Monday, October 13, 2008

What Are My Chances?

A good discussion topic from David:

how do you know if you're good enough to be seriously considered for the schools you want to get into? How do I know what my chances are for the schools on my list? Or is it a crap shoot for everyone (as long as we're competent writers, of course)?

I understand the difficulty in determining something as subjective as writing talent, but we should all have a good idea of our own ability, right? How else can I make an informed and balanced decision regarding which schools I apply to?

From the schools' end, you can evaluate historical selectivity and funding packages (a determinant of selectivity) to determine your statistical chances of getting in, but how does one evaluate one's own writing ability against the current of other applicants?


Unknown said...

This is one of those questions that will always plague applicants. I'm wondering if one or several of the program directors can address this question.

Blu said...

Hi David,

I put off applying for years because of this concern. In my one of the posts on my blog ( I reiterated that very concern: "How do I know I'm good enough?" For me, I felt that my writing ability was strong, and yet somehow was unsure it translated to my work, my projects, the times when I was writing on purpose, supposed to be strong. Am I making sense?

I even had my work reviewed by several highly respected and knowledgeable friends, writers with MFA's, some of who were and are teaching in MFA programs. They gave me great and encouraging feedback and I still wasn't convinced. However, when I was ready to take that leap and apply, their feedback definitely strengthened my spirit.

My experience tells me that it may help if you have friends or associates with knowledge of literary standards provide you with feedback. Many "lay" folk would rave about my work, but it didn't make me feel better because I felt like, hey, you like Terri McMillan just as much as you like Toni Morrison. So for the sake of your goal, you'd want your feedback to come from people who are knowledgeable about our profession. (I write non-fiction also.)

Then, I'd say apply. I had such a boost of confidence when I was accepted and got such excited feedback from the faculty at the first program to which I applied. That confidence was solidified when I got the same reaction from those at the second program to which I applied.

I mentioned those same anxieties or uncertainties we share in a conversation with someone from school #2 (Bennington). She said she thinks that, to a certain degree, that may not ever go away. She also told me of another well published writer who said that from project to project he doesn't if the work's any good until he gets that professional feedback.

So, I think we familiarize ourselves with the standards, get feedback we can value, put work into our writing and then take the leap.

Hope this helps.


Anonymous said...

I remember having a conversation a couple years ago with one of my undergraduate writing professors. He was encouraging me to apply to a prestigious MFA program. I responded, Well...what if i don't get in? He shot right back at me with, Trust me, you'll get in!
His words and other encouragements from the writing community at my school gave me something to think about when those little insecurities crept back into my thoughts. I feel I deserve a spot in my top choice schools whether or not I'm offered one.
Getting feedback and talking to writing professionals about your work is a great place to start when it comes to gauging your abilities as a writer. The way they react to your work is probably going to be similar to the way a selection committee reacts......or perhaps not. I'm just speculating.

Oh, and I do think the way a writer feels about his/her own writing is also important. if you're not passionate about it then chances are no one else will be either. You have to love it (at least for a moment--before threatening to burn the manuscript several months later during a nervous breakdown).

David E. Grim said...

Thanks for the advice, blu. I do have one person who might be able to offer me the kind of evaluation I need (English instructor-poet), but even then, I think, as you've mentioned, it'll be one of those things that we're unsure about our entire careers. Guess at some point we just have to take the plunge. But again, it's still hard to know if this whole idea is just pie-in-the-sky, or if it's a real possibility. If I knew that my chances weren't unrealistic, I would be more motivated to actually go through with it.

Jenny Lane said...

I'm not typically one to advocate comparing oneself to others, but it might be helpful to look at where other people who attended your undergraduate program ended up for grad school. I'd say that you should only do this if you really don't know what type of schools you should look into, otherwise just follow your gut and apply to the schools that appeal the most to you, regardless of how prestigious they are!

Michelle said...

Yes. I have been wondering the same thing.

Ms. Baggot, where are you? I would love to hear (read) your thoughts.

David E. Grim said...

