Wednesday, December 2, 2020
Ten Things I Learned About Applying To MFA Programs (From Actually Applying To MFA Programs): part one

Hey y’all, apologies for the MFA-centric posts lately, but whenever I hear that maxim, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” I always interpret it as: “Write the things you wish you could have read.” I’m drawing near the end of my MFA application journey, and there are many, many things I wish I could go back in time and tell past-me. So if you’re applying for MFA programs, or just considering it, feel free to take a peek at this series of advice. (And, of course, if you’re not interested, skip this and wait ’til I start dragging my butt back to the library four days a week, for some actual posts.)

For what it’s worth, my meager credentials: this fall, I applied to seventeen MFA programs; fifteen of them ranked in the top thirty (which was dumb for reasons I’ll explain later), and two less selective programs as a just-in-case (which was also dumb). Of these schools, I’ve heard back from thirteen so far, and had the great honor of being accepted at four programs — three fully funded and one with a not-bad fellowship — and waitlisted at two schools. Last night, I officially accepted an offer from a school I only applied to for the privilege of being rejected from. (This was not dumb.)

If I had to do it all over again, I’d wish someone had told me the following:

Ten Things I Learned About Applying To MFA Programs (From Actually Applying To MFA Programs)

1) Work on your sample. Work on your sample. NO! Stop reading this! Go work on your sample!

My basic portfolio was two stories, and ran around 28 pages. One of the stories was a piece I’d written for a workshop I took at Harvard Extension about a year before I applied to programs. It came out well in the first draft. I took it through a few workshopped rounds of edits, then let it sit ’til application time, ’cause it’s pretty much the best thing I’ve ever written (so far).

The second story was a wretched piece of trash I wrote for a workshop when I was nineteen. A few months before I applied to schools, I decided it had potential, and completely rewrote it. Made everyone I knew read it and give me notes. Completely rewrote it. Bought everyone ice cream and made them reread it again. Redrafted it. Redrafted it. Ripped it apart with colored pens and then — you guessed it — redrafted it. The last two weekends before I submitted, I spent four to six hours a day on this story. I spent so much time with it that I started getting hallucinations that it wasn’t a story at all, but a statue I was sculpting with my hot shaking hands. When I’d finally taken it as far as it could go, I knew in my heart it wasn’t one-tenth as good as the story that had come naturally; I only hoped that programs would overlook the whole lowly mess.

When I actually got the chance to talk to three department chairs about why they had accepted me to their programs, guess which story they talked about? The second one. Unanimously.

What, it’s March now and you’re not applying ’til November, past-TKOG? That’s nice. Go work on your goddamn sample.

Cutting this off before it gets unwieldy. See you tomorrow with more retroactive MFA application advice. (Or see you later, if you’re not into MFA stuff, which is cool as well.)