Sunday, January 27, 2008

Getting the call

pensive495 asks:
Here's a question that may be relevant to a lot of people. Having applied to a dozen programs, what should I do if I am notified of an acceptance by phone? They won't expect a confirmation right there on the spot right? How does that usually work?

DL here:
First, if you are able to keep any presence of mind, try to hold the phone away from your mouth while you're screaming with elation. Blowing out the director's eardrum is not always the best start to a working relationship.

Yes, of course they want an immediate confirmation, but they understand that you are probably looking at several programs and that you may not have heard from them yet. Here's the thing, once a program accepts you and extends the offer, you have until 15 April to accept (and to file your taxes). They can't take the offer away even if you act like a total dork on the phone. Don't act like a dork.

One way to handle it is to say, "Gee, I'm so excited. You're tied for my top two schools. I haven't heard from the other one yet, but in the meantime may I get the names/numbers/emails of some of your students and faculty to talk to them about the program? I expect I'll be able to give you my answer very soon." You can also ask to arrange a campus visit. They probably won't pay for it, but they'll be happy to arrange it.

I can't stress enough how important it is to get as much information as you can from the students in the program and to talk to as many faculty as possible. If you can go for a visit, that would be ideal. We've had a lot of candidates visit. I had the experience with several of my "top choice" schools turning out to be a terrible fit for me once I had a chance to talk to students and get to know the program more. I was also surprised by how great two schools were that weren't my first choices to begin with; I ended up choosing one of those schools and I couldn't be happier.

Note, however, that a lot of schools try to give you an earlier deadline to accept, say two weeks after the offer is extended or by 15 March or something. They're not supposed to do that, but understandably they want to get to their next top candidates before they're accepted elsewhere. 15 April is the national agreed-upon deadline. If you're given an early deadline, you can accept it and then back out, as long as you do it before 15 April.

Here are some observations from my own experience:
1. For the better programs, the director or a faculty member will call you or email you personally. They will be excited to talk to you. They will know your work and details from your application materials and be willing to chat with you and answer questions. They will already have names/numbers/emails of faculty and students for you to contact.

2. A red flag might be a message that goes: "Hi, this is (program director who will not be named). You've been accepted to our program. Let me know as soon as possible if you're going to come here so I can call the next person on the list if not." Yes, that really happened.

3. Write out a list of questions and put it by the phone. You may also want to include a list of schools with their various facts. You're going to be so excited that your brain will regress in that moment to the dork you were in seventh grade when Steve Driscoll asked you out and you were so nervous you turned around and walked into a wall of lockers. Or maybe that was just me. That list of questions will come in handy. Trust me.

Other's please jump in with advice and experiences, good, bad, and ugly.


Babelle said...

Thanks for this post. Does anyone have any suggestions for important questions to ask? How about those of you currently enrolled in programs--are there questions you wish you'd asked that you didn't?

realitywrites said...

thanks for tackling this - a topic we all need coaching on!

spillingink said...

How likely is it that the programs will call instead of email? I will be taking a (much-needed) vacation to Las Vegas in late Feb/early March, and have this horrible image of myself getting "the call" as I am sitting in a smokey/loud casino. That makes me very nervous. How will I ever be able to speak coherently to the director, when my senses are being inundated by flashing lights and scraming machines?! As if i weren't freaked out enough...

Kit said...


it's fairly likely that some programs will call; i work in a department office (not creative writing), and we always call our admitted candidates. but don't worry--if you're at the slots when you get a call from a mysterious area code, just let them leave a message and call back when you're chilling by the pool. the offer won't be going anywhere, and you can speak to your future professor when you're calm and composed.

Lizzy said...

Getting the call will leave you feeling high. It's such an exciting moment. I almost envy you guys who are waiting for your calls now. When mine came, it was literally the single best thing that had happened in my life in years. The moment was doubly thrilling for me, since I had been rejected at six schools at that point, and only had two left to hear from. Much as Tom Kealey (in The Creative Writing MFA Handbook) describes his experience with acceptance to his MFA alma mater, I felt (and continue to feel) an enormous sense of gratitude to my program for being the one to take me. I feel at home here, and things are only getting better. All it took was getting that one call.

DL's post is full of excellent pointers. I would add that you might want to ask--gently--about funding while you have a live person (often the director) on the phone. Since funding will likely influence how you decide, and since there can be a lot of obfuscation about how much you get and what's expected from you in return, you should at least ask the person who calls you to put you in touch with someone who can explain your funding package to you in greater detail.

ally said...

Lizzy: I see where your coming from when asking about funding, although I certainly wonder how to ask about such a thing "gently."

margosita said...

I sort of like the idea of letting voicemail pick it up. That way if I can't stop myself from screaming it won't be a bad thing. Plus, I can play it over and over again if my poor disbelieving mind just can't get itself together the first time. Then, an hour later, after I've called every single one of my dearest friends and parents I could return the call (somewhat) calmly.

Unknown said...

I have a question about visiting once you've been accepted. Obviously I don't want to go someplace I've never seen, but resources are limited so I don't want to visit without knowing whether I've been accepted. However, I'm worried that the time between acceptance and answer deadline might be too short a window to visit schools (I am hoping for 3 out of 12), especially because I have a M-F job that won't allow for much time off, if any. Can anyone offer some advice?

