2017, Archives, October 2017, The MFA Years

On applying

Photo: Bryan Jones

I was going to write a post about my first month at Michener, but since I’ve been getting a bunch of application-related questions from people on Draft, I thought it might be helpful to do an ‘applying to MFAs’ post. A version of this post appeared previously on my own blog, so feel free to ignore it if you’ve seen it before. If not, I hope it’s helpful for you as you put your applications together!

There are a wealth of resources on Creative Writing MFAs online, plus if you’re reading The MFA Years, I’m guessing you’re already well aware of the basics (e.g. don’t go into debt for an MFA, admission rates to top programs are <1% so apply to 10-13 schools if you can, it’s all about the writing sample, start early, etc). So I’ll focus more on my own thought process and subjective experience. Major caveat that anyone reading this should take it as just another datapoint. I’m not purporting to preach the truth / tell you whether you should do an MFA / tell you how to get into a program / etc. I’ll just try to share my personal take on some commonly asked questions.

1) Why do an MFA?  Variants: Do I need an MFA to be a writer? (no) Will I be forced to write in the MFA ‘style’? (hopefully not)

The eternal debate rages on (see here, here, here…). For me, it came down to feeling like I wasn’t improving as quickly as I’d like to be and wanting to be able to work on my writing full time. I started writing fiction about 3 years ago, in secret, in solitude, and in that time learnt to write as anyone does — producing terrible, soul-destroying, fist-in-mouth-cringeworthy first drafts, trying to make them less terrible, sharing them with my partner and closest friends and hoping they’d still love me, getting feedback from said partner and closest friends and subsequently wallowing in self loathing and believing that they did indeed hate me, writing second drafts, third drafts, fourth drafts, etc. I submitted stories to journals, was rejected, rewrote, was rejected again (166 times to be exact), but eventually started getting personal notes from editors with the rejections, and eventually some of those rejections miraculously turned into acceptances.

Despite the ever pervasive self loathing, I had the vague, exciting sense that my writing was improving. I started to work harder, waking up earlier before going to the office each day to write, blowing off my already non-existent social life, bugging my partner for even more feedback. I joined a writing Meetup group. I took a night class at Faber Academy. I took time off work, booking remote AirBnBs over long weekends for DIY writing retreats. The more I threw myself into it, the more my obsession grew, and along with it my impatience. I felt increasingly frustrated — I didn’t have enough time to write with my full time job, wasn’t getting enough feedback, didn’t have any consistent mentorship. The decision to apply to MFA programs was driven by this frustration, this feeling that what I was doing wasn’t enough. I wanted more time, more community, more mentorship. 2-3 years of funded time to focus on my writing sounded like absolute heaven to me.

2) Which programs to apply to? Variants: What are the ‘top’ programs? Should I pay for my MFA?

The prevailing wisdom is that one shouldn’t go into debt to do an MFA, and I 100% agree. That said, maybe money isn’t an issue for some, and in that case places like Columbia and NYU are obviously fantastic programs if you can swing $50k tuition a year. I focused my attention on fully funded programs (this is an excellent resource). As it was my first year applying, I aimed for some pretty competitive fully funded programs. My logic was that if I didn’t get in anywhere, I could always apply again next year — given admissions rates are <1% at many top programs, it’s pretty common to apply multiple times before getting accepted.

I ended up applying to 11 schools: Michigan, Michener, Iowa, Syracuse, Cornell, NYU, Hunter, Johns Hopkins, Rutgers-Newark, UVA, Indiana. My main criteria for picking schools were: 1) Fully-funded (NYU does not fully fund everyone, but it does offer it for some–I ended up getting the Writers In Public Schools Fellowship, which did provide full funding); 2) International/diverse faculty (sadly difficult to find); 3) Studio programs (vs. more academic, literature-oriented programs); 4) Writers I <3 on faculty; 5) ‘Prestige’ (whatever it means, but from what I gather, Iowa, Michener and Michigan fall into this bracket). There were loads of other factors but these were the main ones for me, and obviously everyone has their own priorities, be it geography, teaching experience, interdisciplinary opportunities, lit journal work experience, etc.

