Awards Eligibility & Rec List

This was a very quiet year for me, publication-wise. I had a lot of reprints from 2014, but only a handful of original short stories. They are:

Eligible Short Stories:
Carmen Maria Machado, “Horror Story” (Granta)
Carmen Maria Machado’s “Descent” (Nightmare)

Here’s what I read this year that I’m either nominating for Nebulas, or (in the case of the Interfictions stories, which I’m not eligible to nominate as their editor) suggesting for other people’s consideration. This is an evolving list; I just want to get it up on my blog.

Novels
Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Signal to Noise

Novellas
Eugene Fischer, “The New Mother” (Asimov‘s)

Short Stories
Amy Parker, “Kingdom by the Sea” (Interfictions)
Rebecca Campbell, “I Just Think It Will Happen, Soon” (Interfictions)
Debbie Urbanski, “A Primer on Separation” (Interfictions)
Indrapramit Das, “Psychopomp” (Interfictions)
Shveta Thakrar, “Shimmering, Warm and Bright” (Interfictions)
Sam J. Miller, “Calved
Sam J. Miller, “When Your Child Strays from God” (Clarkesworld)
Alyssa Wong, “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” (Nightmare)
Lisa Bolekaja, “Three Voices
Sadie Bruce, “”Little Girls in Bone Museums” (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction)
Kelly Link, “The Game of Smash and Recovery” (Strange Horizons)
Alice Sola Kim, “A Residence for Friendless Ladies” (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction)
Rachel Swirsky, “Tea Time” (Lightspeed)

Best American SF&F 2015, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and The Rumpus

Three bits of news!

First, a story of mine (the title of which is currently top-secret!) is going to be in Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2015, edited by Joe Hill and John Joseph Adams. The lineup in this anthology is sort of unreal; I’m going to in be there alongside Karen Russell, Kelly Link, Sofia Samatar, Nathan Ballingrud, Sam J. Miller, T.C. Boyle, Neil Gaiman… I’m so excited.

Next, I have a new story, “I Bury Myself,” in the newest issue of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet! You can order a hard- or e-copy at the link. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning:

Here is what you do when you need to choose the end.
First, find a person who knows your body, and fuck them for three days.
Then, drive to a meadow, where there is so much life.
There, dig a hole long enough and wide enough for your body to fit.
Next, climb in.
Then, wait…

Last, there’s a lovely essay about Angela Carter and the writers she influenced over at The Rumpus, and Claire Burgess takes a minute to talk about my story “The Husband Stitch.” “Like [Angela] Carter before her,” she writes, “Machado combines humor and horror to an evocative and disturbing effect.” Thanks, Claire!

Erotica Versus Sex Scenes

The recent publication of my story “Inventory” at Strange Horizons has led me to think, again, about sexually explicit fiction. “Inventory” is an SF/F story composed entirely of sex scenes–a list of all of the people that a woman has sex with in her life as a pandemic slowly creeps across the country. A few people who have linked to the story have described it as “erotica,” but is it?

Here is how I personally differentiate between the two:

Erotica: The plot and characters are designed to serve and maximize the sexual content.

Non-Erotica with Sex Scenes: The sex (though it may be erotic) is meant to advance the plot or characters.

I’ve written erotica. I’ve sat down to write a sexually explicit, arousing story where I’ve had to consider how the plot that I’m composing will lead to a plethora of erotic situations. With “Drought,” for example (written under my pen name, “Olivia Glass”), I knew that I wanted a woman caught up in her own particular erotic fantasies, but I also wanted her to not just be sitting in her bed. So I started off with a hot day, a car, a woman escaping and scaling the Berkeley Hills–all interesting, but also all designed to get her alone, with various natural scenery sparking her erotic imagination and memory. I wanted as much sex as I could fit into a 5,000-word story, with the illusion that all of the sex was arising naturally from the plot. (It’s an illusion because the plot was deliberately designed to maximize the sexual content.)

As for my non-erotica fiction, I don’t shy away from writing explicit sex scenes. Usually, there are a few of them in a 15 – 25 page story. Not a terribly large percentage of the total prose.

