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So You Were Rejected By An MFA Program

I do remember this time many years ago, when I was anxiously awaiting for my letters of acceptance from the MFA programs I applied to. I had that sense of my life trajectory hinging upon it, the course of my existence waiting for this great, giant, neon sign. Do I go back to the East Coast? Do I stay in San Francisco and find a new path for myself?

Ironically, waiting to find out if I was going to get a master’s in filmmaking made me feel as if I were in the middle of my own life-movie, and I was in that montage sequence that showed me keeping busy, checking the mailbox, going out, checking the mailbox, going on trips and then checking the mailbox once again when I got back.

I’ve been in the position of getting a “Yay!” letter; I’ve also been in the other position of being rejected. I’ll tackle both, because both are what I call “pivot points,” though in different ways. This is the more obvious “How to cope with being rejected” post, where you’re probably feeling discouraged, unhappy, flummoxed, sad or angry. You might be wondering why the hell you spent all that time and money applying, only to get nothing. You may be feeling like you’re untalented. You might just be pissed. Here’s what you can do with all that, as well as a bit of tough love and a wallop of comfort:

Remember: it’s not a referendum on your talent or vision

Like I’ve said before, a MFA program can only accept so many people, stretch so many resources so far and cater to so many sensibilities and approaches. You might have gotten a “no thanks” from a program from any number of reasons that had nothing to do with your talent: you weren’t a good fit, there were too many types of students like you, they’re recalibrating their program and looking for different students. Honestly, I know students have been rejected because they were such strong candidates, admissions couldn’t see a reason why they needed an MFA program in the first place — and the candidate didn’t make clear what role an MFA program could play for them. Rarely in my experience was a candidate rejected because their work sucked or they had no talent.

There’s no way to tell, and it’s really no use asking for critique or feedback, because the admissions committee is probably bleary-eyed from the blur of applications they’ve read over the past few months. I know it’s not really comforting, but there really is no rhyme or reason to such a subjective and extremely competitive process.

Here’s the truth of the matter: a really great program — one that doesn’t see its student body as a cash cow, for example! — knows exactly what kind of students will thrive in it.They are keenly aware of the roadmap ahead for their program, the resources at hand, their finances, the inner workings of departmental politics, how their curriculum might change. If they didn’t accept you, they could be doing you a huge favor in the long run, because it’s likely you weren’t a good fit for some reason in some way.

Ask yourself: was your application as strong as it could be?

This is entirely different from being judged on your creative talent or potential. Trust me, in my brief stint in admissions, there were definitely times you could tell an otherwise strong candidate rushed or did their application at the last minute — and sadly, in a field or program that’s ultra-competitive to gain entrance, those misspelled words, sloppy packaging or unclear passages in your personal statement make a difference. If that’s the case, put away your application for now — but dust it off in a few months once you’ve gotten some distance and see if there’s something different you could’ve done.

It’s amazing what you can see after some time away. Honestly, I look at my own applications now and I can pinpoint all the things I did wrong and right. (Confession: I didn’t make the case for why I, as an experienced film professional and writer at the time, needed to go to an MFA program in the first place. Thank God I did get an interview, where that was the one question I was asked.)

As I’ve said earlier, there are bigger factors beyond your talent and vision in looking at candidates for programs, such as your commitment to artmaking and your ability to contribute to community. (The high irony is that the best candidates for an MFA program are the ones who’d thrive even without one.) Did your application fail to address these less obvious aspects?

And look on the annoyingly bright side: if you choose to apply again, you’ll have a huge jump for next year. You will have a rare advantage of time-assisted clarity to look at your application and make adjustments. It’s little consolation now, but come time to try again, you’ll be thankful for it — and the chance to make an even stronger application.

What were you looking for in an MFA? What can you do to bring that into your life or career anyway?

Most programs worth getting into look not just at your talent and potential, but your general commitment to making art in general. Are you going to let an MFA rejection get in the way of your growth? It’s worth looking at the reasons why you wanted to get into the program in the first place. Were you looking for creative community? Can join a local writers group, or attend conferences? Were you looking for guidance from a working professional? Maybe you can attend clases or find an online course. Looking to boost your professional network? Can you attend conferences, camps, workshops, networking events? If you wanted unfettered time to focus on your writing, try applying to residency programs. A real art-maker seeks out development no matter what life throws in their way.

And if you choose to apply again (and many people do), the application reviews will see that you truly are committed to making your art, and that’s only going to strengthen your case — not to mention make you a better artist in the first place. A rejection is a good opportunity to do some soul-searching about art-making: are you really committed? What are you doing to do to develop yourself in lieu of the MFA experience?

By no means is a “nay” the end of your career as an artist — it might just be the beginning of the real journey to making work and putting it into the world. But it’s up to you, as the protagonist in your own story, to make it so.

Maybe it’s not your time…or the right program

Here’s a little story: a long time ago, I made video art. I thought I was an experimental art filmmaker, and I worked on video installations and art videos. I really thought my path was to show in galleries. I applied to art schools — and I didn’t get into most of them, except one.

I went to visit that school, but when I stepped onto campus, I realized I just didn’t fit in. I felt it wasn’t welcoming; the people seemed really stressed and isolated. And the financial support was dismal. I did realize I wanted to be in that city, though, so I decided to move there anyway — but not go to that school. I thought I would work on my portfolio more to get into my other choice of schools, so I’d apply again the next year.

But in a way, not getting into most of my schools and then not going to the one program that accepted me was a godsend, a favorable intervention from the muses above. Because in that subsequent year, I started screenwriting again and realized I wasn’t an experimental video artist — I was more of a storyteller, and more engaged and resonated with classical filmmmaking. Those initial rejections — and the “choice” of an unpalatable alternative — bought me time to explore more and really uncover what it was I was truly interested in. So I thank my lucky stars that I didn’t go to that one program, and didn’t go into debt for an experience that likely would’ve made me miserable and didn’t really align with who I really was as an artist. So when I applied again, I applied to the right program — and got in.

A rejection can be tough — that’s no lie right there. It stings, and it will test your resilience. But if you are truly serious about making art and growing in your craft, you’ll eventually see it as an obstacle to beat, a chance to rethink your options, or maybe even a turning point in your life. It might take time to come around to that point of view, but it will come.

This post is part of a group of entries on MFA applications; I wrote about steps to take after being accepted. I’ve written earlier on writing the personal statement, general tips and strategy, whether or not you should apply and go, my own personal decisionmaking process, and what to do after you get your MFA.

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All Things Glorious and True: Love Letters to Pop Culture, New York, Fashion and Other Objects of Affection is a collection of essays exploring how my crushes on music, dive bars, books, outfits and so much else gave me a braver soul, more open heart and even love. All Things is like a great, stylish mixtape: surprising, kind of punky, fun and often heartfelt.

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