Sunday, October 25, 2009

Questions and Answers

Current and future applicants, we at the MFA Chronicles know you've got a lot of questions. We all did a year ago when we were in your shoes. Thus have I decided to post this thread as a place for you to ask those questions you dare not utter anywhere else. Have a specific question about one of our schools? Want to know how we came up with our lists of where to apply? Want to know how we kept from losing our minds during the maddening masochism that is the MFA application process?

Please feel free to post any and all of those questions here and we, being your (yes your) chroniclers, will do our best to give you the information you need to keep you from massacring those closest to you. Good luck applicants!


  1. HI Guys-

    I'm so glad you all started these blogs...they are keeping me (at least a little bit) from going totally crazy. I have two questions: one specifically for Sacha and the other for the fiction MFAers

    1--Sacha-what was your deciding factor in doing the PhD, rather than the MFA? Was it to set up for a tenure track position or some other reason(s)? And how did UIC become your top choice?

    2--For the fiction writers, what made the school you chose "the one"?

    Thanks again guys,

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. UIC’s PhD

    Well, I’ve always wanted to get a PhD. So that was a big factor in my personal decision. I would not suggest getting one just to make yourself more marketable. It’s a lot of work and not nearly as much fun as an MFA would be. But, if you too have always wanted to get a PhD, then yes, it will make you more marketable. Although, I’ve recently heard that some MFA programs (UNCG specifically—but this is second hand, so check my facts) only hires people with MFAs and don’t want PhDs. I don’t know how true that actually is. And if you write a really great book then everyone will want to hire you regardless of what degree you hold. But first you have to write a really great book.

    Which brings me to my second point, I needed more than two years. And even three-year programs seemed too short for me. I also already have an MA, so the PhD was the next logical step. Though, I could have gone for an MFA, of course. And I did apply to few MFA programs. UIC’s program is 6 years long. (Not all PhD creative writing programs are that long.) It’s a lot of time and effort. Again, only apply if you want to devote that much of your life to academia.

    I’m still not sure how I ended up at UIC, but funding was a big concern. UIC funds all their PhDs. But this year that meant they had to take half the students they took last year. Most cohorts here are ~15 people, this year there are 7 of us and only 4 of those are creative writers. They’re not sure if that will happen again next year. It will depend on the budget.

    Most of UIC’s writing profs do experimental work and my work falls loosely into that category, so I think that helped me get in here. And it’s one of a very few PhD CW programs in a big city which was a large part of why I applied. Also, they don’t require the GRE Subject Test and I didn’t want to take it. If I had it to do over, I would suck it up and take it. It gives you a lot more options.

    Finally, for anyone thinking of applying to UIC, the program is theory heavy. We read more philosophy and criticism than literature during our course work. Consider that when making your decision. I don’t know if all PhD programs are like this one. I’d guess they’re not, but look into what you’ll be studying for the next few years. I did not know that I’d be reading so much theory (I knew I’d be reading some, for sure) and that might have affected my choice to apply here. But ultimately it will make me a better thinker, writer and teacher, so maybe it’s better that I didn’t know.


  4. Could you all share some thoughts on the personal statement? Maybe even post the ones that got you into your program (or link if you've already done so)?

    I don't feel totally helpless, but right now I do feel pulled between going for the formal, "here's what my work/myself is about" angle, and trying for something a little less "cover letter." And I'm not yet sure that the way to go is "somewhere in between." This isn't CNN here.

    Also, I'd just like to read some other personal statements as I procrastinate.

  5. Hi Mal,

    My choice (the University of Illinois) was based on one part funding, one part lifestyle ease, one part enthusiasm. The University of Illinois provides full funding for all their students, which made it a no-brainer in that sense. I also had to choose a school that was relatively close to where I used to live (Chicago), because me and my fiancee were planning on doing the long distance thing in case she couldn't find a job in Champaign. Lastly, it was nice to choose a school that wanted me. They recruited me very diligently, and during my visit, I was impressed with the program on a number of things. Everything came together nicely for me and my choice last March.


    Rather than re-post my entire Statement of Purpose, I'll just redirect you to mine on my blog: You can find the link on the right-hand bar, underneath my profile. I also blather on about SOPs in other posts, which you can find if you dig through the blog. Hope this helps!

  6. Thank you, Eric! Just what I was looking for. Any other Statements of Purpose out there?

    Also, fellow applicants, I strongly recommend Eric's blog for general MFA-application reading. Good stuff there.

