Tuesday, September 01, 2009

September Mailbag

Got milk--I mean, questions? How's your MFA application process going? Hit any road bumps? Get help here!

172 comments:

Andy said...

Seth,

Have you, or some intrepid applicant out there, made a list of MFA programs that don't charge an application fee? Or programs that charge an comparably inexpensive fee, say under forty bucks? (Three freebies that I know of are McNeese State, U of Arkansas, and Vandy.) Gotta love that recession.

Andy

Seth Abramson said...

Hi Andy,

Unfortunately I don't have such a list--though it's primarily because everyone (except Vanderbilt last year, and a few others as you noted) charges an application fee. The better question is which programs allow you to petition to waive it. I still don't think there are many of those, but one would have to check individual program websites. The other reason I haven't looked into this, though, is that no one should apply to a program just because they don't charge an application fee. Saving yourself $75 in no way compares to the important question of where you're going to spend the next 2-4 years of your life, and/or funding package differences of $100,000+.

In any case, as you know, I won't be posting here very often, but rather elsewhere, I just wanted to check in to answer this. You can find me here.

Be well,
Seth
Abramson Leslie

nancorbett said...

I've been studying for the GRE and am wondering how heavily they weigh.

I can see it now. The MFA board has tears in their eyes because they're so excited about the prospect of having me as a student. But I've scored 10 on the quantitative portion of the GRE (something that seems entirely likely as I'm looking at the practice tests).

Do these test scores have to get past some bureaucratic gatekeeper outside of the MFA department? In other words, is the GRE something that all students, regardless of field of study, have to meet a certain level in order to attend or is it all in the family, so to speak?

Monica said...

Ah yes, just in time for another question!

I'm applying to Michener, in playwriting and fiction, though I can't decide which should be my primary and secondary focus.

I want to apply through playwriting because (1) I feel like I need more training in playwriting, as I've already been to an excellent fiction workshop and have much more experience in fiction, and (2) I have slightly better chances through playwriting (5% as opposed to 2%). Would these rationales make sense to reviewers? I get the feeling that most people apply to what they're "best at," or have the most experience doing.

As for writing samples, my samples would be very strong in either genre, so that's not a consideration.

Thanks :)

kaybay said...

Nancorbett: I am stressing about my GRE scores too. The good news is that most schools don't care about the test. It is only a problem when the program has a minimum score (Ohio State has a minimum score of 600, other schools I've seen have a minimum of 500 or 550). Most schools require them without stipulating a minimum and don't really care much about them, in fact I'd venture to say that the SOP and the recommendations mean more. Do your research on schools that require them and if you have to scratch a few off your list (like OSU) then you do, but don't let it deter you from applying. I'm going to focus on my writing sample, if I don't get in because I scored low on a stupid test, then so be it.

SeeMoreGlass said...

Monica (& other people informed about Michener) -
where did you get the data about 5% vs 2%?

I am in a similar situation regarding fiction and screenwriting - I want to concentrate on those two and I'm not sure how to decide which to make my primary focus.

I figure there are fewer people applying to michener for screenwriting and playwriting, but i also assumed there were fewer places for those people with play/screenwriting as their primary focus...perhaps I am mistaken?

Sorry to add a question to a question!!

Phoebe said...

Do these test scores have to get past some bureaucratic gatekeeper outside of the MFA department? In other words, is the GRE something that all students, regardless of field of study, have to meet a certain level in order to attend or is it all in the family, so to speak?

If I'm reading the question correctly, GRE scores are usually a requirement of the graduate school of a university generally, rather than a specific department; if there are specific departmental minimums, those will be listed on the department's website. That being said: plenty of people I met in MFA-land had abysmal quantitative GRE scores. Those are widely pretty irrelevant for creative writing programs. I mean, it would be kind of silly to expect writers to be math whizzes.

I want to apply through playwriting because (1) I feel like I need more training in playwriting, as I've already been to an excellent fiction workshop and have much more experience in fiction, and (2) I have slightly better chances through playwriting (5% as opposed to 2%). Would these rationales make sense to reviewers? I get the feeling that most people apply to what they're "best at," or have the most experience doing.

I think linking to Tom Kealey's (still completely relevant) tip sheet here is a good idea. Pay attention when he says: "Don't ask the Blog about whether you should apply in fiction, poetry, screenwriting, or any other genre. How are we supposed to know? Apply in the genre you're most excited about."

If you're applying in playwriting, I'd make damned sure that you feel comfortable being primarily identified as a play writer for the duration of your MFA. Keep in mind, too, that many, many of your peers will have been in more than just one fiction workshop (I had a friend whose last MFA workshop was her 14th!). As someone who flits between fiction and poetry, I know how hard it can be to pick a genre designation for yourself, but really, don't base your choices on maximizing acceptance rates; pick them based on which ever you feel more comfortable identifying as, at the moment you're applying.

Just_Another_Poet said...

You could say I hit a HUGE roadblock. I've decided not to apply this year, or the year after, and even the year after that. I've done some research on this and it's very rare to find a top program -- like Brown, my first choice -- that accepts younglings into their program. So I'm going with my gut on this. I won't be applying to any graduate creative writing program until what seems like the distant future. I'm going with my gut on this, because all I want is to go into the very best programs in this country. Better for the writer and his or her writing, I think.

Anybody have any advice on what I should do, though? I could use some on that alone!!!

Jennifer said...

Just Another Poet: Get some teaching experience?

kaybay said...

Help! I'm trying to shave my list down, and I'd like to get rid of either VA Tech or VA Commonwealth. VA Tech offers better funding for all, more than VCU's assistantships, however VCU offers a fellowship that pays the same as VA Tech's assistantship, but not guaranteed of course. VA Tech does not offer a post-graduate degree in physical therapy (for my boyfriend, not me), but VA Commonwealth does. I'd rather live in Blacksburg, but Richmond's a bigger city and is closer to other big cities like DC and Baltimore (it's also closer to the beach, yay!). I've talked to a student at VA Tech and I heard good things, but I haven't heard anything from a VCU student/grad. Any advice??

Phoebe said...

kaybay, I have a family friend who went to VCU in fiction who was quite happy there, though she wasn't funded until her final year, so she worked while she attended. Richmond is a great, beautiful city, and if your SO is moving with you, you'll have a far better chance of things working out if he's also doing graduate work he cares about (this is only based on what I've seen in my own program, of course).

That being said, if you're really having trouble choosing, and you can afford to do so, apply to both: that way you'll be able to make your decision after acceptances are made, with full funding data--namely, whether you'll get any!

Justin Chandler said...

I'm applying this semester to programs and I'm wondering what programs expect regarding the writing sample.

I have some shorter pieces that I feel are very strong, but I've also heard that programs want to see that people have the ability to keep a story going. What's been your experience?

Also, I saw someone write about the situation with young applicants. I've had some college professors make the blanket statement that 99% of young applicants (fresh off a BA) shouldn't even apply, that they should take time off and get some life experience. What do you think?

Kerry Headley said...

Just Another Poet:

Listen to your gut. Sounds like you have plenty of time. And even if you end up waiting longer than you think, chances are you will be a better writer. I will be one of the old timers wherever I end up, but I am more confident than ever and have years of life experience to draw from. In my case, these years have served me well. I'm not at all saying that younger people can't write. (Please, God can we not start that argument again?) I'm just saying you'll be fine if you wait. Good luck!

Kerry Headley said...

I started earlier than most because I thought I was going to apply last year and didn't. It was absolutely the right decision for me as the extra year has allowed me to do lots of research and feel really committed to nonfiction. I basically just want to get these things in the mail. I've started filling out the online apps. God, they are tedious, especially if you attended more than one school and have significant employment experience. This part takes way longer than I thought it would.

I am also slightly freaked because one of my LOR writers has not responded to email. I don't have any reason to think that she's bailing, but I am going to have to call her and double check. (I HATE having to do this!)I am posting this specifically because it supports the idea of taking care of the LOR part as early as you can. People can flake. I allotted all this time to account for that even though I was positive no one would flake. And yet, here I am not totally sure if this person is still in the loop. I have someone else in mind in case I need that, but hopefully a quick phone call will take care of this. It is hard to know whose spam filter accidentally filtered me out. Anyway, I'm really just venting here because no one but other applicants appreciates how stressful all this stuff is. Thanks!

Just_Another_Poet said...

Thanks for the kind words, Kerry!

I don't expect my writing to get worse a few years down the line. It can only get better. I'll be reading lots and writing all the more. A couple years off is, I think, going to be one of the best decisions I've ever made.

WanderingTree said...

Short vs. long pieces? Go with whatever is strongest. People have gotten into programs with just about every variation from one very long story to several short-shorts.

As far as waiting? I think it's probably a good idea to wait at least a year or two. Of course there's no rule about this, but I think the advice to wait at least a little while is generally agreed upon. While you're waiting, write up a storm, travel, open yourself up to new experiences, try out the 9-5 office routine etc. You'll be a better and more informed person and it can only help your writing. You can't lose!

WanderingTree said...

Kerry,

Don't worry about the LOR. Last year, I had the same worries, but professors are very busy people (and it's the start of the semester now), so just because they don't respond, doesn't mean they're still not in the loop. Gentle reminders 3 weeks before any deadline are always a good idea as is giving them a sheet of dates (that way you don't have to keep bugging them).

Kerry Headley said...

Thanks, Wandering Tree. The isolation of this process had me visiting the bad place. You know, the place where you tell yourself "Yes, I am not going to get into grad school because someone forgot to write me a letter." I saw visions of selection committees shaking their heads and saying, "Wow, too bad your ex-professor screwed you over. We were going to offer you full funding and a personal assistant, but too bad for you..."

Thanks for just validating my reality!

Just Another Poet: You're welcome!

Jennifer said...

Justin -- Re long vs short. Short pieces are fine. I submitted a 7 pager, a 9 pager and a piece of flash and things worked out just fine for me.

But like another poster said, just send your best work. Whatever its length.

M.E. said...

I feel somewhat obligated to chime in on the age discussion. I'm 21-years-old and have my first MFA class tomorrow at Sarah Lawrence. I think the decision is totally and completely personal. I know that, for me, being a student makes me a better writer. Had I not gone to school immediately after graduating, I'd be a very malcontent and creatively stunted waitress right now. Just trying to make the discussion a little more well-rounded :)

epan said...

To the young applicants/students (especially those who applied/are applying right out of undergrad): did you include any sort of argument in your personal statements for why you didn't want to take time off? I can't decide whether to include a brief paragraph directly addressing this.

I can't help but feel discouraged by the number of people who insist that time off between a bachelor's and an MFA is crucial. I'm finishing up my BS a semester early, so I'll have at least half a year's worth of time off before I'd start grad school, but I'm still anxious to go into an MFA as soon as possible. For me personally, I really think it's the right thing to do. (I plan on working a corporate job and doing my MFA on the side, so the issue I'm referring to is not the financial one but the question of how much real-world experience.)

I know that in the end, the MFA committee will only really care about the writing sample...but am I correct in guessing that if there is one spot left and the decision is down to me vs. another person, they'd take the other person just because s/he had more time off after undergrad, more real world experience?

Seth Abramson said...

Epan,

You will not be penalized on the basis of youth and need not address this issue in your statement of purpose. The concern many of us MFA grads (especially those of us now doing consulting with MFA applicants) tend to have about younger students is that they are more likely to expect an MFA program to be well-structured--in other words, for it to be an academic program in which students are "told what to do," rather than an art-school program in which students are asked to be self-starters. Having spent some time between one's Bachelor's and one's Master's degrees gives one the distance to see that having "funded time to write"--even if a program were to offer absolutely nothing else of value--would be enough. Those who go into their program with both realistic expectations regarding its structure (particularly as to the nature and scope of any prospective mentoring) and who are prepared to motivate themselves rather than otherwise usually do fine. If you're at that point at 21 (and many 21 year-olds are) by all means proceed. Every person is different, and the general caution re: age certainly won't apply to every member of a given age demographic. Best of luck,

Be well,
Seth Abramson
Abramson Leslie Consulting

Phoebe said...

About the "age debate" (and I think this underscores differences between programs)--some MFA programs actually are fairly structured; I know that the University of Florida is one, where it wasn't unusual for poetry professors to give structured assignments each week. While I'm okay with the practice, I think it creates, particularly for students who haven't taken time off, skewed perspectives about what "productivity" looks like for a writer outside of school; if you've taken time off, you'll have a better idea of your own individual capacity for work, and what a normal, self-motivated output looks like for you.

The truth is, while the academic world is great and amenable to writers, it's not impossible to write outside of it, and, in fact, learning how to do so before your MFA is a pretty useful thing to try. That's not to say that I think it's impossible to go straight to graduate school, or that I think it's a bad idea (and I wish those like M.E. best of luck), nor do I think it's necessary to justify these choices in a SOP; those are things that really don't matter to an admissions committee.

Amanda said...

Does anyone know if it matters whether MFA applicants' writing sample pieces have been published or not?

Here's the deal: I'm a recent B.A. grad starting a new, full-time job as a newspaper reporter. I anticipate needing some time to adjust to my new position, thus I doubt I'll apply to MFA programs this year. Next year gives me a little more breathing room.

