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Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Plan that Knew Too Much

Upon speaking with a former creative writing professor this week, I was asked if I still wanted his job.  Did I still want to be a professor of creative writing?  Did I still want to put in 2-3 more years of schooling just for the chance to work at a small Midwestern liberal arts college where I’d hope to be lucky to get a book published some day?  Yes, yes I did.  Still an easy question even after four years and nine rejections, and I’m thankful for that.  I also was kindly reminded that I have yet to begin this whole reapplication business—details. 

I’ll need to unearth my application plan—reinvent it into a master plan for acceptance, the likes of which not even the Muppets have seen!  The likes of which rival even the strategery surrounding The Annexation of Puerto Rico (if you don’t get this reference, rent Little Giants immediately from your local video rental—it might just change your life). 

I need a plan that is the brain child of these two movies.  Should I call John Madden?

Well, maybe I’ll just start off with the basics and go from there.  I don’t know about every application to every program, but I can at least tell you what I need to start getting together in order to apply to most Creative Writing MFA programs, and I bet a lot it is universal;

Undergraduate Transcripts
            This is one of the easier pieces to collect.  Usually a call to your college’s Registrar will do the trick.  Mailing transcripts to graduate programs is old hat for Registrars and they’ll probably do it for free—just give them the addresses that want your transcripts to be sent to.  However, if you’re like me and applying to a buttload of schools, they might require an additional fee for providing more than 5-6 transcripts.  And if you’re also paranoid like me, you might ask them to mail the transcripts directly to you so that you can assemble everything needed for your application and mail it all out together.  This might be more costly and more effort on your part, but it pays dividends if you’re a worrier.

GRE Scores
            Ah the GRE, the exam that tests everything that you’ve learned in high school after you’re graduated from college.  Seriously, the math is the exact same crap that’s on the SAT and now it’s been even longer since you learned it in High School!  The 2011 edition may be different, but way back in 2010 there were no calculators allowed, dang nab it!  You best re-learn that long division.  The vocab section is actually pretty legit.  I studied word lists for months, but still saw plenty of words I had never come across before.  Learn roots, suffixes, prefixes well, and then supplement your studying with reading, anything.  
            After you get done actually taking the test (you take it on a computer) you’ll immediately be prompted to enter which schools you want your scores to be sent to (up to four).  Any more than four, and you guessed it, it’s a $20/ school fee that you can request later–yay higher learning! 

Letters of Recommendation
            Most programs require (3) letters of recommendation.  Who you ask to write those letters depends on what kind of program you’re applying to, but a safe bet is to get one from an academic source (a professor, an advisor, someone who taught you in college and who knows your work well in regards of the subject matter that you’re applying to grad school for; i.e. don’t ask a math prof to write you a rec letter for an English program).  Another should be from a professional source, like a manager of a counseling center if you’re applying for a social work program for instance.  The third can really come from anywhere as long as he/ she knows you and can boast about you.
            The important thing is that each of your recommenders knows you and your work well and will speak highly of you.  In my opinion, a letter from a nobody co-worker who knows you well is better than the generic “grad letter” that a big-shot professor might copy, paste, and send out for all of his students.  Then again, I’ve been rejected from grad school, so maybe just do whatever you want. 
            That does bring up a good point; keep solid connections to college professors and former employers because you never know when you might need them again.  If it’s been a while and you’ve since lost those connections, I’d start sending out a bunch of “hey, remember me?” e-mails and see what catches.  Recipients just may be understanding and agree to write a letter, though it won’t be as good as a letter from someone who remembers you and your work well.

Curriculum Vitea – 
            Some programs might ask for one of these, which is just a Latin way to say your resume with your education information at the top.  The way that I understand it, these are primarily used for those applying for professorships, or you know, jobs that you’d have to have more than just an undergraduate degree for.  Pump up your undergraduate experience as much as possible, including as many awards and honors as you can think of.