Lizzy said...

Ally, Well, don't say "I have to know what your funding package is this minute, or forget about having me at your school." Say "I was hoping to talk to someone about the funding package, the total costs, etc. Do you have the name of someone who might be able to go over those deatils with me?" If the person on the phone knows the details or is willing to talk to you about it, they will. If they have no idea who they are funding yet, or they are rushed or whatever, they may tell you to wait, or they may refer you to someone else.

With some programs, of course, you will know that, if you're in, you're funded. Still it might be a good idea to ask to speak with someone who can go over costs and stipend amounts with you in detail. When you are living on a shoestring budget next January, you will be glad you looked into this before accepting. The difference between $1200 and $1400 may not look like much until your budget is so tight that you have to account for every last penny you spend!

Pensive495 said...

I know this is kind of a change of subject, but once you've applied to schools make sure you fill out FAFSA and send a copy to your schools. A lot of my programs didn't specify this on their websites. The deadline varies by state (mine is late March), but I'm pretty sure that even schools with full funding to every student require an official copy of a completed FAFSA. If there are exceptions to this, please feel free to correct me.

realitywrites said...

running on what pensive said...

I thought you do your FAFSA after you do your 2007 taxes and have been accepted to a school - is that correct?

Also, I have a general question about FAFSA - how much does it really help? Because if the gov't is just looking at my current income - which is sufficient for my current lifestyle - that doesn't factor in that I will be making a lot less money once I enter school (and quit jobs, move, etc.), or does it?

Lizzy said...

As a grad student, you'd be eligible for loans. Those come in subsidized and unsubsidized varieties. Loans can come in handy if you have a gap between what you realistically need to live on, and what your "full funding" package provides. Even if your income is such that you do not qualify for subsidized loans (I think the eligibility for these is determined according to income), if you can show that your funding package does not meet all of your established need (which will include living expenses, transportation, etc.), you might be eligible for unsubsidized loans.

Obviously you want to keep loans to a minimum, but if you need an extra $1000 per semester to get by, a loan can help you do just that. Many people are able to get by on stipends alone; yet others, in different family situations, etc., may need to supplement their stipend with a little loan money.

Lizzy said...

Yes, do your FAFSA as soon as you file your taxes.

dbmicheal said...

Not to sound like a scrooge, but I really agree with what Lizzy has said about funding. While you have someone on the phone, get all the information about funding that you can.

I think funding is the single most important aspect to consider.

Also, try to get contact information of current students. Keep in mind however, the program director or whoever gives you the information is likely to refer you to a student who they believe will say kind words about the program.

When I was in my first year of an MFA program, a prospective student contacted me. She had gotten my e-mail address from the director, and I said mostly good things (I think) but mentioned being dissappointed with a few faculty members. One professor had canceled 12 of our 16 classes the previous semester and was in the process of doing it again that semester. After that first semester, when no one was signing into this particular professor's workshop, the director started enrolling us online without our consent.

But I also mentioned that the students were responding very nicely. We were meeting on our own every week and conducting our own workshop. Other professors were great, and volunteered to read our stories on their own time and give us feedback. I tried to be honest about an alarming issue, but also focused on how we had pulled together to work through it.

Anyway, word got back to the directer and I was no longer on the list of contacts for prospective students. The rest of us later got an e-mail asking us not to "air dirty laundry" when exchanging e-mails with prospective students.

My point being, the professor who gives you the contact information is probably pretty sure you'll say only positive things, even if there are issues with the program.

My suggestion is to try to speak to several students. Ask specific questions. Talking to former students might be helpful too, if you're able to contact them.

Lizzy said...

Goodness, I don't think it's scroogey at all to ask about funding. I think you have to be very clear about what it is you're headed into. If you don't feel comfortable bringing up the f-word, then simply ask to be put in touch with someone who can answer administrative questions.

Julia Clare Tillinghast Akalin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Is it really ok to accept an offer before April 15th and then take it back when you hear from other schools? I'm currently being pressed to give an answer to a school I heard from Feb. 20th Problem is I have heard from NO ONE else (later deadline and/or they are just taking their time) and based on what I see from their record of responses in the past few years I won't be hearing for another 2 weeks to a month!

exurgency/Spectacularrr said...

Ditto Besty's comment, I'd very much like to hear more about the politics of backing out on a school you've accepted. I got my first "Yes" today and have been asked to reply within two weeks.

I don't want to do the program an unkindness, especially since they've been generous enough to extend an offer. On the other hand, this school is about in the middle of my preference list, and I haven't heard from any of the other schools yet.

So is the consensus advice that, assuming the worst -- that I still don't have the conclusive answers I'm looking for two weeks from now -- in that case I would be ok accepting the offer only to possibly back out on it later?

Why is it ok to back out before April 15, and why is worse to back out after April 15? With either case, is it a choice that will come back to haunt me later? (e.g., as a tarnished reputation or other bad blood?)

By the way, congratulations to everyone who's heard good news - these are anxious weeks!