  7. Jamie, I don't have a link to my statement of purpose, but I ended up taking the "safe" route and just doing a very straightforward "here is what I want to do and why I want to do it and why you want to help me" approach. It worked for me.

    I agonized over it, that's for sure, thinking my statement was boring and that I should do something more "creative", but in the end I felt that I would rather come across as smart but boring than silly or ridiculous (not that creative statements are silly/ridiculous, but that was my fear). It's a choice of personal style, I think. If I was a writer of humorous fiction or CNF, I would have been much more inclined to let my personal statement fall into that vein as well.

  8. Thanks so much Sacha and Eric. Your info was really helpful.


    What other PhD programs did you look at? I also have an MA already and am in the same place of trying to weigh whether 2-3 years is enough for me. I'm not as concerned about being marketable afterwards. I teach at a private high school right now, as well as being a college counselor. I really enjoy what I do and barring writing the next great bestseller figure that I will return to that life.


  9. I just want to say that, for anyone wanting to read more personal statements, there are several posted at the poets and writers speakeasy forum ( You just have to search around for a bit.

    BTW, if you haven't already been there, this board is probably the ultimate in MFA application porn. Everyone blogs their waiting, their acceptances, their's an addictive way to not work on your app!

  10. Here's my personal statement:

    Personal Statement

    Dear Admissions Committee,
    You have been brought to this moment by my persistent pursuit to qualify myself to send this letter to (insert school) requesting admission to your MFA in Creative Writing in Poetry. My preparation for graduate studies in Creative Writing began in grade school when I was singled out and given private writing lessons due to my high marks and exceptional scores on the English portion of the annual achievement tests. The basics of English we covered in elementary school came easily to me, so I was pulled out of class and instructed on narrative techniques instead. Before I even entered seventh grade, I had won first place in several essay contests. I give those special lessons and the positive reinforcement I received for my writing talent credit for my belief that the ability to write well matters and will ensure my personal and professional fulfillment.

    In my undergraduate academic career, I found that I felt most alive as an active and positive participant in writing workshops. I took the maximum amount of writing workshops that I could get academic credit for taking—from introduction to creative writing through advanced poetry and fiction workshops. These classes destroyed the stereotypical notions I had held about what a poem should be. Then, through the workshop process and the in-depth study and discussion of established poets’ works, I developed an authentic appreciation for structure, image, metaphor, and meter. I learned to experiment with form and content and my university awarded me honorable mention in the poetry division of the annual student literary awards. My relationships with professors and my experiences in workshops convinced me that my passion for writing was nothing without technique. For these reasons, the expectation to complete a full length poetry collection with the support and instruction of (insert school)'s faculty exhilarates me.

    My positive academic writing experiences led me to the firm belief that writing can and should be taught. I hope to eventually obtain a PhD in Creative Writing or English Literature. An MFA in Poetry from (insert school here)will give me the opportunity to teach writing on the college level.

    As an outsider, I have made the most of my undergraduate university’s MFA program. I attended many of the readings they sponsored. Literary journals published several of my poems after I attended a publishing workshop sponsored by the MFA program. Now that my undergraduate career is complete, I no longer wish to be an MFA outsider. I write to you with faith in the administration and faculty of (insert school)'s Creative Writing MFA program to provide the challenging and nurturing environment I desire in order to master and teach poetic and narrative techniques. I hope this letter demonstrates my preparation to be an able and positive contributor in your program.


  11. Lovely applicants, present and future:

    I AGONIZED over the SOP. Don't do that. Keep it simple, direct, and friendly (See Jaytee's above) and you'll be just fine. Don't try to be too clever as this often will fall flat when read by people way smarter than you (remember that you're wanting to learn from THEM for 2-3 years and that they'll be reading a lot of these. Sincerity will often shine brighter than irony or being aloof). So - Lay your extra grief and worry at the foot of your writing sample - revise, revise, revise and knock their socks off there.

    Now, that said, if anyone is applying to U Oregon or another school that requires an SOP AND an "influences" essay, email me and I'll be happy to share mine with you: with the caveat that my people are witchy so if you plagiarize my work or SPAM me, I'll haunt you.

  12. My personal statement was professional, friendly and to the point. I used a three prong formula: I wrote about the writer I was (info about my background went here too, like being a lawyer and an actress), the writer I am (my current writing habits, like getting up at 5 am to write before work, doing writing prompts, etc.), and the writer I want to be (here is where I wrote about what I wanted out of an MFA program, and here is where I wrote about each individual program). This formula worked well for me.