In the meantime, I'd like to test the waters of fiction publication. Since my best writing is writing that likely would end up in my MFA applications, should I hold off trying to publish those pieces? Do selection committees want unpublished work, or does it make the applicant look better if one or more of the stories have been published?

Of course, I have no idea whether any of my stories would be accepted for publication at all. But it'd be nice to know that, in the event something does get picked up, it wouldn't hurt my MFA applications.

Thanks!

Phoebe said...

Does anyone know if it matters whether MFA applicants' writing sample pieces have been published or not?

Doesn't matter! Some of my application poems had been published; some not. I'd just make sure that, when evaluating your own portfolio, you don't fall into the trap of assuming that what's published necessarily represents your best work. That is, don't include pieces that have been published that you feel lukewarm about, and don't assume that a piece is weaker because it hasn't gotten published yet.

Luke said...

Age thing:

It boils down to different strokes for different folks. And ultimately, it's not about you as a person. It's about your work. If the admissions committee sees something in the work, then you'll get a second read, if they still see something after that and want to work with you--you're in like flynn, even if you're an 16 year-old dwarf amputee with halitosis. Don't worry about the wrong things (read: your age), just keep reading, keep writing. Though, it should be said, if you are having serious doubts about whether or not you're ready for an MFA, then there's a lot more to be gained than lost by waiting.

Personally, I applied straight out of undergrad and was lucky enough to get into a handful of places. I had a great experience where I ended up (having just finished this past May, steady stream of publications and workable manuscript in hand) but who's to say I wouldn't have gotten into one of my rejected places (do you hear me UVA?) if I waited to apply. I can't imagine I would have the pubs or the mss. that I have now had I gone down that road. But again, that's just me, I get an extra creative boost out of the accountability that comes with being in an MFA program. Certainly, you can find this accountability elsewhere (salons, writers clubs, online workshops, etc.). It's a crapshoot, regardless. But as long as you're reading and writing the whole time (whether MFA-ing or not), then Art wins. This means, you win.

Best of luck with your decision,

Luke

JC said...

Hi everybody,

I have been following this blog for months from my home in Miami, and I must say it has been a great resource, with tips, ideas and inspiration. Kudos to its organizers!

Five years ago, I applied to the MFA program at NYC's The New School but, unfortunately, had to turn it down after I got accepted.

This year, after much research and internal debate, I decided to go for it again and went to check out some programs in person (I highly recommend that if you can do it) - Northwestern University, University of Georgia, Georgia College & State University, University of South Florida/Tampa, University of Miami and University of California Riverside/Palm Desert Graduate Center.

My visit to the UCR Palm Desert campus changed everything for me. It was so worthwhile, that I ended up applying there. I met with the director, Tod Goldberg, and he could not have been more helpful. He even had me sit in a class and meet students and a professor. And when it came to discussing options - traditional or low residency - he made me realize that low residency is a great option for someone who seeks to work with a mentor and who has several years of writing experience under the belt (I've been a journalist for a while now). It fit me perfectly. Michelle Harding, Tod's and the program's right-hand person, answers all questions quickly and promptly, and is very approachable, just like Tod.

The application process here was like that of most other schools discussed in this blog in terms of requirements, but because UCR Palm Desert follows the quarter system, there's more flexibility to apply. And when the director called a few weeks ago to tell me that I had been accepted, nothing could beat that feeling! Visiting Palm Springs felt pretty good too, and I very much look forward to spending some time there in December. So, here's another program to consider.

Best luck to all of you this year, and don't give up!

JC

mister trickster said...

Epan,

You very well may be penalized for applying straight out of school.

Not everyone does it, and I doubt it's too formalized, but it is something to keep in mind when applying (especially to more selective schools). Graduate programs are a little suspicious that people applying straight out either are afraid of leaving academia and/or don't necessarily love writing as much as they think they do.

I do agree with Seth and Luke that being offered admission is largely about the work, and that the real benefit of not applying straight out of school is having more time to appreciate what the MFA offers (although whether that amount of time is half a year or five, I don't know if there's a set amount that would be best).

Nancorbett, graduate schools may penalize you for low GRE scores, but it's very rare (most will take you no matter what, or will only use it as another part of their funding scheme--but not at schools that fund equally across the board).

Just Another Poet,

If you need the time, take it. People start the MFA at all ages (although generally it is harder applying while still an undergraduate).

Best,
Josh

Presley Thomas said...

I currently have a 2.86 GPA and am wondering how that will affect my chances when I apply to programs this fall. The problems are really from math and science courses that I really had no business taking as requirements for majors that I changed later to English. I have little chance of getting a 3.0 unless I make A+++++ on my classes this next semester which is impossible unless I hack into the schools computer and do something about it but that's just the plotline to a bad movie, and not my reality or ethical...I imagine that'd be more importnant anyway.

WanderingTree said...

Presley, a 2.86 is hardly anything to worry about. I could see if you had below a 2.5. But really, gpa is not that important esp. since no program requires a minimum. It's the grad school that states min GPA, but if you do a little research, you'll quickly realize that MFA programs are given a lot of leniency in this regard. Some grad schools don't even require a min. GPA while even more only require that you have a 3.0 GPA in the last 60 credit hours (last 2 years) or have a 3.0 within your major. Read the threads on this and other blogs going back many years. People have gotten into great, even top flight programs with less than stellar GRE and GPA scores. Got a D in Linear Algebra Organic Chemistry? Who cares? : o )

MSR said...

I'm very interested in the MFA program at Georgia State and College University, but I'm having a hard time finding any outside information about it (i.e., from a source other than the school itself). Does anyone have any personal knowledge about this program that they could share with me? Thanks!

Christopher said...

To anyone who has insight on this:
Okay, so I took 2 classes at a university outside of the one where I earned my degree. Do I really have to send transcripts from this school? At 5 bucks a pop it will cost me $70. And yet the bold print on all of the websites ("FROM EVERY UNIVERSITY ATTENDED") is a little daunting. Any thoughts?
Thanks,
Christer

Phoebe said...

Christopher--yes, send all transcripts. I know it's a pain; I had to do the same for a community college I took one class in in eighth grade. But that's what the schools told me when I called them, and they'll likely tell you the same.

WanderingTree said...

Chris,

Even though universities tell you to send ALL transcripts, I'd only bother sending info from classes taken outside your university if those credits went toward your degree or toward graduation. Also, maybe if those classes were in literature and/or creative writing and you took them for credit. Otherwise, I'd just assume leave it off.

shift + a said...

Has anyone had the experience of asking a recommender to write a letter a second time around? I had a former professor write a (glowing) LOR last year. However, I am now gearing up for a second year of applications and I am weary of approaching her again. I know she was glad to do it last year, as I was a good student of hers in a few upper division classes in undergrad a couple of years ago, but I wonder how she'd feel about being approached again by me to write an LOR. Also, frankly, I wonder if she'll be as likely to write me another great letter knowing that I didn't make the cut last application season.

WanderingTree said...

Professors are used to writing recommendations and I'm sure they are even more used to writing 2 plus rounds of LORs for creative writing applicants. You're not getting in shouldn't have any bearing on her LOR, and if it does, then maybe this person isn't the best person to ask in the first place.

Brocktoon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sara said...

Hi everyone,

I know that 8-12 programs is the ideal number to apply to (as of now, I'm seriously looking at 9), but I'm wondering how many open SPOTS are ideal to apply for in one application season.

Also, anyone know how many students the U of Alabama admits each year? I'm nonfiction, if that helps.

Thanks!
-Sara

Sara said...

Hi, All, does anyone know anything about the MFA program at NC State? I know this is an open-ended question, but I'm curious and haven't found info elsewhere. In particular, I'm curious about funding and the leanings of the program (studio vs. academic).

PS - as a disclaimer, I'm not monopolizing the blog; there are two Saras posting. Hazard of too many parents who loved Hall & Oates? :-)

WanderingTree said...

Brockton, it's best to call the program and clarify. But most programs that specify a # aren't telling you to send X # of stories but just giving a max limit. 30 pages isn't much even for two stories (even though many programs have a 30 pg limit). If it makes you feel any better, I'm sending a 26 page story to the majority of the programs I'm applying to (with the exception of those that allow for a longer portfolio)

Sara said...

This is the other Sara.

Or, too many parents having kids in the mid-1980s? :)

Kerry Headley said...

RE: Transcripts

I am assuming that when schools say "all" transcripts and they make a point to either capitalize or italicize all the letters in the word all they mean it. I really did not appreciate having to get transcripts for the single online statistics course I took at a university that was virtually irrelevant to my undergraduate work. However, I think it's unwise to ignore specific requirements because they are annoying. I don't think it's worth the risk of coming across as at best sloppy and at worst fraudulent. I'm pretty sure Tom says this as well. Just my two cents...

Seth Abramson said...

Chris,

I answered your question over at the other MFA blog.

Sara,

Folks should apply to as many programs as they deem appropriate, so "conventional wisdom" is useful only on a case-by-case basis, but--as the author of the current conventional wisdom on this subject--the recommended number of programs to apply to is now 12-15. Tom Kealey devised the old conventional wisdom prior to 2005--before The Suburban Ecstasies, my blog, posted MFA rankings, class sizes, selectivity data, funding packages, and so on. Once folks saw (and once I saw) that MFA programs were harder admits than U.S. medical schools--but even less predictable, because the admissions process is 100% subjective--the conventional wisdom got "officially" bumped to 12-15 programs (this CW also takes into account that it is much, much better to get into more than one program, for a host of reasons I'm sure I'll discuss on the other MFA blog in the near future). You find some who disagree with the current CW, but I'd wager (with some confidence) that they haven't spent as many years as I now have tracking case studies of applicants who applied to too few programs. Could it work out applying to 9 programs? Absolutely. It could work out applying to one program. But history says that the smartest app-lists are 12-15 schools in length and comprised of a balance of programs (in terms of selectivity, size, prestige, &c &c). That's one reason I started up this service--because when you're applying to that many programs, strategy really does become key (and as the OP pointed out, above, many programs aren't very forthcoming about program info, so speaking to others who've done research on these programs over a period of years can be useful for some).

Brocktoon,

I agree with the OP who said that that's definitely a call-the-program kind of question. Those guidelines are indeed needlessly confusing.

Be well, all,

Seth
ALC MFA Blog

Sara said...

Seth,

Many thanks for your advice; I'll certainly spend a little more time making sure I have an adequate list of schools to apply to compiled before we enter the thick of application season.

-Sara

Phoebe said...

I'm going to disagree here with Seth regarding the optimum number of schools; while it's good to give yourself plenty of options, I know several potential applicants who have had trouble finding more than 10-or-so schools they'd genuinely want to attend. Applying to somewhere in the vicinity of 15 programs can make the application process financially draining/prohibitive, as well. The number of programs that you should optimally apply to is wholly dependent on your own goals. For some applicants, their goal is to maximize their chances of getting into an MFA program--any MFA program--in a given year. For those individuals, it makes sense to blanket schools with applications. For others, factors such as location might be more significant--and they might be willing to apply more than once to live in a particular area or attend at a particular school--but they would be naturally more limited in the number of schools they apply to.

Perhaps it's unconventional wisdom, but I believe (and this is wholly subjective, of course) that the number of schools you apply to is a highly decision that should be made taking both your own goals and budget into account.

Phoebe said...

Highly personal, rather.

Monica said...

Thank you for the reply, Phoebe!

Best,
Monica

Sara said...

Phoebe,

Emphatic thanks for your reply; while I am not afraid of moving, I'm not necessarily excited about the prospect of moving half of the country away from my family, so location plays a big part into it for me as well.

Also, spending $700 on application fees is financially draining (to put it lightly), especially with student loan payments and my own wedding coming up in the not-so-distant future.

I very much appreciate your insight!

Seth Abramson said...

Sara and Phoebe,

I always take for granted two things in advising applicants about their application lists: first, that no one should ever go somewhere they don't really want to go (and certainly nowhere they can't afford), because one can actually wait and do an MFA at a later time (there's simply no rush, because MFAs are art degrees, not professional degrees); second, that no one should take any "dream school" off their list just because it seems like a statistical stretch. You don't want to find yourself wondering, down the line, what could have been.

I've written a very lengthy essay on this subject and posted it on the ALC MFA blog just now. It addresses this and other issues, and "makes the case" for the 12-15 CW that's now out there.

Be well,
Seth

Phoebe said...

Seth,

I'm not entirely sure why you think that I'm suggesting anyone remove "dream schools" from their lists. I'm merely stating that, if an applicant has a list of, say, nine schools, that list might be entirely appropriate for their finances and their circumstances. I've actually heard applicants state that they were considering not applying at all because they couldn't afford to apply to fifteen or sixteen schools; if these individuals can afford to (and genuinely wants to) apply to even a handful of these schools, they're much statistically better off than if they applied to none (in which case, their chances would be zero, of course).

Of course, I say this as someone who applied to "too few" schools (six or seven, I forget which), and for whom things worked out fine. My philosophy is, of course, that genuinely things do, and so I hate to see applicants spend an inordinate amount of worry, or money, on things like applying to "enough" schools.

Yours,
Phoebe

Seth Abramson said...

Phoebe,

Sorry for any confusion, the "dream school" adage wasn't directed at you; it's just something I was mentioning as part of my general view about applications (i.e., I believe more than that folks should apply to 12 to 15 programs if they can; it's more nuanced than that, as my essay indicates.

