Friday, April 21, 2006

Safety Schools?

Anxious in Austin writes in...

I've been looking at programs to apply to next fall and currently have the following list: Brown, Oregon, Michigan, Cornell, Virginia, John Hopkins, UC-Irvine, Umass, and NYU. I am aware that these schools are fairly difficult to get into, but I'm very excited about all of their programs. In applying to schools, do you think getting into any school takes precedent over applying to top schools you're interested in?

I suppose I'm wondering what your thoughts on "safety" schools and my lofty expectations are.

As far as the list goes, I think it's an excellent one, though only Michigan, UMass, and NYU are larger programs. I'd encourage you to add one or two additional larger programs.

On the subject of safety schools, I have a clear opinion on these: There aren't any. The MFA process is not like the law school, medical school, or undergraduate application process. Your grades and GRE scores rank far below such unmeasurable things as the writing sample, personal letter, and letters of recommendation.

With the writing sample being the most important of course. It's difficult to predict just which committee members will be enthusiastic about your writing and which ones won't. This is the main reason behind my advice to apply to between 8-12 programs.

Which, you seem to be doing, AiA. Good for you. Spread those nets wide. I was really surprised about this 'no such thing as safety schools' when I applied, and I was ultimately surprised when I was rejected by some of my 'lower' choices and accepted at my 'top' choice.

I'd really appreciate any comments about the concept of safety schools. Perhaps others have different takes or experiences. Thanks.

33 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think it's true that there aren't any safety schools, though at the same time, my experience seemed pretty logical in some ways: I was accepted at Florida, where there are at least a couple hundred less apps than NYU and Michigan, schools at which I was waitlisted/eventually accepted. I was rejected from Virginia, Iowa, Umass. Obviously there's a crapshoot element here--but those last five schools I listed probably all receive in the neighborhood of 1000 applications per year, give or take a hundred. So it seems clear that the idea of competitiveness plays a role, yet at the same time, I've heard plenty of stories about people being rejected from all but their 'top' school, as Tom says. Still, I think if you throw a few highly regarded, yet less overwhelmingly applied-to programs in there, you've got a better chance of getting in somewhere...by the way, these experiences are for poetry, which I believe is overall less competitive than fiction, so that might change things.

Anonymous said...

I think I disagree with TK here.

If you REALLY want a saftey school, there are some schools that only get between 50 and 100 applications. It isn't a sure shot to get in, but clearly your odds are far better there than at the great schools which take between 500 and 1000 applications.

But you have to ask yourself, do you want an MFA no matter what? Because if you want a quality education and a program that will really grow and help ypu, then you probably want to apply to one of the top 30 or so and none of those are really saftey.

Anonymous said...

Off of Tom's comment: which programs, then, are larger?

I ask this mainly because it seems that 9 out of 10 schools accept 5-10 students a year per genre, and larger programs are not the norm. Out of the 20 programs I'm seriously considering for next year, Virginia, Michigan,and Iowa are the only large ones (and really, they receive so many applications, I certainly won't get my hopes up for them).

Anonymous said...

Virginia is NOT a large school. They take about 6 to 8 fiction writers (I forget exactly how many off hand).

They are one of the small programs.

In addition to NYU, Michigan and Umass that Tom said, Columbia and Iowa both take around 70 people (for all three genres combined).

I believe the New School has a pretty large program, but i'm not positive.

Anonymous said...

From previous: Off of Tom's comment: which programs, then, are larger?

I ask this mainly because it seems that 9 out of 10 schools accept 5-10 students a year per genre, and larger programs are not the norm. Out of the 20 programs I'm seriously considering for next year, Virginia, Michigan,and Iowa are the only large ones (and really, they receive so many applications, I certainly won't get my hopes up for them).


I meant UMass, not Virginia. Sorry for the confusion.

The only other larger programs I can think of are in NYC. I live in Brooklyn right now and really want my mfa experience to be about writing, instead of working all the time and trying to fit writing into my schedule. Columbia, Hunter, and BC all seem to assume you'll work full-time while attending workshops, writing, and teaching. So that's my problem, I suppose.

Anonymous said...

