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4 Ways I Improved My MFA Applications (After Failing Miserably the First Time)

Image: “Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X,” painting by Francis Bacon.

On April 15th, 2015, I had a grim reality to accept—one I had suspected but, somehow, managed to deny for as long as possible. Knowing that it was the reality for something like 90% of applicants didn’t help much either. Although I was still waitlisted at two long shot programs, I stopped kidding myself: I was not getting in anywhere on my first try at MFA applications. 

On the one hand, rejection is frequently inevitable for writers, especially where competitive opportunities are concerned. On the other hand, writing is my life’s endeavor. It isn’t enough for me to shrug off rejection as a statistical likelihood. My future success in publication, fellowship opportunities, and the job market depends on being in the top 1% as often as possible.

When I failed in my first attempt at MFA applications, my resolve to try again meant taking a critical look at myself and considering where I could improve. At first, it seemed daunting, because I had spent a lot of time on my applications. But then I began to consider not the quantity of work I had done, but methods I had used. I started thinking more like an MFA candidate and, consequently, like a competitive writer. I made the application process work for me so that, regardless of the outcome, I would improve my craft and become more strategic with submissions.

First, a disclaimer: This post is not a “How To.” Everyone’s application process is different. “One size fits all” advice is particularly unhelpful. What I wanted to do was model two processes: the one that worked for me and the one that didn’t. If you’re an applicant reading this, perhaps you can begin to formulate your own process for admission the way I did. This brings me to point 1: 

1. I stopped taking advice

Counter intuitive, much? Bear with me.

Because I had been an undergraduate creative writing major, I had been taught that peer feedback is an integral part of the writing process in academia. I thought that the more feedback you receive, the closer you are to assessing the objective strengths and weaknesses of your work. This had been ingrained in me from years of instructors trying to soften the sting of negative criticism.

In round one, I sought peer feedback for every single aspect of my applications, especially my writing sample. I did this because this was the model I knew, the one that I was assured would work, but it was pretty foolish of me. My peers were mainly fellow applicants, unable to speak from experience in being admitted to a fully funded MFA. Not only did I get minimal useful advice, the peer review model was a time suck, because it relies on exchanging as well as receiving feedback.

In round two, I abandoned this model altogether. Instead, I focused on sharpening my intuition. If I didn’t feel confident in a poem, I learned to sit with that discomfort and figure out why. I could either edit it to more closely fit my vision, or, if I lacked a vision entirely, I knew it was time to remove it from my sample. Many of the poems in my original sample remained with minor edits, but plenty were cut, or revised until they were unrecognizable from their original drafts. 

Instead of abandoning feedback altogether, I became more intentional about who I asked and why. I registered for an online workshop via Brooklyn Poets called the MFA Bootcamp, where I linked up with an instructor who helped me edit my application materials with a specific eye towards admissions. I also talked a lot with my partner, an English PhD student, who helped me perfect my statement of purpose and compose my materials in a way that was appropriate for humanities-based academia.

And, while this is somewhat silly, I think it’s important to note that I avoided online forums for MFA’s completely during my application prep for round two. I actually deactivated my Facebook for almost an entire year. I think this is something more people should consider doing, because applicant forums are not only rife with peer feedback, but also serve as an excellent distraction from real work.

2. I stated my fucking purpose

I admit: the first time I approached my applications, I knew nothing about statements of purpose. Not only had I never written one before, I could not figure out what differentiated it from a regular cover letter. To make matters worse, my own sense of purpose was totally abstract. Wasn’t my purpose to attend an MFA program? To be a better writer? To publish more often?

Not having a good sense of my purpose negatively effected every aspect of my application. In my admissions essay, I tried to shape myself in the image of the ideal candidate rather than assessing myself as a writer, and how I could truly benefit from or add to a given program. Truthfully, those SOP’s did everything except what they were supposed to do: state my fucking purpose.

Because I sensed that my failures began with my lack of purpose-stating, I “practiced” for round two by applying to literary opportunities that required one: fellowships, retreats, and workshops. Many funded opportunities asked me to describe my “financial need,” so it helped me figure out some of the nuances of how to talk about why a certain opportunity would benefit me in a unique way.