Zola, I appreciated your words about the passion we should feel about our own work. I think I've achieved that. I'm starting to write pretty much exactly what I want. If that means that it's good, then great. Hopefully that's the case.

insertbrackets said...

i agree with jenny, if you're going to gauge yourself, gauge yourself against the writers you probably know best on the craft side of things, i.e. your fellow workshoppers. it might help put things into perspective. even if you do that though, the next question is inevitably: "well, how many of them actually want to be real writers" or alternatively, "how many of them are going to be applying to MFA's."

it's hard to think in those terms. i think that, as with writing, you should just work with what you know. as for me? i just read and write a lot. this helps bolster my confidence and, i suppose, a necessary sense of entitlement you need in order to be balsy enough to apply to programs with such low acceptance rates as mfa programs. in this case, the entitlement is not the paris hilton brand, but rather a sense that you've earned the right to attend one of the mfa programs you're applying to. it all boils down to confidence because, short of asking every contributor on this blog for their prospective writing samples, there's no way of knowing the "skill set" or "talent level" of your fellow applicants. and that's the easy part, the hard part is gauging how mfa faculties will receive you work--a far murkier and mysterious enterprise if you ask me. i say if you're genuinely secure and (better yet!) confident in your writing, then go for it. as much as i think about it, that's really all i can come up with.

King of Eggplants said...

I think it was Ted Berrigan who said "If you have to know, don't do it."

David E. Grim said...

Eggplants, while I agree with those words to a certain extent, I also realize that we ALL need to "know"--all writer's need recognition. That's why we're here.

David E. Grim said...

On another note... I've noticed that some people on this blog automatically assume those interested in an MFA have, or are getting, a BA in English, and are coming from a workshop writing environment.

It would be interesting to see some information on who applies for these programs and where they are in their academic or professional careers.

christopherleemiles said...

Well, David. I am a Senior getting a BFA in Writing. I have applied to five MFA programs so far. I'm 26, a veteran, and feel that I am ready for an MFA program.

Lincoln Michel said...

I think that everyone should shoot for the stars, at least a few of them. Put the programs you most want on your list.

How to tell if you are good enough is a hard question. I think the best way is to actually submit your work to literary magazines and see the kind of responses you get? Your competition pool and the judges are probably somewhat similar... your friends, undergrad classmates and perhaps even undergrad teachers might not have the best grasp of what grad schools see.

Of course, if you are applying this year it might be too late to do that.

If you have friends in MFA programs, as someone else mentioned, they could be good judges.

But again, I'd shoot for the programs you want the most. You will regret it if you don't.

Blu said...


I am a 36 year old single mother of an 11 year old daughter. I live in Philadelphia where there really are no MFA programs, thus my choice to do low-res.

I didn't finish undergrad. I did two years at Temple University. I started off in Electrical Engineering, believe it or not, and then, hating that, went on to study random things while declaring African American Studies as my major. I left after two years and eventually transferred to NYU where I did a year in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study focusing on Arts and Education.

My professional background is primarily community education, with some of those ed opps being as a writer in residence. Always in these residencies I was hired as a poet, although I'll be studying creative non-fiction at Bennington.

I workshopped for several years with a group of talented writers, most of whom were poets. Although I almost exclusively workshopped poetry in this group, it was those experiences (and my reading life) that most strengthened me as a writer. These workshops took place for about 5 years I guess, and began in the early 90's. The writers in that workshop were quite exceptional, and I lucked out in that regard. Almost everyone has now received their MFA in poetry and fiction. They studied at various schools, including Brown, Columbia and U of Oregon. At least two are currently faculty in MFA programs. Most have won many and prestigious awards for their writing.

There is my background, my education. It illustrates, I think, the fact that a writer is developed in a variety of ways, and not specifically in BFA programs. As for me, I loved, engaged, and engaged in word work since I was six, but had noone to direct me toward a BFA program. I was smart, as most writers and creative people are, and was therefore directed toward law, medicine, actuarial science, medicine. But my passion won over, and my relationships with members of a writing community showed me that a career as a writer is possible. It not a formal education, but those relationships, and my relationship with books that, (knock on my old wooden head), give me "a chance" in the career of writing.

