Applying, Interview
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So You’re Waiting to Hear Back from MFA Programs: Post Application Advice With Rachel Heng

Image: Jeroen François

For the next two months we’ll be asking some of our first year contributors to talk about the post application period and how they dealt with it last year.

What did you do to get through the post application period?

In the period that I was applying to MFA programs, a couple of beta readers were reading an early draft of my novel. It just so happened that I finished my applications around the same time that they finished reading and gave me feedback, so I threw myself into rewriting the novel. It was the perfect distraction because while I didn’t feel up for generating new work at the time, I felt like rewriting was something I could actually do. So I spent most of December and January wrestling with edits. And then, having decided that MFA application anxiety was, y’know, not quite crippling enough, I decided to query agents as well. Querying agents was a whole different level of anxiety and I definitely don’t recommend this. On hindsight, my social media / email addiction really started around this period of time, when I was constantly checking draft for MFA news, stalking agents on Twitter and obsessively refreshing my email. So I wouldn’t say to do what I did, but maybe some version of this. E.g. if you don’t feel up to writing new work, find some existing piece of writing that you can throw yourself into and wrestle with. Or if you have another project (new filing system, redecorating your room, exercising, adopting a cat), that can be helpful to take your mind off the wait.

What’s the best piece of advice you received about applying?

Aim high, aim for your dream schools — even if you don’t get in, you can always apply again next year. Don’t rule out schools because you think you won’t get in. It’s so hard to know where we ‘stand’ as writers, if that even makes sense as a concept. I’d been writing about 3 years when I applied to MFAs and was convinced I would get rejected everywhere; after all, my journal acceptance rate was dismal (around 0.5%, maybe less) at the time. Surely MFA programs would be more difficult to get into than the lit journals that they house (I now know this is not true for a variety of reasons, one of them being I am still getting rejected by lit journals housed in programs that accepted me). I ended up getting into several programs which I hadn’t expected at all, but if I hadn’t, I would’ve applied again next year, and the next. So I guess the same advice applies to MFA applications as to writing in general: persist.

Biggest high? Biggest low?

I’ll start with biggest low, because that came first. Syracuse was the first of my choices to start notifying. It was also my top choice and dream school, so when the acceptance notifications started to come out on Draft and I hadn’t heard anything, I was crushed. Then I got a rejection email (which as some of you know is a form letter that starts with “Dear Applicant”, lol), followed by computer-generated rejections from Cornell and UVA. Then followed several days of silence while other people celebrated acceptances on Draft and I was convinced my fears of not being accepted anywhere were true. I’d been preparing myself for it but still, to be faced with the possibility that I wouldn’t be going to an MFA program that year was a stab in the heart.
The biggest high came after that stretch of silence, when I got a phone call from a New York number at work one day. It was Deborah Landau, offering me a place at NYU and their Writers in Public Schools fellowship, which would cover tuition and offer a $27k annual stipend. I went into a meeting room to cry after that phone call (no one at work knew I was applying to grad school). But it wasn’t over — that same day, I was waitlisted by Michigan and accepted by Indiana. After the rejections of the past week and becoming convinced I wouldn’t get in anywhere, it was a high like no other. I ended up getting other acceptances, acceptances from schools I would never, ever have imagined getting into and that stunned me and also made me cry (I did a lot of crying in February / March 2017), but that first acceptance was golden.

What would you do differently if you could apply all over again?

I would try to be kinder to myself. Often I felt like it was life or death when I was applying, while on hindsight, the MFA application process and the MFA itself are just steps in what is (hopefully) a long journey as a writer. I would try to remember that regardless of the application outcome, I had managed to write fiction on my own for years. Even if I didn’t get into an MFA, I would just keep chipping away. I would still be a writer, and no rejection could take that from me.

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