Photo Credit: Alfred Stieglitz, “The Steerage”
It’s mid-December, which means it’s high tide in application season. A year ago, we were exactly where you are now. We spent our free time navigating unintuitively designed web portals for universities, editing our statements of purpose to be personal for each program, and tallying all the money we spent on application fees. We all shouldered the nauseating uncertainty of it all, wondering if we were acting in vain. Somehow, we all managed to be admitted. So maybe we knew a little bit more about applications than we thought.
This month, myself and 3 other first year MFA candidates decided to get together to reflect on how we got here. So, we decided to answer some of the most frequently asked application questions. Though we don’t always agree, we hope that our insight will provide some perspective to this year’s MFA contenders.
These questions were answered by Stephanie Lane Sutton (Poetry, University of Miami), Carlos Alonso Chism (Fiction, University of Maryland), Craig Knox (Poetry, Rutgers-Camden), and Shakarean Hutchinson (Fiction, Cornell).
- How long should you wait to apply to MFA programs after finishing your undergraduate degree?
Stephanie: I think it’s pretty subjective, but there is definitely a sweet spot. Most people advise taking 1-2 years off before applying, which I think is generally good advice. However, I think it depends on your larger goals too, and a bit of luck. I planned to only take two years off, but then I got an offer to work as an English T.A. in a high school and run their after school poetry club. I’m really glad I decided not to apply that year, because I ended up working that job for four years and loving it. Now, I’ve ended up starting my MFA at age 27. I was worried I’d be much older than everyone, but it seems that most people are the same age as me.
Basically, the rule I’d follow is that you have your entire life to get your MFA. Don’t pass up opportunities outside of education that you might want to pursue. They might not come around again, and they also will likely make you a more competitive applicant in the future.
Carlos: It depends on your situation after finishing undergrad. If you’re a traditional college student, meaning you’re 22 or 23 when you graduate, I’d take at least one year off. If an MFA is something you want to do at some point down the road, wait until you start to feel that yearning again. You do want some time in between undergrad and grad school, mostly because you will grow as a person, and therefore your writing (if you keep writing during your time off!) will also grow and change. It should also be noted that grad student stipends don’t pay much. It’s definitely helpful to have some money saved up so that you aren’t 100% dependent on the meager pay you’ll receive while you TA. This is another good reason to take at least a year – maybe two or three! – off between undergrad and grad school.
Obviously, if you’re a non-traditional grad student, much of this won’t apply to you (except the money stuff). You’ve already gone out and experienced life outside the academy.
Craig: I’ve been a non-traditional student for about six years, so I’ll leave this question to you guys. I applied to MFA programs the year after I finished undergrad. It was the right time.
Shakarean: I’m a non-traditional student as well, not finishing my undergraduate degree until I was 30. I had no intentions of waiting for an additional year or two when I had already done the entire “living life” thing. No matter your age I think each person needs to determine if they’re ready for grad school. Some might be at 22, 23, some might not be until 30, 31. What I want to caution against is thinking you’re going to be the only one in your age range in your program. While most students seem to be in their mid to late 20s, there are those, if not in the MFA program then in other graduate degree programs, that are just out of undergrad and there are those, like me, who are past 30. If you feel like your writing is ready then apply.
- How do you write an SOP that’s attention grabbing for the right reasons?
Stephanie: My one piece of advice is to speak about yourself in a literary sense. Consider what movements, aesthetics, styles, or genres you gravitate towards. If you feel your writing revolves around a certain subject, no matter how broad, find a terminology for it. You will likely need to use multiple descriptors to get it exactly right. Specificity need not be the only goal. In my opinion, this is the best way for admissions committees to truly get a sense of who you are as a writer. Most applicants will talk about events that have shaped who they are in life, but if you devote significant space in your SOP talking about your writing, you will definitely stand out.