Take care,
S.

Phoebe said...

Ah, well, guess I just figure that most applicants' "dream school" would at least occupy one of the top-ten spots on their list! :)

Yrs,
Phoebe

Seth Abramson said...

P.S. I agree with you about the worry/anxiety side of things; one thing I wrote in the essay referenced above is that the CW really only applies to those who "must" (in their own view, usually unwise/erroneous) do an MFA immediately--this year. Those who are willing to apply over a period of several years can apply to many, many fewer programs. Unfortunately, with the economy the way it is--and with full funding being so tempting, in any circumstance--more and more applicants are asking for strategies to make statistically more likely immediate entry into an MFA. The person who would rather not apply to an MFA than apply to sixteen schools is definitely being unwise, as (like you) I'd strongly urge them to apply to 4-6 programs under those circumstances. I'd also, were I advising a group of prospective applicants, remind anyone unclear on the point--though I think few are--that no one "needs" an MFA to be a writer. --S.

Phoebe said...

Seth,

I appreciate the clarification here. Sounds like we're more-or-less on the same page.

Yrs,
Phoebe

kaybay said...

I thought I'd post this for anyone dealing with the same issues, but I've been trying to whittle my list down a tad after realizing how much this is going to cost and the impracticality of applying to poorly funded programs half a world away from my location/family. I also need to give my recommenders a solid list of where I'm applying and not waste their time. It helped to rank programs in order of where I would want to attend if I (hypothetically, of course) were accepted into every school. I know that sounds obvious, but I really realized how many schools I wanted to apply to just because I "could" attend, instead of where I really want to go and where is the most practical (funding, location).

This kind of goes with the earlier conversation about how many schools to apply to. I got into this "more is better" mentality where any school I saw with a funding package went on my list. I was also paranoid that I would cut the one school from my list that would accept me. I had to calm down and have a little faith. Now, I'm still applying to a decent amount of schools, but I think it's wise of a person to prioritize location, funding, fit, and reducing application stress over the fear of not being accepted anywhere. I hope that makes sense. I think I really just wrote this because I feel so much better finalizing my list!! Yay for me!

WanderingTree said...

Kaybay,

I went through this same process until I recently solidified my list to 14. I took out NYU because of the funding situation in a high cost environment (even though it may be a higher percentage admit for a top tier) but decided to keep Notre Dame because there's still a small chance of getting full funding there and the cost of living is low-enough that if push came to shove, I could probably still swing it without a teaching assistantship. I tried to diversify my list in terms of full funding (the majority of the schools), 75 plus funding (2 schools), small programs with lower # applicants (2 schools) and programs that waive tuition but may or may not provide teaching assistantships to everyone (1 school). I'm trying to think about the list anymore at this point. I've already sent GRE scores, so that's given me some closure on the "which schools" front : o )

MV said...

Just Another Poet,

It's a always a personal decision -- Do what you feel is best for your personal situation. I know, sounds hokey.

Really, if you feel like your writing & peace of mind will benefit from waiting a few years, then do it.

Mike

Emily said...

I know this might be a dumb question, but does anyone have any inside tips on applying to Iowa?

I've done a ton of research and Iowa is by far my first choice. I've spent a lot of time in Iowa City and really love it and everything I've heard about the program has been overwhelmingly positive. I know they only take the best of the best, but aside from working on my writing sample (and I know that's the main thing), is there anything specific that the faculty there are looking for?

Again, sorry if this is a dumb question . . .

Emily

MV said...

nancorbett,

Every school & selection process is different, but over the years of being on the this blog, I sense that the GREs won't make or break your application. At some schools, your app will run through two committees, the creative writing program who will evaluate your writing sample and the graduate school who'll evaluate your transcripts and GREs. The latter might present a minor roadblock if your scores are extremely low, but if the writing program wants you, they'll find a way to get you. Still, take the test seriously, as the scores could open up avenues for you in the form of additional funding & fellowships.

Mike

conflicted and running out of time said...

I have two questions for all of you this evening:

1.) I applied last year, was accepted to a few programs, but chose not to attend due to financial considerations. I'm applying again this year and really, really want a teaching assistantship. Is getting some kind of volunteer tutoring position going to help me achieve this goal? Do they really closely consider your teaching experience? Or do they just offer the TAships to the people they most want to come to their program? I already have some teaching experience, but if beefing it up would help then beef it up I would.

2.) Last year I used Tom Kealey's book as my guide to the whole process. It was an extremely valuable resource. I have the 2005 edition, and I'm wondering if it's worth getting the newer edition (2008?) as I apply again this year. Is much of the content altered? In particular, are there more or different programs listed in the "The Programs" and "List of Writing Programs" sections? I want to do a better job this year of picking good programs with strong funding, and expanded or updated Program sections would help.

Thank you in advance for your input.

Seth Abramson said...

Conflicted,

Briefly:

1. TAships are allotted based on who the program wants (as you surmised); your past experiences aren't taken into account.

2. I wrote the chapter on individual programs for the second edition of The Creative Writing MFA Handbook, and it is entirely new content--I didn't participate at all in the first edition--that constitutes fully one quarter of the entire book. So I do think the new edition of The Handbook is worth picking up (it's not particularly expensive, either). There's a link to the Amazon.com page for the second edition at the top of this blog.

Best,
Seth
Abramson Leslie

Dani B said...

Re: younger MFA applicants - best advice I can give is to poll folks who got their MFAs right out of undergrad, and see if their feedback helps you. I know some who were certain of their path and rocked it out; I know some who really craved community and felt 'too young' and had a harder time bonding with their cohort; I know some who wished they'd taken a couple of years to travel and reflect and relax after undergrad (six-seven consecutive years of school, undergrad + grad, can be very draining). I can't really think of an excellent reason to not take at least one gap year, but to each their own --

kaybay said...

Question: why is everyone so obsessed with Iowa? What makes it so special? Just curious...

WanderingTree said...

Kaybay,

The main reason a lot of people have Iowa fever is probably the same reason why some people obsess over Harvard or Oxford. The program has been around longer than any other MFA program and therefore has had a much longer time (much of this time with little to no competition) to gain an international reputation. If several of the Ivies and top tier schools had started MFA programs in the 1930s, would Iowa still be considered #1? Hard to say, but I'm leaning toward probably not. There are a lot of midwestern colleges that would easily rival ivy league institutions and Eastern top tiers if it weren't for location. The only reason Iowa is where it is today is because of time and the fact that it was the only creative community of its kind for many, many years. It's difficult to ignore that kind of history.

JC said...

Re: Georgia College & State University

Hi MSR,

Maybe I can give you a little bit of feedback regarding Georgia College & State University.

Last December I visited the campus, shortly before the end of classes. I had gone to Athens, GA, to check out the MFA program and the Creative Writing Dept. at the University of Georgia. From there, I decided to visit Georgia College & State, in a very small and charming town called Milledgeville, about an hour and a half from Athens.

On the way to the campus you pass (but can't see from the road), Flannery O' Connor's old house, Andalusia, which is an asset the college proudly advertises. It is not run by Georgia College, but both entities have a close relationship, from what I could gather.

I met the MFA in Creative Writing program director, as well as the program's coordinator and some fellow students. Everyone was extremely nice and friendly. Two of the students, including the coordinator, even took me out to lunch.

The program is very, very small - if I remember correctly, they only take 4 people per genre (in fiction, poetry and nonfiction). If you get in, the school provides full funding for the three-year duration of the MFA.

In the end, however, I decided not to apply because, for my taste, the town was a bit far from everything and I am more used to the big cities. But if you don't mind that, give it a shot. Good luck!

JC

Seth Abramson said...

Hi KB,

A recent poll on the ALC MFA blog (one of many being conducted) shows that, with 124 votes in, around 40% of MFA applicants would choose a Harvard MFA in Creative Writing over the Iowa Writers' Workshop--even though the former does not (at this point) exist. Those are pretty scary numbers for the IWW, as once Harvard creates its CW MFA (most likely sometime within the next 5 years or so) you have to think that--now being a reality rather than a theory--that 40% will push over the 50% mark, meaning (in essence) that Harvard will have, in its first year of existence, overcome Iowa's 75+ year reign as top of the heap in the field of CW.

All that said, Iowa is special is a number of ways. For instance:

1. It's the largest fully-funded MFA program in the world. What that means is that you get the benefit of a huge, vibrant community of poets and writers plus the benefit of not worrying about money while you're there.

2. It likely has the strongest creative writing cohort of any program in the world. Once again, ALC polling bears this out--with 185 votes cast, around 30% of MFA applicants say that Iowa is their top choice, with second place being Texas at around 13%, and then Brown way, way behind that in a distant third. The upshot of this is that Iowa gets who it wants, by and large, and it's refined its admissions processes over the course of 75+ years to ensure that it gets (on average) the strongest writers. One proof of this (albeit it's a weak one, in my view) is that it's not just the longevity of Iowa that's given it top marks in post-graduate success: on a per annum basis, Iowa sends more students to top fellowships, top jobs, and into top prizes than anyone else. That's what the data shows. But yes, it also doesn't hurt that it's probably the one writing program laypeople have heard of (for instance: mention the Iowa Writers' Workshop in your average independent bookstore anywhere in the U.S., and you'll get the sort of look of recognition usually reserved for the Ivies).

3. Iowa City is one of the nation's foremost meccas for poets and writers. On a per capita basis--and that matters, because Iowa City, being small, is also way more affordable for poets and writers than, say, Brooklyn--Iowa offers more CW-related events than probably anywhere outside NYC and San Francisco. That's one reason the United Nations designated it one of only three "Cities of Literature" in the world (along with Edinburgh, Scotland, and Melbourne, Australia).

4. Everything else. Iowa tends to attract the best visiting faculty (though MFA programs in major cities also do very well in this regard); Iowa is one of the only true studio programs in the country (meaning more time to write and fewer structural burdens); Iowa may be the richest MFA program (due to its many donors), meaning they can do more miscellaneous things for students financially than you'd ever imagine (and they do, it's just not spoken of publicly); and so on.

So it's way, way more than a question of longevity.

Best wishes,
Seth

Phoebe said...

The upshot of this is that Iowa gets who it wants, by and large, and it's refined its admissions processes over the course of 75+ years to ensure that it gets (on average) the strongest writers.

Seth, I've encountered a good number of extremely talented writers in my MFA program and elsewhere who did not apply to Iowa, and data on a poll on a website advertising the consulting services of Iowa graduates is likely to be skewed in Iowa's favor.

"Strong cohort" is an extremely subjective, variable, and personal term. I have no idea how you would quantify or even, really, qualify it ("talent"? "best writing"? "potential"? likewise subjective).

Seth Abramson said...

Phoebe,

You're right, of course--and I've been one of the foremost proponents of the theory that there are more top-notch MFA programs in the U.S. than people realize. In the past this has been a major issue--particularly in fiction--because agents, until recently, were convinced (largely by the USNWR rankings) that only ten programs or so mattered: Iowa, Columbia, Houston, Johns Hopkins, Michigan, Virginia, and Brown (and maybe a couple more). Of course that's ridiculous--there's great work coming out of George Mason, Arizona, Ohio State, dozens of places. While I do think Iowa has the financial resources and the name recognition to get its first choices (and remember, that's not synonymous with "the best," it's just probative)--and I say this having some inside insight into the workings of a number of top programs that aren't Iowa--that doesn't mean the cohorts aren't amazing at many other programs, too. There are more than 25 amazing young poets in the country in any one application cycle, needless to say; and if we say, for instance, that there are 100 amazing young poets per year, well that already indicates that several dozen programs other than Iowa must be housing them. Again, my views on Iowa have to do with its post-graduate success record, its yield, and even its size (it's harder to have a vibrant and diverse group of four people than of 20+ people, which is not to say the former is at all impossible). Hope this makes sense,

Be well,
Seth

Seth Abramson said...

P.S. As to whether many don't apply to Iowa, you're right again--but the data shows that around 55% of all MFA applicants who research programs online do apply to Iowa. Because those who don't do their research online, or don't do substantial research online (around 50% of the total applicant pool) are actually more like to apply to long-standing programs like Iowa--and, say, Columbia--we end up with a situation where roughly 60% of the total annual applicant pool is applying to Iowa. That means, of course, that 40% are not--but those 40% haven't (yet) focused their collective energies on a single program, so the talent pool represented by that 40% simply isn't as concentrated in one location like the talent pool in the 60% is (one thing that ALC poll shows us; among the 60% who apply, a remarkable plurality would choose Iowa over anywhere else). As to whether ALC attracts primarily Iowa applicants, I don't know what to tell you--having done many application-list consults, I've found no statistical variation between ALC clients and the MFA applicant pool generally re: applying to Iowa. Some do, some do not. --S.

Todd said...

Phoebe,

I have to agree with Seth on this issue. I know from friends who have attended and/or taught in other top programs that when an applicant that their program accepts is also accepted by Iowa, they tend to lose the student to Iowa. Part of the reason for this is because even if the student is offered a better financial deal by the other program, Iowa will do whatever they can to match the other program's offer, and, as Seth said, they have the financial resources to do that.

