Applying to grad school can be a tedious, confusing process—especially for first-generation college students who have continuously had to rely on themselves along the way. Figuring out what I needed in a grad program was difficult because I didn’t know many people who had went to graduate school. Most of the people I had personal relationships with, like me, were first-generation college students and had either decided not to go further into higher-ed, or were also feeling around in the dark for some know-how. With that in mind, here are some things that I stumbled upon that worked for me, and some things I wish I’d known.
Talk to Your Professors from Undergrad.
One resource that you do have, even without personal or familial connections to academic institutions, are the professors from your undergraduate institution. Be sure and utilize their knowledge and experience, having moved through higher-education. Start with professors you know in the field you’re going into, and ask to meet with them. At the end of my senior year, I met with my advisor and essentially told her I had no idea what I was doing with my life, but that maybe I wanted to go to graduate school after recovering from the shit-show that was the last two years of college. Not only did she give me some suggestions for programs to look into (already knowing a lot about me and having an idea of what might work or not), but she was so incredibly affirming in sharing some of her own personal history as a first-gen student, and the process of how and why she chose to continue creating art, even when times were really difficult. So much of what she said resonated with and affirmed me and the place I was in at the time, and it helped to give me some direction. Reach out to your past professors, even if they’re not in the arts. Ask them about their experiences in grad school, what you might look for in a program, where to start. Take notes! They have valuable things to say, and you’ll want to remember them in a few months when you decide to get serious about the process.
People can say whatever they want about how when you’re applying to programs, it’s the program that’s most important. Obviously. However, the actual location of a program is one of those things that becomes more and more relevant once you actually living there. This is a place you’ll be in for the next two to three years. Environment can really affect the creative process. Sure, your personal life will be virtually non-existent through this time, but that doesn’t mean that you should limit yourself to your room and the classroom. Does the place the program is in have good public transportation? Do you hate the cold, but all the programs you’re looking at land in the northeast and midwest? Are there communities of people in that town or city that you can connect to/feel at home with (communities of color, queer and trans communities, activist communities, etc.)? What is the artist community like outside of the program? These things are really important to your well-being, and therefore your creative process, throughout this time. Consider your needs, identify your deal breakers, and adjust accordingly.
“You Shouldn’t Have to Pay for an MFA.”
One thing my advisor in undergrad told me was that I shouldn’t have to pay for an MFA program. She said this as one Black, formerly poor, first-generation college student to another Black, poor first-gen. We poor out here. Shit is really a struggle for those of us who carry marginalized identities, for those of us who are struggling with making a conscious decision to do a thing that we love, but that ain’t gonna make us no damn money, for those of us who have families that rely on us for support. So know this. There are a lot of fully-funded MFA programs out there. Set your sights on them. When I was applying, one of my deal-breakers was me having to pay out of pocket for a program—I only applied to programs that were fully-funded and had decent teaching assistantship stipends. Let these institutions pay you to write! Especially if you a person of color and you gonna end up on a brochure and a diversity statistic anyways. Get yours.
Consider the Teaching Load. No, really. Consider it.
Because we live in a cis-hetero-capitalist-patriarchy, ain’t nothing in the world free. These fully-funded programs often come with teaching assistantships, and while you do get paid, you’ll be balancing writing with teaching incoming-freshman the Intro to English stuff that nobody else wants to teach. For all its potential cons, it does give you teaching experience and help you keep the lights on in your apartment. However, be very aware of how light or heavy the teaching-loads at each program are. Do they have you teaching your first year? How many classes will you be required to teach each semester? How many credit-hours are you required to take along with teaching? Pay close attention to this. (Closer attention than I did, please.) There’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re in an MFA program with no actual time to write.
Look at the Classes Being Offered.
What is a program if not the classes offered and the professors teaching them? This one is pretty self-explanatory. Looking at a program’s course-list can tell you a lot about what it might be able to offer you, especially if you do genre-specific work.
Have More than One Reason to Apply to a Program.
A professor told me once to not pin all my hopes on one professor in a program. This is a very bad idea, especially because a professor could decide to leave to another program if they wished, and then what would you do? Or you and that professor could end up not getting along well, and then you’re left in a program you otherwise may not care for. Always have at least two professors that you want to work within your chosen genre (fiction, poetry, non-fiction, etc.).
Reach Out to Professors in the Programs You’re Considering.
This is something I hadn’t thought about until after I was done applying to schools, but that would have made my life a lot easier. Don’t be afraid to email the professors you want to work with in the program! There are many reasons this is a good idea: 1. You look really proactive, taking the initiative to reach out. You’ll be more memorable if you’ve had conversations with people. 2. You can ask them real questions about the program. 3. The time it takes for them to get back to you, how willing they are to talk with you, and even whether they respond at all will tell you a lot about the program and the support it might offer you.
I messaged John Jennings and Nalo Hopkinson (!) at UC Riverside, and they both got back to me within 24 hours. I asked them about their involvement with the grad program (did they teach graduate level courses, did they work more with undergrad or grad students?), what support the program had for Black students, and also for speculative-fiction writers. They were both totally willing to take time out to speak to me (both through phone and email), and that told me a lot about their accessibility within the program.
Look Up Those Articles MFA Do’s and Dont’s:
As corny as they can sometimes be, definitely scour the internet for the “Do’s and Don’ts” articles, usually written by MFA faculty on applying for a program. Know what people are looking for in applications, know where to flex and where to be more subtle. Read up on what faculty hate seeing in applications, know what looks good and what will make you look like an ass. Take note of these things, and also take them with a grain of salt—stay true to who you are in your application.
Hopefully you’ve found some helpful tips here! Good luck with the application process. Remember that your talent and vision as an artist is not contingent on whether or not you get into an MFA program.
Lauren Garretson is a first year fiction writer at Virginia Tech. She is a fiction reader for the minnesota review.