I believe you should just apply. Get that feedback and use that to strengthen your manuscript. If nothing else, the response to your application will to some degree give you the answers you seek that non of us on this blog can really answer anyway, about your work specifically. And I agree with Lincoln, include programs you would give your left ass cheek to study at (as individuals who sit at tables and computers all day in pursuit of our passion, we value our ass cheeks).


David E. Grim said...

blu, thanks for the advice. I suppose both of the questions I presented in this thread have to do with how I'll fit in with my potential colleagues. Your experience is encouraging, because like you, I'm taking what seems to be a round-about way to seeking an MFA. I don't have an undergrad in English; I did city and regional planning and am currently half way done with a masters in public policy. (Yes, it feels like my soul is slipping away.)

I went to U of Minnesota's MFA website and it seems that the vast majority of their candidates have a literary arts background. Since I'm far from having that kind of background, I want to make sure I'm going to offer a competitive application and also, that if I do get in, I'll be in a place that's good for me.

Andy said...

I completely agree. I've been on and off about sending out my apps (my recommendations already went out, I almost feel like a fool for not just doing it already) and even with the support of some very respected professors in the writing field I still don't feel even close to being ready. I'm only 20 years old and graduating this spring so I feel like I don't have the life experience but I can't wait to do this because the loans are piling up already and if I get out of school I won't be able to get back in with the debt that I'd have to pay back. I can't help but assume that there's always 10x better than me (this could be because my school didn't really have a writing program until this year-- so I've never had people to compare to that I know). I guess I'm glad it's not just me, I just wish I knew what other people's applications and essays for the schools looked like to know I'm at least relatively on the right track. As Zola said, I asked a close professor, and even though most of my schools are top ten, he gave me the "you'll get in somewhere... trust me" speech. However, I can't seem to trust him until I have an acceptance letter. The stress is unbearable.

Anonymous said...

Continuing on the subject of measuring writing talent against other applicants---I started to think about whether a selection committee would value great polished writing from a writer with a lot of formal writing training or slightly less controlled writing from a writer with raw talent who may have lots of potential. Just curious. Maybe both kinds of writers have much to offer.

Gigi said...

I like to think about it from the stance of: what's the worst that could happen?

The worst that could happen? You lose a couple hundred dollars on application fees and the GRE. Everything else can be retrieved really--the time you spend on your manuscript (stories that you can then try to publish), time you spend studying for the GREs (is knowledge ever bad for a writer?). The worst that can happen = not that bad.

And the best that can happen: you get in, you write your book, you publish it and you live happily ever after. Like Cinderella. Sort of.

Thousand Fibers said...

gypsy girl makes a good point. if you discover after a round of apps that you're not ready, you can always wait a year and try again. OR if you feel you need to get vetted a bit, turn to any writer-friends or acquaintances you know and ask for feedback about your work. Their comments may shed some insight for you...

King of Eggplants said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andy said...

I'm also worried that if i don't get in anywhere, well, I don't know if I would have to ask for recommendations again/if my professors would have a copy of mine. I'd really feel like an ass if I made them write two for me because I didn't get accepted anywhere the first time around.

Portraits of Portland... said...

Andy, you really shouldn't think that. If the people recommending you actually back you up and think you're a valid writer (which they better or else why are they agreeing to write your recs?), then they won't mind recommending you the next year. And frankly, they can probably use the same rec since your relationship with them probably won't change that much (from an academic stand point anyway).

Mike Valente said...


Many schools (if not all) keep your application on file in case you re-apply the following year. So if you do go that route, most likely you'd be able to re-submit a new writing sample, using the materials from the previous year -- GRE, Letters, Transcripts.

If you do receive a rejection, then it's probably the writing sample that you'd want to re-submit.


Victorya said...

Interesting convo! I guess you never know until you try. I remember when I applied in '06 I was told by one person I had no chance, he was a writing instructor and turns out, after some digging, he had been rejected twice before getting his MFA, so I chalked it up to sour grapes. Yet, even a writer who wrote my rec said, "IDK, it's so hard"

Yet, I got into Bama with about 11K TAship. Then I felt I wasn't ready, turned it down, and am set to apply again.

