Saturday, October 15, 2005

Mailbag for October 17, 2005



All right, the time crunch is not as pressing this week, and that's a good thing: We received more questions this week than at any previous time. Lots of good questions. And, at least two outstanding code names. As for those of you who offer no names, or, almost as worse, write "John," but don't tell me where you're from, I'm starting a new policy next week: I'm just going to make up your name, or make up where you live. So, next week, it will be John from Jericho or the like. You've been warned.

Future questions can be emailed here.

In reference to a previous mailbag, our old buddy Ryan writes:

"I asked the same question about programs open to experimental writing, over at Lance Olsen's Cafe Zeitgeist. Lance mentioned Brown and Notre Dame and someone else mentioned Alabama, as well as a few others. Go here... Also I've since learned that Harold Jaffe teaches at San Diego State and he does some out-of-the-mainstream writing (the journal Fiction International is out of there too, and it's open to experimental writing). I wonder if anyone can comment on the MFA at SDSU?"

Both Ryan and I would appreciate any insights. Thanks for the link and the news Ryan.

My father writes (yes, my actual father, Jack from Greensboro) and says that I give away too much information on this blog and people are just going to visit here and then not buy the MFA book in December. That's a good point, Dad. That's a possibility for sure. But you (you, not my Dad, but you, reading this), wouldn't do that now would you? It's a good book, and it's got information about the decision process and the first and following years of your graduate program. Plus interviews with George Saunders and Aimee Bender, a great essay from Adam Johnson, plus advice on workshops and teaching. And, I think, you can actually preorder it at Continuum Publishing right now. The list date is February, but it will be available online in mid-December. My dad would add: "It makes a great holiday gift!" Thanks dad. Rock on.

The Wistful Writer gets honorable mention for best code name this week, and she asks if it's okay to ask her writing teacher -- who is overworked and underpaid -- for a letter of recommendation. She feels bad and believes that he's already got to write a number of other letters for other people. On behalf of all overworked and underpaid teachers around the globe, Wistful, (including I presume your own teacher) I very sincerely thank you for your sympathy, your sincerity, and especially your potential self-sacrifice. However, you've got to go with who you've got. Ask away. If he's got to write six of them, the seventh won't be that much more difficult.

Wistful also asks if she should reference her Young Adult writing in her personal statement, and my answer is a definite no. Unless of course, you're applying to a program that focuses specifically on this genre. Otherwise, it will be a distraction for the committee. Best of luck with your applications, Wistful.

Kelly (from Kansas? Kentucky? Kennebunkport?) has some nice things to say about the blog, and we thank her for that. She offers me cold hard cash to look over her personal statement and offer advice and to answer some questions about programs. Thanks for the offer, Kelly, but we'll keep things on the up and up here. Tax purposes, etc. My take on your personal statement is that the first paragraph is a disaster. I don't know what's being discussed there. Then, you settle down and write a very solid letter. Drop that first paragraph, reread the rest of it, then retype it. It seemed that it took you a few lines to hit your stride.

No, everyone else, I'm not reading your personal statements too. Kelly asked nice, and I am avoiding reading the proofs for my book. And the offer of money was interesting. Good luck, Kelly.

Oh wait. There's her other twenty questions first. Here the answer to three of them: Yes, Iowa and Columbia have competitive atmospheres. This is true in any program that has tiered funding, or which charges an outrageous tuition to study writing. If you don't like competition in writing (and I certainly don't), I'd encourage you to look at other programs as well.

(UPDATE: A Starving Child writes in and says " I am a 1st year mfa candidate at Columbia. I honestly don't see it as having an overly competitive atmosphere. Funding is limited but the students certainly aren't slitting each other's throats to get it. It's all very civil. We hold doors open for each other and occasionally, the men bow and the ladies curtsy. Well, not really. But I did find that most of the claims that Columbia is "highly competitive" were exaggerated. However, the craptastic state of the funding? Nothing exaggerated there." Thanks Starving.)

Should you just apply to Columbia to see if you can get in? I don't know, but the odds are good that you will get in. They accept a lot of people. By the way, I like the look of Notre Dame, Brown, Irvine, and Houston on your list.