“Inventory” is a strange beast, then. The story is 100% sex scenes,  but the sex scenes are meant to show us new facets of a character and the people around her, and a world slowly falling apart. So, I think that it is possible to have graphic, explicit sex scenes in a story that’s not erotica. (But can you  have erotica without sex scenes? That’s the real challenge.)

Anyone else have any thoughts? Can a story be 100% sex scenes and not be erotica?

The Neurotic Writer’s Guide to Applying for an MFA

Author’s note: this article originally appeared on The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog, which has since ceased operation. I know that this guide has been helpful to at least one person – hopefully, more – so I’m putting it up here for people to reference.

Applying to MFA programs is an incredibly stressful process for any person, whether you’re trying to do it while wrapping up a final year in college or trying to fit it into your schedule around your job and your family. It can also take a lot of legwork–send out dozens of emails and letters, printing out and stapling a lot of paper, standing in line at the post office, licking envelopes until you can’t get that bitter glue taste out of your mouth, and making spreadsheets. Lots and lots of spreadsheets. Even the most talented writer needs to properly organize and execute their applications to maximize their chances of getting into the program of their choice. Organization will help reduce (though not eliminate) the stress of the application process.

I was lucky enough to go into the process with a mentor who knew the ropes–and I also did it twice. The first time, in 2008, my mentor came into the process after I’d already chosen my list of schools–something I’d done based on geographic location, not financial support, which I later realized was very important to me. After I realized that I had a bunch of choices, and I was unhappy with all of them, he offered to help me through the process again, this time paying very close attention to schools to which I was applying. It was this kind of careful selection that I want to emphasize to you here. Picking the right program is important.

This is the application process through a pretty specific lens: my own personal experience. I try to expand on options and possibilities where I can, but keep in mind that I might miss something obvious because I did something a particular way. (Case in point: I wrote the first draft of this article without any mention of poetry applicants, because I applied in fiction.) It wasn’t intentional, I promise!

Also, please keep in mind that there are a lot of MFA programs in the US and abroad, each one having a unique set of requirements. This article is meant to be a general guide, but you should always check out the details of each program to which you are applying. Some may have unique requirements that aren’t mentioned here. Some have separate financial support applications that require additional essays, others determine financial support on the application alone. It’s up to you to make sure that you have the deadlines and instructions very clear to both yourself and the people writing your recommendation letters, to ensure that everything is complete and in on time and correctly.

This first section is about the prep work that you need to do before you even begin your application.

PART I: BEFORE YOU APPLY

MAKE TIME IN YOUR SCHEDULE
Whether you apply to 2 schools or you apply to 20, you are going to need to set aside time in your daily schedule to work on your applications until they’re completed. How you do this depends on a lot of factors. When I applied, I was a single woman living by myself and working a full-time job. I made time by coming into work early a few days a week to work on my applications (which soon became every day, and sometimes after work, as deadlines neared). If you have family or school commitments, your process may look very different. It doesn’t matter how you do it, just that you do it and stick to it. Explain to your significant others and friends that you’re going through this process and will need support in sticking to your schedule.

TAKE THE GRE
The first round of applications that I did, none of the schools required the GRE. Pleased that I wouldn’t have to slog through an expensive standardized test, I cheerfully forewent it. Later, when I decided to apply to a sixth school close to its deadline, I discovered that they did require it, and was unable to apply. GREs are also sometimes used to determine fellowships, grants, and other forms of financial aid, and even might be the deciding factor between two otherwise highly qualified candidates. I’d strongly recommend taking it at least once. Also, the earlier that you take it, the more of a chance you have of retaking it if you want and are able to.

The GRE is fairly pricey as far as standardized tests go–$160 per test, if taken in the US. (I tried offering up my firstborn child, but they were unwilling to barter on that point.) They do have some financial aid for people in lower income brackets, so check the GRE website to see if you’re eligible for the reduced rate.