The point is - don't listen to others, listen to yourself. If you think you're ready, try. The worst that can happen is you get a 'no' this year and are out the few hundred bucks. Then you know to work on your writing for the next year.

Friends may say you have a chance to support you, or say you don't, but only you can say whether it's worth even applying.

Andy said...


How do you find out if they do; is it within their rejection letter or do you have to contact them about it?


Julianna Baggott said...

Hey, I'm going to answer this question as the Asst. Director here at FSU but also as someone who's gotten an MFA and been through the UNWIELDY process.

It's subjective. Highly subjective. And that's not a bad lesson to learn this early.

I applied to about six programs back in the day. I got into my (by far) top pick and my (by far) fall-back -- and NONE in between.

In the process, I did something I shouldn't confess to. ESPECIALLY not here. I only really wanted to study with one person in the country. (This theory of choosing is roundly discouraged in the current home-page blog.) It was Fred Chappell -- who's now retired. If nothing else in the entire process, I wanted him to read a story of mine.

I wrote him a letter, stating this.

He wrote back. He told me he was only one voice in many, but that I could send a copy of the story to his house. I did.

He wrote back that he would vote yes. And I got in.

I don't suggest this route. And yet I went there. I worked with him -- learning a lot from other profs and fellow students. And Chappell is still a mentor -- a man I honor as one of our literary greats.

The process here at FSU is subjective -- as subjective as it is anywhere.

A group of faculty rank order the applications -- samples most important. We take into consideration the work that WE feel that we can take to the next level. Our tastes range wildly -- regardless of our own personal writing styles.

And so you can't know if you'll get in. And if you don't, it DOES NOT mean you're not good enough.

I have a lecture -- an interactive one -- in which we start with a pie chart of what goes into a successful writing career. I ask the students. We start with a HEAVY dose of talent -- 80-90%. But by the end of the class, we end up with about 5% talent and the rest persistence and ability to bounce back ... Seriously.

I suspect this is of no use.

But there you have it.

All my best,

Julianna Baggott, Asst. Director Creative Writing, FSU

Mike Valente said...


It's just a policy that many schools maintain, undergraduate and graduate. They keep your application in order to preserve materials that could be used the following year -- many rejected applicants apply again, gaining admittance -- and the schools could also use the materials as a comparison, to see how you've grown as a candidate.

If you're unsure, then ask the schools.


Luke Johnson said...

Julianna's story really hammers home the importance of casting a wide net. It also reminds me how amazing Fred Chappell is--both as poet and as novelist (for me, Joe Robert Kirkman is one of the greatest characters in American literature). I almost attended UNC-G even after he retired, only because I heard he still hung around the Program sometimes. But I digress.

It's impossible to know just how competitive one will be as an applicant unless he or she actually takes the risk and puts the work out into the world--whether that comes in the form of applying to MFAs, submitting to magazines, or even just handing it off to a professor. If you feel confident enough about your work to take one of these steps, that's evidence of something worth nurturing.


David E. Grim said...

Julianna, thanks for taking the time to post. Asking a potential future mentor in an MFA program to read your story was a pretty ballsy move. I'm glad it paid off in this case. But your experience drive home the point that there's really no way to accurately estimate our "chances" of getting in somewhere. With so much of our applications riding on our writing samples, and writing being such a wide art form, it's no wonder the end result can be inconsistent. But I guess that's the only way to do it.

Thanks again,


Michelle said...

Thank you, Julianna!

Unknown said...

Julianna, thanks for the information.

David, I'm a 25 year old professional working in the finance industry. I graduated from the University of Chicago with a BA in Political Science and have been putting off applying to an MFA program for the past few years. I feel like my sample is ready as it will ever be, and I am applying this fall. Due to the current financial atmosphere, I assume that applications to professional graduate programs (MBA, JD) will be more competitive this year, but I wonder how much of that will trickle down to arts programs such as the MFA? It's just something I've been thinking about.