Wednesday, August 12, 2009

How did you choose your MFA program, or did it choose you?

by Emily May Anderson

When it comes to deciding on an MFA program, there are a lot of factors to consider: location, funding, faculty, course offerings, reputation, alumni, etc. Today I want to share how I chose the schools to which I applied and how I ended up at Penn State.

About a year ago, more or less, I started researching MFA programs on the internet. I found the old U.S. News rankings, and I found the blogs and statistics and rankings put together by Tom Keeley, and Seth Abramson. I got Tom’s book and read his advice on the topic and read the summaries of all the programs. Then I started making a list. I went state by state through all the programs listed in the book and wrote down the ones in locations I could see myself living; I think I had 20 or 30 to start with. Then I looked at the statistics for each of those programs, eliminated the ones that didn’t offer much funding or that just didn't appeal to me for one reason or another. I then had a list of about 15. Some people apply to that many programs, but I knew I did not have the money for more than ten, so then I went directly to the program websites. I read what the programs said about themselves, what the students said about them, and I read between the lines, trying to get the programs vibe from the way they presented themselves online. Some websites turned me off because they were so difficult to navigate or because they didn’t have much information; other websites (University of Wisconsin, West Virginia University, and University of Alabama, in particular) really gave me a good vibe. I eliminated a few more schools by logical means, and then made my final cuts through pure intuition, and ended up with a list of 9 schools. I couldn't have explained to you how one school beat another and made it onto the final list.

I applied to one top ten program, five mid-tier programs, two lesser-known programs, and one very new one. Seven of the nine were in what I consider the Midwest though only one was in Ohio, and the list was about evenly split between schools in urban areas vs. smaller towns, as I’m equally comfortable in both. When the results were in, I’d been accepted at three programs, waitlisted at one, and rejected by the top tier program, three of the mid-tier programs, and one of the lesser-knowns. I eliminated the school at which I was waitlisted, because the more I thought about it, the more I didn’t think I would be happy in the location.

So, how did Penn State come out on top? Several reasons. They notified me early, they offered me full funding, and basically they made me feel wanted. I went out to visit for their English department recruitment weekend in mid-March, before some schools had even notified their acceptances. That March visit was the clincher for me. As I learned more about the program, I felt like it really was the perfect program for me, in ways I hadn’t even been aware of when I applied. See, as much as I love the creative aspect of writing, the expression of it, the ART of it, I also love the study of literature and the academic aspects of it all.

Penn State has a large, very well-respected English Department and a very small MFA program. A fellow MFA acceptee and I were discussing things before the visit, and we shared our fears that the MFA program might be overlooked a bit, might tend to fall through the cracks of the larger English program. But during the visit, I got the sense that it most definitely was not so. MA/PhD students and MFAs all seemed to socialize and study together, and the faculty members were equally attentive to the MFA candidates and those who’d been accepted for the MA/PhD track. The MFA at Penn State is currently transitioning from a 3 year “terminal degree” to a 2 year program that will still offer the terminal MFA but is also designed to correspond to the MA and to prepare students who wish to go on for a PhD. And I do want to do that. I wasn’t sure of it when I was applying, but it was something I was considering, and the more I thought about it, the more I felt I wanted to do it. I also connected really well with several of the faculty members during my visit, both the poetry faculty and some of the literature and theory faculty as well. And I was very impressed with the current students; they seemed smart and friendly and, even more important, truly happy with the program. I know people say that campus visits aren’t necessarily the best way to get a good feel for a program or its people, but the weekend was long enough, and filled with enough opportunities to talk in large groups, small groups, and one on one, that I think I could get a feel for how people really felt about the program and how they interacted with each other.

So anyway, I really got the sense that Penn State was a program where I would fit, and where I was wanted, and where I would be valued. In a certain way, I felt as though the people who’d read my application and chosen me for the program knew more about me than I knew about myself at the time I’d submitted it, like they saw my potential and what I was really suited for in ways I didn’t. I got a lovely email from the MFA director after the weekend, and I let my thoughts settle for a couple of days, then I accepted my offer at Penn State, and was absolutely thrilled. I really do feel like it’s where I’m meant to be.

And now, I am here. I moved into my apartment over the weekend. My roommate, an MA student, moved in on Tuesday, and I’m slowly getting settled and learning my way around. I am feeling desperately poor and a little lost, but I also looking forward to orientation next week when I will learn about my teaching assignment and start getting to know the rest of the new students. I am looking forward even more to the following week when I start classes.

If anyone has read this immensely long and self-indulgent post, here is my advice about applying to MFA programs: Do your research (the blogs I linked to earlier are excellent resources, as is Tom’s book, but also spend some time on the websites of programs you’re looking at) and make your final list with a good mixture of logic and intuition. I would also strongly recommend that you spread your choices out among the top, middle, and lower ranked programs; it’s such a subjective process, and you never know where you will really fit. Just submit your best application possible, and trust. Trust yourself, your writing, your statement, your choices. And trust the process, trust the people at the programs. They know what they are looking for, and in the best cases they know better than you do whether you fit at their program or not. It might sound goofy, but I believe that if we put ourselves out there and ask the universe for something, that we’ll get what we need. I didn’t get into my top choices, but I got into a place that I really think is perfect for me. And that is all the wisdom I can offer.


  1. I don't think this is self-indulgent at all . . . it's both intimate and informative! I think you gracefully highlight the balance between intellect and instinct that becomes central to an MFA applicant's journey.

  2. Great post. I love being privvy to behind the scenes stuff like this.

    I did the same exact thing you did with the MFA handbook to choose the 16 schools I ended up applying to. I got into a few schools, even committed to one (oops), but I chose UVA because when I spoke to the faculty they sounded like they actually wanted to work with me, they were excited about working with me, and having a good relationship with the faculty was one of my goals after having had such a great relationship with one of my undergrad poetry professors. So that's the wisdom I can offer--speak to the faculty, current students, and alumni.

  3. Your process, other than being completed, sounds much like the one I have started off and on many times. I still believe that it's the best one, I just constantly find myself not quite ready to make the plunge just yet.

    But it is encouraging to see someone with a similar mindset. I'm not crazy after all. :P

  4. "Trust yourself" is definitely the best advice!

  5. i love reading about process. when i picked schools i knew i had to be local (wasn't mobile at the time) so i looked at the two MFA programs close by and then i did low-res research until one just seemed to 'fit' that subjective fit! and i had a great two years! good luck with yours :)

  6. Keith - I thought about applying just about every year since finishing my undergrad in 2000. You'll know when you're ready!

  7. Wonderful post, Emily, and wonderful advice. I'm so with you.


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