Monday, November 13, 2006

Magic Number?

<----- Borat-looking man with Magic and Mysterious Numbers.

I'm wondering if there is a "Magic Number" of "slots" to apply to. What I mean is...

Let's say you apply to ten schools. If each of them are small programs, with five slots in your genre, then that's only fifty slots you're applying for. On the other hand, if they're all bigger programs, with an average of say, fifteen slots to apply to, then that's 150 slots that you've got a shot at.

It doesn't seem to me that either direction (all small, all big) makes sense, because there are other criteria to consider. Still, if there isn't a "magic number," is there a smart number?

In other words, should you look to average eight, ten, or a higher number of slots per program? If you apply to ten programs, should you shoot for 80 available slots (and adapt your program choices accordingly)? Your opinion and experience is appreciated.


Robert said...

My experience is that the application process had nothing to do with statistics and everything to do with getting to know the particulars of the program to find a mutual best fit. That is, it was about depth of research and applications - not breadth. I consider that a rejection slip is an acknowledgment of some form of perceived mutual incompatibility - that is, it necessarily wasn't the right place for the person I presented myself as in the application. So, focus on 1) the application accurately reflecting you and your work and 2) finding the schools that seem like an ideal fit for you and forget about how many of them are out there. I suppose my magic number is therefore two.

Fear&Loathing said...

The application of statistics to this or any other question is problematic at best.

However, if the probability of one event occuring is completely independent of another, the probability of both events occuring is the sum of the two probabilities. If your chance of getting into a single MFA program has nothing to do with your chances of getting into another, this method can be applied in theory. I think there is one argument that says that your chances of getting into one program have nothing to do with every other application. Yet, there is a more convincing argument that if your writing sample is good, your chances are increased at every school. (The opposite holds as well.) Your probabilities of getting into schools are not independent.

Let's ignore the last argument and assume the probabilities are independent. If you have an average probability of 5% at each school and you apply to ten, your probability is 50%.

Anonymous said...

I like the idea of improving my chances of acceptance to a program by following the 8 to 12 applications suggestion. But here's a problem I've encountered:

How do you ask your recommenders to write that many letters? Even if the recommenders cut-and-paste a single letter's content into letters for each school, it's still a lot of work. And then there are the recommendation forms most schools want.

I asked one of my recommenders about this. I was told flatly to limit it to no more than 5.

Isn't it an enormous imposition on my recommenders? (Plus, I don't have a lot of people to ask so I can spread it around). Do I just cut down my list and pray the odds go my way, risking losing a whole year if they don't?

Saltwater Farmer said...

mfa applicant,

I worried about this when I started the process. None of my three recommenders batted an eye, though. One even said they had been writing recs for a long time and 11 wasn't out of the ordinary.

I am glad I asked the first week of September. Realizing how much I was asking from them, I decided to give them three months to do it. The time crunch may be a factor in one of your recommenders drawing the line at five.

Third Person Limited said...

As far as the magic number, I'm more concerned with applying to the schools that fit me best, not how many slots they offer. It's true I have a range of large and small programs, but I don't see the point in trading a school with five slots -- a school I'd love to attend -- for a school with 15 slots that I'm less excited about.

I don't see a huge difference between having a recommender write letters for 12 schools versus 3. The hardest work is writing the actual letter, which they will use for each school. They key is to keep all the little details in order for them: send pre-addressed, stamped envelopes with each form tucked inside the proper envelope, send them all at once, etc.

Andrew said...

Yes, let's be clear -- there's only one letter written, the ol' "To Whom It May Concern" approach.

The committee understands; they write those letters, as well.

8-12 programs is a good amount, I suppose. Costs you extra money, though. If the writing sample shows promise, the statement of purpose doesn't reveal you to be a complete jerk or creepy freak, and your GRE/GPA doesn't suggest you're someone to worry about, you'll get into more than one program.

I applied to seven programs and was accepted into every program that allowed my application to go forward (two schools never received my GRE scores, so I was in limbo).

Write a really good story, essay, or set of poems. Let the chips fall.

Adam said...

Several people here are essentially arguing that the process isn't random. That's true but it's also true that an applicant may not be the best judge of his or her own chances, so treating admissions rates as probabilities isn't a bad idea. I know several writing teachers who give some version of this advice to all of their students. Even if you're really good, you should know that some writers who are now highly respected were rejected from almost every program they applied to.

If you're loooking for a "magic number" you want to start with admission rates, since they're what ultimately matter. Iowa is big, but it gets more applications than, say UVA -- though not proportionally more. If for argument's sake you assume an average admission rate of 5% for small programs (say < 10 in your genre) and an average admission rate of 10% for big programs, then you get the following numbers:

If you're applying to 8 schools, going for 6 big programs and 2 small ones will give you a 52% chance of getting in somewhere. Going for 8 big programs will give you a 57% chance, 8 small programs gill five you a 34% chance, and a 4/4 split will give you a 47% chance.

If you're applying to 12 schools, you cross the 50% mark at just 2 big programs (which gives you a 52% chance of acceptance). Increasing the number of big programs to 4 raises the odds to 56%, and a 6/6 split gives you a 61% chance.

What does all that mean? Well, first off it means that your chances are increased a bit more by applying to a higher number of programs than by applying to bigger ones. If you assume an average small-program size of, say 8 stundets, and an average big-program size of 16 students, then in both scenarios the 50% threshold is crossed right around 110 total spots. I don't read too much into that -- it's something of a coincidence, but yeah, I guess that's my nomination for the magic number: 110. Yup, good old 110. Never fails you.

Okay, so take all of this with a shaker-full of salt. I really don't know how admission rates vary among most programs. And of course the admission process isn't completely random -- if it were, the chances of getting into even 2 of 12 school would be prohibitively small, on the order of 2%-7%, and no one would ever get into 4 or 5 schools. But you could probably do worse than to apply to upwards of 100 spots. Maybe even 110.

Oh, right, and the admissions rates I used are definitely too low for poetry programs, so if you're a poet you can probably lower your magic number by a lot. The same calculations with doubled rates yield a magic number somewhere between 50 and 55. So let's say 53. I always thought 53 was sort of a poetic number.

Qfwfq said...

Even if you're really good, you should know that some writers who are now highly respected were rejected from almost every program they applied to.

You know, I see this point thrown about contstantly in MFA discussions, but I've never seen anyone acknowledge what seems kind of obvious to me:

Maybe those writers applications just weren't that good.

I mean, just because Interpreter of Maladies is considered a great book now doesn't mean that Jhumpa Lahiri (IIRC she was rejected three rounds before getting in anywhere) application stories where equally good. Plenty of writers, even amazing writers, started out being pretty bad before figuring out how to do it.

This is not to disagree with your main points there, I agree with your post, just something I've noticed a lot on here and P&W.

Anna said...

Wow, so many posts for this one! My brief opinion is that you can do the best job you can on your application, send it out to any number of programs, choosing any combo of schools with any number of open slots and... I don't think even the man upstairs would know what the hell goes on in any of the admissions committies.

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