GRE test-takers with disabilities, be warned: you can take a test, but you will not be able to have your own aide with you. The Education Testing Service has individuals under their employ who help individuals with disabilities take standardized tests. This can be difficult if you have a disability which uses a unique method of communication, such as a letterboard. Unfortunately, I don’t have any advice for how to circumvent this process. More information on this topic can be found here.

Once you’ve taken the GRE–assuming that you’ve taken it via computer–you will immediately have your verbal and math score. (The writing score will come by mail several weeks later, once your essays have been evaluated.) Don’t sweat the math score too much–most, if not all, programs don’t really look at the math score. Also, make sure that you understand what those numbers mean. A score 600 on the math and a 600 on the verbal don’t have the same implications. When you receive your GRE letter in the mail, it will give your score and your percentile. Percentile just means that x% scored less than you in that section of the test. Since more people tend to do better on the math than the verbal, a score of 600 in math might put you in the 60th percentile, while a 600 on the verbal might put you in the 90th percentile.

So don’t panic. If you’re truly unhappy with your score, take it again.

TAKE STOCK OF WHAT YOU ALREADY HAVE
Hopefully, some of the materials that you will need for your application will already be in existence–the material for your portfolio. Go through your novel, or collection of short stories, or poems, and pick either the strongest selection or the strongest stories. You’re still going to be doing quite a bit of sharpening and editing, but you need to start with the work that you think is the most powerful, and the most indicative of your abilities. Most schools require either a novel excerpt or two short stories for fiction applicants, or a number of poems, for poetry applicants. If  you took workshops in undergrad, feel free to speak to your old workshop instructor or a former classmate to see if any of your material in particular stood out to them.

I do not recommend beginning a new story or new work while you are in the application process. You should pick work that has already been through a proofreading, editing, and workshopping process at least once, if not more frequently.

Once you’ve made your selections, you need to begin to edit as soon as possible. It’s important to be sharpening your portfolio throughout this entire process, to make sure that your work is as strong as possible before being submitted. If you have someone who regularly reads your work, and that you trust, and has experience as a writer and/or editor, have them take a look at your material and give you both a good proofread and an evaluation of structure, flow, readability, etc.

Also keep in mind that you should pick work that best represents you and what you want to do in an MFA program. Don’t pick stories or poems just because you think that’s what they’ll want to see–pick the best of what you have.

In addition to your fiction or poetry, some schools may require a nonfiction piece of writing, especially schools that provide financial aid in the form of TAships. You may need to pull out an essay from a college lit course and give it a good tweak.

PICK YOUR LIST
Next, you will need to pick the schools to which you are going to apply. This process can vary a lot, depending on what you’re looking for. For example:

  • Do you want a full-residency or low-residency program? (Unfortunately, I have no experience with low-residency applications or programs, but for some people, this is the option that fits best with their life.)
  • What kind of financial aid or support are you seeking? (Some programs provide select students with a small stipend and tuition remission, others will cost money and may require a loan. Still others guarantee full fellowships and tuition remission to all of their students, or some of them. Programs with better funding are going to be much more competitive than those that don’t.)
  • Where is the program located? (When I applied the first time around, geography limited my options. Once I decided that I didn’t mind relocating, more options were available. Your ability/inability/willingness/unwillingness to move will affect which schools you select.)
  • Who are the faculty members teaching in the program? (Are they well-known? Do they have a reputation for being good instructors? Is there a specific person teaching at the program with whom you want to work?)

You will also need to decide to how many programs you are going to apply. Factors that can affect this list include:

  • What kind of time do you have? (The more time that you have to work on applications, the more applications you are able work on.)
  • Do you have your heart set on a particular place? (While it’s always good to have backup options, you may be focused on a particular school or faculty member, and might want to devote more energy to that application. I don’t recommend this–eggs, one basket, etc.–but for some people, this is a deciding factor.)
  • How much can you afford? (It costs money to apply to schools. Most schools have application fees that range from $50 – $100, and that doesn’t include printing or postage. If you can only afford to apply to three schools, or five, then make sure that you establish that financial goal as realistic before you begin the applications.)
  • How many schools are within your geographic range, if you have one? (When I applied the first time around, there were only 5 or 6 schools within a reasonable distance of my home, so my list was only 5.)
  • You also need to take into account the recent surge in applications due to the recession. MFA programs (and graduate programs across the board) have seen an uptick in applicants, some as high as 50%, in the past few years. Knowing how many schools you should apply to is not an exact science, because it’s a combination of your skill level and recommendation letters with half a dozen completely random factors, like the mood of the person reading your application, and probably another half dozen that I haven’t even considered. I chose to apply to a large number of schools, because I considered the above factors and came out with a number that I could manage and that increased my odds of acceptance. (Also keep in mind that this isn’t simply a matter of “apply to enough schools.” You still need to have a dynamite application, even if you apply to 30 programs.)