Personal Statement
            Also sometimes known as a Letter of Intent, this is at the crux of all the sucks about applying to grad school.  The Personal Statement is essentially an open ended prompt where you get to say just why you’re special enough to attend a particular grad school.  It can be overwhelming.  And when you’re overwhelmed, you tend to ramble, which is a very bad thing to do in a personal statement.  Statements should be 1-2 pages in length and hit these main points;
  • Who you are—this is your chance to make your application personal, and if you’re not applying to a creative writing program, probably your only chance.  Make it memorable but not overly sentimental. 
  • What you want to get out of the program—grad schools don’t want wishy-washy folks who are just applying because they don’t know what else to do with their lives.  They want focused, driven students with tangible goals, and plans to achieve those goals, which brings us to…
  • What will you do for the program—again wishy-washers aren’t going to do much more than take up space for a program.  Those with plans to bring in the “Three R’s”—research, revenue, and results, coined it—are very attractive.  Basically these two things together need to address how can the program help you, to help it.
  • How prepared you are—This one is just re-emphasizing, again, that this is not a decision that you’ve made on whim, though why people would go through this hell on just a whim is beyond me.  List any classes, service, jobs you’ve had and how they’ll help you succeed in the grad program you’re applying to.
  • Why this school—Of course you’re applying to more than one school, and each school knows this, but they also want to be flattered and told just why they’re so great.  They also want to make sure you’re a good fit for their specific program.  All programs are not the same, so be sure to read programs’ specifics before deciding to apply, for you and for them.

Application Forms
            The actual application is pretty straightforward and easy.  It just takes some time.  These are pretty standard and ask for things like your full name, address, social security number, etc.  Every once in while there will be an essay question like, “how do you feel like you’ll acclimate and improve the Example State University community?”  They’re usually pretty generic and fairly open ended, but they are also usually short (about a page) and are primarily designed just to make sure you’re an intelligent writer.  Don’t half ass them though.

Writing Sample
            All right, this only pertains to those applying to Creative Writing MFA programs.  If you’re one of these people, you still have to complete all of the above listed components of the application, but your writing sample equates to about 90% or more of the total value of your application.  Drop out of college, fall asleep during your GRE’s, pay three hobos to write your letters of recommendation and then get one of them to fill out your application between black-outs, but if you’re writing sample is amazing, then that’s all that matters.  Work on that writing sample.

For my reapplication, I’ll need to address how I’ve improved since my last application and why I’m an even better fit than ever before—that’s the million dollar question.  I would LOVE to just resubmit everything I did last time, but if it didn’t cut it last time, I can’t count on it doing it this time.  I’ll need to determine what I can to do better, and then attempt to do so—dum, dum dum!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Say Anything, seriously

My friend, who was also recently barred from the Land of Grad School, showed me a letter he received from a program a few days ago.  After being told that, “although your qualifications met the criteria for acceptance to Example State University, unfortunately, we cannot accept you at this time,” he had the audacity to write back to them and ask (in nicer terms), “What the Hell!?” 

Bill Lumberg should write/ orate rejection letters.
We get it.  Competition is high, higher than high has ever been before.  So how hard is to say, “You just weren’t good enough, and here’s why...”  Such explanation would certainly sting to say the least, but at least we would be able to wrap our heads around it.  This Zen-corporate soft-speak that is polite to the point of saying nothing, is no help. 

Here is one of my favorite rejection letters (can you have a favorite rejection letter?)  I like it so much because I can truly imagine its conception.  I can picture some belabored copier in some florescent tinted office pumping out hundreds of these clones to be distributed across the country to each applicant who simply, “cannot be accepted at this time”.  Its signature, just the recycled copy of some muckity-muck’s hand who doesn't remember my name.

Now, you might ask why would I even apply to Douche U?  Everyone knows they’re just a party school with an English department that’s seriously lagging, but you can’t be too choosey when it comes to applying for full rides and teaching stipends.  More importantly, why was I rejected from DU?  What can I improve upon?  Can you tell from this letter?  Apparently, somewhere between my “GRE scores, GPA, [and] quality of writing samples”, I didn’t meet the “criteria for the committee’s judgments,” so that’s pretty clear.  Either that or my “goals and plans [did NOT] fit with the program’s”.  My goals were to go to grad school to learn to write and teach—what goals should I have had to apply to a Creative Writing MFA program? 