Finally, is the GRE an insignificant obstacle to applying to graduate programs? You put it better than I could have, Kelly. Yes, definitely an insignificant obstacle. For everyone out there who doesn't want to take the GRE, I have this advice: Take the damn GRE. Quit your whining. Not you, Kelly. You rock on.

Dan (from Des Moines?), in response to a question from the previous mailbag, says that National University offers an MFA in creative writing entirely online. The link he sends is: http://www.nu.edu/Academics/Schools/COLS/ArtHum/Degrees/715-505.html

Thanks Dan.

Terry from, gasp, an actual location - Vancouver - writes and says this is a great blog. Thanks Terry. The question is, and I quote, so that the block letters will not be attributed to me: "Could you PLEASE list between 8-12 MFA programs (Fiction is my genre) in the USA that offer FULL
scholarships/fellowships (to at least 65% of all applicants but 100% would be best). I imagine this list would include Iowa and Brown...probably not Columbia...but I find much of what these programs list on their websites confusing and contradictory."

First of all, yes, the websites are, generally speaking, very confusing and contradictory, especially about funding. I've visited every MFA site, and though there are A's and B's here and there, I gave them an overall grade in the book of a D+. I share your frustration in finding the most basic of information.

I'm not getting into percentages, Terry, but programs with good funding include Cal Irvine, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Johns Hopkins, Brown, Florida State, Oregon, Texas, Houston, Notre Dame, UNCG, Syracuse, Cornell, Alabama. Larger programs that offer funding to some students include Iowa, Arizona, Arizona State, Florida, and Washington.

My dad is going to cough up his lunch when he sees that list. Take it easy, dad! Anyone who wants to add a comment, please do so in the comments section below.

Thanks for the questions, Terry. Oh wait, Terry has yet another question and it is: "What's the word on the New School in NYC." I don't have the answer, but maybe someone else has some insight and would be willing to share?

Terry adds: "Thanks so much for the access and the info! They don't teach this stuff in school!" Rock on, Terry.

And finally, our codename of the week winner is Bewildered in Tarrytown, which is not as alliterate as I'd hoped, but it's still darn good. Tarrytown. I like it.

What I don't like is this question (not the question itself, but what it brings to light): "Why do the schools want to know what other programs you're applying to? I've heard that the schools can find out through the association of writers and writing programs which schools you apply to anyway, if they really wanted to know. Are they just curious, or do they look at it and wonder why you're applying to their school when you've applied to programs that could be very different than theirs? (I mean, if it makes a difference after your writing samples.) And even though it's safer for those of us applying to apply to many schools, do the schools prefer it if you apply to fewer (maybe showing how badly you really want to go to theirs)?"

What?! I'm really surprised to read that first question. Schools don't have any right to ask you what other schools you're applying to. It's none of their business, and in my opinion, it's very unethical for them to ask. I know they do this type of thing in medical schools, but that's with some oversight, and that's not the case here. Bewildered, my opinion is this: 1. There isn't going to be a list out there of the schools where Jane Doe or anyone else applied, and even if there was, I'm certain that the AWP wouldn't be involved in such a thing. It's possible that professor friends at different universities might discuss their lists with one another, but that seems unlikely, and again, unethical. 2. It's quite possible that this is just a marketing question, and they are simply interested in who their competition is. But if that's the case, the question should not be part of the application itself. It should be separate and optional. 3. If it was me, I'd leave that section blank. If you don't want to leave it blank, then I'd encourage you to list fewer schools than you actually apply to. A list like this could be useful in determining which students they (the selection committees) have the best "shot" at getting. And that's not right.

Bewildered, I'd appreciate it if you could send me a list of the schools that asked this question. Thanks. And I hope my answer was helpful.

I'm worked up now. I hope I've got Tension Tamer Tea in the cupboard, or all hell is going to break loose. Good luck with those applications everyone, and I'll talk with you next week.

12 comments:

Ryan said...

Me again. Just wanted to drop in to let you know the Brown online app includes this: "List all graduate schools to which you are applying" (and includes space for up to 6 lines). It is for the graduate school in general, and not the MFA program in particular, but I don't know to what degree all the app info is shared with the particular programs.

