Sunday, July 15, 2007

Not to sound like your mother...

It seems like this new blog format is getting rolling and I assume many readers here are getting rolling on their application process (or at least giving it a slight nudging) so I thought I'd post a few thoughts which I wish I'd thought when I was applying.

One fact that sometimes gets lost in the flurry of concerns over applications (what work to send, funding, teaching experience, faculty, etc.) is that an MFA program is two to three years of your life. The program you attend is something you are devoting valuable time to and it is the only MFA experience you will have (most of the time). By this I mean that I think you should be careful to apply only to programs you want to attend. Programs that will help your own work the most, that have students you want to work with and that exist in cities where you want to live. The first thing I realized after I mailed my applications in was that several of the programs, though highly regarded, were in cities or places that I really had no interest in living in. In Tom Kealey's book, he suggests that the first criteria you use to narrow down your application list is location. I think he is correct.

Personally, I was lucky enough to get into a great program in an ideal (for me) location. I think this was a bit of a bullet dodge, as I was probably desperate enough to do an MFA somewhere somehow that I would have gone to whoever accepted me and maybe been miserable for two years. However, I know people who went down that route and it is definitly something to avoid.

Recently I heard someone say something that I found a little odd. To roughly paraphrase: "I'm applying to over a dozen programs and I'm going to whichever one gives me the most funding. Even if Iowa excepts me, but someone else gives me more I'm going there." I think that Tom Kealey's book and blog have done a good service in highlighting funding options at different schools and funding is certainly something that should be considered by each applicant. However, I think it would be quite a mistake to abandon a great program that you really want to go to (not commenting on if Iowa is or is not such a program, but this person seemed to feel so) over a few thousand dollars more in fellowship money. Future debt is something to be very weary of, but so is two years spent at a program that doesn't help your work and is not a good environment for you.

Which leads me to one other thing I've realized from my MFA experience so far: the peer group may be the single biggest factor of your MFA experience. I don't see this factor discussed much, perhaps because it is so hard to measure, but I think it is very important. Your peer group is who will be reading your work and providing most of your feedback, as well as the people you socialize with, discuss literature with and share work outside of class with. The paraphrased person might be taking a huge risk in that hypothetical situation by giving up a great peer group to chase something else. I think it would be a good idea to weigh the peer group in heavily on the levels of quality (which programs will have students you want to work with), aesthetics (do you want a program where everyone is doing domestic realism, a program where everyone is doing experimental fiction or something of a mix?) and size (would you prefer a small close-nit program or a large program to provide a variety of friends and styles).

There are, of course, many factors to weigh in your application and selection processes, but those are two that I didn't hear much about when I was applying. Please feel free to jump in with comments or disagreements... and best of luck.


dll said...

Yeah, the peer group, seriously. I put that up higher than faculty. I've gotten more out of my connections with other students than any faculty-and I'm rubbing up against some notable writers here.

{It may bear noting at this point that I'm an undergrad-came back to finish the BA so as to get on with an MFA.}

The one thing I never hear other applicants mention is the importance of a sound library system. Maybe it's just me, but I'm the type of writer who uses the library, and a lot. The school I'm at now was profiled by T. Kealey in his handbook, isn't in the top 20, but still it was dully noted. The library here? It's poop. I can't tell you how many times I search for an item, say a collection of shorts called Nine Stories by JD Salinger or the Fiction Issue from The Atlantic, and said item is either "lost," "not found," "stole," "never issued," or "checked out." It's time consuming and depressing and not something I want to deal with while persuing an MFA.

To my mind, research and any school that calls itself a research university should have an ample stock of basic items such as the above mentioned book and journal issue.
I'm a writer. I'm not gonna be able to do all my research on-line, nor do I wish to. A superior library is a non-negotiable.

Megs said...

THANK YOU! these comments of yours are so valuable to me! Which program are you in? Which would you recommend? I am primarily doing an MFA for the close knit writing community and mentorship and all these things have to offer me in terms of encouragement, feed back and DISCIPLINE!!!!! If you';ve time to comment on my application letter, on my blog ( a few posts down!) that would be great! This letter is to Iowa - I'm new in this game and at this minute that's the only program I know anything about. I am excited to read this blog and its links and know more. THANKS!


Mike Valente said...


General Comments - Be weary of what you post online about yourself and your application letter (and other application materials) and stuff about your personal life. In the same mold as companies looking at myspace and facebook profiles to conduct background checks on potential hirees and business schools fact-checking the work histories of their applicants, MFA programs may Google search a candidate to see what comes up. OK, unlikely, and even is they did, they probably won't frown on anything on your blog site, but just something to think about.

On that same note, be careful of how you react to comments on your application letter. You may get comments trying to hurt your letter, if they are from applicants vying for the same coveted spots at Iowa. Unlikely scenario, and...if your letter is exceptionally good, another applicant might rip it off and use it for his/her own letter to Iowa (or other programs). Again, unlikely, and I'm presenting Doomsday scenarios, but still something to ponder.

I'm sure that your blog is harmless, and I don't mean to sound like a wet blanket. My only advice is just to proceed with caution.