There are quite a few resources that you can use to select your programs. For starters, Poets & Writers releases an annual list of the top 50 MFA programs in the United States, which can be found online here. It ranks the programs by a variety of factors, including financial support, selectivity, and postgraduate placement rank, and is considered to be better and more accurate than the US News & World Report list put out several years ago. The print version of the Poets & Writers article, if you get your hands on it at a local library, also lists factors like the cost of living and teaching load.

A resource with a broader range is GradSchools.com, where you can filter down schools based on geography and other characteristics. Consult each program’s website to make sure that it meets your needs regarding financial support. If the school is local, see if you can arrange a visit to a workshop, or make an appointment to meet with the director to talk to him or her about their program.

Once you have a list, composed of as many programs as you want, and ones that fit your needs, arrange that list BY APPLICATION DEADLINE, with the closest deadline first. This is critical to the rest of the process–for you, and for the people who will be writing your recommendation letters. Any version of the list that you have written anywhere should be sorted by deadline. You might have applications due on December 1st, and some on February 15th, or any time in between. Organize them this way so that you can properly prioritize your workload.

FIGURE OUT WHO WILL BE SINGING YOUR PRAISES
You are going to need to have a number of (probably three) recommendations letters sent on your behalf from people who know your academic history, writing abilities, and professional potential. This process can depend a lot on how far you’re out of school, and what kind of undergraduate education that you’ve had–that is, if you majored in biology, for example, you might have plenty of professor who are able and willing to speak to your many excellent qualities, but not necessarily your potential as a fiction writer. This can be somewhat tricky. This is also a difficult area for people who have been out of academics for a long time, and may need to rely on other professional references outside of academia. Prioritize individuals who personally have profession writer experience who can speak positively about you. Once that list is exhausted, you can seek out other individuals who can speak to your professionalism, work ethic, and other relevant skills. Schools want to know that you’re a talented writer, but they will be able to determine that via your portfolio–the letters will speak more to your ability to work within a workshop environment, both for your benefit and the benefit of your classmates.

I was a photography major in undergrad, and only had two writing professors who were able to write recommendations. All but one of my schools required three letters, so I had a former photography professor speak to my performance in class and skills as a teaching assistant.

Regardless of who you pick, it’s important that you contact them as soon as possible, and that you do so properly. You want to give them plenty of notice, for their benefit and yours, and also be able to pick an alternate if someone is unable to do it–especially professors who do things like go on sabbatical.

Once you’ve made your decision, send a polite email or letter to the individual (or speak to them in person about it, if possible). Explain that you are applying for an MFA in Creative Writing to X number of programs, and that you were wondering if they would be willing and able to write letters of recommendation for you. Also tell them that you will be sending them pre-stamped and pre-addressed envelopes with clear instructions and clear deadlines to them well in advance of those deadlines. (We will get to this in the next section.) Give them some time to respond. If you submit the inquiry via email or letter, wait a reasonable amount of time (a week or two) before you follow up. If they are unable to do it, or you do not get a response, move on to the next person on your list, until you have your three recommenders. Make sure that you have updated addresses (physical and email) and phone numbers for each recommender.

(Also, as part of your list, make sure you make a note of how many recommendation letters each program requires. Odds are they’re require three, some require two. I’ve never seen a school require more than three.)

That concludes the prep part of your MFA applications.

PART II: THE PROCESS

Now we’re going to talk about the process itself.