On top of that, anyone who pays attention to who is publishing books, getting the best academic jobs, winning major book contests and fellowships, etc, knows that Iowa has a major leg up on everyone else. As Seth said, this doesn't mean that these are the "best" writers and poets in the country; it just means that Iowa seems to be consistently attracting major talents, which in turn makes them even more attractive to those people applying to MFA Programs.
I have no personal allegiance to Iowa, but this is just something I've noticed over the years.

Seth,

I didn't know about the emergence of a program at Harvard until I read your comments, but I have to say that I find it a little hard to believe that an MFA Program at Harvard would immediately claim the top spot among all MFA Programs in the country, especially since we know nothing about the funding, faculty, or size of such a program. Obviously, an Ivy League diploma is always attractive to applicants, and of course Harvard is Harvard, but if all it took was an Ivy League name, Cornell and Brown would have claimed the top spots long ago. I'm not saying it couldn't happen some day. I just can't imagine it happening immediately, especially when there's kind of already an established "Ivy League" among MFA Programs anyway (Iowa, Michigan, UVA, Cornell, etc)

Seth Abramson said...

Hi Todd,

[NB: For those wondering, the story about Harvard is here].

I think we actually know more about the prospective Harvard MFA than you might think. The Task Force Report says that Harvard will only have an MFA if it is small, select, and fully-funded. Harvard has the largest endowment of any university in the world; simply being fully funded would put Harvard in the top 35 nationally for funding, but I think there's reason to believe (given Harvard's pioneering decision to make its undergrad free for many students, to create the largest law school loan forgiveness program in the U.S., and so on) that Harvard will do much more than fully fund its students--much more likely is Texas-level funding.

As to faculty, at least in poetry much of it is already in place, led by none other than Jorie Graham. But generally speaking, Harvard's history with respect to visiting faculty suggests the school attracts not just the best visiting faculty in the nation but the world (e.g., Muldoon, Heaney, Walcott, etcetera). Harvard's non-tenure-track five-year lectureship is already, to my knowledge, the most applied-to such position in the field of creative writing--for full professorships it's a fair bet Harvard will get whoever they want to.

We also know (of course) Harvard's location--Cambridge, a.k.a. the Berkeley of the East Coast. It's probably right behind NYC and SF as a place one would most want to be a writer (and for fiction-writers especially, it's worth noting how accessible NYC is from Boston).

The Task Force Report also says the program would emphasize interdisciplinary studies--one of the things applicants are clamoring for more than any other.

That's just the tip of the iceberg, but I do think it's important to remember, also, that Harvard is differently positioned--even among the Ivies--than Cornell (a land-grant state university in a remote upstate location) or Brown (the lowest-ranked Ivy, traditionally, located in a small city but also, importantly for our purposes, so associated with experimental writing that many applicants decide not to apply there on aesthetic grounds--and it's still a top 10 program). The better analogy, really, is Columbia--one of the worst-funded programs in the U.S., it nevertheless is holding onto a top 25 position overall and a top 20 position in fiction. Does anyone doubt that, if Columbia were fully funded, it would be at least neck and neck with Iowa in the rankings? I've always just taken that as a given. And whatever is true for Columbia is true--and then some--for Harvard, which is traditionally placed with Yale and Princeton in a special, "higher" sub-category of the Ivies (my own undergrad alma mater, Dartmouth, is in contrast in the lowest sub-tier, with Brown and Cornell; Columbia and Penn are considered "the middle two").

Be well,
Seth

WanderingTree said...

The Iowa website doesn't really give the impression of being a fully funded program although I know many, many people have said that it is a fully funded program (and a generous one at that). There's information that leads one to believe that there are opportunities for funding at varying levels, but I'm not seeing anything about specific packages offered. Can Seth or anyone shed light?

Seth Abramson said...

WT,

Did you look here? It's easy to miss, so I don't blame you if you did (I'm being serious; the IWW for some reason has its "Funding" link on an interior page rather than its homepage).

The first sentence says, "Financial assistance is available for all students enrolled in the program, in the form of teaching assistantships, research assistantships, and fellowships. Most fellowships and assistantships provide either tuition scholarships or full tuition remission."

The "tuition scholarships" referred to there are (or refer to) the fact that many UI positions come with 67% tuition reimbursement; the IWW either covers the remaining 33% or, if the amount of the stipend associated with the position is high enough that even paying 33% of tuition (around $2,500 a year) will leave the student with full funding (above $8,500/9 months) the student pays that amount from the stipend. In practice, I've never heard of anyone getting less than $10,300/year (and almost everyone's aid goes up in the second year; in the worst case scenario your aid stays the same, an official policy mentioned on the website).

Iowa has (easily) the most complicated full funding system in the country, but that's only because a) they have so many different pathways they use to fund students, and b) they don't do enough to advertise their "topping-up" funds but in fact the IWW has more of an ability to eliminate funding shortfalls than basically anyone (because they have more money than anyone).

Hope that makes sense.

Be well,
S.

Phoebe said...

I have to agree with Seth on this issue. I know from friends who have attended and/or taught in other top programs that when an applicant that their program accepts is also accepted by Iowa, they tend to lose the student to Iowa.

I think the important difference here might be the way we're viewing the phrase "likely the strongest CRW cohort." I largely take umbrage with what the phrase implies--that one's cohort will be better able to give feedback on one's work in a workshop setting, etc. I agree, of course that Iowa's reputation precedes it and that, because of that, students who are accepted to Iowa are likely to attend because, many feel, it would be foolish to turn down admission thanks to what Iowa's reputation is perceived as being able to do for one's career.

And I think none of us are so naive to think that writing strength is the only factor in making connections in the writing world, publishing books, and so forth. I'm not disparaging the talent of any Iowa grads--I have no doubt that they're a talented lot, but Iowa is a well-connected and well-known program; success post-graduation likely has something to do with students' connections and/or preparation for these things at Iowa in addition to talent. But it doesn't mean students elsewhere aren't also "strong."

As Seth points out, Iowa's popularity and large number of applicants (vs small number of slots for accepted students) means that they undoubtedly have to turn away a good number of talented writers, who end up at other programs. And I'm sure that there have been students accepted to Iowa but rejected from other schools. Does that mean that other schools aren't interested in strength? Of course not. It can mean, among other things, that strength in writing is variable and subjective, that a "perfect" Iowa applicant isn't necessarily, say, a perfect Wisconsin applicant, that the process, as always, is a crap shoot.

Maybe it seems that I'm quibbling semantics. But mostly I'm afraid that applicants might read this and think "I have to go to Iowa--that's where the strongest writers are." I speak from the experience of attending a non-Iowa school that there are many programs with incredibly strong writers--at UF, there wasn't a single student who I felt in any way didn't deserve to be there. They were all dedicated writers and workshop participants and editors. I'd hope that you'd find a similar situation in most MFA programs.

SeeMoreGlass said...

question - do people ever "negotiate" with a school for funding? like if one gets into 2 schools, and one offers an awesome funding package, can you tell the other school about that package and will they MAYBE possibly try to compete? or is that unheard of?

UW MFA said...

Phoebe,

I hope no one will take from this conversation, or other threads here or at the ALC MFA Blog, that they have to apply to Iowa. Do I recommend that folks apply? I do. But no one will be denied a quality MFA experience for failure to have gone to Iowa; personally, I'd say there are 20-30 MFA programs that can at least offer a comparably strong experience (granted, some of them are unfunded programs that simply have very strong faculty, but even so). Do I think Iowa's cohort is a cut above? Again, I do, but you're right to say that that observation is subjective, and that analysis of post-graduate outcomes is an imperfect science at best.

Be well,
S.

Heather said...

I realize most of the talk here is about traditional programs, but are there any people reading/posting who are waiting for acceptances to low-res programs for winter 2010? I've been reading older posts (here and elsewhere) from previous rounds of admissions, and some of those have people reporting acceptances as early as September 9 (after the September 1 deadline). So I guess that means the agony officially began yesterday. Anyone in the same boat?

MSR said...

Hey JC --
Thanks for the info! That's all really good stuff to hear. I live in a different country so won't be able to visit, but I've been very impressed with the interactions I've had with faculty and staff thus far.

Thanks!

renila said...

One of my top requirements is not having huge essay writing time commitments at any school I attend.

That said, Brooklyn College & Columbia's craft classes actually intrigue me. Anyone have any experience with these? Are they as practical and interesting as they sound?

Also, UCI grads -- how much time gets eaten by those theory requirements? Are you in classes with a bunch of PhD's?

UCI is geographically almost perfect for me (I live in LA, family in OC), but I don't have an undergraduate English degree, and I don't want to drown in lit crit.


PS. Please ignore funding for the purposes of this. I have to do LA/NYC.

Kate said...

Hello folks,
The last couple of days I have been really struggling with the choice between sending my applications in this year (to about 12 schools, range of selectivity, at the advice of many contributors to this blog among others) versus putting it off one more year to really polish my writing sample which is now 2 stories, totaling roughly 20 pages.
I am taking the GREs in 2 weeks, have recommenders and packets for them ready to go, and have a pretty good grasp of my personal statement. But I seriously doubt my “readiness”.
I was not an English major, but have taken many writing classes, poetry workshops as far back as high school and more recently, a few junior college courses. I reread the section of Tom Kealey’s book about where MFA programs expect writer’s to be in their writing careers when they apply. Unfortunately, it didn’t give me many answers.
I was wondering, especially for those of you are in or have an MFA, what your take on this is. Even on a very technical level, what did you find is expected or should be expected from your peers in workshop?
I have found this blog to be invaluable over the last year and deeply appreciate all of your feedback.
Thanks,
Kate

JayTee said...

"I was wondering, especially for those of you are in or have an MFA, what your take on this is. Even on a very technical level, what did you find is expected or should be expected from your peers in workshop?"

Hey Kate- I'm a first year in an MFA program (uva). My professor said something great about this. He said that prior to the MFA (like in undergrad workshops) praise was an important component of workshops, it was needed to help a writer keep writing enough to improve. Praise is a form of support. He said that at the level of the MFA, though praise is good and it does happen, it should no longer be the basis for support; the support now comes from the time and effort of your peers in reviewing your work, from being taken seriously by your peers, all of your peers.

So that's what I offer my peers and expect in return- to take each other's work seriously enough to dedicate time to helping one another improve in our craft, piece by piece.

Ryan said...

Kate,

I will gladly trade you my English degree for the preparedness you otherwise have (personal statement, recommendation packets, GRE scheduled).

Ry

madgrace said...

JC-- are you still here? I was wondering what you thought of UGA at Athens and if anyone knows the funding situation there.

madgrace said...

Another question-- does anyone have any knowledge about the Long Island U MFA at Brooklyn?

Seth Abramson said...

Hi all,

Just a reminder (in light of a couple of the comments/queries above): Any questions you have difficulty getting answered here (or that you are willing to cross-post, or that you don't want to post here) we will answer at the ALC MFA Blog.

I'm finishing up my run here, but I'll be there regularly.

Be well,
Seth
Abramson Leslie

Sandra said...

I'm so glad I started researching MFA programs last year (on this blog!) so I can now focus my hysteria on getting my portfolio together vs. figuring out where I'd want to go.

For anyone who’s interested, on my website (find the link in my profile), under "Writer Resources/Tools," I’ve posted the blank, Word version of the spreadsheet I used to collect and compare data on MFA programs, including worksheets for preliminary research, logistics for one’s narrowed list, and application crunch time checklist. Feel free to adjust to your priorities.

This is my first post to the MFA Blog. Thanks for letting me lurk for a year!

JC said...

re: University of Georgia

Hi Madgrace,

I visited the University of Georgia campus in Athens last December and, unless things have changed, the MFA program did not offer funding in its first year. It does in the second. If you go for the doctorate, there is funding throughout the duration of the program. The English Dept. and the MFA program are housed in a very old, classical building. I met with the MFA program coordinator, and one of the professors, and they seemed very interested in welcoming people from outside of Georgia.

The campus is enormous, quite lovely and obviously a major force in the town. Athens is a very cool and funky place, with many music and arts venues. There's also a lot of history and architecture, and it is about two hours by car from Atlanta.

I hope this is of some help. Good luck!

JC

madgrace said...

Thank you JC! I was really impressed by Reginald McKnight, and have heard great things about Athens-- but the funding issue is a sticky wicket...
I didn't know they had a doctorate option though, so I'll look into that. Thanks a ton!

Kerry Headley said...

Does anyone have any tips for uploading the writing samples? I have about 28 pages (including the cover sheets) and I don't know how to combine these two separate documents into one file with separate page numberings and footers (which contain my name and the title.) I am using Office 2007, but none of my schools will accept anything but an Office 2003 doc, an rtf or txt. I get that, but I am lost with how to make this presentable. Sorry if this is obvious, but it's not to me. I've playing with page numbering and footer editing for hours now. Any suggestions appreciated!

Phoebe said...

Hey Kerry,

Copy and paste all of the text into one document. Follow these instructions to insert a different first page header. When you save, go to "file--save as" and select .doc (not .docx) or .rtf from the drop down menu.

Yrs,
Phoebe

Kerry Headley said...

Thanks, Phoebe!

WanderingTree said...

Does anyone know where we register recommenders on the Arizona State website? Maybe I'm just not seeing it.

mister trickster said...