I also experimented with describing my creative goals and sensibilities in specific terms, which led to surprising outcomes. I realized that my background in screenwriting, performance, and queer poetics was actually driving me back toward the classroom—all things I had neglected to consider before. These aspects became central to my SOP, and also helped me refine my writing sample and my school selection.

While some debate the value of a good statement of purpose, it was the area where I grew the most. As an exercise, it had the most tangible benefit to my materials as well as to my overall maturity as a writer. I also gained a tool set for how to discuss my work in a concrete way, which is a truly invaluable skill that will hopefully help rake in those fellowships and residencies one day.

3. I was more critical in my school selection

Where you apply is one of the most important parts of the MFA application process. Most applicants prioritize funding and location for obvious reasons—you want your MFA experience to be livable, better than whatever pursuit you’re leaving behind. While not arbitrary criteria, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a school is more of a right place for you than anyone else in their applicant pool.

Not considering the X factor was a huge mistake I made the first time around. In addition to funding and location, I limited my search by real arbitrary criteria: no or waived application fees and proximity to my current city. The result was an extremely small pool of very competitive programs. And because my selection was so impersonal, I did so without really being able to tell you why I should go there.

In my second attempt, I was more intentional in my school selection. I spent more time reading about degree requirements and browsing through coursebooks. If there was faculty at a given school who shared my writing interests, I looked them up. I zeroed in on schools where I thought I could be successful because our writing interests were reciprocal.

So, come April 15th the next year, my success/fail rates were essentially inverted. On my first try, 2 out of 8 schools waitlisted me, and the rest were rejections. But on my second try, out of the 11 I applied to, 8 admitted or waitlisted me. It’s impossible to pinpoint one reason why my results improved so drastically, but I think really digging deep in my school selection likely played the biggest role. I looked for indicators of mutual interest rather than only considering my own. 

4. I stopped viewing MFA’s as a quick fix for my life

If you’ve even been single for a long time, at least one person will advise you that you can’t love someone else until you learn to love yourself. While that phrase may be dubious as dating advice, it was true in my MFA process.

In the beginning, I decided to apply to MFAs because I was desperate to change my disposition. I was exhausted from the hustle, disenchanted with my local lit scene. I wanted better paying teaching work, opportunities to work on a literary magazine, a new community of writers, all the shiny things that MFAs promise.

At some point during my second round of applications, I realized that I didn’t need to wait for all the opportunities to come from an MFA program. For example, because I wanted to experience editing a literary magazine, I sought out volunteer opportunities with ones that would take me. I stopped looking at the things I disliked about my local literary scene and focused on the individuals I loved within it. I applied to jobs, and even got a promising offer.

In the grand scheme of things, 2-3 years is a very short period of time. If I wanted opportunities to happen, I could not only make them happen for me, but would need to learn how to do so anyway. While this reality check strengthened my applications, its biggest impact was on my outlook. Because I had taken steps to improve my current disposition, failing a second time no longer seemed like the worst possible outcome. 

 

Although it’s cliche to say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, we as writers do need to find ways to learn from frequent rejection, otherwise we may be in the wrong profession. We cannot be successful by always seeking out opportunities that would be glad to have us. We also have to take insurmountable risks so that we may better succeed. It isn’t enough to cast fate to the wind: we have to learn to develop strategies of research, craft, and patience. 

In this list, my objective was not to recount a list of do’s and don’t’s. (If that’s your takeaway, dear reader, I’d refer you back to point #1.) Rather, I wanted to demonstrate the ways in which I made the application process work for me, not only in the sense that I was successful, but that I became a better writer because of it.

My rookie mistakes are riddled with naivety, false-starts, and misguided impulsivity. But by taking on the challenging of applying to MFA programs twice, I eventually overcame my fear of failure. I took an honest look at myself, and grew because of it. And, consequently, I got the best possible reward.

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2 Comments

  1. Stephanie, this is super interesting, I’m at work at the moment so I intend to go through it with a fine tooth comb later but I was just wondering – The Brooklyn online workshop sounds great, I know this is a long shot but do you know of anything similar for Fiction?

    Thanks 🙂 Shan x

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