Image: Noukka Signe
I’ve never liked the word “writer.” I guess that’s why I always give people my job title when they ask what I do. Doing this allows me to avoid those stereotypical questions—so what do you write about? But what do you really do? Isn’t it a bad time to go into print? That’s not the reason I avoid the word though. The real reason is because calling myself a writer somehow feels like a huge lie.
My parents, like many parents, wanted me to go to college. They wanted me to have job security, meet a nice man, and select just the right shade of Egg Shell for my gender-neutral nursery. They did not want a child in “the arts.” I suppose it’s not uncommon. After all, creatives aren’t really known for their job stability.
So, I went to college. I got a job, met a nice guy, and (after three wonderful years) found myself wanting all these things. I traded novels for wedding magazines. I lost myself in Pinterest and Etsy—trying to figure out if I was a shabby-chic bride or if I was more of a vintage bride. I was consumed with invitations, engagement flash mob videos, and creating registries on multiple websites…and I didn’t even have the ring.
Then, one random night, I started reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed. I’d read it before, but it seemed to be poking out from my book shelf, begging me to play with it. I’ve read it so many times that it only took me a few hours to get to the end. It was then I realized I was going in the wrong direction. Sure, I wanted to move in together. I wanted to get married. I wanted to have kids and bake cookies and all that shit. But I also wanted to write.
For a long time I’d denied how important writing was to me. I often found myself saying things like, “Sure I love writing, but it’s not going to pay my bills, you know?” or “I’ll just get a regular 9 to 5 and then write at night.” I wasn’t just terrified to want it, I was terrified writing wouldn’t want me back.
I began taking classes at the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop and, as cliche as it might sound, I came back to life. I began writing again. I began reading again. And, one day during my lunch break, I found myself googling MFA programs again.
I’d toyed with the idea of pursuing an MFA during my last year of undergrad, but put it out of my head while I looked for a job that would satisfy my loan payments. As time went on, I resolved myself to the fact that I would never attend an MFA program—I wasn’t good enough, disciplined enough…talented enough. But now it was in my head like a Taylor Swift song, and I knew what I needed to do.
I quit my job in September 2014, and began working on my MFA applications full-time. I also enrolled in an MFA-prep course at the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop so I could get feedback from someone other than my writing mentor, who guided me through most of the process. These are some of the things I wish I had known about the application process:
1. SAVE UP
As soon as you decide you are going to start applying to MFA programs, start saving immediately. Between application fees, transcript fees, and mailing materials, the MFA application process is anything but cheap. I applied to eight schools and spent about $1,320.
Before you freak out, there are two things that factored into that being such a high number. Firstly, I went to three different schools for my undergraduate education, which means I had to pay three different institutions each time I needed a transcript. Secondly, I enrolled in an MFA-Preparation Workshop with the Sackett Street Writers Workshop (side note: If you’re in New York, I highly recommend the SSWW) because I needed a second set of eyes and opinions for my manuscript.
Unfortunately, one thing that’s the same across the board is application fees. Seriously, schools should give you back half if you don’t get in. Below are the eight schools I applied to and their corresponding application fees (they are listed in no particular order):
- University of Iowa: $60
- I applied to Iowa because, well, it’s Iowa. I knew I wasn’t the ideal candidate, I knew there were better pieces than mine being submitted, I knew I wasn’t what they were looking for. But I thought, “What if? What if I got in? What if the right person read my work at the right time and I got in?” I know that’s not the way things go, and that’s not how the application process works, but what if?
- University of Virginia: $85
- University of Michigan: $75
- UMASS Amherst: $75
- Hunter College: $125
- Brooklyn College: $125
- Stony Brook Southampton: $100
- My friend, Jenna, is currently in the MFA program at Southampton. She was a great source of support throughout the whole process as well. We were friends before she was accepted into the program, and I’ve seen her, and her work, grow exponentially. Again, as cliche as it might sound, I think some part of me always knew this was where I was meant to be.
- Arcadia University: $25
(Please note that these application fees are current as of July 14, 2015. It is possible that these fees may be different after the aforementioned date.)
That’s $670 in application fees alone. My MFA-Prep course was $500, and my transcript fees ranged in price (Cabrini College – $5, Nassau Community College – $3.80, Stony Brook – $10). Granted, some schools allowed me to upload my transcripts digitally, so I didn’t need to pay for transcripts for each school. However, for those schools that required me to mail my manuscript in, I used UPS because I didn’t trust the Postal Service to get in there. All in all, my total was somewhere in the realm of $1,320. Even without the prep course, my cost would still have been $820. So, if you’re going to apply to MFA programs, make sure you have some money set aside!
2. MAKE A LIST
One of the first things you need to do after getting your finances together is create a list of the schools you plan to apply to. I would recommend using AWP’s Guide to Writing Programs. However, while this guide is helpful, it’s also really broad in its results. To really narrow down your list of schools, you have to take the following into account:
- Funding—is taking on debt a possibility for you? If so, how much are you willing to take on? If you’re not prepared to take on additional debt, you might want to look into programs that offer full funding.
- Location—big city, suburb, or rural?
- Faculty —are there certain authors you’re looking to work with?
