Applications, Portfolios, Decisions

Applications, Portfolios, Decisions

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If you remember my last post, I described my journey to making a decision to apply to grad school. Today I’ll reveal part two of the story: The application and decision process.

If you recall, after months of debating, writing, thinking, and consulting with my writing mentors, I made the decision to apply (Hooray!) Then, I had to deal with a new set of challenges: picking where to apply.

When I went to AWP in spring of 2012 I had filled a fairly sizable bag with program information pamphlets, so after taking some recommendations from my favorite professors, I read through the materials I had gathered, looking for the ones that seemed like a good fit.  A “good fit” is going to be different for each person, but I leaned toward MFA programs that offered opportunities to teach and work with print publications. I also kept in mind a piece of advice given to me by a poet I met at AWP 2012:  Many programs will be similar, but it’s important to pick a school in a place that you want to live, at least for a couple years. Don’t just pick somewhere in the middle of nowhere if that doesn’t appeal to you. You’re going to be there for at least two years, so you might as well be living in a place you’re excited about.

That was something I took to heart as I reviewed the pamphlets from some unknown and some well-known schools. I knew that I wanted to live in a city; I had done it before and I loved it, but I wanted another shot, and on top of that, there tends to be more work opportunities in larger cities. That was a particularly important factor for me because I knew from living in Orlando, a city with an economy based around tourism and tech/engineering work, finding the right job wasn’t easy.

Beyond location, there is a debate as to whether an MA or an MFA is the “right” way to go, but, again, that is something that will depend on your goals, interests, and what programs appeal to you. MFAs are considered “studio based” degrees, meaning there is a larger focus on producing creative work, while MA programs tend to focus on literary studies, research, and scholarship. As John Poch wrote on the AWP website “MFA student aims to write literature more than writing about literature during his/her term.” The MFA is generally considered a terminal degree, while the MA is not. While I love literary studies and research, I knew that my creative work was stronger than my critical work, and my goals were more aligned with creating a body of creative work, so MFA it would be.

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By September, I had narrowed my selections to four schools, each of them in different cities, and none of them in my home state of Florida. Being far from each of the schools forced me to rely on emails, phone calls, information packets, and browsing the websites since I wasn’t able to fly out to visit each program for an open house event, but I carried onwards into the next stage of my application process—writing the required essays.

When I was asking my mentors for advice on where to apply, they had already agreed to write letters of recommendation for me, so that wouldn’t be an issue. I advise all applicants to ask their recommenders as early as possible so they have plenty of time to complete your letter(s) because you never know what issues may arise (such as in my case where I had trouble getting in touch with a recommender after they agreed to write the letter and I had to ask another recommender to help out at the last minute to get the application in by the deadline.)

Application time is exciting, but it’s also a little terrifying. Each school has different requirements, some instructions are more clear than others, and when you are applying for more than one school, it’s hard to keep track of what’s what. I started making spreadsheets and checklists for each school I was applying to keep track of the requirements and where I was in the application process, which helped me out immensely, even when I wanted to rip my hair out.

I had, according to my timelines, expected to finish my applications by Thanksgiving. What I did not anticipate was how long I would be revising all my materials.

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I worked on personal statements/self evaluation essays/statements of purpose for months. During that same time I was revising my portfolio and selecting my strongest pieces. I panicked when I realized that the pieces I wanted to include in my portfolio would put me over the page limit (which I had been advised by my professors was something “you absolutely should not do”). As a result, I had to carefully edit my pieces in order to fit within the page limits, a simultaneously thrilling and scary experience.

I didn’t finish by my deadline of Thanksgiving, but I was much closer to being finished. I felt confident in my applications by mid-December, but I still wasn’t ready to let them go and spent the next two weeks combing through them, editing, and making sure everything was as perfect as it could be. I submitted my applications with days to spare before the deadline.

Then came the waiting.

I was on my way home from work when I received an email from Columbia College offering me admission to the Nonfiction MFA program. I was thrilled! When I got home, I discovered a letter in my mailbox from another school, also offering me admission. I was buzzing with excitement, but anxiety crept up when I realized I would have to make a decision.

A week or two later, I also received a phone call from another school offering me admission, complicating the decision making process. I got to work doing my research, calculating tuition, cost of living, and moving expenses. I looked up prices of apartments online in each city, trying to determine where I could actually afford to live, now that I had been invited to move there.

Why did I pick Columbia College Chicago? Stay tuned!