ORGANIZE: MAKE A SPREADSHEET
There’s this terrible quote–at least, I think it’s terrible–about how a cluttered desk is the sign of an orderly (or genius) mind. This may be true for some people, but the truth is that I have difficulty writing or getting any significant amount of work done when things around me are disorganized. Organization saved my sanity when I applied, especially because I applied to a larger-than-average number of schools, and it was incredibly difficult to keep all of the different requirements straight.

I would recommend creating a spreadsheet, with your list on the left, and the following points of data along the top:

  • Application due date (and whether it’s a “postmark” due date or not)
  • Application cost
  • Portfolio requirements (number of stories, page length)
  • Statement of purpose requirements (word/page count, content)
  • Curriculum vitae requirements (page length)
  • Number of recommendations
  • Number of transcripts
  • GRE code
  • Address to which hard copy materials should be sent
  • Program cost/possible financial aid
  • Application complete?
  • Link to the program’s website and/or online list of requirements

These are only suggestions. Feel free to ad or take from the list as you see fit. This is your organizational system–make it work for you!

THE ONLINE APPLICATION VS. THE PAPER APPLICATION
Most MFA programs require that apply to the graduate school separately from the program itself. 99% of the time, the main university’s application is going to be online, and the MFA program will require that you send hard materials to an actual address through the mail. (There are some exceptions to this, however–a handful of programs have an all-online system.) Make sure that you have the deadline for the university application and the deadline for the program itself written on your spreadsheet–sometimes, they aren’t the same.

I would recommend doing the online application for the main college/university as soon as you are able to. Most of the time, it’s going to be a lot of basic information–though you might be required to enter things like GRE scores and undergraduate GPAs. Some programs have the option (or might require) that your recommendations are done online, and often times the general university application is where their email information is entered.

TRANSCRIPTS
Every university’s transcript process is a little different, so this is an area where you will need to do a bit of research into your school’s particular procedure, as well as the requirements for the programs to which you are applying. Some programs require that transcripts be sent directly from the undergraduate institution to the applicant’s school; others want the transcript to be included with the materials sent from the applicant. Either way, put in your requests as early as possible, seeing as you will need to factor processing and mailing times with either option. Also make sure that you are sending the correct number–I’ve seen programs require as few as one and as many as three transcripts.

COMPILING YOUR CV
Some programs, though not all, will require a curriculum vitae, which is a bit like a resume, but is more geared towards your interactions with the academic community instead of your employment history. There is no strict format for a CV, but it is generally advised that you divide your CV into the following types of sections:

  • Your contact information (at the top)
  • Your educational history, including any theses/major projects (including your advisor’s name)
  • Any pertinent employment history (such as TAing for any subject, teaching a camp elective on creative writing, etc.)
  • Any honors, awards, or grants that you have received (including scholarships)
  • Any publications that you’ve had
  • Any reading, exhibits, or performances that you have given
  • Any pertinent volunteer history

Some programs may just ask for a CV without any stated size, others may ask for 1-2 pages. If yours is longer than that, trim it down to the strongest bits. And don’t feel bad if your CV isn’t gigantic! MFA programs take people with a wide range of experience and credentials. Just play up all of your strengths.

YOUR STATEMENT OF PURPOSE
Your statement of purpose is a critical part of your application, because it is the admission committee’s introduction to you as a person, even before your work is read. Many talented writers apply to MFA programs every year, and while their work is obviously an important factor in their selection, the program also wants to know about you as a person, in order to help determine what you will contribute as an individual and a workshop member, not just as a writer.

Do not start your statement of purpose with “I have wanted to be a writer since I was five.” Avoid cliches like the plague. (See what I did there? Feel free to laugh. I’ll wait.) The committees are reading hundreds, or in some cases well over a thousand of these papers, and you want yours to stand out. Try to find a fresh and interesting angle. Make sure that you adhere to the page and/or word limit.

CREATE YOUR PORTFOLIO
If you followed the instructions in the first section, you will already have the beginnings of a portfolio put together, either via short stories or a novel excerpt or poems. Spend part of your MFA application time polishing and revising your work, and make sure to continue to run your work past your mentor or advisor, if you have one.