I'm with Wandering Tree on the longevity/history comment, in terms of Iowa's popularity. Iowa only relatively recently started fully funding people, and it was still hugely popular then.

Obviously it's an even more attractive program, now, but I think it would be ridiculous to say that any specific program has the "best" cohort in the country.

And Harvard being a top school when it premieres--probably, but is that meaningless--depends on your definition of meaningless...

Whitney said...

nancorbett--

some creative writing departments don't really care about your GRE scores, but their hands are bound by the graduate admissions requirements. I later found out that the only reason I didn't get into Vanderbilt was because of my GRE scores. I would be sure to check the requirements listed by the university and aim for those scores when you study and take the exam. Other schools, however, don't care about the GRE, or they don't require them at all (thanks, UNCW!). The creative writing departments know these tests don't have anything to do with you as a writer, but you should still try your best.

kaybay said...

Whitney -

What was your GRE score???? Both scores were terribly low, but I couldn't find a minimum on Vandy's site, so I thought I'd apply there anyway. You've now made me a little hesitant to apply there...

kaybay said...

Sorry, MY scores were both very low is what I was trying to say...

kaybay said...

Ok, I just went to the Vandy website and they don't require GRE scores anymore, so that certainly solves my problem. Sorry for posting three times! I'm home from work with Strep AND a viral infection, so this is sick-induced delirium...

WanderingTree said...

re: GRE scores, I've found that most graduate schools don't specify a minimum score and of those that do, it's about a 600 on the verbal and who cares about the math (although I think one or two schools required a combined 1000 or so score). In any case, I wouldn't worry about the scores too much. I'd still apply.

shift + a said...

@ Kerry,
You can also turn the docs into PDFs and then combine the PDFs into one file. That's what I do. Personally, I think PDFs offer a slicker presentation.

Kerry Headley said...

Shift+a: Thanks for the tips. I guess I am a bit behind the times. I've been confused because if a school (like Iowa's nonfiction program) specifically says its online application will only accept a .doc or an .rtf I am assuming I can't do a PDF. Yes? Only one of my schools seems to want an online sample only though, so I guess it's not a big deal. I guess I need to brush up on this stuff. My age is showing...

ChinBoston said...

I just started my MFA in fiction at UMass Boston. I couldn't find a ton of info on the program when I was applying, so I'd like to put in a plug for it here for anyone who's curious.

Some applicants may overlook UMB because it's so new (starting its fourth year next fall) and isn't affiliated with a top college. But here are some reasons you might want to come:

1) Location. It's one of only three MFA programs in Boston.

2) Size. Five fiction students and five poetry students enter each year.

3) Duration. Three years.

4) Funding. Many students receive assistantships that cover tuition and fees and a small stipend. It's not enough to live on, but it's enough to keep you from having to take out loans.

Again, I'm just starting the program. But I know people here are deciding where to apply, and I hope some of you consider UMass Boston. I'm really happy to be there.

drake said...

Hi all,

I have been following this blog throughout my entire application process. It's been extremely helpful. I applied to all Low Res for the January residency. I know the schools said 2-6 weeks but has anyone heard anything?

This waiting game is killing me.

Thanks,
Drake

Heather said...

Drake,

I applied for January low-res, too. No word yet. But it's good to know there's someone else out there waiting.

I applied in fiction. You?

drake said...

Heather,

I applied to Fiction and Poetry. Warren Wilson, Bennington, Lesley, Stonecoast, Queens, Spalding and Pacific.

Where did you apply?

Rosie said...

Hi people,

So, I have three teachers in mind to write me letters of recommendation. Two of them are adjunct professors, and apparently, this is a bad thing? The two adjuncts are most familiar with my creative writing, they both love my writing, and I know they'd write the best letters. But one of them warned me that using adjunct letters could hurt my chances.

So, what's the deal? My university doesn't have any tenured creative writing professors. It seems nonsensical to ask tenured professors who barely know me and have never read my creative writing to write me letters just because of some hierarchical BS. I don't know what to do and am holding off asking my third teacher until I get more information. Please help.

WanderingTree said...

Rosie; I think your teacher is probably giving you bad advice here. The VAST majority of programs state that recommendations don't even have to come from professors at all - let alone adjunct professors. Look at the recommendation blog at the Poets & Writers Speakeasy Forum and you'll find that many, many people (including folks that got into the likes of Iowa, Cornell and Virginia) didn't use professors (tenured or not) at all. People use workshop peers, part-time instructors, bosses, editors, other writers, and I saw someone even considering using a monk.

A lot of great (even world class) writers/teachers work at universities but aren't tenured and technically have the title of adjunct or lecturer. It seems silly to me esp. considering that most universities are cutting back on full time/tenured positions anyway and are hiring more adjuncts.

Heather said...

Drake,

Actually, I was holding back on that a bit, since I'm a little embarrassed about it. I applied only to Warren Wilson. I know, I know: eggs, basket, yadda yadda. But I'm married with kids and I'm self-employed. WW is not far from home, and I have family nearby (of course, the excellent reputation of the program is a factor--it would be first on my list regardless of location or other constraints). Still, it seems NO ONE applies to just one program. So, if it doesn't work out this time, I'll cast a wider net.

--Heather

drake said...

Heather-

Ah, yes everyone says you should apply to a handful but you can only do what works for you.

Have my fingers crossed for you.

Rosie said...

Thank you, WT! That makes me feel much better. I'm glad to hear that adjuncts are a staple of most creative writing programs. Also, that forum has lots of useful info -- thanks for sharing!

Phoebe said...

Rosie, just wanted to second what WT says. While that advice is true for many PhD or professional programs, the most important thing about a creative writing recommendation is that the recommender is familiar with your writing and with you as a writer!

Kerry Headley said...

Hey peeps,

I have to tell the ONLY people who really understand. I submitted my first application tonight! My shoulders are in knots, but I am so glad to have one done (except for the transcripts.)

Lida said...

Thanks Phoebe, your reply on the other message board was very helpful (I'm switching to this one so I can get more replies).

For the majority of people who took time off before applying to MFA programs: mind sharing what you did during your time off (ie. work)? I'm having trouble deciding and need some ideas. I've been thinking about getting into publishing but I have no idea how to go about that... There are hardly any book publishers in my area and don't mind moving to another city. I just don't know how hard it is to get a job in publishing (my instinct tells me it is hard).

I also want to make sure that I still have time to write while I work.

Phoebe said...

Hi Lida,

During my year off, I worked in a community college library as a library assistant. I'd been thinking about library school at the time (something I still think about), so it was a good choice for me. Jobs at universities seem pretty plentiful--I'm working at one now--and usually have great benefits, including, in some cases, tuition remission. They usually pay a smidge better than entry-level jobs in publishing, too, which pay horribly.

Generally, I'm a fan of desk jobs where you have lots of downtime, access to a word processor, and an obligation to "look busy." What more can a writer ask for?

Yours,
Phoebe

Chloe said...

Hi guys,

Any suggestions as to good, larger programs? Iowa and Michigan appeal to me for that reason--I'm hoping to find a place that admits 10 or more students a year.

Also, any thoughts on programs in Washington and Oregon aside from U of each?

JayTee said...

I totally get you, Kerry! Congrats on submitting that first app. It's really starting for you! Good luck!

And good luck to you too, Heather. I'm rooting for you to get in on the first go around!

Joshua Gottlieb-Miller said...

Hi Chloe,

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but a few schools with large programs that have good reps:

I'm biased towards Houston, my school, and would throw that name in the ring. Getting that out of the way, George Mason has a rep for being a good large program. University of Montana is a little bigger, too. I think University of Maryland is a little bigger. Anyone know if the Arizona schools are a little bigger? For some reason I think that's true, but I could be wrong about that. I'm sure there's more, but those are probably some better places to start researching...

The problem of course, is that it's rare to find the school able to fund all of its students in a larger creative writing program (i.e. not NYU or Columbia), but good luck to you.

Josh

CarolHenny said...

Two things on my mind, guys:

I know that the blogs and most students find Columbia's tuition to be completely offensive but is there anyone here who is applying, hopes to get in, and would definitely go if they got i?

ALSO!

What do you think about University of Texas' attitude toward Novelists? Their whole faculty appears to be filled with Short Story authors and when I called their program to ask about Novel workshops, I was told that they didn't have any per say but they did have 2 novelists in the program that submit exerts. (1-2 novelists?!?! That seems very small to me). PLUS, they prefer that you send in short stories for your writing sample-which I do not have! They specifically signaled out Novel exerts to discourage it. That just sends up red flags to me that this is not a conducive environment for novelists, no matter how good the funding is! :(

Trokee said...

About Letters of Rec:

Most places want three, right? But often in the TA application or somewhere on the webpage they say they want someone who can "speak to your teaching ability" etc. UNM even wants 5 letters: 3 for writing and 2 for teaching! And VCU says: "Three letters of recommendation from people who are qualified to give information concerning your probable success in graduate school, especially in a creative writing program. (If you are applying for a graduate teaching assistantship, at least two of these should specifically address your qualifications for an assistantship.)"

I have two solid professors who are well known, know my work well, and will write me excellent letters. I have up to 3 other professors that can speak to my creative writing ability. On the other side I have up to three people who can write about my teaching ability. None of these really overlap, so what do I do?

Do I send different letters to different schools? For the schools that want to hear about my teaching do I send 2 writing Profs and 1 teaching Prof? For VCU do I send 1 Writing Prof and 2 teaching profs? That seems ridiculous but that is what they want!

Oh, why does every part of this process have to be so confusing???

Thanks for any advice!

WanderingTree said...

Trokee, I think you're probably stressing yourself out for no reason. Rec Letters aren't going to make or break you. Just go with whoever is going to give you the best recommendation and knows your writing or abilities as a student. If you have teaching experience, you can always include something about that in your SOP, teaching statement (if applicable) or your CV.

kaybay said...

Hi, this is an application question about Cornell. There's a section on the application that asks for the other graduate schools that I'm applying to. Do I really have to put them all down? I don't even know if I can fit all 12 on that iddy-biddy section... anyone else notice this?

WanderingTree said...

Kaybay, last year I just put down a few schools in those sections. I doubt it matters if you put them all down or not. It's not like they give you room anyway.

WanderingTree said...

That's more for the grad school anyway. Reason why that section won't let you fill in more than five or so is because most people in other fields only apply to about that much.

Kerry Headley said...

Some of my apps. asked me to list the other schools I'm applying to. There was room for just three or four, so I listed whatever ones came out of my head in that moment and moved on. I don't think it has anything to do with us at all.

SisterRay73 said...

Hi guys,

I was hoping someone might be offer to able a preemptive answer to my question before I start finalizing my research/contacting schools. I know that some schools, Brown for example, only really care about having your writing sample and some other stuff before the deadline, and you can send in transcripts/letters of recommendation later. I'm asking because I was hoping to use this semester to boost my GPA and possibly get a prof that I just started classes with to write a recommendation (I'm coming from a pretty huge university that doesn't offer creative writing or particularly easy access to profs). So is it feasible to send in transcripts/letters sometime in January after this semester is over, even if the deadline is past?

Hope that made sense! Thanks for any info!

renila said...

CarolHenny,

I'm definitely applying to Columbia -- would prefer to be either in Southern California or New York.

I'm also applying to Michener with a novel excerpt because I've never written a short story. Am tagging on one flash fiction piece I wrote this summer, just to show I can beginning-middle-end.

Would probably cross it off my list except I'm a screenwriter by profession, and it's one of the few places that truly encourage cross-genre work.

the mountain king said...

CarolHenny-

everyone always makes a fuss about columbia's funding, but i actually heard good things from people in the program last year. they talk about how the area itself isn't bad rent-wise, and that if you don't get funding, the school definitely helps you find part time work at any one of the number of publishing companies and litmags.

granted- i have no proof, but it is what i heard.

Seth Abramson said...

Mountain King,

Do they pay the $60,000 in tuition that Columbia costs also, or just point people to part-time work that will a) ruin their MFA experience, and b) in no way cover their living expenses, requiring them to take out loans not only for tuition but also day-to-day essentials?

Sorry for being snarky, I just think we have to be realists here. There is absolutely no way to--rhetorically or through some act of prestidigitation--make Columbia (financially speaking) into anything other than a cash cow that will absolutely decimate your credit rating for at least two decades.

Best,
S.
Abramson Leslie

Jennifer said...

Trokee---For VCU I sent in my regular 3 letters, all of which didn't address teaching ability (2 Gotham fiction instructors and 1 community creative writing workshop leader) and then two separate letters that addressed my teaching ability.

Chloe said...

Hi all,

A question about Brown--I know it has a rep for being experimental, but it seems hard to define exactly what that means, and I haven't been about to find an answer. Any thoughts on the extent to which 'traditional' fiction writers will even be considered? Ie., does experimental mean that there tends to be a range in types of writing, or that the program chooses exclusively more avant-garde writers?

Thanks!

WanderingTree said...

Chloe,

I'm also applying to Brown. I've done a fair amount of research into your question, scouring blogs, the websites of alumni, faculty, and reading the work of current and recent graduates. From what I can gather is this: I've seen everything from sort of traditional to really out there in terms of structure, genre bending and subject matter. Will you be more likely to find a like minded cohort and faculty if you're an experimental writer? probably, but that doesn't mean you won't have anything to gain as a traditional writer. So, basically what I'm saying is that although the program labels itself as avant-garde (which translates into diversity), you just don't know what will get in and what won't (and what is actually workshopped day to day). There are a couple of Brown students on the various blogs and emails are easy to come by on online journals where some of these students publish. When in doubt, no harm in asking.