I applied to 13 programs this year in nonfiction, and I definitely agree with Tom's advice to apply to a high number of schools and to apply to both smaller and larger programs. I don't know how strong or weak my writing is, but I am confident my writing sample could have been much better if I had spent more time preparing. Initially, I was accepted into three programs, waitlisted at three, rejected from six and still haven't heard from one. One of my waitlists has turned into an acceptance, the second is undecided, the third a rejection. Among the schools I got into, two of them were top choices for me. I was rejected from the one safety school I was SURE I'd get into, accepted into another safety school, haven't heard from the last one. I was accepted into one school that received a writing sample I felt was very weak, rejected from programs that received a stronger writing sample. It all feels pretty random! So, what I'm saying is that just because you apply to safety schools doesn't even guarantee you'll get into them and not the more competitive programs. I'd recommend spreading your nets wide and applying to a variety of differently sized programs, and some schools that are less competitive/high acceptance rate. You just never know what's going to happen. It's expensive, but I think applying to a lot of programs is a good strategy. I have friends who didn't who wish they did. Nonfiction is different from fiction, but according to Tom (with a man-facting caveat), it's likely the most competitive of the three main genres. Best of luck to you. Sounds like you are applying to some great programs.

Jason MacLeod said...

Montana takes about 6 - 8 poets & 8 - 10 fiction writers per year with a couple of non-fiction folk thrown in for good measure. Guess that makes us a medium sized school?

Anonymous said...

To point out explicitly what TK and others have implied about program size and acceptance chances: to the extent that you consider a program's admission rate as your chance of getting in, some of the programs that are thought of as among the most "competitive," e.g. Iowa and Columbia, which take ~70 out of say 1,000 applicants (that's something of a man-figure), will actually give you a better chance of acceptance than a smaller program that isn't considered quite as competitive, e.g. Oregon, which takes 12 students out of, say 500 applicants (that's a total man-figure but you get the idea).

Anonymous said...

"Columbia, Hunter, and BC all seem to assume you'll work full-time while attending workshops, writing, and teaching. So that's my problem, I suppose."

I don't think they expect this at all.

In fact, I went to a Columbia forum yesterday and they flat out said you couldn't work full-time and be in the program. It would simply be too much work.

Anonymous said...

To add my $0.02, I applied to 11 programs, and was only rejected outright by my "safest" school. Another school I considered to be on my "safety" list, put me drastically low on its waitlist. Impossibly low.

You just never know what will happen when you apply. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

I'd have to agreee with a lot that's been said here. I applied to writing programs without having much idea of what I was getting into and little idea about the makeup of each program. I just knew that I needed to stay in NY and didn't want to take the GRE. I applied to Brooklyn College, New School, Sarah Lawrence, and Columbia's nonfiction programs. I was certain I'd get rejected from all, maybe get into Brooklyn b/c it was a city school. Well, I got flat out rejected by everyone but Columbia. They offered me a Dean's Fellowship, and I ended up going there. Go figure.

Anonymous said...

Safty schools tend to be in undesirable parts of the country, a part of the world that seems remote, obscene and uncivilized, you know those hot, miserable, godforsaken, football-crazed, underfunded places in the deep South.

Anonymous said...

Re: Anonymous at 1:49 PM...

True about the 70/1000 (0.07%, if wondering) and 12/500 deal (0.02%). What about a school like Bowling Green? This year they got 50 or 70 apps for fiction (can't remember which) and took only 7 of those. That's still only a 14% acceptance rate--Yale-esque. And what if the group is very self-selective? I mean, look at a school like Iowa vs. a school like BG. Iowa probably gets more "hell-no" apps than any school, because it's the school everyone knows about. Lots of people who apply probably don't have very "competitive" manuscripts. I wonder if, percentage-wise, BG gets an amount of "serious" apps that is comparable to a school like Iowa, even if they get far far fewer apps overall. Just a conjecture, obviously, for the sake of discussion.

I'm not sure if there really are any safety schools. One of the posters up there sort of likened it to a numbers game (i.e. those that get fewer apps are less competitive). I don't think this is wholly true because this isn't law school or med school, it's art school, and personal asthetics are important. One man's crap is another man's treasure. Yes, you will find people who clearly have no idea what they're doing with their work, but oftentimes the line is a blurry one.

It's just probably not a great idea to get haughty and assume that because other people think you're 'good' you'll get into unknown school and known school alike. Applying to unknown school with a creative manuscript is much different than applying to unknown school as a high schooler with 1600 SATs, 3.8 GPA and some worthy extracurriculars. Even literary awards--praise from others-- won't help you if the committee members aren't personally drawn to your work. Actually, to counter my own example above, an otherwise perfect high schooler who comes off as a total jerk in his personal essay could be rejected from unknown school. Just like an otherwise "successful" applicant could hold an undesirable asthetic or even an undesirable voice. Opinions are funny like that.


