Monday, September 19, 2005
Mailbag for September 19th, 2005
The application deadlines for graduate writing programs begin in about three months, which means the MFA Weblog Mailbag is starting to fill up. If you've got a question, you can send it to my email address. Please include a first name, or as is becoming popular, a code name, and where you're writing from.
Our code name of the week is "Perplexed in Pensacola," and he/she asks "What do you do for references if, like me, it's been years since you graduated from college and the couple of summer workshops you attended failed to yield any 'networking relationships,' especially with the workshop leaders. Moreover, the references I do have can only address my teaching abilities, not my potential as a writer. Am I out of luck?"
Great question, Pensacola. We did speak to letters of recommendation in the mailbag a few weeks back, and I'd encourage you to check that section out. In the meantime, the short and the dirty is: The best case scenario is that you'll have three writing teachers as your recommenders. The members of the committee are teachers, and they'll listen best to other teachers. Two teachers as recommenders is fine, and your third can be someone who can comment on your work ethic, your ability to play well with others, and your value as a member of a team. Sounds like two teachers is going to be a stretch for you, so I am highly encouraging you to get at least one. The best way to do this is to take a continuing studies course at your local college. Or, you could take one online at the UCLA Extension, Gotham Writers Workshop, or other places. But, the face-to-face would be best. Taking a class will also be helpful for shaping up your writing sample.
A number of professors indicated in interviews for the MFA Book that the letters of recommendation are not weighed very heavily at all. The writing sample is king. And yes, it is most definitely king, and I think it's safe to say that the writing sample will get you from 250 applications to 25. Your personal statement and letters of recommendation may get you from 25 to the final 15. So, you'll want good recommendations. My advice is to go with who you have and who you trust. But work on that list in the next year if you can by taking a class or two. By the way, letters of recommendation will not sway the committee about your writing ability. They already know your writing ability. They've seen it in your sample. They're not even reading your letters if they didn't like your sample. So, focus on recommenders who can speak to your ability as a student and team player.
You're not "out of luck," Pensacola. Just work to make a little more luck, in the form of at least one teacher recommendation, in the next year.
Nick found us through Maud Newton, and last year he applied to Virginia, Cornell, and Syracuse. He was wait-listed at Syracuse and not accepted at the others. He's ready to follow my advice on applying to more programs (at least eight), though he's wondering if his previous rejections will hurt him if he reapplies to the same schools.
First of all, the reason I encourage prospective students to apply to eight or more schools is from my own experience. I applied to five schools. I was rejected, quickly, at three. I was wait-listed for the fourth, and then, at what seemed like an interminable long last, I was accepted at my number one choice. Needless to say, after the first four letters I wished I'd applied to more. My colleagues have similar stories. Regular readers of the blog will be tired of my refrain by now, but here it is: spread your net wide and keep your options open. Apply to between eight and twelve schools.
My answer to your question is a definite no. No, your previous application won't hurt you. If they chose five students, and you were somewhere in six through ten, then they'll remember you. Fondly. If they didn't like your work a year ago, then they won't even remember you. Committees read between 50-300 applications. And of course, that brings up the obvious: Send new work. If you've been writing consistently, then you've been improving. Send work from the past year. If you sincerely feel that one of your stories or three of your poems from the previous application is your best work, then go ahead and send them. But send new work as well. Best of luck to you, Nick.
Erin read last week's mailbag and writes: "I am really uneasy with the idea of dismissing programs from consideration based on price tag alone. I think a better approach is to be realistic about what you're going to get, what you're willing to pay for it, and how likely it is that the two will balance."
I think that's a good way of stating it. What are you willing to pay? Personally, I don't like going into debt, so "nothing" was what I was looking for, as far as what I was willing to pay. I would add that there are a number of programs that offer excellent funding packages, and I leaned toward those. I just can't see going into $100,000 worth of debt to be a writer. Being a writer is financially difficult enough. That said, readers should check out Erin's comments from last week's mailbag, as she makes a number of excellent points.
As does Anonymous, who is a current student at Columbia, and who gives us the 411 on the financial aspects and what he/she thinks of the program.
