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Hi, I'm Nellwyn!

The Cardinal Press is a lifestyle blog about living beautifully and creatively, every day.

5 Things I Learned About Applying For An MFA

5 Things I Learned About Applying For An MFA

Today was a pretty exciting day because I finally put the last of my grad school applications in the mail. It's been a long and very indecisive road, but it's finally over and in someone else's hands. The entire experience has led to a lot of interesting conversations about where academia/arts education is heading and whether or not an MFA is the best decision for me at this time. After all, do I really need a SECOND degree with the word "creative" in the title? Apparently, I think I do. 

After running the gamut of all possible schools, degrees, career paths, and expenses, I've learned a few things to keep in mind if I ever go down this application road again. So, in celebration of being done with forms and portfolios and letters of intent, I give you: 5 Things I Learned About Applying For An MFA, or, alternately titled...

1. It's More Complicated Than It Looks. I read and re-read the admission procedures countless times while working on my portfolio and it all seemed pretty straightforward. Write application, order transcripts, submit references, pay fees, done! But then when it came time to actually filling out the forms and putting everything in the mail, all these straightforward instructions suddenly got confusing. One school listed two different amounts for the application fee in two different places. Another school's online application kept telling me I hadn't completed one section of the form when I had and had saved it multiple times. The best thing I learned about confusing instructions is: Don't be afraid to get in touch with the school for clarification. Which brings me to number 2...

2. It May Take Days to Speak To A Human

Faced with confusing instructions and unclear fees, I quickly got used to the idea that I had to pick up the phone and talk to someone to make sure I was doing everything correctly. The problem is that universities are such massive institutions that it can be really hard to know who to talk to and how to get in touch with them directly. Some schools will list a direct contact for your program, but then you'll discover that person works part-time and can't get back to you for a few days. Other schools won't list a contact at all so you'll have to call their general number and explain your question to five different people and/or fight your way through an automated menu before reaching your department. Nine times out of ten when you've finally been connected to the right person they won't be able to answer the phone and you'll have to leave a voicemail. Good news is that everyone will get back to you eventually and everyone I spoke with was super helpful and kind. Just budget extra time in your application process in case you find yourself needing extra info.

3. Not All Programs Are Created Equal 

I knew what program would be perfect for me from the beginning so I figured it wouldn't be difficult to find similar programs to apply to as well. I was wrong. There are hundreds of MFA programs with the same title across the continent and at first I was really overwhelmed. But then I realized that they were all really different when it came to class choice, thesis topics, teaching opportunities, internships, and cost. And all that is before you even start thinking about location and if you can stand living in a tiny university town for two or three years. The best thing I did to narrow down my choices was figure out what three things were most important to me when looking for a school. Pretty quickly I realized what points had drawn me to my first-choice school and once I started looking for those features in other programs I was able to eliminate all but a handful of choices really quickly. With so many schools to chose from, it's easy to get overwhelmed. My advice is to figure out what matters to you most in a program and eliminate schools that don't fit the bill, even if they've got a great reputation or so-and-so's granddaughter's sister's cousin had an amazing time there. Which brings me to point four...

4. Everyone Has An Opinion

I've gotten so much advice throughout this process all from people who care a lot about me and my future and who want to share the wisdom of their experience. I've been told the world is over saturated with MFAs and I should really do an MA. I've been told that no school is too expensive. I've been told I am sure to get a scholarship. I've been told that American schools are the best. I've been told that American schools are a waste of money. I've been told to study in the European Union. I've been told "Why would you go back to school? Just write another play!" I've been told "I wish I hadn't done my MFA. I should have spent the money on something useful." I've been told "I'm so glad I did my MFA. I wouldn't be where I am today without it." Again, it's overwhelming and it's impossible to know which of these contradictory statements will apply to you and your life, if any of them ever apply at all! Which brings me to my last and most important point...

5. Stay Focused

With all the advice and all the options this application process has definitely been a bit of a roller coaster. I've changed my mind a hundred times about where to apply, whether I really want to go, whether or not this will put me on the right career-path, and whether the expense of another fine arts degree will be worth it. Eventually I just had to tune everyone out. I had to get focused on what I want to do right now. Not in five years or ten, but this year. Do I want to try my shot at getting in to grad school this year? Yes. The rest will have to wait and see. Once you've figured out what features matter to you most when picking a school (see point 3!) hold tight to those choices and stand by them! They'll keep you on track when everyone starts giving you confusing advice, and they'll help you answer any questions about why you're not doing things differently. 

So there you have it! The 5 things I've learned in the past six months… 

Now I'm going to take a sappy personal moment to thank all the friends and family members reading this who've supported me and given me all kinds of help and food for thought during this process. Especially those of you who've been subjected to my super indecisive rants in which I question my entire existence and contemplate running away and becoming a bee-keeper. Extra-special shout-out to my mom and my aunt who pointed out all the typos and comma-splice errors in my portfolio! I definitely don't think I would have learned anything or met any deadlines without your help and support!

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming… 

Anyone else out there have any wisdom to share about applying to grad school?

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Cardinal Points: January 2015

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