Dispatches | October 26, 2012

*Today’s guest post comes to us from Jordan Durham, intern extraordinaire and nervous MFA applicant. She is, presumably, over 21 years of age.*

MFA Applicant

It’s about that time of year and like many college students entering their senior year, I found myself undecided of what to do once graduation came around with the real world looming. Naturally since I couldn’t think of anything else, I thought, “Jordan, there’s only one thing to do if 1) you’re indecisive and 2) you want to postpone ‘real life.’ Stay in school. GET AN MFA!”

Okay, so how many of you cringed while reading that?

(Not necessarily at the MFA part but staying in school to avoid getting a job and making hard decisions about life – yes.) People debate extensively about whether a student should wait a year or two before heading straight into an MFA program, or if they should just jump head first into the wide, wide depths of academia, possibly flounder, and resurface in a disorienting, mean world. Our own managing editor contemplates this very issue here

This blog is for those of you looking to have a smooth and successful application process; although, I do have one teacher who keeps telling me that earning an MFA degree is pointless, especially if I want to teach. I may be an English major, but can we set one thing straight? No, I don’t want to teach. Can all of the English majors band together, collectively break this stereotype and move on?

As I was saying, 8 Golden Rules for applying to graduate programs:

Rule #1: This first rule hinges entirely on whether you’ve decided on this a while ago, or if you just figured it out. If this is a life path you set into motion a year ago, then don’t freak out. That’s your first rule. Most likely, you have enough work, thought ahead, made a plan, and are ready to execute. On the other hand, if you decided a week ago this is your plan after graduation then go ahead and freak out. No, really. My freak out lasted a solid two months (read: I made my decision two months ago). There’s no time limit on this freak out and you may freak out however you like. Once that’s over, proceed to…

Rule #2: Figure out the question: What are YOUR needs? Although broad, this question will help out in the long run. By determining what you want now, you may be saving yourself a world of stress in a few months. Understanding what you need ranges from deciding what type of program is best for you and where it is located to how your professors will impact your writing. Every detail really is important for “creative thinkers.”

Rule #3: Research, research, research. It’s pretty self-explanatory, but this is the grunt work now that the easy part of deciding and freaking out is over. (This could also overlap with your freak out stage and that’s okay too, but let’s get real — are decisions made during this part of the process really sound?) Some major things to think about are writing regions. This is very different from location in my mind. Location is someplace you could see yourself living whether it’s the coasts, the South, etc. Writing regions are areas where your writing fits best. Both are important, but applying to an MFA program is all about your writing. Your writing is being selfish. It deserves to be, so let it be. Also think about what writers are teaching at the school’s you’re looking into. If you would work well with a certain author, then put that school on the list! Other things to consider: Do you want a two or three year program? A full-time or low-residency program? A teaching-centric workload? All things are necessary to consider. Find out what each schools needs for their application and go from there. I’ve heard the magic number is eight. If you get your list down to eight schools, you’ve struck gold my friend.

Rule #4: Read the work of your possible soon-to-be professors! Their writing and teaching style will influence your writing tremendously wherever you go, so you should prepare yourself now. Also, this allows you to avoid most (if not all) possible awkward conversations you would have with your famous professor if you did not know his and/or her work. Imagine an exchange along the lines of, “So you’ve read my latest book?” “Yeahhh that’s the narrative one with birds, right?” being avoided, and you’ll be glad you read this post. (Okay so I’m being a tad flippant here, but you’ll still be glad you read this post.)

Rule #5: Apply! Gathering your writing sample together may take a bit of time, especially if you tend to be more type A and believe that the admissions office genuinely cares about the packaging of your application (They don’t.). Get that together first and foremost since it has the most baring on your application! Some schools require the GRE — yeah, it sucks and standardized tests are set up to make everyone fail blah, blah, blah but just do it. Next write your personal statement. Not hard since we’re all writers, right? Right. Fill out the required information on the school’s website, or paper application if you’re still living in 1997. Upload information. Review everything. Click submit.

Rule #6: Play the waiting game – a solid 2-3 months of pacing and a healthy mix of self-doubt self-adoration about your writing. One minute you’re Whitman, the next you’re Joe Schmoe. Accept it, move on, and keep writing.

Rule #7: If you’re applying to MFA programs, I assume you’re a reader of literary things. Whether you’re going straight from undergrad to an MFA or are coming from the fierce work force, a background in reading is always helpful so get your hands dirty and contact some literary magazines in your area! Regardless of being in school or not, litmags constantly look for good readers to help out.

Rule #9: I think there’s a gem in rule 6 that needs more elaboration – keep writing. No matter what your writing is really what is most important throughout this entire process. Regardless if you get accepted into a program, waitlisted, or rejected just keep at it.

Rule #8: After this exhausting process, let’s be honest about our needs (rule 2 reference, did you catch that? Thought so.) . Go grab a stiff drink. Hell, you deserve it! Here are a few fun recommendations found on the Internet:


The Jack Kerouac

2 oz Rum

1oz Tequila

3oz Orange and/or Cranberry Juice

1 Slice of Lime

Served with Ice

Oscar’s Wilde Thang

3 oz Vodka Citron

1 oz Cointreau

1 oz Fresh Lime juice

2 oz Cranberry juice

and the classic

Hot Toddy

1 oz. brandy, whisky, or rum

1Tbsp honey

¼ lemon

1 cup hot water

1 tea bag