    I'd post mine, but it was on a computer that got stolen and I no longer have it!

  13. Thanks, all. Very, very helpful.

  14. Hey Tory,

    I'm always interested when you post because I have applied to Ohio State. It seems like a great program (nonfiction). The teaching load seems doable, the funding looks great. My research indicates that Columbus is diverse and not very expensive. And isn't the library one of the best in the country? Any chance that you know any nonfiction people who would either email me or post here? I'd love to hear more.

  15. Hi Kerry,

    I would say your research is fairly comprehensive--and I would love to pass along your info to one or two of my nonfiction compadres. Send me an email at insertbrackets[at]gmail[dot]com and I will happily get you in contact with someone on that side of things.


  16. Hey Tory, any chance you could pass my info on to some nonfiction classmates? I'm thinking about applying to OSU but haven't heard ANYTHING about their NF program anywhere.

  17. Be happy too, just email me with your info.

  18. Hi everyone!

    I recently discovered this site and it's been great to read about your experiences! Thanks very much for the work you put into this on top of all you have to do at your respective programs...which brings me to my question.

    For those of you who are teaching, what's the verdict on trying to teach and get some writing done? Specifically, I was looking at the SIUC website and (am I reading this right?) first years teach 2 sections of comp each sememster. Is there any time left to write?

    Best to all of you!

  19. Hi Mike,

    At OSU we teach one first-year composition class a quarter for our first year, then we can teach or do other things in our second and third years for our stipends. When we teach, we always only teach one class per term though.

    Speaking from my own experience thus far, I think it would be impossible for me to get any writing done if I was teaching more than one comp class. My current class of 24 is not really that big, per se, but the grading does seem to take forever (I also like to give good feedback). Maybe Nick or Katie can comment on this better regarding their program, but I would find it hard, and I am fairly productive (I write about five or so poems every two-ish weeks).

    Hope this was helpful!

  20. Hi Mike and Tory,

    Indeed, one composition class a quarter would be awesome, but speaking as someone who has to teach two (starting next semester, just one for now), I wonder about the comment "grading does seem to take forever."

    It seems to me that most current pedagogy research embraces Richard Haswell's "minimal marking," for the simple reason that most students don't read all that many comments, although they should.

    Then there are theories about allowing a large amount of private writing/public writing (Peter Elbow in particular supports this): that getting students writing at all, and then having them present their writing in a peer-based setting will encourage the same improvement as regular written feedback.

    Two classes can be more time-consuming, but they don't have to be much more time-consuming if you are already doing the prep work for one, and structure your classes in such a way that allows the students to learn and you to get your writing done.

    Although I do hope to hear other people's thoughts on current pedagogy regarding the "comment a lot" versus "comment a little..." philosophies...

  21. Hi all,

    Thanks for the help. I'm applying in CNF to about 11 schools. I'm finding logistics by far the most difficult part about all of this. How did you handle letters of recommendation? Every school has a different approach. Did you send sealed envelopes directly, even if schools request letter writers send them themselves? I want to make this as painless for my letter writers as possible.

    I'm also curious to know about what detail you went into in your SOP re: a thesis/larger work. I have a pretty clear project of the work I want to tackle, but I fear making my SOP too specialized, too specific. Is a faux pas to focus on work I want to pursue vs. the more general reasons I'm interested in an MFA?

    Also, Brianna, I'd love to talk to you about the CNF program at Hollins, if you're up for it.


  22. Mal, I really did not apply widely enough because I refused to take the GRE Subject Test and there are certain places that have PhDs in CW that I just couldn't live in. So I applied to 4 PhD programs, go into two, and one offered funding. It's a miracle that I got in at all.

    So, my suggestion is cast a wide net. I also got into S. Miss., but without funding and did not get into Albany and Ohio U. If I'd been smarter and understood the game more, I'd have applied to at least four more PhD programs. Or MFAs that offered full funding.

  23. Regarding letters of recommendation: I gave my recommenders the envelopes, had them seal and sign and return them to me. Then no matter what the school's policy was, I mailed them. It was much easier this way. I applied to 16 schools and I wanted control over those letters! No school voiced any disagreement with this method. I recommend it.

    RE: SOP

    I don't know that I would go too far into detail with the thesis project. I would mention it if I already had one but I wouldn't outline it or anything. If you can tie what you want to do on your thesis with what a particular program offers (like, say, you write about a certain location and the program is there) then I might mention that. I didn't know what my thesis would be so I didn't mention it.