One of the administrative frustrations during this process is the existence of page limits for your portfolio materials. Some schools have very liberal requirements, others very stringent. I personally discovered that since I wanted to give them a rounded idea of my abilities via the two short stories that I submitted, I would not vary the work submitted to the different schools, but rather manipulate font sizes and margins to get my stories to fit the page limit.

This should be done within reason, of course. Use a clear, professional looking typeface in a reasonable size (if they have to pull out a microscope, your reader on the admissions committee might be somewhat cranky), and make sure that the lines don’t extend all the way to the edge of the page.

Also take note of what should be on the portfolio besides the content of the story/poems. Do they want (or not want) your contact information? Page numbers? I would err on the side of page numbers and contact information, unless otherwise specified.

GRE SCORES
As stated in last week’s segment, GRE scores can actually be very important in admissions and funding decisions. Once your scores are officially sent to you, the paperwork included in your letter will let you know how you will be able to send your scores to the schools that accept or require them. This is one of those administrative tasks that will be easier to do sooner, rather than later.

OTHER STUFF
There is a chance that a program to which you apply might require other materials or paperwork, such as a separate application for funding (which may or may not include essays about teaching) or a sample of nonfiction writing. Make sure that you double- and triple-check your school’s list of requirements so that you don’t miss anything. (This is where the spreadsheet can come in handy.)

Some schools also give you the option of including a self-address, pre-stamped postcard (I always just used index cards) that they can send back to you once they’ve received your application.

SPREADSHEET, PART DEUX
Now for another important spreadsheet–the information that you will be sending to your recommenders.

The key to having happy recommenders is to make the process for them as painless and as simple as possible. The most they should have to do after writing the actual letter is print out copies of their letters of recommendation and stuff them into pre-stamped, pre-addressed envelopes. (Or copy/paste their letters into the online system, if that’s how the school does it.)

The easiest way to do this is to provide a clear spreadsheet that includes highlighted due dates and very specific information regarding what they have to do. The spreadsheet should include:

  • The name of the school/program.
  • Type of recommendation (paper or online)
  • The due date of the letter of recommendation (and if it’s a “postmark” date or not)
  • Where the letter is going after they are done sealing the envelope (directly to the school, or back to you, the applicant)
  • If they have to do anything special to the envelope, such as sign over the back seal
  • If they will need to fill out a special form or include a particular cover sheet (some schools require this)
  • The address to which the envelope is going (your envelopes will be pre-addressed, but this is just a way that they can double check that the letter is going to the right place)

If the recommendation is to be done via an online system:

  • Get the email to your recommenders as soon as possible. Confirm with them that they have received an email via the recommendation system.
  • Periodically check the online system to see whether or not they have submitted their recommendation.
  • As you get closer to the deadline, drop them a polite email reminder of the program’s deadline if they have not submitted their recommendation.

If the recommendation is to be done and sent back to you to be sent with all of your materials:

  • Place a label on the front of the envelope that has the name of the school and the name of the recommender.
  • Include a pre-addressed (to you, the applicant) and pre-stamped (make sure to include the weight of the envelopes once they’re stuffed with glorious, glorious recommendations!) large tan envelope in the main package that you send to your recommender.
  • Include any cover sheets or forms that have to be included with the letter of recommendation.

If the recommendation is to be sent from the recommender directly to the school:

  • Include pre-addressed (to the school/program) and pre-stamped (make sure you take it into account with the weight of the letter) envelopes for each program that requires recommendations in this format in the main package that you send to your recommender.
  • Include any cover sheets or forms that have to be included with the letter of recommendation.

In the main package, include:

  • The required envelopes as outlined above.
  • Any cover sheets or forms that have to be included with the letter of recommendation.
  • The aforementioned spreadsheet, with the deadlines and any special instructions highlighted.
  • A letter to your recommenders that includes your contact information should they have any questions and your profound thanks for their assistance.

If you are applying to a lot of schools, it is all right to break up your recommendation package into smaller bits to make the process easier for them and for you. Just make sure that you send the earlier deadlines first.

