Bad Advice Wednesday: Decision Time, MFA

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


My Alma Mater, Graduate, at least

I remember waking in the middle of the night, mid-April 1986, wondering where my life was going to go.  I’d applied to five MFA programs all around the country, no great logic in my choices (which were strongly geographical, but one)  and swung between total confidence and total despair.  I was 33 and the idea was to change my life.  The letters came in one-by-one.  Okay, Montana!  I’m in.  I’m going.  That would be wonderful.  I knew Montana well.  Or, holy shit, Arizona, which came next.  Okay, definitely Arizona, though it was known as a very academic department and I’d have to pass a French test.  I couldn’t have told you who taught at either place, had only set foot on the Arizona campus visiting friends in college.  Cactus, though, I love cactuses.  Both schools had offered fellowships, that was cool, and it hadn’t occurred to me that money might be a factor.  Then Johns Hopkins, wow.  But Baltimore?  The Columbia acceptance came late and my vision shifted.  Hadn’t I meant to get out of the city?  But it was Columbia, Columbia University in the City of New York, where I already lived!  Iowa wait-listed me, no sense of when they might let me know.  And then, the day I committed to Columbia, the letter came from Iowa saying I’d been accepted there, too.  I still wonder what that path would have been like.  Or Arizona, or Montana.  I picked Columbia because, well, because it was Ivy League.  I’d never visited, even though it was just uptown, and never set foot on the campus till my first day of classes.  Because I was terrified.  All of it close to accidental.  But for me, Columbia turned out to be great.  I loved every minute of it.  I taught, I played softball in Riverside Park.  I had a free ride.  That wasn’t true for everyone there.  In fact, Columbia is one of the most expensive rides around.

So today’s advice goes out to those waiting for letters or those trying to decide between acceptances or those with no choices left.

Total failure:  You waited and waited and now the letters are in and you’ve gotten in nowhere.  Nothing.  What?  It’s possible that this is because you really really don’t belong in an MFA program.  But it also might reflect mistakes made early on.  I’ve had students who only applied to one program.  Because, well, that’s where they wanted to go, little sense that they’d be up against hundreds of other talented young writers.  I’ve had other students, no better or worse prospects than their peers, who applied to ten schools and came up empty.  The first instance is hubris, of course, and dumb.  The second, honestly, is just bad luck.  In both instances, the advice is: try again next year.  It almost always works.  Another year of writing practice, a better portfolio, better letters, and perhaps most important, a different committee on the other end.  And perhaps a wiser slate of schools, some of the old ones, but a passel of new ones, too.  And make contact with the people who run the places, with students, with faculty.  Have someone on your team.

Partial failure:  I had a really wonderful student who had one first pick, one middle pick, and one back-up.  The first pick was Iowa, a very deep pool of applicants.  The second pick was one of the other big land-grant schools in the Midwest.   And she didn’t get into either.  Unfortunately, the back up was, well, I’ll disguise it, but not much: The backup was Northwest Eastern Kansas State, let’s say, and the program (this is real) was a masters in Agricultural Communications.  She was leaning toward going for it.  I said, that is not an MFA.  She said, But at least it’s writing.  I said, are you interested in farming?  She made a face.  Advice was to try again the next year, and pick a bigger and more tailored slate of schools.   She waited, and the next year got into the middle school, attended, and now writes.

Hedged bets:  Oh, this is a popular one.   Kid applies to three MFA programs and two law schools.  Theory being that if he doesn’t get into an MFA program first time around, he can always be a lawyer?  Folks, there is a terrible glut of young lawyers out there.  The top picks for jobs are those who went into it because law was their first love and first talent.  Okay?  Your parents great wishes be damned.  Law school is not a back up.  Because, this is what happens–kid gets into one of the law schools and one of the MFA programs.  Parents lean heavily: law.  My advice?  Go to the fucking MFA program, enjoy two or three years of writing and being around people who write.  Even with a partial fellowship you’re better off than law students, who seldom get money, and seldom get to T.A.  And hey, you can always do law school later.

