First year contributor
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Greetings from HZWP


Hello! I’m R. Cross and I’m currently in my first semester as an MFA candidate in Fiction at the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at The University of Michigan.

I’ve applied to MFA programs on four separate occasions (in ‘13, ‘14, ‘16, and ‘17) and attended the MFA program at Southern Illinois University for the ‘14 – ‘15 school year until state budget cuts led to a university-wide funding crisis that ended up sending me back to the application gauntlet for two more rounds (NOTE: the funding crisis at SIU has since been resolved with a state budget settlement that will make for stable funding for the program for the foreseeable future; they’ve also recently added MFA fellowships that reduce the teaching load, funded by a private donor to the program).

My experience as an MFA applicant and program attendee is thus long and winding, and covers the span of five years.


I’m from Columbus, Ohio. While it took me eight years of academic meandering, I eventually obtained my BA in English from the Ohio State University in 2013.

I write semi-experimental fiction about non-normative love, generational trauma, “sensitive” children, recovering addicts, and women who are just so fed up. My stories are either forthcoming or have been featured in Day One, Meridian, and Reservoir (those stories account for the three stories I submitted to MFA programs in app seasons ‘16 and ‘17).


Each year I’ve applied, I’ve received at least some encouragement from programs.

In ‘13, I made the shortlist of finalists at Boston University
In ‘14, I was waitlisted and ultimately accepted at Southern Illinois University.
In ‘16, I was high on the waitlists at John’s Hopkins University and University of Virginia.
In ‘17, I was waitlisted and ultimately accepted at the University of Michigan.

Bear in mind:

In ‘13 I was rejected outright by five programs.
In ‘14 I was rejected outright by twenty programs. (Ouch!)
In ‘16 I was rejected outright by ten programs.
In ‘17 I was rejected outright by nine programs.

Which is to say: I’ve been rejected 89% of the time, waitlisted 11% of the time, got offers from the waitlists I was on 50% of the time, and have been accepted outright 0% of the time, i.e. never, not even once.

Which is also to say: I’ve never been a favorite with admissions committees even though I’ve been deemed waitlist-able or shortlist-able by at least one or two programs each year I’ve applied. In essence, I’m a seasoned MFA applicant who always got at least some things right but apparently more things wrong or simply not right enough. I kept trying, though, as I believed my writing to be worthy of the kind of focus and commitment that comes with funded mentorship and writing time. In the process of putting myself out there (time and time and time and time again), I’ve managed to develop the sort of self respect as a writer that comes with the continued effort and sacrifice of striving for goals that are within reach but that don’t come easily.

Since I’ve gotten to Ann Arbor, I’ve started writing a novel, have finished the draft of a novella, have drafted three new short stories, got a story accepted for a print publication, sat in on a craft workshop led by Ocean Vuong, and met with an agent who is interested in seeing more of my novel in progress. In essence, I’m glad I’m at this program in particular at exactly this point in my writerly development.

My advice to applicants who will ultimately apply to programs multiple times: lean into the continued resistance; use it as a means of sanding down your intentions and aspirations as a writer, such that, once you’re given an opportunity, you might come at it with a self assured sense of who you are as an artist, backed by the kind of momentum that only builds over time.


  1. rooguild says

    Thanks for writing this! I’m a second-year applicant in the throes of stress, but your advice really resonates. I was wondering– HZWP is one of my dream programs (I got waitlisted last year and am reallly hoping to get in this year), but I’ve heard that the vibe of the program is a little over-competitive/careerist. Have you felt that at all? Thanks again for your post!

    • rcrosswrites says

      I would say the program offers us a lot of opportunities to advance our careers as writers but the overall vibe is not a careerist one nor a competitive one. Agents come each semester to meet with the writers who are interested in seeking representation, for instance, but faculty members don’t pressure us to meet with agents if we don’t want to. Many people here are completing publishable work but aren’t in a phase of actively submitting anything for publication, and nobody bats an eye at that, nor assumes that the writers who are making certain career attempts are further along or are more serious. We’re all on our own path as artists in such a strange field.

      Good luck with apps!

  2. Hello, thanks for writing this, it is really helpful. I am about to apply for the Hellen Zell writers program this year, do you have any advice on what they are really looking for in terms of application?

    Thank you

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