creative writing Program at the University of Oregon.

If you’re a current student or a recent graduate of a creative writing program and are interested in being interviewed, visit our submissions page.

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