Tuesday, April 11, 2006

This Year or Next Year?

A letter from Sanguine in San Francisco asks my opinion of the Arizona program (she's on the waitlist there), and then asks another question that I'll post and then answer below. I think very highly of the Arizona program. I have a friend there now as well as a former student. They speak highly of it. The funding is 'tiered' there, as it is in many programs. But the word from sources is that the program works hard to keep things non-competitive. Our friends Katharine Noel and Eric Puchner graduated from Arizona.

On to the letter...

It's Sanguine in San Francisco again, although I'm not feeling quite as sanguine as I might like at this very moment. I'm totally enjoying the new blog setup, and I think it works better and I continue to find your thoughts and feedback to be super helpful! Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you again for putting so much time and energy into your blog and your book. It has made quite a difference for so many of us....

...I applied to 13 program this year, but after I applied I was convinced I wasn't going to get in anywhere because I felt my application wasn't strong enough. Needlesstosay, I was thrilled once I received three acceptances and was waitlisted at two other schools. Unfortunately I have only been accepted at expensive private schools (Mills, Emerson and Sarah Lawrence). If I don't get in anywhere else or off the waitlists I may have to decide whether to enroll at an expensive program (likely Sarah Lawrence) or wait and reapply next year to only well-funded programs. I don't want to be 80K in debt after getting my MFA, but of course I also really want to get started on my MFA next fall. My best friend wonders what percentage of accepted students actually get substantial funding and if it makes sense for me to reapply next year if I don't get in anywhere else -- what if I don't get great offers next year either and I've "wasted" year not being in a program somewhere -- this is her concern. I'm confident my manuscript will be better were I to reapply next year, and I would only apply to well funded programs. What is your opinion? I don't yet have all the info I need to make this decision, but I'm trying to weigh pros and cons here.... Arghhh!

SiS, I think your friend's concern is very legitimate. There are definitely no guarantees for next year. That said, 1. I'd wait if I were you, and 2. I get the feeling that you think this is the best thing too. #2 is the most important opinion. You're right to be confident in your improvement of your manuscript. We all improve when we spend a year intensively writing. Make sure you do that. You know I don't like to see my readers go into financial debt, and I don't think a year of writing is a wasted year. If you're asking if I think you should roll the dice, well, completely man-facting in a word: Yes.

Rock on. And thanks for the question.


Anonymous said...

Hey SiSF,

This is just an amplification of what Tom just said, but I posted it elsewhere and some people found it helpful. So here it goes:

If you think you can put up with the debt (emotionally, financially, etc.) and you think you couldn't be happy elsewhere, go for it. I don't think it's obviously silly to go into debt in order to go to the program you like, but it's also true that you might as well apply to other equally good programs that might give you financial support. That's why I insist on "if you couldn't be happy elsewhere" (which is, I think, unlikely).

Think, realistically, whether you could or could not deal with the debt. This is a highly variable issue. Some people will be OK dealing with that, and some others will live in misery. Therefore, you are the one who's in the best position to know whether it'll be worth it or not. But don't fool yourself: don't "weigh" the immediate happiness (going to SLC) against the future unhappiness (being in debt). If you honestly believe you will be unhappy when burdened by the debt, there's no current happiness that can outweigh that. Man, your future self will curse your current self like no one has ever cursed. But if you can deal with financial insecurity, etc., and the prospect of being in huge debt in your 40's doesn't bother you all that much, you're cut to go in debt. Of course, to the MFA debt, add mortgage, potential children and their financial needs, etc.

Also, I'd try to find and talk to people who are in that situation already. Most of these people, for all we know, might be terribly unhappy -- or not. I've heard horror stories about former MFAers who're still yoked to X University's finance department. And I've also heard (fewer) stories about people who are happy despite the monthly payments to Your Master's Voice. Anyway, I'd try to find as many former SLC's MFAers, see how they're doing, and then project yourself being in the shoes of the least favored ones -- perhaps even a couple of notches "below" him or her. (You know, just to err on the side of caution). Would you still be happy then? If the answer is yes, go for it. Of course, in the fate of these MFAers, like in everybody else's, good or bad luck (and other unforeseeable factors) surely played some role. But precisely because of these unforeseeable factors I'd project myself into the worst-case scenario. If I'm OK with that, then everything's going to be fine. But don't trick yourself: project yourself into the really worst-case scenario. If you can deal with that, you'll deal and be happy with whatever cards you'll be dealt.

A clarification: it might be unwise to project oneself into the worst-case scenario all the time. Not only would one feel lousy, but it might even be self-fulfilling. However, when the stakes are unusually high, I think that that is a good thing to do in order to help your deliberation. Not that it should necessarily be an overriding consideration, but it certainly is a consideration that should bear on your decision. Second, I totally understand the feeling of "bird in hand." But, as random as this hideous application process is, I think chances are you will be accepted to a good (and funded) program next year if this year you've been accepted to a program of the caliber of Sarah Lawrence, and if you keep on writing. (Of course, provided you apply to several programs. And provided you don't have geographical constraints. If you tell me you don't want/cannot apply to places outside NYC, the whole picture changes, and then the "bird in hand" thing carries much more weight).

Though of course, "chances are you will be accepted" is not a guarantee. That's what makes the decision hard. But it seems, as Tom said, that you've already (almost) made it.

Hope this helps.

Anxious Latecomer

Anonymous said...

Hey SiSF,
My suggestion is to wait, but make sure you spend that extra year putting together new work. Last year, I was admitted to Arizona but ended up turning them down because it didn't feel right. I had mixed feelings, but I decided it was best. This year, I've been admitted to Michigan, which I feel much, much better about. And a lot of people I've met have done the same thing--turned down places that didn't seem quite right to try again in a year or two--and it worked out. Of course, there's no guarantee. But one thing my adviser once told me is that if you can get into one high level program, you can probably get into another. But again, there's no guarantee.

Anonymous said...

I want to post an addendum to my above comment. A good bit of MFA applications is based on your skill level, but a good bit is also based on pure chance--how the committee happens to be reading on the day they read your app, their tastes, the weather, etc. I was fortunate enough to be offered funding at Arizona when I was admitted last year, but another person I know was admitted that same year without funding (so kind of low on their list). Yet she also got into Cornell, which, of course, is one of the most difficult places to get into in the country as they only take four people. So there's no telling what could happen for you if you waited a year, and what might have happened if the odds had gone your way (to get in the places you got in, and to get waitlisted at the places you got waitlisted, shows you already have the skill component to this thing).

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claudia said...

claudia said...

hello, i am kind of having a freak out before starting my mfa at sarah lawrence. i was waitlisted at nyu and st. mary's and accepted to sarah lawrence. i deferred a year because i was unsure about paying so much money and now i have decided to suck it up and go. my worries are these: should i have applied to three year instead of two year programs? will it be hard for me to find teaching work after i graduate because, although sarah lawrence lets you ta a comp class, it does not let you teach your own class? what do you think of the sarah lawrence program? does it seem like a place where writers thrive?

11:42 AM

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