Temporary Insanity and the MFA Application Process
Acceptance season has begun. After six months of preparation, letters of recommendation, personal statements and a writing portfolio that took three months to complete by itself, MFA programs have begin to notify admits. With an average acceptance rate among the best schools under 10% and record numbers of applicants, this is an unhealthy time.
By far the most infuriating aspect of the admissions process is the complete inability to know where one stands relative to the other applicants. We all have to believe that we’re talented and exceptional, otherwise there would be no reason to drop the thousand dollars or so that applications end up costing. We all have to have received positive feedback on our writing to earn recommendations and we all have to be cognizant enough to put together a working portfolio.
In a normal application field, it is relatively easy to determine where one stands in the field. You know what your GRE scores and grades are, you know the acceptance rates and standards at the different schools and you apply accordingly, with reach schools, match schools and safety schools. In the MFA process there are no true safety schools.
Tales abound of writers rejected by ten schools and accepted only at Iowa or Cornell. There seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why one is rejected or accepted, no quantifiable way to predict one’s chances. This means that no matter how perfect your application is, no matter how good a writer you are, it is still not just possible but likely that you will get rejected.
It’s no secret to anyone around me that this process is driving me slowly batty. While normally at least a little unhinged, the last few months have really taken a toll on my nerves. It’s bad enough to wait for an envelope but to wait for a phone call, to stare at your phone for hours willing it to ring, this is unhealthy. There’s no way around it, any of it.
As Winston Churchill famously said of democracy, “It’s the worst form of government, except for all the others.” So can be said of the MFA application process. I understand why it’s so subjective, why there is no real answer to who is admitted and why. It has to be that way because every program has to find writers that fit inside their framework, writers whose work they not only admire but think can be improved the most.
Admittedly, this is not my first time around. Last year, on a whim, I applied to four schools and put very little effort into my applications. I was rejected soundly by three schools and wait-listed by a fourth. As seems to be par for the course, the program at which I was waitlisted was considered more prestigious than two of the three that rejected me.
This year I applied to thirteen schools all across the country. I wrote a new portfolio and had it edited by my mentor and countless friends. I got new letters of recommendation and wrote a fresh personal statement. I was as prepared as I have ever been for anything in my life and I still have no idea whether or not my application is even competitive. This can be draining on the psyche.
I know that part of pursuing writing as a profession is rejection. I know that it’s a BIG part. Still there is something personal about this process that goes beyond magazines not wanting to publish my stories. This is not just my work but me on trial. In my application are the sum achievements of my life from my grades to my personal statement to the letters my mentor and professors have been kind enough to write for me. Maybe that’s why the rejection stings a little more, even though so far I haven’t been rejected or accepted.
Tomorrow I might be accepted to Iowa and this whiny rant about the unfairness of the process will be something I can point at and laugh about my naïveté. Just as likely, when I’m rejected by all thirteen schools I can read it again and say, see? I KNEW this wasn’t about me. This is an impossible process, a lottery! As usual, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. I will either be rejected or accepted. Either way my life will go on. Still though, I want that phone call.