Carlos: So, first thing to consider about the SOP is that it is a specific genre of writing, meaning that there is a somewhat static (but also a bit fluid!) set of conventions and expectations that people on admissions committees will have in mind as they read it. The best strategy for writing a good SOP is to read what others have said works and what doesn’t work. In that vein, the number one advice I give about the statement of purpose is to read Cady Vishniac’s post about her own SOP. I took notes from what she wrote there, and I strongly believe that influence was a major part of why I got into 3/4 programs last year (as opposed to 1/5 the year before). Some other helpful pieces to read are Stephen Graham Jones’ advice on statement of purposes and Elizabeth McCracken’s take on the genre.
Craig: You’re writing a statement of purpose for an MFA program, so keep that in mind first and foremost. It will be so tempting to talk only about yourself: why your writing is great, how you can’t wait to work with x and y, how you know so well you will fit in at the program that you have the Google maps street view of the English department building open in a tab right now, just so you know where you’re going on the first day of classes.
Definitely don’t say that last part. Take a breath. There’s two key elements to a great statement of purpose.
- Get specific. Talk about your writing process and what you think about the craft of writing. Remember, the person reading your SOP loves talking shop just as much as you do. That said, they have 100+ of these to read, so stay on point. If you might teach or TA at this program, talk about how teachers impacted you on your journey. That will be important to keep in mind when you are the one teaching or TA’ing for what is likely to be a pretty small amount of money. Most importantly, talk about the program you’re applying to. You will have an immediate leg up on many more applicants than you might think. Anyone who reads SOP’s for an MFA program will tell you they read countless SOP’s that don’t mention the program once or have a comical error like including the name of another program or a professor from another program.
- Get creative. Yes, you need to follow conventions to an extent. Make sure you really know the intent of a statement of purpose – use the resources on this wonderful site (like I did) if you don’t know. Don’t write a 2-page SOP if the school asks for half a page. Don’t write your SOP in the style of a golden shovel or if you do, make sure it is one that would make Terrance Hayes jealous. But formulaic writing will only get you so far. Make sure that you as a writer, whoever that is, is in your statement of purpose as much as possible.
Shakarean: I think Carlos and Craig have summed it up pretty well. A few more things… 1. BUT FOR REAL FOLLOW EACH PROGRAM’S DIRECTIONS. If one program allows up up to five pages, great. Write ‘til your heart’s content. But don’t go over those five pages. If a program says two pages, stick to two pages. They want it double-space? Double-space it. Get where I’m going here? Don’t give the programs any reason to toss out your application, and not following their directions is a pretty good reason. 2. Sell yourself. You’re going to spend a good bit of your application talking about your writing, your style, who has influenced you. Do not forget to put yourself into your application. Have you done anything interesting in the years between undergrad and applying for grad school? Work any jobs that has impacted you or your writing? Or, on the other end of the spectrum, have you turned a negative life experience into a positive? The SOP is the one place in the application where you can tell them who you are. So tell them. That doesn’t mean spend the entire two pages talking about yourself. But don’t spend the entire two pages talking about writing either. Strike a good balance. 3. Don’t write seven different SOPs. There really is no need to write a separate SOP for each program you’re applying to. Once you have a good draft, a good base, tailor it to each program’s requirements. 4. Check, double check, triple check. The faculty at Virginia Tech do not care why you think you’d be a good fit at Iowa. Make sure each SOP goes to the program they are suppose to. Check for obvious errors and, again, that the SOP fits the program requirements.
- When deciding where to apply, which criteria is most important in selecting programs?
Stephanie: I definitely prioritized funding (and take cost of living into account there as well), but beyond that, I think that it is really important to find a program where you can study what you want to study. Some people want to practice writing in translation; others really want pursue dual degrees in another humanities field, such as Gender Studies or English. For me, I was most interested in attending a program where I could do interdisciplinary work, so I only applied to programs that allowed workshops in another genre, elective courses outside of the department, or hybrid-genre thesis. Note that I didn’t apply to programs with one type of model, but rather programs where I could see pathways toward the work I wanted to do. While you’ll be taking workshop classes and producing a thesis at literary any MFA program, it’s important to think about what you want to make your experience special — and it should be a little more specific than how much money they’re giving you.
