2016, Archives, March 2016, The MFA Years

So You’re Waiting to Hear Back from MFA Programs: Post Application Advice With Cady Vishniac

Image credit: Photosteve101

For the next two months we’ll be asking some of our first year contributors to talk about the post application period and how they dealt with it last year.

What did you do to get through the post application period?

I got through the post-application season by having a child, multiple jobs, a credit overload, and two honors theses. Between teaching my kid to pee in the potty, tutoring first-year comp for my undergrad, copyediting a newspaper, two graduate courses, four undergraduate courses, a twenty-five-page chapbook of flash creative nonfiction, and a hundred-page exploration of how copyeditors at the Associated Press chose between the phrases “Native American” and “American Indian,” my hands were full.

So this is the best advice I have to give. Just throw yourself into real life as hard as you can, until there are zero hours in a day you can devote to panicking.

What’s the best piece of advice you received about applying?

The best piece of advice I received about applying was that the process isn’t random. Some people might find this depressing, because if you don’t get into your top schools, then that might mean you did something wrong! But here’s how I look at it. Things being random robs you of control. Some talented people will always have trouble getting into top MFAs because of their horrible undergrad transcripts or busy lives or inability to write a good statement no matter how hard they try or inability to find a writing community where they can meet recommenders or . . . you get the idea. That’s totally a real thing, and has happened to writers I respect. But these are exceptions. Most of us are empowered by a distinct lack of randomness. Most of us can and should change things about the samples we sent in.

So when I heard that the process wasn’t random, it made me feel good. It made me feel in control. It made me feel like: “If I don’t get in anywhere this year, there’s always next year, and next year I will know what to do.”

Biggest high? Biggest low?

The biggest high was being offered a multi-year fellowship. I applied very early on in my writing career, after having tossed out a couple of short stories for a semester or two, and it was important to me to have more time to find my voice.

The biggest low was when I realized my boyfriend and I would have to live apart, because although we had each been accepted or waitlisted to a majority of our schools, neither of us had been accepted to the same school! No lie, this was so frustrating I was walking around ready to scream for months. How profoundly unfair that we’d have this kind of bad luck. And yet we’ve managed. Even these kind of major lows are things you can bounce back from. Human beings are so flexible and resilient and strong, not getting ideal grad school results shouldn’t break anyone. You’ll make it eventually.

What would you do differently if you could apply all over again?

If I could apply all over again, I wouldn’t. I would wait at least another year, probably go get an MA in creative writing. I’m painfully aware now that while one of my stories was pretty strong (it’s won the Alexander Cappon Prize at New Letters since then), my other was kind of weak. I had only been writing for under a year, and was throwing together all these applications while I was sleep-deprived and overwhelmed and couldn’t think straight. I don’t think I really hit my stride as a writer until this past winter, after my first semester of grad school had already come and gone.

I was so driven though; we both were. My boyfriend had just finished his MA, and he felt like he was losing out to people who’d gone straight to PhDs from undergrad. I was set to finish undergrad in three years, but I also felt like it was impossible to make up for all that lost time. I was already twenty-nine, you see, and I spent every waking minute being furious with myself for the fact that I hadn’t earned my BA seven years earlier. It lit this totally unproductive fire under my ass. I just absolutely needed to go to grad school right away, so I could catch up with where I thought I was supposed to be in my life, where I was sure I would be if I hadn’t spent my early twenties making all the terrible decisions. And my sister had recently said some really nasty stuff to me about what a loser I was for still being in school, for needing our parents’ help to pay for daycare for my kid, for my divorce, and that hurt so terribly. I was like, “I have to get into a fully funded program immediately, to get revenge on my sibling.” Which I realize now was not a good reason!

So I’m happy to be here, but also, I should maybe have waited. Not waiting was this decision driven by angst and pain and fear and low self-esteem and feeling bullied by my family member, and I happened to get unbelievably lucky with the not-waiting and place into a couple good programs. I don’t know, it’s complicated. Just give yourself all the time you need. Be gentle with yourself. You’ll be fine.

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