For the record, I'm going for poetry (Oregon, actually, your example), which might be different than fiction overall.

--Sara

Anonymous said...

70/1000=7%, not .07%. And 12/500=2.5%. Just for accuracy's sake and all...

Anonymous said...

FYI: Iowa admists 50 out of more than 1300. The nonfiction program is not a part of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. It's a separate program in the English department which receives its own several hundred applications every year.

Anonymous said...

“Iowa probably gets more "hell-no" apps than any school, because it's the school everyone knows about.”

It’s a fact that Iowa receives more applications from Ivy league or top literal arts colleges than any other MFA writing programs.

Anonymous said...

I wish I'd gone to a top literal arts college...

Anonymous said...

Well, I go to an Ivy, and from my experience the workshops aren't full of brilliance, so I don't know what you mean by that. Creative writing isn't something you learn "better" at a prestigious university, and good students don't necessarily make good writers. So I suppose you're implying that most people who apply to Iowa have money, since "top" private schools are usually very expensive? Which doesn't seem true at all--I doubt that's what you meant. :) I wouldn't correlate "art school" with Ivy League graduates. Think more "law school" or "med school"--the rational, business side of things. (Then again, that's what literary art has pretty much become these days...)

Anonymous said...

I agree with you, but a large percentage of Iowa students come from Ivy league colleges. Many of them come with a JD, MBA, MD, Ph.D…and they happen to make it in the publishing world. I don't know whether they're “brillent” or not. Maybe not, but they happen to find a way to succeed. Please subscribe to Publishers Weekly and you’ll understand what I’m talking about…

Anonymous said...

That makes sense what the publishing world and the media are run by Ivy Leaguers.

Anonymous said...

That makes sense when the publishing world and the media are run by Ivy Leaguers.

Anonymous said...

"FYI: Iowa admists 50 out of more than 1300. '


No offence, but this is some BS.
I dunno how many Iowa takes (I'd excpet more like 70) but they get more like 700 applications, not 1300.

Anonymous said...

I'm not at all an ivey leaguer or a rich kid.

However, the nice thing with rich kid writesr is they don't have an ax to grind. Some writers can take their politics or their ethnic idnentity and use it to grea tends. But 99.9% of them can't and ruin what good qualities their writing has with shitty prostelitizing.

Anonymous said...

"...Iowa receives 750 applications for 25 places, and there are 450 poetry applications for 25 places"

Check it out at http://www.southernct.edu/~hochman/Iowaworkshop.htm

That was years ago and this year it increased to more than 1300...

Anonymous said...

I can't remember the exact numbers, but on my beautiful Iowa rejection letter they said they read a little over 750 applications for fiction, taking 25 students. There are commonly more applications for fiction than poetry, so eyeballing Iowa at 1300 apps for 50 total spots seems right.
And on the whole Ivy League thing--it is fairly true that you're most likely to run across someone from an elite background at one of these places. When I was at recruitment weekend for the program I'm going to (one of Tom's top 5), only me and one other person had state university degrees--everyone else came from exclusive school backgrounds. I don't think this is so much a bias (though there's certainly some bias) but just a result of the fact that those kinds of places attract a greater proportion of "talented" students. So it's not like you're screwed if you're coming from State U, or even Southwest State U. Elite places might have proporitionally more talented people, but they don't hold a monopoly. And, from my own experience, it is somewhat satisfying to come up from the state U background and see that your education, which was either free or really cheap, got you to the same place as the Harvard and Yale folk.

Anonymous said...

The year I read fiction applications at Iowa, we had over 750 applicants (in fiction) competing for 25 places.

I don't know where this notion of 70 places comes from.

Anonymous said...

Christ, is there any way Iowa faculty can be bothered to read applications? Or are we just sending our work out to random dipshits one year ahead of us in the game?

Ad Blaster said...

Facts speak louder than statistics." Sir Geoffrey Streatfield"

aliistar said...

does anyone know how many students Sarah Lawrence accepts for writing? or how many applicants?..this would be much help to me.

Neil said...

I did my undergrad at Grinnell College in Iowa (it's not an ivy but it's up there I guess), my undergrad workshop profs are Iowa workshop alums and I know some people that think that this sort of thing gives applications an edge - it really doesn't.

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