There. You sick of the word “recommendation” yet?

DOUBLE AND TRIPLE CHECK
At each step, check off the necessary box on your main spreadsheet. As you finish applications, make sure that you run your final envelopes full of materials past the list of requirements for that program one last time.

GET THEM IN THE MAIL
When you feel good about it, seal the envelope and get your butt to the post office.  Treat yourself to something nice.

PART III: AFTER YOU HAVE FINISHED

DO NOT DO NOT DO NOT FOLLOW MFA BLOGS
There are some MFA blogs that actually keep track of when people start hearing back from programs. Blessedly, I did not discover these blogs until after I’d made my decision, which is good. Had I known about them, I would have probably wasted away in front of my computer, constantly hitting the “refresh” button until I starved to death. It’s up to you, of course, whether or not you decide to watch these blogs. But if you’re anything like me, they will only be bad for your health.

DO GET OUT OF THE HOUSE
At this point, you’ve spent several months writing, typing, editing, mailing, printing, licking envelopes, and making spreadsheets. It’s over. GET OUT OF THE HOUSE. Go to the gym, walk your dog, take in a museum, just get out and do stuff. Don’t think about the applications. They’re in. They’re done. It’s over. Whatever will happen, will happen.

WAIT FOR IT… MAKE A SPREADSHEET
Last one, I promise! Once you do start hearing back from schools, you’re going to (hopefully!) have options. Not just between schools, but the length of the programs, the teaching requirements (if any), and the financial aid. It’s important to keep track of these things so that you have once place where you can turn to for information regarding your decision. Mine also included a column that said “Did I apply for the FAFSA for this school?” and “Did I email them re: my decision?”

Oh, and while you’re at it, make sure that you fill out your FAFSA for each of the schools to which you applied, should financial aid be necessary.

ABOUT THAT LAST COLUMN
This last column is really important. You never want to leave a school hanging, especially when they have waiting lists. It is, as Captain Hook would say, “bad form”. If you legitimately don’t know if a school is out of the running yet, then don’t stress out about it–you absolutely have the right to make a decision at your own pace, and you don’t want to rush. But if some definitive factor ousts a school from your consideration once they’ve accepted you, then definitely call or email your contact as soon as possible, thank them for their offer and then politely decline it. Then mark in that last column that you did inform them of your decision.

MAKE A LIST OF QUESTIONS
Most programs will call you to inform you that you’ve been accepted. The person calling you may vary–it might be a writer who teaches at the program, the director of the program, or possibly someone in the graduate admissions office. You will probably be so overcome with excitement that you might forget to ask important questions. (I notoriously almost hung up on the director of the first program that accepted me because I was so flustered and giddy.) It’s good to have a list of questions prepared so that you can make an informed decision.
Questions you definitely should ask:

  • How many (fiction/poetry) students have been accepted into the program this year?
  • What financial aid is being offered?
  • Will I be required to teach?
  • What is the cost of living in that area?
  • Do you find that the students in this program are particularly competitive?
  • Who are some of your notable alumnae?
  • Do you work with students on the business aspect of writing (agents/publishing)?
  • What is the deadline for informing you of my decision?

Also make sure that you get email address and telephone numbers for the person to whom you are speaking (for when you decide to accept or decline their offer, or if you have any questions). Also, ask for the contact information for a handful of current students in the program, so that you can get their opinion.

MAKING YOUR DECISION
How you make your decision depends on a variety of factors:

  • Financial support: a fellowship of $15,000 a year in New York City is quite different than $15,000 in rural Montana. Which financial package do you feel the most comfortable with? If one package is significantly larger than another, even when adjusted for living expenses, consider whether or not you want to pick up a part-time job to support yourself while you are in your program.
  • Location: If picking a specific school would cause you to relocate, will you be able to? Do you feel like one particular setting might be more conducive to your writing? (For example, I chose a smaller town over a program in a larger city, partially because I felt like I’d be able to write better in a quieter, less urban setting.)
  • Faculty: Is there a faculty member at one particular school that you really want to work with?
  • Program size: Program sizes vary widely from school to school. One of the schools I applied to took only three fiction writers a year, another look twenty-five. There is an idea that smaller programs are somehow better, but I would say that program size preference completely depends on the applicant. I decided (and am glad that I decided) that a larger program is right for me, but you might find that a tinier size is preferable. This is an area where a visit to a program, and to their workshop, is a good idea.