  24. Katie - I agree with JayTee about both letters and SOP. I think a line or two about what you might want to do is fine, but I wouldn't go into too much detail. Plans change, and you want to appear eager to learn, not like you're looking for someone to let you do what you want to do.

    re: Teaching... I'm teaching one section of freshman comp, and it's been a very good experience. There is some prep work involved and some time spent grading, but to be honest I look at the time I spend on that stuff as almost like my easy work. It's nice sometimes to "take a break" from writing a graduate paper or revising a troubled poem and just grade a couple essays or prep for class.

    Also, this is my first semester, but the grading system I am becoming comfortable with involves rather complete comments on rough drafts and then relatively few comments with the graded final paper. Reasoning being that a lot of comments on a rough draft should be read and heeded by a student who still wants to get a good grade; whereas if you write a lot on a paper that's already been graded, the student may feel that there's no reason to read them if they've already gotten the grade.

  25. Hi! - It was very helpful Tory! Thank you. And thanks to everyone else as well.

  26. One of my profs was just talking to us about applications and admissions in workshop today. He said the creative writing faculty usually doesn't read the SOP. They make their decision based on the writing sample only. Other people in the dept. read the SOPs. Not sure if this is true everywhere, but I found it very interesting.


  27. Thanks all — this is incredibly helpful. Another question: What's the consensus on reaching out to professors with questions during the application phase? There are a few professors at various programs doing work that's really fascinating to me/relevant to what I'm hoping to pursue. Is it taboo to politely shoot them an e-mail, inquiring about the program?


  28. Can the strength of a story alone get you accepted? I ask because my recommendations are not great.

  29. Katie: I don't think it's taboo to contact the programs for more information. That sounds pretty smart. I didn't do that until after acceptances came in but by that point there's tons of pressure and everything is all crazy so it's probably good to get a headstart and find out as much as you can ahead of time.

    rdao3c: I believe the strength of your writing sample gets you accepted. Can you be more specific about in what way you feel your recommendations are not great? If you mean that your recs aren't from professors or something, I don't think that will hinder you. But if you mean that your recommenders don't have nice things to say about you, I would definitely try to come up with some people who can say something positive. I know they read the letters. My recommendation letters were mentioned on a few of my acceptance calls so I know they read them.

  30. My recommendations are from close friends; they’re most familiar with my writing so I guess I’m in good shape. Thanks for the reply. I’m hoping my story will floor the admission committee. I’ve only been writing fiction for about a year, but, I think I’m above average; might just be the narcissist in me, though.

    Also, the prologue to my creative sample is VERY dark and evil. I want people to feel as if their committing a mortal sin by just reading it. Do you think the admission committees will frown on this type of work?

  31. Is it a prologue preceding the story, is it part of it. That is, is the prologue essential to the story? I would let the work speak for itself. Gimmicks (forgive me if you are not intending for the prologue to be a gimmick) will only turn the faculty off...they just want to see the writing. That's my sense anyway.

  32. I'm concerned about the prologue too. Hopefully some fiction people will ring in, but my vote is to get rid of it. You don't have to put anything catchy before your writing sample to make them read your work. They're going to read the work because you paid the application fee and submitted it for their review.

    As far as admissions committees frowning on the work, if this is the type of work that you do and they frown upon it, then that particular program more than likely will not be a fit for you. So yay for rejection! lol The program(s) that accept you are programs that feel they can work with you and that believe you'll work well with the other admits.

    Do you have anyone outside of your circle of close friends that can give you feedback? You might consider a site like I submitted all of my writing sample poems there for additional feedback.

    Any Chroniclers seeing dark fiction in your workshops that can chime in on how it's received?

  33. Thanks for the responses and the website! I think the prologue is an integral part of my story; a major piece of information is relayed, and in the grand scheme of the novel, it wouldn’t work without it. I like prologues because they offers the author a chance to introduce the story, twice. For example, the prologue for The Symbol sets in motion the driving force behind the entire novel; the masons and their secret knowledge.

    I think if they’re done with care they can add an extra layer to a manuscript. The main theme in my novel is religion, so, by design, I must explore the holy and unholy. If you hadn’t guessed, my novel begins with the unholy.

    I’m a little confused by the word gimmick as it relates to literary fiction; what do you mean by it?

    For the record, I’m applying to Brown, Iowa, Columbia and Colorado State - Any insight into their likes and dislikes?

