Monday, May 22, 2006

What Did You Learn?


In the book and in this blog I talk often about being the Bus Driver. I'm guiding some of you around, giving you a tour of the MFA city, and encouraging you to get out there and discover things for yourself.

Okay: Time to report back. Many of you went through the application and decision processes in the last few months.

What did you learn? What surprised you? What annoyed you? What was easier or more difficult than you thought? Maybe most importantly: What advice would you offer to someone about to start this process?

I'd appreciate any and all insights. Thanks.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

As someone who only applied to five schools and was rejected by all of them, I cannot stress how important it is to apply to 8+ programs, including several of the lesser known schools. Even though it has been a learning experience for me, I truly wish someone had sat me down last fall and had made me look beyone Iowa, Michigan, and Irvine.

Anxious Latecomer said...

First, and I know that by saying this I run the risk of sounding obsequious, I have to say that all of the advice in this blog and in the book proved to be right on the money.

Second, I wish I had started the whole application process earlier. Prospective applicants: you will need time to shelve the whole application, once it's done, and let it rest for a while (couple of weeks, perhaps?). Then go over it: you'll see many things that can be improved. Also, having enough time will allow you to take necessary breaks. The application process can be very overwhelming, and can numb your critical abilities. Although it's true that the core elements are the writing sample (first and foremost!) and the statement of purpose, there are many different little things that each school wants, and, believe me, one can tell whether these little things were done in haste or not. And that doesn't give a good impression.

Finally, on the ranting side: it's annoying that not all schools have a good system to keep track of elements that may have been lost in the mail, and so on. (The website of one top school said that they hadn't received any of the elements in my portfolio -- can you imagine? When I finally got a hold of them over the phone, they said I should disregard what I'd seen online -- after they'd insisted on double-checking online all the time). Not to mention the notification process, which is total chaos!

Anonymous said...

Send writing samples that have stylistic flair even if they don't totally work as a "story" per se.

I applied to five schools and was accepted at two, waitlisted once, and outright rejected twice. The two schools that accepted me had later, mid-January application deadlines, so I sent them a writing sample that I finished over New Year's. This story didn't chug on all cylinders but its "voice" was unique and, IMHO, captivating.

The writing sample I used for the schools that rejected me was technically, structure-wise a better story but just didn't have the bombastic zing of the newer story.

Coolshoes said...

First, your advice to apply to 8+ schools shocked me, as I had applied to my one and only choice (and thought, if not accepted, no MFA for me!). So I looked further, and picked 5 others and applied. Good thing. While I was accepted at my top choice (The New School), in the final anaylsis, it was not right for me, and by the time I realized this, I had 4 other acceptances in hand and could take some time deciding).

Second, work hard at the writing sample, and then put it away for at least a few weeks. So - start early. But don't overwrite, and once it's in the mail, forget it.

Third, if the school offers it (and I found all would allow it, but didn't advertise it), you be the one to gather all letters, transcripts, samples, etc. and mail all together in one envelope w/a tracking method. Just follow rules about sealed envelopes, etc. This makes it far easier for your recommenders and puts you in control of getting stuff in on time.

Fourth, immediately once accepted, begin fact-finding in earnest -- contacting students, alum, faculty, program directors, etc.

Finally, look at the process as a career/writing project, because if it does not work out (or not as you wanted), you will still feel that you have gotten something worthwhile out of the process and learned something -- hopefully lots of things.

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

Strangely enough, Tom's incredibly useful book and amazingly generous blog gave me the information I needed to figure out that there might be other ways for me to improve my writing instead of getting an MFA. This will seem obvious to some, but I can't tell you how easy it was for me to overlook this fact when I was obsessively analyzing MFA progams near and far. I'm trying those other ways to improve my writing first, and I'm happy with the way things are going. I have to admit, I like the reading list I made up, and I'm enjoying this "sacred blocks of writing time" schedule my wife worked with me to set in stone.

So: My advice would be to ask yourself whether you need to enroll in an MFA program in order to accomplish your aims as a writer. Without the program, could you stick to a writing schedule? Analyze as a writer the stories you admire? Get enough feedback from other writers you know or adult ed workshops or literary magazine rejection slips? I don't know if I can, but I'm trying to find out. Maybe it would work for you.

Anonymous said...

I applied to five schools and only got accepted at one. It was my last choice, not because of the program itself, but because it was in New York and was not particularly cheap. At first, i wished I had applied to more schools, but in retrospect, I feel like, what is the point of applying to so many schools unless you really, honestly want to attent those schools? I originally had Virginia, Texas, Amherst, Michigan, Arizona, Davis, etc. as places I might apply to. In the end, I chose the biggies (Iowa and Irvine) as well as the one in NY and one in upstate New York, and one in the Mountain States.
In the end, I don't even know if I would have gone to some of the ones I applied to had I gotten in. Did I really want to be in Texas for three years? No. Despite Syracuse's esteemed program, did I really want to spend three years there? No.
I guess my advice is, can you see yourself living and writing in the places you are applying? Do you know people there? Can you afford it? Does it sound nice? Then apply to those schools. Others may disagree with me.