I will say this. As someone that tends to write between genres and plays with form a lot, I took off places on my list that I knew would be less supportive of such work based on the opinions of current/recent students and the work of faculty. Funding is great and still a priority, but honestly picturing yourself in a given program and what you think you can get out of it is equally as important. Looking at my statements of purpose, I see a big difference between the schools I know where I will likely fit in and those where I'm just applying to because of X,Y,Z factors.

CarolHenny said...

Chloe,

I've done some research on Brown and it seems that they cater to extreme experimentalist writing. I would say prose that almost comes off as poetry and caters more to abstract plots/thoughts/etc.

A friend of mine who is applying to Brown wrote a story from the POV of a cloned goat!

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that even if you did get into Brown, I do not think the environment would be conducive to any type of traditional writing. You should think that over. I was going to apply to Brown simply because it's Brown: great reputation, funding available, stellar faculty, small intimate settings...

But I scratched it from my list because of their focus on experimentalists. I'm a traditional writer, I doubt my work would be appreciated there even if they let me through the door.

I'm tending to think from that point of view: applying to schools that I could genuinely see myself going to and being happy. Screw reputations, rankings, etc.

jamesocon said...

Hello,

After a preliminary browse of this mailbag I don't think this question has been asked yet: University of Minnesota is one the programs I am applying to this cycle. On their "How To Apply" section they discuss "Preferred Performance" requirements which are (the following is verbatim from the website): "Our admissions committee has the preferred performance level of at least one of the following: an undergraduate English GPA of 3.5; a graduate GPA of 3.8; or a verbal score in the 85th percentile of the GRE."

Then later on the same page they also state: "Finally, we are chiefly interested in your successes as a writer and a reader, and we pay more attention to the profile of your previous studies and letters of recommendation than to numerical indicators such as your GPA and GRE score."

This seems to be slightly contradictory and it prompts three questions for me: 1.)Are these possibly the requirements from two different admissions committees (e.g. the graduate school's version of what is acceptable versus the MFA program's version)? 2.)How much of a deal breaker will this be for someone with my numerical stats= 83rd percentile on GRE and a cumulative 3.2 GPA in English undergrad classes? 3.) Are other institutions using this or similar criteria at all? Is this being used as an additional criteria to slim down the number of apps that pass muster? Any thoughts are appreciated.

Chloe said...

Thanks so much, WanderingTree and CarolHenry! Really great points to consider. I'll keep mulling it all over.

kaybay said...

Hi. Several schools allow you to send the writing sample and statement of purpose to the department and all other materials to the graduate school. While I'm waiting for my recommenders to write and send my letters, can I send my writing sample and SOP to the English department, even though I haven't filled out an application or paid the fee? I have sent out all of my GRE scores, by the way, but nothing else. Thanks!

WanderingTree said...

Kaybay,

Schools will start a file once they have ANYTHING that comes from you including your GRE. It doesn't much matter what order materials arrive in. However, it might help to do the online apps first since some schools give you a tracking number that you can put on other documents so things don't get lost. Some schools like Michigan do this separately and have you register for an ID on a different form. I usually put my name, birthdate and email on all documents in addition to any code/number I might have from the school. Sending things early isn't a big deal. Just label things clearly.

the mountain king said...

on brown-

it was my top choice last year, but of course, didn't make it. it's not on my list this year cause i want definitely want a 3 year program.

however, last january i worked with both Forrest Gander & CD Wright in workshops in Mexico. if it helps, here's what types of exercises they used, might give you a look at what they will be like-

forrest had us concentrate on sounds. had us walk around mexico and write down what the sounds did...not what they were. write out their rhythm, then we had to write poems using words that in turn sounded like that rhythm. needless to say, was kind of difficult. seems to be more musically inclined with writing.

cd had us first think about why we write, which seems straightforward. but then she had us choose 6-10 nouns and write a poem using only those nouns. you could not add anything. this was extremely interesting and results were great.

hope that helps...

Seth Abramson said...

Carol H.,

With genuine and sincere respect for you and what you've said, I really think that overestimates your ability--or anyone's ability--to know in advance where they'll be happy. It's somewhat tautological: yes, if we all knew in advance--having never visited these programs and not having ever met (in most cases) anyone who ever went to them (or, at most, one or two such persons)--whether or not we'd be happy at a particular program, absolutely, you could throw rankings and everything else out the window. For instance, if I told you (or someone) that they would meet the love of their life if they went to Columbia, but get beaten up by three drunken locals at Arkansas, how much would you pay for your MFA degree then? And so on. The rankings and other hard data are there because we know--and must never forget--that while our gut instincts have to be factored into the equation, what separates us from (say) small children is our ability to use data, as well as emotion, to make important life decisions. If I have a strong feeling on this it's only because I'm probably the only one still around these boards from the bad old days--2006--when everyone made every decision based on hunches and (usually wrong) speculation because there simply wasn't any data available. We can't let--as they say in the legal system--"bad facts make bad law"; Brown University is a special case, because it's one of perhaps two or three programs in all America whose program aesthetics are much discussed and at least known in broad strokes, so we shouldn't be formulating a view of how to choose programs based on what Brown does or does not offer traditional poets and writers.

Hope that makes sense,

Be well,
Seth
Abramson Leslie

Phoebe said...

If I have a strong feeling on this it's only because I'm probably the only one still around these boards from the bad old days--2006--when everyone made every decision based on hunches and (usually wrong) speculation because there simply wasn't any data available.

While I think it's laughable to say that, in regards to Columbia, "the area itself isn't bad rent-wise" (New York has the highest rents in the nation, any way you slice it, I think it's equally laughable to say that Columbia is "[not] anything other than a cash cow that will absolutely decimate your credit rating for at least two decades"--it's an MFA program, one with writer-peers and workshops and great connections with publishers and it's in America's greatest metropolis; as someone who's also been on these boards since 2006 (and didn't find it as awful as you did, Seth, honestly), I say that if someone is prepared to go into debt for that and/or has the money to do so and truly believes they'll be happy there, go for it, with the full understanding, of course, that you'll likely be paying that money off for a terribly long time, and that even a Columbia MFA doesn't guarantee career or publishing success.

(Though I do think it's odd to say "screw reputation" and then talk about going to Columbia--surely the program's reputation figures into the decision? It should; it's one of the most compelling arguments for going there.)

Seth Abramson said...

Phoebe,

I wonder whether my comments become less laughable when correctly quoted; I explicitly used the caveat "financially speaking" when I said, of Columbia, that it's not "anything other than a cash cow that will absolutely decimate your credit rating for at least two decades." Which would make your comments about every other aspect of Columbia's program pretty much irrelevant--at least to what I said and what I was talking about.

Not three weeks ago a Columbia MFA student said "hi" to me on Facebook and I spoke to him--at much greater length and with much greater fervor than you have here--about Columbia's endless assets in terms of non-financial program features.

As to the "bad old days"--I was primarily speaking of the P&W board, and if anyone doubts what it was like in 2005 and 2006, they can go back and look at all the posts. They're still there, and folks can judge for themselves.

Best,
Seth

Phoebe said...

As to the "bad old days"--I was primarily speaking of the P&W board, and if anyone doubts what it was like in 2005 and 2006, they can go back and look at all the posts. They're still there, and folks can judge for themselves.

Right, well, that was my primary resource back in 2006-2007 regarding MFA programs, and I found the advice and stories shared by the posters there to be incredibly helpful.

Phoebe said...

But, more to the point, I think that if anyone wants to go back to the "dark ages" (which, as I said, I didn't find nearly as dark as you did), then that's, of course, their prerogative; I'm sure Carol is able to find programs that appeal to her just as well as any rankings., particularly if she's motivated in contacting professors, current students, and alum and conducting research on her own.

After all, it might have been a little more work, but it worked for us.

Jeff said...

Phoebe,

You seem to be sort of dismissive of Seth's rankings, which kind of puzzles me. Personally, I've found them to be incredibly useful, especially the "overall reputation" rankings. For example, I would have never even known that UNCW had a program had I not noticed it on that list. Now, after a little research, I think I might actually apply there. I don't think anybody is using these rankings as their sole resource, but they are a great starting point, paricularly if you don't have very much in the way of outside help.

Seth Abramson said...

Hi Jeff,

Thanks for the kind words. I do think that's something Phoebe (and some others) are missing: i.e., the little things that make the TSE rankings absolutely critical even if (as I've always explicitly advised anyone who asks, and many who don't) they can only ever be one tool among many. Consider--and I'm going to throw modesty to the wind for a moment--that in the entire world there is only one place to find a comprehensive list of every American college or university with an MFA program. That's right, TSE. The AWP list is dozens of programs short of comprehensive. So even if you didn't pay any attention to the rankings, hundreds of applicants have simply used the rankings to know where the programs are. Hundreds of others use them to get a sense of which programs get the most applications, and how many applications are commonplace in the field--again, important things to know even if they don't determine where you apply (i.e., knowing the odds generally helps you know how many places to apply to, even if you don't pick those places with any reference at all to the rankings). And so on. Those who have a problem with the rankings generally seem to think that I think--or that anyone thinks--they are a primary resource. They're not; they never have been. They're a secondary resource which (because of how research methods work) folks sometimes refer to first even if, in importance, they are and always must be (again) secondary or even tertiary as a determining factor in the matriculation decision.

Best,
Seth
Abramson Leslie

Phoebe said...

Jeff,

Whether or not I'm dismissive generally of Seth's rankings is another story that might not be appropriate for this blog. I'll say in brief that I think of them as useful as a compendium of programs, but I'm not sure how useful, generally, any ranking of MFA programs are and I don't find Seth's data collecting methods (self-reporting surveying) to be a particular improvement over other methods, especially as (I realized after I came here, and it seems equally true for the newest incoming MFA class as it was for my class two years ago) many, many students don't rely on online resources such as this blog or the PW Speakeasy and so are unavailable for surveying. But, as I've said, my objections aren't specifically to Seth's rankings so much as an objection to rankings generally, as a CRW program isn't a program whose experience can be quantified like a law or med school experience, or even other liberal arts experiences in terms of satisfaction (highly dependent on faculty, and the faculty relationships which pay off aren't always the one you expect, as well as peer group, for which there is no means to predict) and job prospects/future successes.

But if you found it useful, who am I to knock it for you? My general philosophy is: you know what works for you best for yourself, and that goes for application resources just as much as schools.

But my comment was mostly in response to CarolHenny's: "I'm tending to think from that point of view: applying to schools that I could genuinely see myself going to and being happy. Screw reputations, rankings, etc." And you know what? I think that's a fine attitude to take toward applying, too--I don't think, as Seth said, that she's likely to overestimate her ability to be happy. I think we're all adults and know what's best for us, and that gut instincts are absolutely invaluable to a process such as this, which not only involves a new school program but also often entails, for example, a cross-country move. And location is one of the largest unquantifiable intangibles, of course. And, just as I'd defend your ability to use resources that are useful to you, even if they weren't for me, I'll defend anyone's ability to dismiss it if it's not. If Carol's instincts strongly tell her to take a shot at Columbia, and if she's fully aware of the financial risks involved with going there, who are we to tell her she's wrong?

Yours,
Phoebe

Nancy Rawlinson said...

I agree that funding is hugely important for most MFA applicants and I advise my students to think VERY carefully before going into debt for an MFA. But with regards to Columbia: I'm a graduate of that program, I did work part time while there, I did cover my living expenses and it didn't destroy my MFA experience. So. It can be done.

JC said...

Hi everyone,

For those struggling with financial issues and whether to move across the country or not, keep in mind also the low residency programs or those that have classes at night.
I have been able to continue working to support myself while pursuing my MFA and without having to move thanks to the low residency option. You won't have the workshop environment if that's what you want, but you will have a very close mentoring relationship with professors without having to bust your finances.
Good luck to everyone!
JC

Arpit said...

Hello people,

I am an Indian journalist and was planning to apply to programs in the Bay area such as the ones at SFSU, SFU, California College of the Arts and St. Mary's College, Moraga. Not the big names I know, but location's important for me. Is there anybody out there who can give me some feedback about the funding opportunities, MFA experience, selectivity of any of these schools?

Although I've been following this blog for a while now, this is my first post, and I'd like to thank Seth for putting up such a fantastic resource. It was a great help!

Arpit

Seth Abramson said...

Phoebe,

I don't know what to tell you. When you quote me this way (speaking of Carol)--

"I think that's a fine attitude to take toward applying, too--I don't think, as Seth said, that she's likely to overestimate her ability to be happy...."