- Size of Program—what kind of faculty:student ratio are you looking for?
- Reputation—it’s not about finding the program…it’s about finding the program that’s best for you. Just because the program you’re looking at isn’t in the top 10 doesn’t mean it’s not right for you.
3. CREATE YOUR PROFILE
Most, if not all, college applications (for both graduate and undergraduate programs) are online. Visit the website of each of the schools on your list, create a profile, and be sure to take note of your username and password because you will definitely forget. In fact, I recommend using an Excel sheet.
4. LOR GROUNDWORK
Aside from your writing sample, your letters of recommendation (LOR) are one of the most important components of your application. Be sure to contact your professors, colleagues, or anyone else who you’re thinking about asking, as soon as possible.
In fact, it would be a good idea to stay on their radar and update them as you go through the application process. Let them know where you’re going to apply, when the application deadlines age, when you’re submitting, etc.
5. GET YOUR SHIT TOGETHER
Colleges and universities are notorious for fucking shit up. Be sure to put in your requests for transcripts as soon as humanly possible…and follow up! The last thing you want is to be on the phone with the registrar as the clock counts down to the application deadline.
Write like your life depends on it. There is nothing more to say.
The last piece of advice I will give you regarding the application process is this: brace yourself. While writing the manuscript is probably the hardest part of this whole journey, what really fucks with you is waiting to hear back.
I was not prepared for the psychological effect the waiting period was going to have. I had nightmares about being rejected, went through countless “what if” scenarios, and just plain freaked out at random times. Waiting is the hardest part, but you can get through this.
Getting accepted into an MFA program, whether you wind up attending that program or not, is something that stays with you forever. It’s one of those things that you’ll be able to tell people where you were, what you were doing, etc. This is because being accepted into an MFA program is a life changing experience…well, at least it was for me.
My first acceptance came via e-mail on Monday, January 26th. The director of the program sent me a heartfelt e-mail telling me I showed promise, and demonstrated bravery as a writer.
I was sitting at my desk, about to enter an order into Quickbooks when I noticed the mail notification. As I read the director’s kind words, the tears came before I could excuse myself from the office and call my mother.
Unfortunately, the feelings of anxiety and worry don’t disappear when you get accepted to a program. If anything, they intensify. This is because getting accepted is half the battle—the other half is deciding which program is right for you.
Where are you going to learn the most? Whose faculty is similar to your writing style? Is this program going to help you become the best writer you can possibly be?
The truth is that you’re never going to have a moment’s peace until you hear back from every school. So, savor that moment of acceptance, celebrate it to the fullest, and, most importantly, stay patient.
More difficult than the actual writing of your submission piece is waiting to hear back from admissions committees. If I could give one piece of advice to prospective and/or current applicants, it would be this: have patience.
The admissions process is unfair in that it is not a synchronized event. For some UNGODLY reason, acceptances, rejections, and wait list notifications go out at different time intervals. There is no formula—it’s completely random. Some say it’s alphabetical—others claim it happens in random bursts—but the truth is that no one knows.
The second piece of advice I’d like to give MFA applicants (present and future) is not to read too much into the forums. GradCafe and Facebook groups like MFA Draft provide live updates for MFA notifications. Both allow you to write comments as well (the bonus of belonging to the Facebook group is that you actually get to see who’s writing what). However, the comments are where it gets tricky.
Many times, applicants will ask each other who they’ve heard from, how long ago, and if anyone knows of additional information that will shed light on your decision. ALL of the comments on both sites are speculation—here-say…un-validated rumors. The only person who can provide you with the right answer is the admissions committee.
This is not to say that the people on these forums are liars or that they can’t be trusted—some of what they say may be correct. But don’t take their word as law. Unless you have a letter, an e-mail, or a phone call, do not lose hope. Believe in yourself. Trust your work. Hang on a little longer.
I applied to MFA programs to find my community—to be with my people…to meet and bond with other writers who know what it means to be bound to a story. If you should be accepted nowhere, if you should be accepted anywhere, know you are not alone.
In the midst of an epic meltdown, I e-mailed my mentor overflowing with doubt and ready to quit. The words she said to me will stay with me forever, “Keep the faith, Lauren. This is a journey. Journeys are inherently filled with uncertainty and stake.”
I want to make it clear that I didn’t accept Stony Brook Southampton’s offer of admission because I was only accepted to one other institution (Arcadia). I didn’t accept Stony Brook Southampton’s offer of admission because it was the better of the two institutions I was accepted at. I chose to accept Stony Brook Southampton’s offer of admission because when I stepped onto the campus on Admitted Students Day, I felt like I had come home.
The faculty were warm, friendly, and had answers to my questions. The other accepted students were funny, talented, and fierce. The program was constructed in such a way that you could explore yourself during your time there—you could write fiction, YA—even try your hand at screenwriting if space was available.
I was not offered funding. I was not offered scholarships, stipends, or assistantships. I worked full-time as an undergrad, and plan on doing the same as a graduate student. I know it’s going to be hard—I know there are going to be a lot of long nights. But I want this—I want to be writing, and I want to be improving. So, it’s a price I’m willing to pay.
My name is Lauren Sharkey, and I am a writer.