Jordan says a lot of nice things about the blog (thanks Jordan) and asks about the best of the Ph.D programs. I don't know these as well as the MFAs, but much of what I have to say at this point can be found in the first mailbag. And there is also a comment from a reader there about another Ph.D. program. Best of luck, Jordan. If anyone has comments about Ph.D. programs, I'd appreciate if they'd leave them in this post's comments.
Justin found us through Stephen Elliott's blog, which makes me immediately suspicious of him. Anyone who visits stephenelliott.com on a regular basis should be kept an eye on. That said, Justin offers his services should anyone in the mailbag have questions about the application process or about the Arizona MFA program. Thanks Justin, and we'll call your number as soon as we get a question for you.
Ted from West Boylston, MA is 35, married, has two kids and another on the way, and is looking to begin an MFA program, either part-time or via the low-residency route. He asks about Boston University, Emerson, and UMass Amherst, and also if there are particularly good or notoriously bad low-residency programs. Well Ted, I'd encourage you to look into the UMass Amherst program, not simply because I went there and benefitted from it, but because there were definitely part-time students there when I attended. I don't know the specific plan for part-time students now, but I'd expect you could take one to two classes a semester. Do talk to the program coordinator there. Emerson College has been in disarray for a long time now. I'd warn you away from there for now. Recent graduates have indicated that the price is high and the quality is low. Teaching assistants are paid a ridiculously low amount there, and there is little continuity with the faculty from year to year. I don't know about the quality of Boston U., but, since it is a private university, the price is high there also. I'd welcome anyone's comments about any of these schools.
As for the low-residency, I don't know of any that are "notoriously bad," and if someone has heard something, they can post it in the comments section also with their reasoning. I do know that Warren Wilson, Vermont, Lesley University, and Bennington College have all been around for a long time and I've heard excellent news about them.
I can't speak to the best option, Ted, as far as residency vs. low-residency. I don't know your particular circumstances, beyond what you've written. I would encourage you to explore both options and to speak with current students at the universities you are most interested in. Best of luck to you and your family.
Angie lives in the San Francisco Bay area and is interested in four programs there: San Francisco State, Mills College, St. Mary's, and UC Davis. She's concerned about the low rankings for these schools though, and is wondering if she should just wait until she can attend a program elsewhere. Angie, I know instructors at each of those institutions and I think very highly of them as people, writers, and teachers of writing. I profiled UC Davis in the MFA Book, and I wrote that it's and up and coming program. I wouldn't pay too much attention to the U.S. News Rankings if I were you. Instead, I'd encourage you to make a list of the most important aspects of a program, as far as your situation dictates. Obviously, location would be near the top. Where does tuition and funding fit in? SF State and UC Davis are much more affordable than the other two. What about having a peer group? Perhaps UC Davis is too far away for you to become a regular part of the program community. (And maybe it would be just fine). Obviously, faculty is very important. Do you want to gain teaching experience? If so, put that on your list.
I guess in answer to your question: I don't have any red flags for any of those programs. I do think that funding indicates resources, and resources indicate support. Most programs in the Bay Area are lacking in funding for their students, and I think this plays out, as far as resources and support go, in the rankings. I'd encourage you to see which programs fit your list of needs. And then apply to those programs. Keep those Low-Residency programs in mind too, as they might better fit your circumstance. Once you are accepted to a program or programs, talk with the students there, both past and present. I think it's at this point that you'll know if the school is right for you. Or, if you should wait and attend elsewhere. My answer for now is: research, and then go for it. By the way, I think San Francisco State accepts a large number of students, and that of course will increase your chances of being accepted. I hope this was helpful in some way. Best of luck to you, Angie.
Finally, MJL wants to know if I have any insider tips on applying to the Stegner Fellowship Program. I'd prefer a more specific question, but what I can say is that there are five fiction writers and five poets accepted each year, and that is out of a group of approximately 800 and 400 applications respectively. Like any program, send your best work. I can say that the writing sample is what everything turns on. The faculty doesn't care about experience (there have been plenty of non-MFA students accepted over the years) or who you know. If the writing sample is to their liking, and if they think, through your personal statement primarily, that you will benefit from the fellowship, then you make the five. I applied because one of my favorite writers, Michael Byers, was once a Stegner. A few months later I got a call from Tobias Wolff, asking if I'd like to come out to California. Send your best work. I can promise you this: every application is read thoroughly.
Man, that was a lot of questions. I'm out of here. Rock on with those applications.