Application Process: Step 2 – Where?

Knowing where you want to go may be easier than the specific why, but there may be more to it than you think. It’s okay if you know you want to get that higher degree, but just haven’t found that little nugget yet. You can start looking for schools, but just remember to keep defining and searching for that key reason. There may be something in the search that could help you figure it out.

Here’s the first thing you should do: hit up Dr. Google for some advice. You may know of this handful of schools that has the type of program that you’re looking for, or offers the degree you’re seeking, but you would be surprised how many other schools could also be out there that you may not have heard of, or hadn’t thought to consider. When I first started looking, considering an MFA/PhD in English/Creative Writing, I found this site* and this one* to be the most helpful in the beginning, especially for providing a listing of US MFA programs, and both US and International PhD Programs.

If you can find a similar resource, here’s how you should use it: Print the list, go back to Dr. Google and start looking up each school.  What I did was copied the list into a text file and printed a hardcopy. I could then also carry the paper list with me should I end up somewhere without access to the text file. During some down time at work, I was able to look up the programs (since the list I found on the Suburban Ecstasies site only listed the school names, not locations), and could cross off the programs or locations that I knew we didn’t want. Such as: Mary Catherine lived for a brief time during her youth in a corner of Ohio. It was an experience she would rather not repeat. As such, many of the midwestern regular-residency schools were out.

The goal here is to narrow a lit of hundreds of schools down to a manageable 30-50, depending on your desired program of study. Once you have the “manageable” list, you start looking seriously into each school, gathering stats for comparison, things like: length of program, special focus of study, funding options, etc.  It also helps if you are able to find some form of national/world rankings for your course of study, since that could also help you get a better feel for public perception of the program (a useful item to be aware of for the job market).

A huge factor to working your list and narrowing to what will ultimately be you application pool, is your why. But you are also looking for programs that resonate with you on multiple levels:

  • Consider the geography of the locations: I have always had a fascination with Boston, so most of the New England schools were up for consideration. I have also been to Texas a couple of times, and enjoyed my visits to Colorado, so schools from both states made it to the “manageable.” As mentioned above, MC vetoed the midwest, but I have family in Indiana, so I kept those schools on the list. As an undergrad, I always wanted to do a study abroad program, but since I was involved in ROTC for most of it, the only kind of exchange programs I would have been able to participate would have been to other US schools where there was an Air Force ROTC program. School’s in the UK? It’s on the list.
  • You also need to consider the people: if there is one particular instructor at a school that you want to work with, could you still continue if that person is no longer there (through retirement, sabbaticals, other obligations, or even death). For example: I really took a hard look at University of Southern California, because TC Boyle is an instructor there. He’s well published, and I think it might be a great learning experience, but he would have been the biggest reason to apply there. But the cost of living in LA, in addition to the consideration that Boyle could retire before I graduate (hell, before I even get there) didn’t make it a practical one to consider.
  • Things you should also look for during this stage of review are the details –  information that suggests other hoops you may need to jump through. On my “manageable list” I had both Brown and UT Austin (Michener Center), but since I already have an MA (with Creative Writing option), I would either need a supporting letter indicating why I should be considered for their MFA, or would be “considered on an ad hoc basis.”
  • You should consider funding options: if you are going to have to move, will there be stipends or assistantships available so you won’t have to add that many years of additional financial aid to pay off?
  • Consider anything special about the curriculum. Indiana University at Bloomington has a focus on Teaching Creative Writing pedagogy. Seton Hill’s Low-Residency program is explicitly an “MFA in Writing Popular Fiction.” Look to see if there is an angle available that taps into your why or some key aspect of what you want to do.

After doing all of that, you should probably have cut your list in half, maybe a little less. When I was doing it, I was down to about 21 schools: 8 PhD programs (3 in the US, 5 in the UK), 10 (traditional) MFA programs, and 3 low-residency MFA programs. I mentioned Brown and UT Austin. Both had managed to make it this far, but were quickly among the first to go at this point. At this point, it was looking into not only the school and program information, but exploring the surrounding area. What’s the city like, what’s around it? And a critical self-examination of, “Why is this school on this list?” For most of them, I couldn’t find a compelling enough reason – that resonance – that moved me enough to want to apply. For example: Cornell was still on my list at this point, but the only reason it was still there was for the reputation. Not worth the almost $100 application fee if the reputation is the most compelling reason to go. Notre Dame was my alternate (the 22nd school) that I reinstated to the list once I dropped Brown and UT Austin, since I actually have family in South Bend. But after further review of the funding options, which were not as great as some of the others I was still considering, I couldn’t see keeping it as an option.

So here are the schools that made it to the Luck Seven: the application round (in no particular order):

  • University of Denver (PhD)
  • University of Edinburgh [Scotland] (PhD)
  • University of Glasgow [Scotland] (PhD)
  • Boston University (MFA)
  • Indiana University at Bloomington (MFA)
  • North Carolina State University (MFA)
  • Seton Hill University (Low-Res MFA)

Seven schools, from an original list of about 250.

*While looking back over these sites, I noticed most of the information that I had found useful was not listed. I found an article that indicated the ranking/list of programs was “embargoed from 15 Aug through 31 Dec” and not available on the sites.
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