If you are truly having difficulty making a decision, then congratulations: you have an embarrassment of riches. With that said, a visit to the programs, if possible, might be a good way of making your decision. Such a thing is not always feasible, of course, given time/work/financial constraints that many MFA applicants have, but if you are able to visit, I’d recommend it. If you are able to go, contact the director of the program and explain that you are having difficulty making your decision and would like to visit. Arrange to speak to the director and possibly a faculty member if possible, and to sit in on a workshop.

It would also be a good idea, regardless if you are able to visit or not, to ask for the names and contact information for three current and three former students of the program. Most graduate departments have a list of students who have agreed to talk to potential students about their experience. When you do contact them, ask good questions:

  • What do/did they love about their program?
  • If they could/could have changed one (or more) thing(s) about their program, what would it be?
  • Do they feel that the atmosphere at the program is collegial, or more competitive?
  • What are the faculty like? Are they generous with their time?
  • What is the town/city like? The cost of living? If this applies, do they feel like they are able to comfortably get by on their stipends?

There are really no “right” or “wrong” answers to any of the above inquiries–their answers will give you a better feel for the program, which will aid you in making your decision.

If you’re feeling conflicted about which program you should pick, you will find that many people around you will have an opinion about what decision you should make. In the end, it is 100% your decision. And once you’ve made it, it’s going to be the “right” decision.

Most schools have a deadline decision date of April 15th, which is actually legally set and cannot be earlier. If you have been waitlisted at a school that you would prefer over the schools to which you have been accepted, you have a few options. Hopefully, people who definitely don’t want their slots will let the schools know as soon as possible, so you might hear that you’ve been moved from a waiting list to the accepted list before that deadline. If April 15th is inching closer, however, and you haven’t heard from the preferable-but-waitlisted program, contact the school next on your list–that is, the one to which you have definitely been accepted but are not sure that you will take, depending on the outcome of the waiting list–and ask them if they have any flexibility, no matter how slight, regarding the deadline. The answer to this question will vary widely from program to program, and there are no guarantees. In the end, if you reach April 15th with no news from the more desirable program (make sure you give them a call to check if they have any waiting list updates), you can either decide to decline the offer from the other school and take your chances with the waiting list, or take the offer of the school to which you have been accepted. Once again, there is no right or wrong answer.

Once you have made your choice, call the director of the program and formally accept their offer.

IF YOU DON’T GET IN ANYWHERE
Unfortunately, there are a finite number of slots in MFA programs, and in the end far more applicants than available spaces. If you find yourself in the unfortunate position of not being accepted to any of your programs, the first thing you need to do is take a break. You’ve just spent several exhausting months working nonstop on applications, and you need to give yourself some space. And don’t feel bad–remember, hundreds, if not thousands of people are applying alongside you and competing for a limited number of spots, which is difficult to start with, but is especially challenging in a poor economy when everyone is trying to go back to school.

Once you’ve done that, go back over your application–your statement of purpose, your writing samples. Look for areas of weakness, places where you can sharpen or modify your work, and continue to work on these areas.

Also consider your application pool: if you applied to only to most competitive programs, your odds of acceptance might have been far lower than had you applied to different schools. If you decide to try again next year, try staggering your list with several different levels of programs. You can also try expanding your geographic location, modifying your financial aid goals (fully-funded programs are wonderful, but are much more competitive than ones that aren’t), or simply applying to more schools. Good luck!

THANK YOUS
Send your recommenders thank you cards and possibly a small gift, just to show how much you appreciate their help. I got my recommenders shirts from the school to which I ended up going.

This guide would not have been possible without the guidance and support of my mentor, Harvey Grossinger. If this article has been helpful to you, please consider a small donation of any amount.