This letter tells me nothing!  Nothing, I tells ya, nothing!  After all of the cajoling and gentle encouragement by universities to have prospective students apply and up their programs’ submission numbers, this letter ultimately represents the quickest, easiest, and least personal way to fish and cut bait.  Its three paragraphs certainly do not warrant the hundreds upon thousands of collective hours that all of the applicants like myself invested in their applications to schools like Douche U.

So my friend here—you remember my friend, from the first paragraph?—right, so my pal politely wrote back to Example State requesting some ways that he could improve his application.  A reasonable inquiry.  To his surprise, someone actually returned his letter and offered some advice.  Getting past the politeness pudding slopped onto the page, it stated that he needed to essentially return to college for a year and take the undergraduate courses that were supposedly “suggested” for consideration into this particular program.

In grad school's eyes, I am NOT complete.
Ouch.  Harsh.  Not want he wanted to hear, but at least it’s something.  At least it’s a goal to work towards.  It’s a ridiculous goal, one that would put my friend further into massive debt, and I doubt he’ll consider.  He’ll probably just try to find some backdoor way in because he’s not an eccentric millionaire or son of an eccentric millionaire, but again, at least the letter actually said something.  A novel concept for a graduate program, and even more novel of one for a Creative Writing program.  I guess before I can get some real answers I have some letter writing to do, or at least some trench coat wearing, boom box hoisting, and 1987 Buick Cutlass Supreme standing in front of to do.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Excuses, Schmexcuses

*Just a note; I’m posting again today since the blog is so new, but from now on, I’m going to post regularly every week, Friday afternoons or Saturday mornings.  I’ll post a new survey then too.

Getting into grad school is competitive.  Here is a list of solid excuses;

  • In a bad economy, more people want to go back to school.
  • It’s a different time than a generation ago when even a BA was considered “optional” and could really put you above the pack.
  • My dog ate my good application (note; you may need to actually own a dog to pull this one off)
  • Creative Writing MFA programs are the definition of subjective when it comes to accepting applicants.  Though you have to submit undergraduate transcripts, statements of purpose, GRE scores, it really all comes down to whether a mysterious panel of shadowy writing critics likes your twenty-something pages of sample writing. 
  • El Nino

I turned to each of these while applying to grad schools during my first go-around—GradAp 1.0.  I casually rattled off these excuses to folks in an effort to justify my future rejections to them, and to a lesser extent, to cushion the blow of any such rejections for myself.  They were my series of strategically placed safety nets, but safety nets that I never anticipated on needing.  Because honestly, after putting in all of that work, all of that time and planning, does anyone actually believe that it will be all for naught?  When applying does anyone actually think, “Wow, I’m sure glad I’m getting in all of this great application practice, gee golly!  It’ll sure be real helpful for next time, gosh,”?  Of course not!  To paraphrase my Little League coach from fifth grade, “You play to win!  Now run out to my car and find me my cigarettes!”

You did not want to not find Coach Lundy's cigarettes
I applied to nine schools—nine!  I might have talked a humble game, but I always expected that I’d get into one of them.  Actually, I thought I’d get into three.  Three felt about right.  Three was a nice, workable divisor of nine that would reward 33.3% of my hard work while giving me some options.  Three was acceptable.

Zero was reality.  By April I had been outright rejected by seven schools, and waitlisted by two, which would later kick me off of the waitlist lifeboat.  Apparently the rightful passengers of the S.S. Grad School 2011 Fall Class were ready to embark and it would be just peachy if I’d be so kind as to let go and sink to the bottom of the ocean.  Aha, not so fast Titanic fans, I said “lifeboat” not arbitrary floating door, or dresser—chifferobe maybe?—anyway, it is not a comparison to Leo’s big drowning scene, although I have to admit, I can emphasize. 

Seriously, is it like a kitchen table or part of the ship's dance floor?  What the hell are they floating on!?

