Saturday, July 21, 2007

Breaking the Rules #1: Apply to Many Schools


This is the first of a series of posts I wanted to write about MFA application rules and when to break them. I broke a lot of rules when I applied, and I somehow managed so I wanted to offer my perspective.

Rule #1: Apply to Many Schools of Different Sizes

This is a generally good idea if you REALLY need to get in this year. But keep in mind that unlike other professional degrees, there's a much bigger age and background gap for MFA's. Also, it never hurts to get more life experience before doing your degree. So if you like your life and can stand to wait, I think it's not out of the question only to apply to a select few schools.

In my case, because I was thinking of possibly doing an academic PhD after my MFA, I focused on schools that also had good English departments. I also wanted to go to a school that has a lively academic community outside of creative writing. All my schools fell into this category, except for Iowa, which I applied to mainly because I wanted to see if I could get in (I didn't). So I applied to Cornell, Michigan, Johns Hopkins, Brown, Michener Center, and Iowa.

Crazy, right? No safeties, with the highest acceptance rate being Iowa. But I had a great job in New York that gave me a lot of flexibility in terms of working on my writing. Also, I knew that I'd be miserable if I couldn't take high-calibre geeky lit classes. And let's face it, I went to Harvard for undergrad so I'm a big snob. So this is what I did. And even if I didn't get in the first time, I would have gladly done it again, and possibly again.

Luckily, Cornell was nice enough to take me. I was a short-story imbecile at the time (still am in a lot of ways) but was lucky enough to work with Alice McDermoott at Sewanee, who gave me extensive comments on revising the two stories I applied with. And the rest is history. This leads me to a preview of Rule #2, which I will tackle next time: Apply to schools for the program and not the faculty.

6 comments:

Mike Valente said...

M - I too am highly considering a PhD after my MFA. Gearing up to take a couple of Lit classes that would provide a good foundation for PhD coursework. Not sure if I'm going to start my application process during my 2nd year, which could cut into my productivity at ND, or wait until after I finish and possibly "take a year off" working in some capacity.

M. said...

yeah... it's a tough decision... i'm only applying to three schools for ph.d. this year (berkeley, cornell, and brown), but that's mainly because i can do the third-year lectureship if i don't get in. the gre subject test seems like the biggest hurdle... i say take a practice test and see how you do then decide.

Mike Valente said...

If I had planned it better, I would have prepped for the GRE Subject at the same time that I was studying for the General so that I wouldn't have to go through the motions 2x. Looks like I'll be doing that again during my MFA. It'll definitely be a pain studying for that thing. Speaking of the GRE general, I did take it seriously, doing practice exams on Saturday mornings on my computer at work; the CD was not compatible with my Mac. At the time, my desk at work was next to a churning, rumbling wine fridge. Oh, that was a gawd-awful experience.

Berkeley is a dynamic town - Telegraph, Rockridge, and the rest of Oakland. Great weather, culture, everything.

Yeah, when I said "year off", I was referring to teaching or TAing or something in an academic setting, just not a full-time student, while I apply to PhDs.

L. said...
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L. said...

Great post, M. Any word on how tough it might be to get admitted to a lit PhD program coming from an MFA? I remember I wrote Berkeley a couple of years ago to ask about returning to school (my B.A. is 16 years old) and I was discouraged from applying because it might be tough to get good recommendations. But it's probably something I'll be considering, now that I'm working on the MFA.

M. Ramirez Talusan said...

there are a number of ph.d. students here in their mid to late 30's, so i think it's challenging but not insurmountable, especially if you're taking ph.d. classes while doing your mfa, which is what i'm doing. but getting into schools is tough business in general anyway...