Carlos: If you’re looking at full-time programs, the only absolutely necessary requirement should be that the program fully funds all or most of its students (oh look, The MFA Years has a list of fully-funded programs!). The second most important criterion to consider is the style that program generally prefers, as some places like much more experimental writing while others skew more traditional. It’s not too helpful to send a traditionally structured story to a place that loves fiction written in various forms. Other than that, which programs you choose to apply to depend on a variety of factors, like location (hate the heat? Hate the cold? Take that into account), the cost of living where that program is located, how much money they offer, the length of time the program is (depending on your long-term goals, 2 years may be better than 3 or 4), the size of the program, along with what you’ve heard from word-of-mouth sources.
Craig: I needed funding to do the MFA and diversity in the program was second biggest factor when considering the programs I applied to. Other than that, there are no less than a million different factors to consider. Make a flowchart for yourself if you have to. Carlos’s answer gives you a lot of places to start. Do not apply to somewhere you cannot reasonably imagine attending, and don’t apply to somewhere hoping for funding that doesn’t exist.
Shakarean: Is it fully funded? Do they provide a livable stipend? Is it in an area of the country you wouldn’t mind living for a minimum two years? Then apply. I understand why some apply to programs that aren’t fully funded or to low-residency programs, but I will say the things that, if reading this, you’ve heard 100 times before–do not go into debt for a graduate degree. If you can, make sure you go somewhere that when you’re leaving you’re not adding to the loans you inevitably got for undergrad.
There are other factors, of course. Carlos perfectly wrote them out. Ignore this and go read his answer again.
- How do you afford MFA applications?
Stephanie: The first time I applied, I had saved no money and had almost no disposable income, so it was really tough. I basically emailed schools and asked them if I could apply for free. A lot of programs offered waivers (especially through CIC). Additionally, nearly all of them allowed me to send unofficial GRE scores and undergraduate transcripts, so long as I asked, which saved me a lot of money. But I was really limited in where I could apply, and there were still unavoidable fees that were hard for me to afford.
When I decided to reapply, I really overcompensated. I got a second job in retail and started saving money. I arranged for my hours to be reduced in the fall and winter so I could focus on applications. I was able to apply to more schools, and I was not limited by the cost of application fees, so it went a lot smoother. I saved up WAY more than enough money for my applications, but I’m really glad I did. I was able to use the rest to cover most of the cost of moving across the country.
Carlos: I have a feeling others will have betters answers to this than I do. I worked, and used whatever money I had left over from the summer/early fall for my applications. Both years, I applied to fewer programs than I wanted to mostly because of money. Maybe it would be best to start putting a little bit aside here and there at least several months out from application season.
Craig: I mostly put them on credit cards. This is terrible, horrible advice but it is what I had to do. I could not have finished undergrad without taking on a mountain of debt, one which I am still partially buried under. I simply didn’t have the resources. I figured another couple hundred bucks was nothing, so long as I ended up in an MFA program that provided funding. And I did! I regret nothing.
Shakarean: FEE WAIVERS MY SISTERS AND BROTHERS. FEE WAIVERS. Do not ask the MFA programs about them because the MFA programs do not provide the fee waivers. Email each college or university’s graduate program and ask if they offer application fee waivers and if so, what are the requirements. I applied to nine programs and only paid for two applications because of fee waivers. You may not be able to get them, but at least ask. There is nothing–NOTHING–wrong with asking first. And if you apply for the fee waiver follow up with them, especially if it’s been more than a month and the deadline is getting near. There was a school last year that I had to email twice about the status of my fee waiver before finally being told that I got it. As Stephanie mentioned, see if you can send unofficial transcripts and GRE scores. Look at schools that don’t require the GRE (unless you know you’d like to go into a Phd program after your MFA) if possible.
