Photo Credit: Cassandra Leigh Gotto
I remember very well the stress of applying for MFA programs, both in 2012-2013 and last application season. The first time around, I stressed over factors like rankings, funding, etc. — info fairly easily gleaned from national charts and faculty pages. I ended up applying to something like ten or twelve schools. The second time around, I was more focused on applying for full-time jobs and only ended up applying to the two schools that seemed to “fit” me best, schools with small cohorts, generous support, and in locations where I’d either know someone or large enough that I could easily find a supportive community. If I didn’t get in, oh well. I didn’t have the money to apply to so many programs all over again (and really, I didn’t have it in 2012, either), and to be honest, the feeling of being rejected so many times in one season was too much. I found myself saying, “Oh, I didn’t want to go there anyway,” to make myself feel better. If I didn’t want to go there anyway, why did I apply in the first place? So by the second time I applied, I was brutally realistic with myself: there were only two or three programs that felt “right” for me, so I would only apply to those. If I didn’t get in, tough. I treated the process as I would treat submitting a piece for publication: I did some research, submitted, then forced myself to put it in the back of my mind and focus on what was happening in my life (like, you know, writing my rhetoric thesis).
But how do you figure out “fit”?
A few weeks ago, our program director forwarded on an email from an applicant asking for some insight into our new nonfiction program. I realized after our email exchange how useful the applicant’s questions (and my responses) might be to others, so I received permission to share them with you here. FYI, I’ve decided to keep the applicant anonymous.
Q: I am interested in applying to the Wash U CNF track for next fall. I was wondering if you could briefly reflect on your time at Wash U in the CNF track — I know it’s new and will grow next year. How has the program impacted your writing thus far? How exactly are the workshops currently conducted?
Our cohort is fabulously welcoming; I have a lot of experience with workshops, and the ones I’ve had here have been the best in my life. Right now there are three of us in the genre, and we’ll be adding three more next fall. All three of us are women in our mid to late twenties and are working on very distinct but incredibly exciting longer projects. Our current workshop environment may not be entirely indicative of what’s to come, since it will be the only semester we’ll have such a small class. Next semester, we’re letting in students from other genres (with manuscript approval).
Q: Do you feel like the Wash U MFA cohort is a welcoming and supportive community?
The faculty support is fantastic–not just in the genre, but from the other genre instructors as well. They are dedicated to helping you figure out your voice, your projects. The courses are very demanding, but it helps that we are all fully funded without a teaching commitment in the first year and a 1/1 teaching load (intro to creative writing) in the second. We also have a visiting author program in which awesome professional writers come and work with us individually for a few days.
Q: [Others have] said the cost of living [in St. Louis] was low enough that the stipend felt more or less generous — does it strike you that way?
Cost of living is quite low, but it can vary by neighborhood. My partner and I have chosen to live in an apartment complex affiliated with the university because it’s within walking distance to school, but others live elsewhere. We run about $900 a month including parking, washer/dryer, pet friendly, air conditioning. It’s pretty modern. Others find cheaper — in other neighborhoods you can get 1000 square feet for $800-$850 or so. Utilities and groceries are cheap as well. Depends of course where you’re coming from, but our stipend comes out to be about $2k a month (minus taxes), so it works out well.
Q: As for the [literary] magazine, were you able to sort of dive in and volunteer for the editing position or was there some sort of election process?
I was really interested in getting involved in a literary magazine, since I’d done it before, so I’m glad I asked about it even though there wasn’t official information about one anywhere online. Fortunately for me, it was their first year of publication, so I came in at the right time. To be honest, I sort of stumbled into the position. The staff is dedicated and welcoming, a they’re always looking for volunteers. I imagine eventually they’ll do a sort of election process once we’re a little more established, but probably not in the immediate future.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given during your own application process? Best advice you gave?