When I was applying to college, I applied to five schools and got into four of them.  The only school that I didn’t get into was due to the fact that my guidance counselor forgot to submit my high school transcript—you know, you duct tape just one teacher’s kid to a tree and you’re paying for it for the rest of your life.  Despite my humble pie demeanor and all of my half-assed mental preparation, I was decidedly unprepared for such rejection.  Maybe I should have been.  Thank God for Little League and the opposite sex, to this day, still my best references for rejection.
Bryan had it coming

Ultimately, these well-crafted excuses cut it just about as well as my applications did.  They might pacify others, but I still feel the same with or without them.  GradAp 2.0 has got a long way to go… dum, dum, dum!

Since I can't post a new survey until Saturday, feel free to post your own solid excuses for rejection that I can keep in my back pocket for next time, just in case.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

You Call it Crazy, I Call it Crazy Romantic

They say the definition of insanity is attempting the same action multiple times while expecting different results.  This is supposed to mean the guy on my block who keeps jumping off of his roof expecting that just one of these times, he’s going to take flight.  But if I’m honest with myself, really honest, I know that I’m no saner than roof-fly guy in my plan to—gulp— reapply to grad school, dum, dum, dum! 

Your chances of succeeding with either are about the same.

Applying to grad school requires a certain break from sanity.  It has to.  It’s asking out the hottest, coolest (disregard the oxymoron you grammatical dick), most incredible girl you know.  That girl who is just so far out of your league, just so unattainable, that it only serves to drive your obsession with her to levels of ridiculousness.  Often, it simply feels better to avoid all contact with her, maintaining a safe buffer zone, to protect the fantastic delusion that she might actually, just maybe, perhaps, possibly say “yes”.  If you’re actually dumb enough to ask her, then the fantasy becomes at risk of being killed.  Existing in limbo, however, the dream can never die.  There are dumber ideas.

Eventually, unfortunately, wretched ambition creeps in and the delusion alone becomes “not enough”.   You decide to take a knife to the throat of your glorious hopes and ask her out—you apply.  You have to know.  Good or bad, you tell yourself, you have to know.  Because then you can get on with your life, right?  Then you can either begin your awesome new life strolling down Realized Dreams Avenue, or start figuring out what’s next around the corner from Crushed Hopes Row.  Either way, this is the good, healthy, progressive decision, right? 

Maybe.  In my case, when I applied to grad school this past fall, I was given a curt but polite, “It’s not you, it’s me.  I hope we can still be friends,” and like a dope, I smiled, nodded, and hoped we cold be friends too.  Don’t let her see you cry, old boy.  I retreated into my emotional fortress of solitude, wrapped myself in blankets and cookie dough, and watched  Casablanca  until the DVD warped.  But then, after much personal resolve—and a new Bogie movie—I began mentally preparing myself to try it all over again.  I would do it.  I would reapply to grad school.  Now this goes beyond stupidity.  This is insanity.

So over the next few months as I delve deeply into my own psychosis and reapply to all those schools that told me a scant few weeks ago, “No thanks, we’re good”, I’m taking you with me for the ride!  I’ll share some stories, provide some snazzy tips for applying and reapplying that I’ve picked up along the way, but more than anything, I hope reading this blog will make you feel better about whatever you’re doing while also preserving what scraps of sanity that I might have left by end of this process.  I’ll tell you who this blog is not for; all of you lucky SOBs out there who got accepted on your first try; all of you college seniors who between finals submitted pristine applications coupled with respectable GRE scores; all of you lazy geniuses who decided to crap out applications on Taco Bell-induced whims; all of you who have never been dumped, I say screw you!  This blog is not for you—actually, I hope you continue to read it anyway in an effort to learn just what a turd of a human being you really are.  Seriously, I need readers and this will probably be the last time I bash you smarties—probably.  This blog is for all the true romantics out there, the second, third, and fourth chancers, the ones just dumb enough, just crazy enough—just too crazy enough—to get back up, and try it all over again.  Screw the smarties—I lied!