--I'm flabbergasted. No, that's not what I said. I have no opinion on Carol's "ability to be happy." I said that it's easy to over-estimate one's ability to know in advance where one will be happy. In other words, I am agreeing with you--and I always have, I always have said this in every essay I've ever written--that whether one finds happiness in a program or not is based on things that have nothing to do whatsoever with statistics or anything quantifiable. I've also said that finding happiness in a program (or not) is something that is--ipso facto--therefore extremely hard to predict. So, when people (like you, or Carol) imply that they may have a special ability to predict where they'll be happy based on gut instinct, I do question that. I think if we all could just follow our gut and be happy we would; life's not that simple. But also I think "following your gut" is actually, usually, a euphemism for using hard data and pretending not to. For instance, I always advise applicants to know what they value most before they apply to a program--no one ever uses polls (or would) to formulate a value system. But once you know what you value, you have to know, also, how to assess it. No one says, "I know in my gut that I won't be happy if I have to work during my MFA, so I need full funding," and then goes on their "gut" to find out where they should go to find the best funding. At that point they switch to data (for that part or aspect of their decision). Likewise, I have been saying for years that location is unquantifiable and is the most important consid--

--actually, I'm just going to stop there. You've misquoted me twice in a row, Phoebe, and (what's more) you simply don't seem to have ever read anything I've written on MFA programs, or else you've read it and somehow (as with everything I've written in this thread) it's come out the other side, in your understanding of things, exactly the opposite of how it was on the page or screen. I'm not sure that's a good use of my time. And neither, then, I'm guessing, is pushing you on some of your assertions. For instance, we know--statistically--what percentage of the applicant pool uses TSE and this blog and other online resources to research programs: around 50%. What you haven't done is explained how the demographics of the other 50% of applicants are so different from this (internet-using) 50% that it wildly skews the data in some way or another. In fact, the poll captures not only those who research MFA programs on-line but also those who look up program responses on-line after not using the internet for research. E.g., Columbia was 43rd in the rankings in the early months last year, but due to an influx of non-internet-researching applicants/poll respondents at the tail end of the cycle (in March and April), Columbia moved up to 22nd. Other unfunded programs made similar (but much less dramatic) upward moves. That led me to candidly write--as I have always been candid about the data--that Columbia, among those who don't research online, is probably a top 15 program (the estimate would be maybe 12th or 13th). Of course, I then add to that my observations of the annual April massacre--when all the non-internet-researching Columbia admittees go on P&W and ask a group of strangers for advice on how to finance what they've wanted for so long. And I hear them wish they'd done better research. And I hear them say that they now feel tortured--they got what they wanted, but they can't afford it. These are people who followed their gut (which is fine) without also doing their homework (which is not).

[continued]

Seth Abramson said...

Things are so much more complicated than you make them out to be, Phoebe. But I'll leave you with another quote for you to inexplicably misquote later on down the line; this is a direct quote from my forthcoming article in Poets & Writers on MFA programs (an article that creates the first-ever comprehensive, print-based, institutionally-sponsored Top 50 ranking of MFA programs, with 15 categories of ranking and data):

At base it is impossible to quantify or predict the experience any one MFA candidate will have at any one program. By and large, students find that their experiences are circumscribed by entirely unforeseeable circumstances: A fellow writer they befriend, a mentor they unexpectedly discover, a town or city which, previously foreign, becomes as dear to them as home. No ranking ought pretend to know the absolute truth about program quality, and in keeping with that maxim the rankings that follow have no such pretensions. When I first began compiling data for comprehensive MFA rankings nearly three years ago, I regularly told the many MFA applicants I corresponded with that educational rankings should only constitute a minor part of their application and matriculation decisions; that’s a piece of advice I still routinely give...

S.

Seth Abramson said...

P.S. And I'll admit that misunderstandings like these are one of the reasons I now almost exclusively blog here. I'm more interested in trying to help applicants than in having the same conversations (marked by the same mis-readings and mis-quotings) that have been swirling in some quarters of this community for three and a half years now.

renila said...

Now that my original question is buried...

I AM applying to Columbia & NYU and possibly Brooklyn College (although my GPA in undergrad English classes is below their standard).

Location is very important to me.

Any grads have insight on their craft classes/workshop size/quality of teaching/industry contacts etc.?

I UNDERSTAND THEY HAVE LIMITED FUNDING.

THAT'S NOT WHAT I'M ASKING.

Phoebe said...

I have no opinion on Carol's "ability to be happy." I said that it's easy to over-estimate one's ability to know in advance where one will be happy.

I think you're splitting hairs here, Seth, and honestly I fail to see how what I said was the egregious misquote you're taking it to be: I think that Carol, or any other applicant, can estimate more accurately than anyone else can for themselves where they will be happy. In the future. So, yes, she'd be making these estimates in advance.

I'll speak honestly with you, because it seems that, after discussion and clarification we often actually agree: it can be difficult to parse what you say on these boards at times. For example, your initial advice about the conventional wisdom of applying to 12-15 schools initially sounded very unequivocal, but, it turned out, that your feelings on the subject were actually a bit more nuanced. I can't imagine that the ensuing discussion and clarification is anything but helpful to applicants (though maybe we both garner a few eye-rolls)--it seemed to be to Sara, who seemed comforted by the discussion because of her financial situation.

As for misquotings and misreadings, here's one: "But also I think 'following your gut' is actually, usually, a euphemism for using hard data and pretending not to." Did I say that Carol should disregard "hard data"? Well, I certainly suggested that she conduct research on her own ("I'm sure Carol is able to find programs that appeal to her just as well as any rankings., particularly if she's motivated in contacting professors, current students, and alum and conducting research on her own") and that she enter Columbia with full knowledge of their funding situation ("if she's fully aware of the financial risks involved with going there"). I suspect that you're upset simply because I dismiss rankings, and you have a personal investment in rankings (obviously). I'll say again that it's nothing personal; again, I feel similarly about all CRW rankings and, again, they're a fine place to survey available programs--that's how I used the old US news rankings back in 2006--but it's the weighing of the information that I disagree with, for precisely the reasons I've stated before. It seems that, in some ways, you agree with this--there are many intangibles such as location and faculty and peer group--but you attempt to rank programs anyway. That seems strange to me, but it's fine. I think it may be just a fundamental philosophical disagreement. And I think that's okay.

In fact, I think dissenting voices generally are a good thing--discussions like this one keep us honest, keep us clarifying, and, if nothing else, show potential applicants that nothing in the writing world is simple or clear cut, least of all MFA programs. But if you prefer to have a more authoritative, but unchallenged, voice in your own blog, what can I do?

Yours,
Phoebe

Seth Abramson said...

Renila,

You're asking whether New York City is a good place to find contacts in the publishing industry? I think I can safely answer for every poet and fiction-writer who has ever trod the earth when I say yes.

As to the quality of teaching, are you asking whether the MFA programs in New York City have been successful in attracting top writing talent to the city on Earth most talented writers want to live in? Again, I will answer for the multitudes (living and dead) and say yes.

I think that when you say funding is no object, and location is what matters most to you, the conventional wisdom has always been--and will always be--to go to New York City. That was the conventional wisdom for poets and writers in the 1860s, and it still is today, 150 years later.

Workshop size in the United States is largely standardized. I have never heard of a workshop smaller than eight people, or larger than thirteen. This has nothing to do with location, prestige, or anything else--the workshop model, pedagogically, demands a certain size class for it to work. If by "workshop size" you mean program size, yes, the programs in New York City (as indicated on TSE, another purpose it can be put to besides rankings) are the largest programs, program-wise, in the world--often accepting more than 30 students total (across three genres) per year. The reason for this is that one can't maximize revenue, in an MFA program, unless one is making nearly everyone pay full freight and one is bringing in a critical mass of young debtors.

The only question you've asked that I think is tricky--requires some pressure being applied to the question--is asking whether any grads can speak to the quality of the teaching at these programs. First, grads don't usually spend time on these boards; second, grads who graduated a long time ago (and who frequent the board, if at all) would necessarily only have knowledge of the faculties that were teaching at the time, not current faculties; third, "quality of teaching" is not a quantifiable factor--one reason it's never appeared in any ranking system. Meaning, I have never had a creative writing instructor who wasn't loved by some students and hated by others. So if you want to know, say, whether Philip Levine at NYU is a great teacher of poetry, it will depend on whose lips get to your ear first--the Levine-haters or the Levine-lovers. Making a final matriculation decision on the basis of which professorial fan-club or hate-club gets to their computers first is not wise.

Best,
Seth

Phoebe said...

Renila,

Wish I could answer those questions for you, but I don't have any experience in those schools directly. But if you're looking into NY schools and funding isn't an issue, have you considered the New School? I know quite a few graduates of both their MFA and BFA programs and would be glad to get you contact information if you need it.

Yours,
Phoebe

Seth Abramson said...

Phoebe,

Yes, I do think we often agree. But I don't know that that means we're progressing. We continue, I feel, to talk past each other. For instance, you see the value in having rankings, just not in misusing them. We agree. But then you also a) question my reasoning in creating rankings, while b) implicitly acknowledging that no one else is doing it. That seems to answer your question, doesn't it? I.e., like you, I see some value in rankings; I know no one else will do them; I find the subject interesting (and, again, the final product useful if used wisely) so I do them. It seems we both agree that it is better that I do them than that I not do them, just as we agree that it is better for the rankings to be used wisely than unwisely. What confuses me is that you say you have problems with rankings, but it still seems like your problem is with misuse of rankings, not rankings in themselves. So I would think you would limit your criticism to the misuse of rankings, but you don't seem to.

Likewise, I'm sure you'd agree that my own philosophy about how hard it is to predict one's future experiences using one's gut--however much that philosophy doesn't work for you (i.e., however much you believe in gut decisions)--might work for some, i.e. some might believe they can't make decisions primarily based on uninformed gut instinct, so even your concern about "misuse" needs to be (I think) much better defined. Some of what you see as misuse may well be simply those who think differently than you about the matriculation decision. Generally, you seem to think that you are holding back a tide of misuse by warning against it; my own experience is that applicants are pretty darn smart, they know what rankings are and are not, and (though I keep warning them anyway!) they will ultimately use the rankings in the way that's right for them, whatever that may be. The irony here is that the type of use one makes of rankings is often--amazingly--a gut decision one can't be talked out of.

As far as the ALC MFA Blog goes, you misunderstand. I don't blog there to talk about rankings. It's the opposite: I go there, by and large, to not have to blog about rankings. In other words, it's not about not being challenged, it's about not having to justify myself on a regular basis, it's about getting down to the brass tacks of the MFA admissions process rather than debating over philosophy. The ALC MFA Blog is a place to get help for those who know what they want and who have decided how they're going to think about trying to get it; it's not a place for arguing over first principles. There are many other places for that (like here). That was my point. I'm not looking for a fiefdom, I'm looking for some respite and for an opportunity to better focus my online time on those who know what they need and how to ask for it rather than those who want to argue about the construction of the questions.

Be well,
S.

Phoebe said...

Seth,

I think it would be more precise to say that I see value in lists, or directories--places to access what really is the hard data of programs (what the programs are, where they are, funding, number of students, location of websites, etc.) These have ended up conflated for a bevy of reasons, but I don't necessarily think they should be. As for your being one of the only people who does it, some organizations have tried, and I'm not looking past them in my criticism--I just think that, when you're talking about arts, and there are so many intangibles the entire enterprise is largely in vain.

As for getting to the brass tacks, I think it's impossible to separate the philosophy from the business of MFA programs. I also think it's important for applicants to know that they're entering a field where these questions are likely going to concern them for the rest of their lives. I know that, for me, ideas about art and career became more complicated after I began the MFA application process and this has only subsequently deepened. I suspect this happens to most graduates.

But, in any event, I really do need to go get myself some lunch. But there's one last thing I want to share with you, because I'm sure you've had these moments with this months' mailbag: Duty Calls!

Yours,
Phoebe

Rebecca said...

I know you've answered thousands of variants on this question, but I have another question about recommenders. Is it appropriate to ask a former classmate to write a recommendation letter? The other two lettes will come from writing professors.

Thanks!

Seth Abramson said...

Phoebe,

I laughed out loud at that for a long time. Absolutely wonderful.

Cheers,
S.

laura said...

I was just double checking the websites of all my prospective schools, and I realized Dorianne Laux is no longer on the faculty website at NC State: http://english.chass.ncsu.edu/graduate/mfa/faculty.php

Is this a mistake? Do any current students know if she is still there? I missed the opportunity to take her classes as an undergrad at Oregon, and I was looking forward to the possibility of being one of her students. Everyone raves about her teaching style, and she's a wonderful poet.

laura said...

Okay, I just found this reading tour for Dorianne Laux: http://blogs.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendId=155967243&blogId=258319500

Hmmm.

malcontent said...

Carol Henny,

While the Michener Center does not offer a class on writing novels, it is quite possible to workshop novel excerpts if one chooses to. Many students are working on novels and many alumni have published them. As well, students at the Michener Center have the opportunity to work with visiting writers, not just permanent faculty. And most people on the faculty have published one or more novels. What the Michener Center was discouraging was applying with a novel excerpt. Anyway, think about it. What's more conducive to writing novels, three years of well-funded time or the ability to take one novel-writing class?

Joshua Gottlieb-Miller said...

Seth,

We've been over this, and I'm not disagreeing with your intentions, nor with your beliefs.

You wrote to Phoebe:

"Those who have a problem with the rankings generally seem to think that I think--or that anyone thinks--they are a primary resource. They're not; they never have been. They're a secondary resource which (because of how research methods work) folks sometimes refer to first even if, in importance, they are and always must be (again) secondary or even tertiary as a determining factor in the matriculation decision."

