2017, Archives, March 2017, The MFA Years

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

Image: Nate Steiner

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 was working at a dead-end job when I applied to MFA programs, and the applications were my respite from a toxic workplace. I didn’t stress about my applications too much and I tried not to think about when I would hear back. I just got lost in the words and in the obsession with getting my voice on the page. I was really proud of my writing by the end of the application period.

Once I submitted all of my applications, I felt adrift. So I tried to find light in the darkness as much as I could. I like to cook, so I did that a lot. I took the dog for long walks on my lunch breaks and when I got home from work. Most importantly, I continued reading and revising the poems in my portfolio. A big part of my desire for an MFA was that I wanted to move past brief flirtations with words. I had loved to write poems for a few years but there was always a time crunch because of school, work or both. This was my chance for a more serious relationship with reading and writing!

I stayed away from Gradcafe, MFA Draft, etc. I don’t have much of a social media presence to begin with and this seemed like the wrong time to start one.

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

Honestly, most of what I learned about applying was either self-taught or learned through Google searches and reading The MFA Years. Reading archives of MFA Years articles helped give me an idea of what MFA life was like at different schools. I needed that perspective. I didn’t know anyone who had gone for an MFA or even considered it, except for a few of my professors.

The best advice I received was a couple years before I applied. It was my first semester at Rutgers-New Brunswick after I transferred in with my Associate’s degree. I wanted to write more poems so I signed up for an intro to poetry workshop. This was my first real workshop class. We had to write poems and the occasional essay. Sometimes our essays were based in poems assigned by the professor, but other times they were more personal. I worked really hard in the class, but most of the other students didn’t. One night the professor asked me to come to his office after class.

He pulled out my essay—a few pages about how I had stumbled into writing poems a few years back amidst anger and loss and now spent hours on craft, not catharsis—and said, “I wanted to let you know I see a lot of me in your story.” I still remember the excitement in his voice as he encouraged me: “This could be your life.” “You could do what I do someday.” He mentioned that he had gotten his MFA after finishing college in his late twenties. That was the first time I ever heard the acronym MFA. We lost touch within a year or so, but the first seedling was planted in my mind.

I had one undergraduate professor talk with me about the MFA the spring before I applied. Some of his info was slightly outdated, but he was encouraging and gave me an awareness of fully-funded programs.

I had a third professor who advised me not to apply for an MFA, but to write my poems while pursuing the PhD. I should have seen that one coming because that’s the path he took. These words became motivating in a different way. I kept them in my head as I revised and rewrote my personal statements and portfolio pieces dozens if not hundreds of times.

Biggest high? Biggest low?

I’ve had a lot of great moments in my life, from graduating college after years of struggles to the day my wife and I were married. But the moment on a Friday afternoon last February when I saw a missed call from a number I didn’t recognize, only to listen to the voicemail and hear a poet at Rutgers-Camden whose work I read and admired saying, “Craig, we love your work and want to offer you admission.”

That is very, very high on my list of jubilations. I had confidence in my poems but I knew the odds. I figured I would be lucky to get an acceptance from one school. I eventually got acceptances from more than one school, but you never forget your first.

I capped off the triumph by posting an anonymous comment on The MFA Years acceptance page and giving two weeks’ notice at my dead-end job. What a great week that was.

The biggest low was finding out in late April that a family member had a recurrence of a serious illness. This was awful news and it only got worse. Her health continued to decline until her passing from this earth in September.

So my MFA decision and journey, this triumph and joy, became trivial for quite a while. To a certain extent, it still is. Everything pales in comparison to grappling with life’s biggest questions. But my first MFA year has been a cathartic experience in a way I might not have predicted a year ago.

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

I applied to multiple schools where my poems were not a good fit. This was because I ran into a time crunch between work, life and applications. I wanted to send 10 applications out into the MFA world. I accomplished that goal but my research methods were imprecise at best. Graduate school felt like an alien world to me! It was so hard to figure out where to apply to, how to get good information and what factors to weigh beyond diversity and funding.

In hindsight, I did not apply to the 10 best schools for my work or for me as a person. Maybe only 3 or 4 of them fit me really well.

I wouldn’t change anything about my application process. My MFA program is the right fit for me. But I got very lucky for that to happen.

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