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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!

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