The problem with your logic is that while you may intend for the rankings to be a secondary resource, that does not mean that most people treat them as a secondary resource. I could make the equally weightless claim that most people treat these rankings as a primary resource. In part because they think other people have done the research, in part because they think (quite credibly) that the top ranked programs will continue to attract the best applicants and that these students will continue the success and further the attractiveness of the programs (although I think this is an oversimplification), and in part because reputation matters more to most of us than it should.

I mean, didn't the old US News and World Report, as well as the Atlantic Monthly rankings lead to those programs receiving more applications than they otherwise would have? Or the Kealey Scale after them?

This is not an argument against the rankings because those are tired arguments. People will either use them wisely and benefit, or fail to do their own research and maybe still benefit. Or not, that's up to each individual applicant.

With luck, programs will provide better information (which I assume someone will update each year?) for the various information metrics that are tied to the applicant preference poll (which is what the ranking is, and I'm surprised you keep referring to it other places as "the rankings" without using "applicant preference poll" as its name. Just because we shouldn't rank programs according to a more intuitive science does not mean that the applicant preference poll is a definitive ranking. It may be the best ranking that we have (may), but that doesn't mean that it is anywhere near perfect).

I mean, I believe you that it was misinformation on the P and W boards before, but that doesn't mean that applicant preference is a different kind of, if not misinformation, then maybe not perfect information.

Oh well, I tried and failed to stay away from the tired old arguments. Anyway, to assume that people are using the applicant preference poll the way they should, as a secondary resource, doesn't mean that they are. Most, I imagine, are using it as a primary resource. That's too bad. But it's not too too bad. (And it's not the fault of the applicant preference polling that people misuse it.) Anyway, there are worse things. The applicants, I think, will be fine.

Josh

CarolHenny said...

Wow

I'm very surprised and slightly disturbed that a comment as general as "be happy" could generate so much controversy. But Phoebe, I appreciate your comments. :)

Seth Abramson said...

I'm sorry, Josh, does that mean that you regularly refer to the 1996 USNWR rankings as a "faculty preference poll"?

Wait--I can answer my own question. No you don't. ("I mean, didn't the old US News and World Report, as well as the Atlantic Monthly rankings lead to those programs receiving more applications...").

I'm especially impressed by your generous decision to extend a courtesy to The Atlantic--that of calling their work "rankings"--that The Atlantic never even claimed for themselves. They were explicit in referring to what they did as "lists." I know Houston appeared on some of those lists, but c'mon, Josh, be serious--I hope you'll understand, in light of the foregoing, if I take your claims of semantic purity with more than a little salt.

Go on...

S.

Files Open said...

It strikes me that this blog and its associated book primarily seek to help MFA applicants answer two questions: (1) how do I determine which MFA program is the best fit for me and (2) how do I maximize my chances of securing admission to those programs?

Each applicant will have his or her own criteria for determining which MFA program might be the best fit. But, in order to make an informed decision, each applicant will need to collect information related to his or her unique set of metrics.

As both Seth and Phoebe acknowledge, there are many unquantifiable or subjective factors that will influence the extent to which a successful applicant finds a particular program useful or enjoyable.

Inasmuch as there are current or recent program participants on these boards, applicants might be able to solicit information about such individuals' experiences. Even if necessarily anecdotal, this input helps provide greater visibility into the programs and reasonably might guide an applicant in their application and selection decisions.

There are also quantifiable or objective factors that will determine which MFA program is a good fit for any given applicant. Seth appears to have devoted a great deal of time and energy to collecting and synthesizing data from the institutions and program participants on these factors.

Presumably, most applicants will use both types of information to guide their decisions, applying differing weights to each piece of datum based on the relative importance of the factor it addresses and the extent to which the basis of knowledge for the datum is accepted and valued by the applicant.

I interpreted Seth’s comments as merely highlighting—both for Carol and for others who might be going through the same processes—that applicants should critically consider their bases of knowledge for any given datum when assigning it a particular weight in their application or selection deliberations.

Purcell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ryan said...

Please start a new mailbag. I don't care if it ain't October yet.

Ready to move on...

Joshua Gottlieb-Miller said...

Seth,

My apologies, as this is a strange argument. But:

I refer to The Atlantic's list as rankings because they use the term top ten for their list. Should they have called themselves a faculty preference poll of the top ten, and for their various other lists? Yes. The USNWR also should have. That they did not doesn't change that they should have.

I don't really think that matters, though. A little bit, sure, but like you said, semantics (as important as semantics are).

However, you did fail to address my main point, so I guess you don't disagree with me. While you attacked my semantics, this is what you ignored: you think people will use your rankings as a secondary resource (a mere tool), and I think people will use your rankings as a primary resource (the whole tool kit).

Here's the extension of that: Just because you say it is a secondary resource, doesn't mean that's what it is. I admit I believe that because I think what it is (the rankings as a primary or secondary resource) has to do with how its used.

Now the thing is, I don't think that the lists and rankings are bad (either the faculty or your applicant preference polling). I merely believe that they are incomplete. Not that I think there is a perfect ranking tool out there--I don't.

And I do believe that you agree with me that people put a lot of stock in these lists/rankings, whether you tell them to research independently or not.

That aside, I'm also not sure why my being a student at Houston matters, and it seems to me a strange kind of ad hominem attack. You said: "I know Houston appeared on some of those lists." Actually, in the only listing project in the last ten years, the Atlantic Monthly listing, Houston only appeared for its Ph.D. in creative writing. The MFA was not listed there. And yet, you've stated that within your applicant preference poll, Houston is a top tier school in poetry (although I do think the fiction cohort is just as strong). My point is, I'm not sure what you think I have to gain from knocking a poll that puts Houston poetry back in the first tier. Is there something I'm missing here?

Joshua Gottlieb-Miller said...

OK. All of that aside. I include this in a separate post, because it is not part of the above argument.

Applicant preference polling should be a very useful tool for people, we both agree on that. Even if it's used in different ways than it should be, it will still help people.

However, I do think that any poll is going to miss something (and that's ok!). For instance, I don't think many applicants know that MFA students at Houston take classes with amazingly talented Ph.D. students (it's considered a single cohort). That is I think the best part about being in Houston--and there are some fantastic writers here to take classes with.

And isn't strength of cohort the whole reason for polling people and finding out where they are applying. Is that not its main purpose? Isn't that usually the argument for any ranking--to help guide applicants to the schools with the most talented incoming students?

That's all I am saying--and it's not a defense of faculty polling, nor is it an attack on applicant polling. But since you brought up Houston in a derogative manner in your last post, Seth, I thought I should clean the air a little.

Seth Abramson said...

"I refer to The Atlantic's list as rankings because they use the term top ten for their list."

No, they don't. The phrase "Five top..." is explicitly used to emphasize (though it's also stated elsewhere) that these are non-exclusive lists. "Five top" and "Top five" are totally different--and intentional--constructions.

"You think people will use your rankings as a secondary resource (a mere tool), and I think people will use your rankings as a primary resource (the whole tool kit)."

Josh, this is a tautology. You're saying that we know applicants are misusing the rankings because they're using them as a primary source. How do we know they're using them as a primary source? Because they're misusing them. It's a tautology. And here's why that matters: Someone who uses the rankings as a "primary source" is likely most concerned with Selectivity and Prestige in making their application decision. According to ALC polling data, 43.4% of applicants believe either Selectivity or Prestige is the most important factor (or tied for most important) in their application decision. In that context, how would using the rankings be a betrayal of these applicants' values? You may find the rankings imperfect--and I do too, I've never said otherwise--but right now they do happen to be the best measure of reputation and selectivity as things stand at this moment. So you say people are misusing the rankings simply because your values are different (say, Funding is most important to you, or Location, or Faculty). That doesn't fly.

Finally, the third fallacy you indulge in is reductio ad absurdum. That is, you start from the premise that applicants are using the rankings as a "primary resource" (we agree; some are). You then go immediately to the premise--a wildly different one--that these applicants are also using the rankings as their only resource. That, therefore, they're never finding out awesome things about Houston. How does that follow? Even if an applicant used the rankings for 70% of their application decision, a) that would still leave 30% of the decision to be based on other factors, and b) you don't distinguish between the application decision and the matriculation decision, a separate decision-making tree in which applicants again have the opportunity to consider non-ranking factors.

Josh--read the above, digest. I don't ever ignore your arguments, but I don't think it always works the other way. Either the above is correct or it is not.

S.

P.S. C'mon, Josh--Houston was #2 in 1996. No one at UH could possibly be happy that the new rankings have them at like #29.

Joshua Gottlieb-Miller said...

Well, Seth,

First, you're right about "top ten" being incorrect in regards to The Atlantic. I meant to say "ten top." Onward:

This, I believe, is the summation of our confusion: "You're saying that we know applicants are misusing the rankings because they're using them as a primary source. How do we know they're using them as a primary source? Because they're misusing them."

But that's not actually my argument. I don't think applicants are misusing the rankings. In fact, I agree that applicants are trying to find out where the most applicants are applying, because they believe those schools will have their pick of the best students (and vice versa).

My point was only that you claimed the applicants will use the rankings as a secondary resource, and I claimed that they will use the rankings as a primary resource (this does not mean misuse them, that's just a value judgment about their potential actions--or should I say, my prior actions).

Now that you have agreed that some will use it as a primary resource, I think it's fair to say that we agree here.

My other point, following this, is that if, as you say, maybe 43.4% of applicants are using the rankings as a primary resource (I know I'm paraphrasing, but I think it's a safe paraphrase for selectivity seekers), then I say the rankings will have a polling resource that is almost half self-referential, and will not actually be as much of a referendum on the other hard data as on who was tops the year before. Now, I don't think that's a betrayal of the applicants' values, again, as people who want to apply to the most selective schools will (if they're all still applying to the same schools)--what I'm saying is that they will miss out on a large number of great MFA programs if that is their attitude (which I think you also agree with, as you have mentioned in regards to, for instance, George Mason).

And you're right about the reductio ad absurdum (I actually quite like those, but I digress): the rankings, if a primary resource, are not an only resource. That's true.

And you are also right that my values are different, but they're only difference now that I'm on the other side of the looking glass, and know much more about what I wanted in a program.

But three non philosophical questions: you also say that I don't consider the "matriculation decision-making tree," but I'm not sure how that's part of the applicant polling? Is that a new feature? How is that reflected in the applicant preference poll?

How do you know you have polled up to half of the applicants? (Unless I've misread you somewhere...) But University of Iowa is listed as having 253 applicants on The Suburban Ecstasies. Don't they usually get over a thousand applications? Isn't there something wonky with the math?

I also question whether the hard data will be updated every year, as some schools learn how to market their programs better, and as some schools have better offerings. I know that's a mere procedural question, and if the numbers will be updated, great! But I do wonder.

As for your final point, I don't think that in general you ignore anyone's arguments, but I don't either, nor did Phoebe, above, nor most of the people who have disagreed with you. In large part, once we get the linguistic confusions out of the way, we actually agree about more than we disagree (for instance, that your rankings are imperfect, but probably the best measure we have at the moment, to be used as a secondary resource).

(Oh, and "Either the above is correct or it is not" is also a tautology, by the way).

As for Houston, I again think that's separate from the above discussion, and will again post to that below.

Joshua Gottlieb-Miller said...

Seth,

(I do appreciate the sincerity of your question. So please excuse my cheerleader tone, in the following. What can I say, I like my program. But again, I digress.)

You said, "C'mon, Josh--Houston was #2 in 1996. No one at UH could possibly be happy that the new rankings have them at like #29."

Well, there's two things there: are people happy about that ranking, here? And what do I personally think of #29?

I think people are mostly confused. But you know, the program does a pretty bad marketing job (and the ones doing the marketing may have never seen your rankings).

The thing is, the quality of the students here, and their successes in terms of graduate awards, I think helps situate our confusion.

What I mean is, how can applicants not know my fellow students are ass-kickers?

As for me and the #29: I'm not worried about #29, because I think it's silly to take into account a program for its fiction and poetry together. You may disagree, that's fine. I came here to write poetry, and that's what I was interested in in terms of selectivity and attractiveness to future applicants. So I'm really only interested in us being at #11 in the poetry only applicant polling.

Now, do I think #29, or #11 even, is still an unfortunate number to attach to our program in your rankings? Of course.

Am I upset? Sure. But really more confused. Here's the thing: we graduated a Stegner fellow (again) and a Wisconsin fellow last year. We have in the program now, currently, two winners of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship, in the same MFA cohort (which is, I should say, pretty awesome. And they're nice guys, too). The achievements of the Ph.D. students are fairly monster, as well.

Our fiction students are also publishing books and doing great things, and it may help that their classmates include former MFAs from, for instance, Iowa, in the Ph.D. track. So long as that is the case, we will continue to have great workshops in both genres, a fantastic reputation, and excellent post-graduate success.

So yeah, you're right: I don't think those rankings accurately represent the quality of the cohort here. But you know what, the rankings are imperfect. I have my reasons for quibbling at the rankings, yes, but also I am, like you, genuinely interested in people finding out the most and the best information they can in preparing their future applications.

And it helps that I think we're going to be doing just fine, in their future research.

Best,
Josh