Ryan said...

...and Notre Dame:

"Rank Preference: In order of your preference, please list all of the graduate and professional schools to which you are applying, including
Notre Dame. This will not prejudice admission." They have space for 4 schools, and do note that they do bold the "not" in "will not prejudice." Out of curiosity, Tom, when asked for such a rank, would you rank that particular school first (even if it wasn't your first choice)? Also, do note that I didn't enter a choice, and clicked continue, and it seemed to accept that (meaning this page doesn't *have* to be filled out).

A Starving Child said...

I am a 1st year mfa candidate at Columbia.

I honestly don't see it as having an overly competitive atmosphere. Funding is limited but the students certainly aren't slitting each other's throats to get it.

It's all very civil. We hold doors open for each other and occasionally, the men bow and the ladies curtsy.

Well, not really. But I did find that most of the claims that Columbia is "highly competitive" were exaggerated.

However, the craptastic state of the funding? Nothing exaggerated there.

Jenny D said...

Two thoughts:

1. I have no first-hand knowledge of the New School program. BUT I was on a panel with Robert Polito this spring (he's the head there) and was really impressed with him & also with the way he spoke about their program. I think it's very seriously worth looking at, and a particularly fantastic student of mine chose this spring to take the New School's offer (which included generous funding) over Columbia's (he's specializing in creative non-fiction; though I haven't talked to him in the last month since he's started, he rightly pointed out that Columbia and the New School share many of the same faculty and that if one is vastly cheaper than the other, it's crazy not to go there). (BTW in case I seem to be knocking Columbia, I have the greatest respect for the faculty and the program, it is just cost that's the obstacle.)

2. Reason for asking which other schools you've applied to. I imagine this is largely irrelevant for the MFA, but let me tell you how we look at them for PhD applicants and also respectfully differ from the advice not to put anything. When I'm reading a PhD application, part of what I'm looking for is whether someone's reasonably well-informed about the professional aspects of graduate study in the humanities. If someone writes that they have applied to Columbia, NYU and Fordham and they have a medium-strong but not stellar application, I will automatically slightly discount their seriousness (especially if the personal statement has given me grounds for concern about whether they are, for instance, primarily a poet or a musician rather than a literary-critic-in-training)--this looks to me like someone who wants a good-enough reason to stay in NY but is not necessarily serious about the profession, which will sooner or later require radical relocation for 99% (all right, I'm exaggerating, but it's high) of the people who succeed. Insofar as this would be useful for MFA admission committees as opposed to PhD ones (which I'm not sure it is), you can also use this list to show that you are a well-informed and sensible person who has applied to a suitable range of programs. Of course it really doesn't matter that much, though, so if you leave it blank, you leave it blank.

Anonymous said...

Penn State University also offers full funding for three years by way of a teaching assistantship; they usually only admit between 8 and 12, and most, if not all, are funded.

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure University of Virginia is also a fully funded program. But they also are very small, 6 poets and 6 fiction writers per year, if I remember correctly.

Anonymous said...

In the long, tortuous Iowa TA questionaire/application, the appliant is asked to list the other programs he/she is applying to.

windiciti said...

Hello, Tom:
Wish I would have seen your blog before! Didn't even know what a BLOG was...but your comments about MFA programs and their politics, funding, etc. are really hitting home.
The three programs I applied to in the Chgo. area ALL asked about other applications I had made: Northwestern, MA in CW prgram, University of Illinois at Chgo.,MA in English in CW, and Columbia College, MFA program.
It never even occurred to me to leave the question unanswered. However, you are so right! It is none of their biz.
I am also freaking out because only NU has rolling admissions, but all 3 say you must wait a year to reapply. Since I am in my fifties, I doubt I will do this; I don't have the time.
I think the low res. programs will be my only alternative. I'm married, and can't stdy in another city. I loved reading the
comments about Stonecoast low res. in Maine.
any rankings available on low res. programs?
Thank you for providing this forum, Tom. My anxiety is so high right now, I'm really afraid of total rejection by these schools. The only other program which I would apply to is the Art Institute which was 83 in the U.S. News rankings.
Ciao, thanks again.

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