Partial success.  I love/hate these go-getter students who have sent you the forms for 17 schools, an afternoon of work for the weary prof at recommendation time.  And now in spring comes the rebound: 12 acceptances.  Not the top pick.  Not the second pick, but lots and lots of others.  The fellowships are various.  The geography is wildly diverse.  The programs are ranked all over the map.  How to decide?

And then there’s poor partial success: your bottom three picks have accepted you.  Try again next year?  I’d say yes, but only after you’ve given those schools that accepted you now a very close look.

Total success.  This can be harder than it looks.  You got into all your top picks, congratulations.  How do you decide among them?  Best if you can get the choices down to two or three leading contenders, and then study them closely in the time you’ve been allowed.

An MFA program is only going to be great if it’s a good match for you.  So, do some matching.  I wouldn’t go on reputation, at least not entirely.  Rankings can be meaningless.  A great fellowship at a lower-tier school can be worth more than any amount of rank.  And your one life-changing great teacher can be hiding anywhere, at any school.

Geography’s another factor.  Do you really want to live in corn country for three years?  Or in the broken heart of some minor city?  Some people really don’t care.  If you do care: Don’t go live somewhere you’d rather not.  If you want to be in the mountains and have an offer, go be in the mountains, even though the money isn’t as good, or the ranking lower.  And consider the travel.  One student realized she wouldn’t be able to get back east very often–too expensive–and made a decision based on that.  Another liked the idea of being stranded very much, and went for the school farthest away.  Another saw an opportunity to get rid of her boyfriend, chose one of the lesser fellowships she’d been offered, and pretty much disappeared into the Pacific Northwest.

In all cases, if you don’t have an obvious pick, and if practical, the best course of action is to go visit your top two or three choices from what you’ve been offered.  If you only have one choice, go visit, too.  If you hate it, don’t go.  Apply next year.  If you can’t visit, definitely call, ask to speak to a student in the program, a professor, the director.  Most will be happy to talk.  Find out who’s going to be teaching for the next couple of years.  Some schools have permanent faculties and seldom bring in guests: good–you know who you’ll be working with.  Have a look at their web pages, read a little (or a lot) of their work.  Don’t depend on their fame.  Some famous writers are great teachers, others not so much.  This is something conversations with students can help you parse.  Some little-known writers are brilliant teachers, too.  And then there’s course load: Some famous teachers only teach one class a year, or even every two years.  Will they be available to you?  And all teachers have sabbatical years, leave years, retirements.  Ask.

Other programs have a small core faculty and a constant turnover of visitors.  This can be truly wonderful, if you are there for a good run.  It can be terrible, too, as visitors, naturally, don’t always have the attachment to the program and its students that core faculty might have.  The big question is: who’s coming in the next couple of years?  How will they fit with you?

Money. Crucial.  And a tough one.  Is a free ride at a lesser program better than going into serious debt?  Or having to work while everyone else is writing and studying?  Those fellowships should weigh very heavily on your decision, especially if you don’t have family or savings behind you.  T.A. money not might sound like much, but it’s usually adequate to scrape by on.  The T.A. puts you into the school culture, trains you as a teacher, gives you a broader reach of colleagues.  What are rents like at each program’s location?  And where are you going to live?  Again, a visit tells you more than any other method.  A great fellowship is a great temptation.  But it’s not an auction, with your choice going to the highest bidder.  Weigh all the factors, and don’t let a couple of thousand dollars either way sway you when other stuff might matter more.  $20,000 difference?  Okay, sway.  You can live with an ugly campus if it means you won’t be paying off student debt the rest of your life.

Results are another factor, more difficult to suss out.  What’s become of the graduates of the programs that have accepted you?  Are a lot of them writing, publishing, making their way?  Or are most of them in law school?

Best of luck.  And tell us your stories.  I’m happy to offer specific advice, if your query comes in this forum.

