Jun 20, 2010, 1:55 PM
Post #872 of 1018
Just wanted to chime in briefly on the question of how many programs to apply to. Tom's now oft-quoted advice, i.e. that one should apply to "10 to 12 programs," was first published in 2005 (in the first edition of The Creative Writing MFA Handbook) and then (IMHO by mistake, not with particular intentionality) was republished by Tom without change in 2008 (in the second edition). I know Tom from having worked with him on the Handbook, and so I know both that his advice regarding "10 to 12 programs" was developed in 2004 or earlier, i.e. it pre-dated by years all the research that has now been done on how difficult it is to gain admission to an MFA program, and that he probably would give different advice now knowing what we know about program selectivity. I know, for instance, both from conversations with him and from things he actually wrote in the second edition of the Handbook, that his intent was to put in my hands (and in the 1/4th of the book I authored) most if not all of the research regarding individual programs and also, particularly, their selectivity. And my advice since 2007-8 has been that if one plans on applying to a handful or more of the top programs, one needs to be applying to 12 to 15 programs in total. The "10 to 12 program" advice only holds true, now, for those with lists where half or more of the list is comprised of programs not ranked in the top 50 (and in fact there are 6 to 8 Honorable Mention programs in the 2011 rankings that I would also put in that broadly-defined "top 50" category). I recognize -- believe me, as someone who's gone through three separate graduate admissions processes (law, doctoral, and MFA), I recognize -- that this sounds like an insane number of programs to apply to. And I will say that there's an additional caveat I always add to this advice, which is that it only applies to individuals who are dead-set on being admitted in their first year of application. Many folks realize, now, that the MFA is not a time-sensitive degree, that the average starting age is around 26.7 or so (and about ten years higher for low-residency programs), and so many will apply in successive years and will simply wait until they get into one of their "dream" schools. And that strategy is totally okay! But for those insistent on successfully getting through the MFA-application gauntlet the first time around, "10 to 12 programs," unless one's list is very carefully calibrated, is just not going to be a very good guideline. One reason I've been working directly with applicants on application lists for several years now is that this simply isn't like law school (or any professional school) applications: application strategy is absolutely vital, and understanding how the application process works (the "culture" of the MFA application process) is likewise critical, not least of which is due to the horrid state of MFA websites that the OP mentioned.
I also wanted to echo the OP who said that, after Funding, Location is far more important than Faculty. It is. By a lot. And polling suggests most MFA applicants agree with that assessment. One can either be inspired to write or depressed by one's environment, and it makes all the difference to one's MFA experience which; in contrast, beyond the reasons provided by the OP (sabbatical, retirement, job-switch, &c) for why you might never end up working with the faculty member you most adore, there's the simple fact that you might find out your favorite writer is a terrible teacher or -- just as common if not more so, as we're largely speaking of artists, here -- a terrible human being. Or (perhaps worst of all) they may just not dig your work, and will be more interested in mentoring other students (meanwhile, a faculty member you never gave a second thought to might turn out to be the person who championed your work during the admissions process and most wanted to work with you!). But if you end up having your dreams of X mentor getting popped, then suddenly you ask yourself, why am I living in ____________, again? Just to study with this douchebag? Or this terrible teacher? Oh hell no. You don't want to be that person, you don't want to be in that situation, so figure out who'll fund you, then where you'll be happy, then (IMHO) which cohort is the strongest -- as partly measured by selectivity -- because you'll be spending 99% of your time with your cohort or alone, not with faculty, and then, only then, and perhaps not even then (there are still other more important considerations, IMHO), look at faculty.
As to Wisconsin-Madison, I'll just say that I'm a lifelong New Englander, who never wanted to live anywhere but New England, and Madison, Wisconsin is so far and away the most wonderful place I've ever lived (and that includes Cambridge, MA, among many other places, including Iowa City, IA) that it's not even funny. I don't attend the UW MFA as an MFA student, but man, if I were a poet apply to programs today it would certainly be on my list of 12 to 15 programs. As would, FWIW, Minnesota -- Minneapolis is an amazing place to be a writer these days.