M.F.A. Application-Season Etiquette

For anxious applicants, this is an inevitably stressful season. But there are steps M.F.A. directors and applicants can both take to make the whole process a little less nerve-wracking.

By Elise Blackwell

I’m nearing the end of my first application and notification season as an M.F.A. director, and it’s been a good one here. In fiction alone, we received around 70 mostly very strong applications from every region of the United States and several other countries, and we wound up accepting six talented writers to fill our four slots. (We lost one to life in France and one to another program. I knew the latter had slipped away when he used the definitive article in front of Ohio State.) Recruitment was helped by some lucky press, some good ranking news, and our university’s decision to make available to its arts programs resources traditionally used to recruit Ph.D. students. While it’s never fun to tell a student she’s not being admitted, my correspondence with applicants has been mostly pleasant and sometimes downright engaging. For many directors and many more applicants, though, the process has been closer to excruciating.

According to the University of Virginia M.F.A. program Web site, in 2009 it admitted 12 students from 630 applications. Many programs have acceptance rates of 1 to 2 percent, making them as selective as the country’s best medical schools and considerably more selective than top law schools, Ivy League colleges, and Harvard’s graduate school. Nearly 80 of the 148 full-residency M.F.A. programs in America have acceptance rates of 20 percent or less; rates under 10 percent are more common among programs that fund their students.

Applicants, whose numbers grow by the year, have responded by following the now-standard advice to apply to as many programs as they can afford to. They commonly spend a thousand dollars applying to a dozen or more programs. Top-tier applicants garner many acceptances, meaning that some applicants wind up with 10 or more offers and most wind up with none. Those on waitlists check online forums hoping to hear that someone is turning down a slot. Meanwhile programs with strong waitlists seek quick answers from students they’ve offered admission to, fearful that delays will cost them their next choices. Many eye the April 15 decision deadline that most programs abide by as signatories to the Council of Graduate Schools Resolution on Funding Offers. During this fraught process, the whole point—writing—can drop out of view. One member of an online applicant community posted this sentiment: “I for one hope to get back to that place of creativity and innocent wonder that felt somehow lost in the midst of this M.F.A. competition craziness. This ‘M.F.A. application industry’ as I’ve come to know it leaves a sour taste.”

The numbers and stakes alone are enough to generate anxiety among applicants and program directors, and that’s unlikely to change without a system revamp. One applicant here suggested that M.F.A. programs modify the law-school model by using a centralized system with a standard application but capping the number of schools each person can apply to so as to “legislate against hysteria and level the playing field.” Seth Abramson, who hosts an online applicant community and is the man behind Poets & Writers M.F.A. rankings (currently the only M.F.A. ranking regime) recommends that the nation’s fully funded programs create a consortium whose members adhere to certain best practices and share a uniform application. Factors working against any form of system change include high turnover and limited hours among M.F.A. directors (we’re writers first, after all) and the location of programs within larger institutions with their own requirements. Abramson also mentions steps individual programs can take to humanize the process, most of which fall under the category of transparency.

To transparency, I would add plain old decency. Some of the disturbing stories I’ve heard from the 2011 application season are institutional products. (Several applicants to one West Coast program were notified that they were receiving financial aid only to learn later that they had been rejected from the program the aid was for. A certain East Coast program requires a $400 nonrefundable tuition deposit to hold open an accepted student’s space—and requires this a week ahead of April 15.) But some ugliness stems from the bad behavior of individuals, from students who renege on accepted offers to staff members who are willfully misinformed to program directors who assume that a seller’s market licenses them to be less than honest with recruits and rude to waitlisters. And so I’d like to suggest a bit of etiquette:

Dos and don’ts for applicants:

Don’t apply to a program that you are unwilling to attend. (Most applicants are careful about where they spend their time and money, yet I see applications from students who seek two-year programs in the Northeast. The Web site here states clearly that our program takes three years and that the University of South Carolina is in … South Carolina.)

Don’t email a program director a list of thirteen questions, twelve of which are answered on the program’s website and the thirteenth of which is “Please provide a detailed description of the writing style, aesthetic philosophy, and pedagogical approach of each of your faculty members.”

Don’t ask for special treatment. (Our deadline is December 15 and we send out initial acceptances in February. It would be unethical of me to read an application arriving in March. If yours is late because your “printer was broken,” well, I hear enough of that in my undergraduate courses. If you tell me I should consider it because you’re head and shoulders better than everyone else, then I will simply congratulate you on your brilliant future.)

Don’t ask a program director for things out of her power to grant. (The graduate school at my university requires that applicants provide GRE scores. If you bombed the quantitative portion of the exam, I might bend over backward to get your lower-than-our-not-that-high-minimum score waived, but I can’t admit you if you haven’t taken the test. Nor am I the right audience for your nine-point rant about why the GRE shouldn’t be required.)

Don’t e-mail a program director a critique of the criteria M.F.A. programs use to rank candidates in which you explain why the creative-writing sample shouldn’t be the most heavily weighted component of an application to a creative-writing program.

If you’re accepted by a program, do ask as many questions as you want before you make your decision. But don’t sign and then change your mind, particularly if you are locking up funding that someone else would leap through flaming hoops to have.

Once you decide not to attend a program that has accepted you, let the director know right away, even if you haven’t made your final decision among other programs. An anxious and deserving writer on a waiting list will thank you.

If you are that anxious writer on the waitlist, know that it’s fine to e-mail for a status report once every several weeks. It’s not okay to email daily asking for recalculated odds.

If you are rejected by a program, please understand that the program director can’t provide a written critique of your writing sample and can’t send you copies of your confidential letters of recommendation.

Manners for program directors:

Post thorough information online. Transparency is particularly important in the areas of program basics, curriculum, and funding. (This will also save you time when answering the thousand-plus e-mail inquiries you will receive this year.)

Honesty means more than not lying. It includes being forthcoming with information an applicant obviously seeks. (Don’t tell an accepted student that her assistantship is “teaching” and then assign her to photocopying, and if she asks if her funding is automatic for the second year, answer the question directly.)

Every applicant has put time, money, and hope into your program and deserves respect. Be honest first and kind second—honesty is often the greatest kindness in this process—but do be kind. (Don’t tell someone they’re next on the waitlist if they’re seventh on the waitlist. Not only is it wrong, but online applicant communities will expose your deceit.)

Consider posting an update on one of the applicant forums, but be forewarned that an e-mail avalanche will follow.

Don’t ridicule applicants’ writing samples or personal statements on your blog, Facebook wall, or Twitter feed. Likewise, don’t post not-so-obscure hints that you’re accepting an applicant (“Short story writing seems to be alive and well in Scranton!”) unless you definitely are.

Remember that those you accept have earned their admission. Just because you have a long waitlist of excellent applicants doesn’t mean your top picks don’t get to consider their decision carefully. Everyone benefits from a good fit.

Encourage early decision-making among accepted applicants, but adhere to the April 15 decision deadline if you are a signatory to the Council of Graduate Schools Resolution on Funding Offers, which you probably should be.

Occasionally recall what it was like when you were a waiting applicant and (if you’re my age) walked to the mailbox to find it empty on Saturday afternoon.

The author of four novels, Elise Blackwell directs the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of South Carolina.

(Photos by Flickr user xelusionx)

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