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  1. Doug Bliss writes:

    Any advice on low-res programs? Are they up to snuff? I’ve been accepted at Vermont College of Fine Arts, but have been holding off on committing (I’m not convinced an MFA has much value for a self-employed electrician/goat farmer). Adding to my irresolution is the fact that I don’t have an undergraduate degree. Will this automatically disqualify me from teaching a class here and there between electrical contracts? Should I send in my paperwork or stick to pulling wire and trimming hooves?

    Thanks in advance.

    • Bill writes:

      I worked as an electrician for a couple of years during college and when dropped out… Most of the low-res programs out there are really, really, good. And Vermont is terrific. Ask them directiy about your degree issues, why not? And my opinion is an MFA has got a lot of value that has nothing to do with material value. Those residencies are fun and very intense and very focussed and for most people, I think, life-changing. Then you have deadlines, and that means you’re writing, and that someone who knows what she’s doing is on the other end. And then you pull some wire.

    • Dave writes:

      I have heard great things about Vermont.

      • Bill writes:

        I visited the Vermont College program a few years back and it was so much fun and so terrific and intense–really great students with excellent results…

  2. Kerry Headley writes:

    If I had taken the full-ride someplace else and made the smarter financial choice, I wouldn’t have David Gessner on my thesis committee! Don’t forget intuition. It’s what led me to UNCW.

    Great post.

  3. Cat writes:

    I got into one big-name school that awarded no money at all and one struggling regional program. I ended up attending the struggling regional program for a free ride. To this day, I ponder that choice and wonder if I made the right decision. On the one hand, I learned almost nothing in the program I attended. Craft was not taught, most of the professors were completely burned out. I know of one woman who actually graduated without writing one new story in three years. But–I did have time to write, I made some good friends, and I came out with no debt to speak of. Had I attended the big-name school, I would have graduated with at least 20K in student debt, probably more, but have little doubt I would have been taught much more and been held to much higher standards. Hindsight is usually twenty-twenty, but not in my case. I still have no idea which was the right decision to make. In retrospect, maybe I would have waited another year, honed my skills, and applied again.

    • Bill writes:

      I have more than one friend who completed an entire MFA, then applied again to better programs, got full support, and went for another. Keeping the first degree quiet, of course.

  4. Erin Feldman writes:

    I was accepted into two programs: Emerson and Texas State. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I’d chosen the Emerson route (This feels a little like deja vu because I was just thinking about Emerson this morning.). I know I made the right decision based on what I knew then. I had geography and finances to consider. I also had the fact that my undergrad mentor highly recommended Texas State. He said I would love one of the professors, Kathleen Peirce. He was right.

  5. Laura moretz writes:

    What about the 51-year-old mother who dropped out of an MFA fiction program in 1985 and waited 26 years to reapply? I am now geographically limited since I’m a Mom and the family relies on Dad’s job. I applied to Warren Wilson too. No dice on either program. I know my writing hasn’t gotten worse over all this time although journalism made my style too objective, perhaps. Try, try again is all I know. Both the local program (face it–they hate me–I was one messed up kid in my 20s) and the low-res said no. Meanwhile, I’ll study with other writers at workshops and online.

    • Dave writes:

      Or with Bill and Dave! Come join us in the NC mountains!

    • Dave writes:

      Wait, did you drop out when you were 51? Or are you 51 now? If the latter you are a youngster. Just like me!

      • Laura moretz writes:

        I quit when I was 25! I’m 51 now, mature and seasoned after many side-road adventures. But they’re all side-road adventures, right? Or better yet, Choose Your Own Adventure stories like my kids used to read. “To kill the dragon, turn to page 52. To marry the princess, turn to page 19.”

  6. Dave writes:

    My choice was simple. I got rejected everywhere but Colorado. Had I gotten into U-Mass I would have moved west. But only thirty miles west from Worcester. Instead I moved 2000. It made all the difference.