  34. rdao3c: Here's a link to a Brown MFA blog that I really enjoy in case you haven't encountered it yet:

    You could maybe relay this question over there. Here's a blog for a 1st year over there:

    Both blogs are hilarious!

  35. rda03c: I guess I am confused by your language...I mean you say that the prologue is evil and that reading it will feel like committing a mortal sounds peculiar to me because, even if your content is dark, I would think the last thing you would want would be to turn off potential readers...and when I mentioned gimmicks, I was referring to any kind of ostentatious or distracting element you might attach to your story that is not a part of it. Now I see you are submitting part of a novel-in-progress...obviously in certain cases you would need a brief prologue. My sense is that it shouldn't be longer than a page, or maybe two, if you do do it. I feel as though Brown, Columbia, and Iowa have related aesthetics, but Colorado State...I don't know much about. Do you feel confident applying to only four schools?

  36. That blog is hilarious! Thanks for the links!

    I thought it might turn some readers off, but, on the other hand, I’m hoping it will entice the reader into, well … reading. I think I have a shot at gaining admission to the schools in which I’m applying. I think I might apply to VT, too - I read about its program and it looks awesome. Come next fall, I’d LOVE to start an MFA program at one of my selected school; what a privilege it would be to learn from accomplished literary minds. But, if it doesn’t happen, my pen will stay true, and my fingers will remain best friends with the keyboard - what I’m saying is, if I’m rejected, it will not derail my writing habits; an MFA won’t define me. I just want my journey to a successful career in authorship to pass through a quality program; one in which I will gain a lot, and one in which I can contribute.

    If you would like to read my prologue, email at: - I would love to hear your constructive criticism…

  37. That's a zero before the three in my email address.

  38. re: personal statement.

    I went to the open house at The New School before I applied. If you can get to an open house or information session where the heads of the programs you're looking at are speaking, do it. At my session, we were advised to think of the SOP as another writing sample. I agree with what's been said above: the strength of your sample (or, really, samples) is what gets you accepted.

    I think that for the POS, it's important to say why you specifically want to study at X program and what your expectations are for your time in the program and what that time will produce. Granted, the folks at The New School specifically said at the open house that we should include these things, and each program looks for different things. So find out what those are and write the POS accordingly. If you really want to go to X program, you already know why and telling them why should be easy.

  39. I'm very late in the game, but I wanted to say that I used Interfolio in terms of sending out my recommendations. This kept it easy, and this way (I forewarned my instructors/recommendors) I can recycle their letters potentially for my PhD apps next year (if I decide to take that route).

  40. Thanks for all this insight! As for recommendation letters, all but one (Iowa) of my applications allow for (or strongly prefer) that recommenders submit their letters through the online applications. Have things just changed that quickly that online apps are the norm this application cycle? Is there anything wrong with only using online recommendations (for schools that don't specifically require only online)?

  41. Hi Carly,

    When I applied, online apps and letters of rec were the norm too. A few schools (UMASS Amherst) did not have an online system, so I had those snail mailed. I like the online systems because they notify you when your recommenders have submitted letters and there easier to deal with. No postage, etc.

    Now, are you asking whether you should send letters of rec via online to the schools that sk you to? Or are you asking if there's a way to do that for schools like Iowa that require a hard letter mailed?

  42. Hi :n)

    This question is for Lakeisha Carr.
    I wanted to know about the program your attending at University of Maryland in College Park. Why did you choose this program and is the area helping you at all? I was told that the DMV area is a great area for creative writing and I am looking at several programs in the area -- have you found this statement to be true?

  43. I need to know if I'm being ridiculous.

    I really, really want to go to a program in a big city like Chicago, Boston, New York, San Francisco, Seattle or Portland. I'm only applying to two schools which aren't in big cities, Oregon and Amherst, and both of those are pretty competitive programs. I know that cities are really expensive to live in, but this is something I really want. I love cities and I've lived in a crappy college town for years-- actually, my entire life. Now I want something different. Of course funding is very important to me--it's not like I'm not applying to NYU-- but I'd rather go to a school in a place that I want to live, even if I have to live in a hole in the wall with four other people, than move to the middle of nowhere. Is this a foolish notion? Do any of you go to urban schools? And how do you like it?

  44. Hi Guys! This place is great.

    I have one question. I am a MFA aspirant from New Delhi, India. My GPA is very low, because when I graduated in 1988 (Science) in India the marks I obtained was the general norm.

    Now the question: How important is GPA? Won't good GRE and TOEFL scores be enough? Plus there is statement of purpose, writing samples and recommender's opinion. Anyone?


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