3) How to get in? Variants: Do I need to take the GRE? (if you want to apply to Michener then sadly yes) Does my college GPA matter? (word on the street is a resounding no) What do I write in my SOP? (I have no pithy answer for this)

I was stunned, overjoyed and grateful to be admitted to several programs — Michener, Iowa, Johns Hopkins, NYU, Indiana, Rutgers-Newark. I was also waitlisted at Michigan, one of my top choices (alas, it was not to be). Since then, many people have asked me about my application — what did I write about in my SOP, what stories did use in my writing sample, etc. Again, I can’t presume in any way to say ‘this is how you get into an MFA program’, but I can try to share what I did in the hope that it may help someone else out there.

Writing Sample: I submitted 2 stories. The first, ‘Vegetarian’, was realist, set in Singapore, and about two elderly female friends. You can read an earlier draft of it here. I made some changes to the version I included in my writing sample, tightening language and cutting some scenes, but it’s more or less the same story. ‘Vegetarian’ was the third short story I’d ever written in my life. I first wrote it in 2014, and it was rejected over 20 times before being accepted for publication in Prairie Schooner in 2016. In the course of those 2 years, I did probably 5-6 substantial rewrites on this story. I included it in my sample because 1) it was the story that I had polished the most; 2) it was a story that was very close to my heart — I kept working on it despite all the rejections because I believed in it and cared about the characters (they were based on my grandmothers); 3) Despite the rejections, it was the story I had received the most external validation for, having received several personal notes and an inbound request from an editor at Catapult who’d seen it while she was reading for A Public Space. The second story in my sample, ‘The Females Are Not Coming Back’, was still realist but told from the POV of an emperor penguin, and contained elements of magic realism. I included it because it was the other story that I’d received several personal rejections on, and because I felt it showed ‘range’ in subject matter and style. I also really like penguins; who doesn’t? What the two stories had in common was that I’d worked on both of them for at least 2 years. They’d both gone through multiple drafts, I’d deepened, broadened and polished each one extensively.

Statement of Purpose: I found this post incredibly helpful in writing my statement of purpose. Cady is brilliant and you should basically listen to everything she tells you to do. In my statement of purpose, I talked about what writing and reading meant to me, how I had tried to improve my writing on my own for the past 3 years, why I needed an MFA to improve further, why THAT program in particular (I tailored every SOP to each school), what I felt I could contribute to the MFA community. My best friend Sam, who is a journalist, gave me this very good advice: Be specific. For example, don’t say ‘I want to do an MFA to be a better writer’; talk about specific concerns in your writing that you struggle with, how you’ve tried to overcome them, and how you hope that program will enable you to improve further. Talk about your aesthetic as a writer, your philosophy, what your writing tries to achieve. What you believe the place of writing is in the world. Not why one does it, but why you do it. Sub-question: some people have asked me how to write a 300 word SOP (looking at you Michener). I basically cut my 500 word SOP down to the bare bones, but didn’t rewrite from scratch or anything.

GRE: I took it. Yeah, it’s a pain.

4) I got in! How do I choose?

After the joy and shock of being admitted to multiple programs wore off, the anxiety set in pretty quickly. I found this very helpful in thinking about how to choose between programs. I also spent a lot of time bugging kind strangers on the internet, specifically, on MFA Draft. In the end, for me, it came down to: 1) time to write (Michener was 3 years and had no teaching obligations); 2) mentorship (Michener accepts 4-5 fiction applicants a year and I felt that I’d get more attention at a smaller program); 3) fit (Michener is an extremely flexible studio program, plus I love the interdisciplinary opportunities — I did Comp Literature & Society at undergrad and interdisciplinary is 100% my thing) and 4) personal life (my partner works in tech and it would be far easier for him to move to Austin than say Iowa). That said, choosing between programs was much harder than I thought it would be, and I quickly turned what was a very happy problem into a soul-sucking-anxiety-inducing problem (as I unfortunately do with most things in my life).

I hope this was helpful. If you have any questions, feel free to comment below and I’ll try to answer them. Good luck with your deliberating, applying, choosing. But most of all, good luck with your writing!