If you can’t get a fee waiver (and even if you can) I suggest being really selective about where you apply. I’m at Cornell, but I would not have paid for their $90 application fee if I didn’t get a fee waiver. How much can you realistically pay for each application fee? How much money can you devote to application fees as a whole? Be honest about this, truly honest about this. I love that Stephanie, Carlos, and Craig were willing to do what they needed to do, but it’s the same thing with grad school as a whole-don’t go into debt for application fees.
- How can you tell if a program will be safe or inclusive for you or other marginalized writers?
Carlos: There’s unfortunately no surefire guaranteed way to make sure. Look for what others are saying about the program. Google it. Google the name of any prominent alumni and see if they’ve been asked about their time there (as long they didn’t graduate in the distant past). More importantly, ask current students – you can definitely do that once you’ve been accepted to a program, but you can also take advantage of resources like the MFA Draft Facebook group as you apply. There’s a good chance a current student from most of the programs you’re applying to is in the group, and people are usually happy to talk about what the sense of community is like. If there are no students of color, LGBTQ+, or students with disabilities, that doesn’t mean the program isn’t open to writers from marginalized groups, but I guess that would mean you should take what you hear from the current students with a grain of salt.
Craig: Carlos gave a really good answer. I can only add a few things to it. First is, go to the campus if you can. I did that and it was expensive but I got a sense of which school I felt more comfortable with almost immediately. You can start to really see yourself there (or not) by being there. If I would have based my choice off the impression I got through phone or e-mail, I would have picked the wrong school. Feeling comfortable with the program was really important to me as I often come off as shy or even standoffish without meaning to. Because of that, I’ve struggled a lot in my life with feeling distant and different. I knew none of that would magically change just because I was starting in an MFA program, and it hasn’t. But I love my program and that reinvigorates me constantly. I matter to my program and I am involved in my program, even as a part-time student who is rarely on campus. If you are investing your money and a few years of your life into an MFA, you must feel that you are involved and that you matter as well.
Shakarean: Yeah, well, I’m in a program where one of our most famous alumni wrote this. And that article made me nervous as hell when I applied, moreso after I was accepted, and horribly after I decided to attend. I don’t think you can know if your program will be inclusive, accepting, and safe until you get there unfortunately. I can tell you what I did once I was accepted. I asked each program if I could speak with their POC students and to their credit each program gave me the email of their POC students who I reached out to. And those students were honest with me about the programs, about the universities, and about the town/city they were located in. I lucked out in being able to speak with our program director while she was in my hometown at a literary conference. All these little things help in determining how open and inclusive a program can be. And even after all that, you may wind up in a cohort that just doesn’t click, in a workshop environment that’s more harmful than good. I like my program, I like the people in my program, our director has reassured me with just her presence, and I’ve met some amazing people. That doesn’t mean it’s been smooth sailing, it hasn’t, not in the least. But overall I lucked out, and I know that.
Stephanie: I think Shakarean is right. I thought I did a good job selecting schools that I thought would be inclusive for me during application season. Then, once notification season came by, I found anonymous blogs and public call-outs about programs that had done a really good job marketing but a not so great job in terms of program culture.
I think it’s really, really important to ask hard questions and go with your gut. When programs called me to accept me, and when I had the opportunity to speak with current students, I asked them point-blank if stuff I wrote about would fly in workshop. And while no one ever said “no,” some answers sounded fishier than others.
While I think you can do a lot of research on the faculty you’ll be working with, as well as courses that are being taught, and publications that recent alumni have produced, talking to current students might be the very best thing you can do. These are the folks who are your likeliest friends and allies. Talking to them may be your best gauge in terms of whether or not you’ll feel comfortable and welcomed in a program.
If you have any burning questions about MFA programs or applications, leave them in the comments below. We may include your question in a future post. In the mean time, you can read more about all of our first year contributors here.