English as a second language said...

The one thing I really wish I'd done differently: known about this site earlier! I found out about this site just this past month, when I was already receiving rejections, acceptances, and being waitlisted. It was a bit relieving for me though, that as I looked through this site, I had generally done what was suggested.
However as a Korean citizen, and English being my second language, I also faced other obstacles that American or English-speaking folks were able to avoid.

First, was that there is so little information available, and then there were the GRE, TOEFL and TSE. TOEFL and TSE is understandable, but why the GRE, you ask? Well, the GRE is conducted just twice a year in Korea, and it's a combined computer and paper test, which is most inconvenient. I saw Tom recommending to someone in Austin to take the GRE ahead of time, in the U.S., and I double that vote. I had to take the essay a couple of months ahead of time (CBT) - a minimum of one month before the verbal and quantitative - and then take the rest (PBT) at a school where the entire hoping-to-study-abroad-Korean population (and a handful of foreigners) had to take the test on the same day and place. Complicated? Yes, and hectic, so take it in the U.S.! To make a long story short, I spent an excess amound of time preparing for these tests and not enough on my writing sample. Then of course I had to go to the trouble of calling ETS to request score reports to the schools I applied to, which cost me another couple hundred dollars. The true downside to this process is that you have to have a school code and department code to send a score report. Unfortunately, "creative writing" is an unlisted graduate program, unlike Physics, English Lit, or Mathematics. So in most cases, I'd push in "99" which stands for "other", and in the end had to spend more money and time phoning ETS because some schools hadn't received my TOEFL or GRE score report. One program, I had to send THREE times, which evidently was the school's fault because on the third time I made a complaint and it turns out they had it all along.

All in all, I'm glad it's all over because really, who wants to go through this process twice? I remember one of my recommenders saying to me, "Do you know why I agreed to write a recommendation letter for you? ... It's because I hate applying." Pretty nice of her, I thought.

By the way, I'll be going to the New School (fiction), hope to see some of you there!

Anonymous said...

First, I wish I had found this blog earlier. I would have done a lot differently.

1. Apply to 8 or more schools. I applied to four because I couldn't afford the application fees. In retrospect, I should have sold some old CDs or something to raise the extra money. I got in to one school that (luckily) is a perfect fit for me. I couldn't be happier, but occasionally, I do wonder what would have happened if I had applied to more programs.

2. Start early! This was my other big mistake. I wish I would have started preparing my applications in my junior year. During my senior year, my dad became extremely ill, so I was too emotionally drained to put as much thought into my apps as I should have. I'm lucky I got the one acceptance that I did.

Thanks, Tom, for being our bus driver. This blog has been a source of comfort during the occasional late-night panic attack.

Anonymous said...

Whew, I'm just glad this blog was begun long after I applied and got in to my only choice. I broke all the rules. I put the application together in 6 weeks. I only applied to one place. I had no clue in general.

I got in, as well.

Thank God, the program is working for me. I'm doing better work than I was on my own; I'm reading things I wouldn't have and learning things I would have missed.

Now regarding my application - I'm a non-traditional student, older than some of my teachers; I'm also very ethnic. I *thought* my writing sample was the most unique, fabulous thing around - it took MFA school to show me that maybe not so much. But it was still distinctive, and the writing is strong. Anyway, it appears I was very lucky to apply to just one school and get in... However I must say that I wonder if MFA programs outside of Iowa and a couple of the other huge names can really afford to turn down anyone who is qualified and has the money...

Anonymous said...

I applied to eight programs this winter, was accepted to three and am going to one.

What I learned:

Nearly every person who heard that I was applying to MFA CW programs said, “You don’t need to go to school to write, just write.” Almost as many said “Hemingway never got an MFA.” Each person who said this seemed to think he or she was the first to mention it.

The people who post on the Poets & Writer’s Speakeasy represent a very small percentage of the people who apply to and attend creative writing programs.

I shouldn’t have told everyone that I was applying to Iowa and how it was the only school worth going to. I was wrong and they didn’t want me anyway.

It was easy to become obsessed with the application process: thinking about it, daydreaming about acceptances, fretting about rejections, frenetic refreshing of Tom’s blog and the Speakeasy, rabid stalking of the mailman, etc. There was a huge void in my life when all the results were in and it took me a while to get back in to the groove of living, loving, working and writing.

I learned several different cheats for filling in Adobe PDF files electronically. I wish the schools would all use Adobe PDF forms.

Once I was accepted and visited the university of my choice, it was disconcerting to discover that it was just college – not necessarily the Shangri-La I had built up in my head.

Tom was right about everything. Well, except for one thing – even though I plan to keep writing through the summer, my university has indicated that they are most interested in seeing writing that is generated by their workshop process in the fall.