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So... what are the chances that people get in? (End of app cycle thoughts)


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I am applying to 14 English PhD programs, and am nearly done my applications. I am beginning to move into the "waiting period," and am thinking about the odds of acceptance somewhere. I applied to a mix of top-20 programs and mid-tier ranked schools. I tried my best with each application. If someone applies to as many as I have, or more, what is a proper ratio of acceptance/waitlist/rejection that is typical? Or, is there no such ratio to strive for? What have been the experiences of current students? Was it linear (i.e. you got accepted where you thought you'd get in)? Or, does it remain as random as everything else accompanying this process? I am growing somewhat fearful of not getting in! But, I won't dwell upon it.

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I understand why you're trying to assess your odds (I've asked this question too), but I don't think this is a positive mindset. Given how competitive PhD programs are, they often select for research fit rather than objective "goodness." You can have the best marks and the most stellar writing sample out there, but if you're studying a topic that none of the professors work on, you won't be accepted. In short, there's no ratio to strive for and no way to judge the quality of you app based on that ratio. It's no reflection on your merits as a scholar.

The randomness is certainly frustrating, but try to embrace it and let go of the connection between admission offers and your own talent/worth.

(Of course, I'm applying to MFA programs, but I've lurked this board a lot, and I'm basing my thoughts on what PhD students are saying.)

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Good luck with the MFA apps, @feralgrad! (I graduated with my MFA in 2018, and it took me two application cycles to get in; I’d say MFA odds are possibly more brutal than PhD odds...though maybe I’m just trying to make myself feel better now that I’m applying for a PhD. In any event, keep fighting the good fight!)

To the original question, though, there’s no real way to assess success here, beyond a very basic metric: if you get into at least one school, and it’s an offer that works for you, then you’ve had a successful application season. I was shut out in my first year of MFA apps (11 schools) and accepted to three programs (one off the waitlist) the next year. I’d say it’s all a numbers game—I applied to more schools my second app cycle, and tossed in a few lit MAs for flavor—but post-MFA I applied to exactly two creative writing PhDs and was accepted to one (albeit, without funding) and waitlisted at the other (never made it off the list), which on yield percentage alone might technically make it my “best” app cycle, so who knows?

Ultimately, I agree that it’s probably best to embrace your own powerlessness at this point in the process, hope for the best, and remain confident in your abilities regardless of how the season ultimately shakes out. Good luck!

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I feel the same way. I'm done with all my applications, but have no idea what to expect. I'm just hoping to get into any of the programs I applied to. The closest analog I can think of is when I applied for the MFA. Due to logistics I could only apply to two schools. I got waitlisted at one, and accepted at the other without funding. But after a few weeks the program that hadn't offered me funding emailed back and said they had funding for me. At that point I had assumed I would not be getting an MFA. It just seems entirely random that I was able to get an MFA with funding--clearly someone had turned down an offer, which opened a space for me. 

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The MFA was in fact a great primer in this, because it's even more subjective and chaotic. It's crazy, too, because you will find people who get into many schools, so there is definitely a bit of hivemind/trendiness at play, but for most people it's a total lottery, since GPA, GRE, etc. matter substantially less for an MFA than for us (and here, they're not even terribly important). You never know how much engineering is going into crafting the cohort, or how sympathetic the first or second readers of your applications will be.  You can only work on your writing sample until you're spiraling into a vortex of self-conscious mania. 

One of the most legendary posters on the MFA Draft group on facebook was rejected by tons of schools over the course of years - only to get into Iowa. And waitlisted, I think, at Cornell, or something like that. It was insane. 

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Ah, I'm heartened to see so many MFAs applying for PhDs this cycle--good luck to you all!

The one thing I will say about varying results from app cycle to app cycle is that, the more you apply to grad programs, the better you get at it. I know my SOP the first time I applied for MFAs was garbage compared to my SOP the second time I applied; ditto my SOP for CW PhDs when compared to my SOP for lit PhDs this time around. There are elements of this process that are definitely iterative (SOP, writing sample), but the reason it's still ultimately a bit of a crapshoot has to do with what @merry night wanderer says: adcoms are not only trying to find students who have potential and are pursuing interesting research questions--they're also looking for individuals who, when brought together in a cohort, will produce a whole that is in some ways greater than the sum of its parts. And that's just something applicants will never really be able to account for, no matter how hard they try (not to mention an inexact science in its own right).

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Ha, for sure! I'm banking on the "no MA" pile, at least in my case. My MFA was fairly studio focused: I only took three non-CW classes--two in the English department, one in an outside department--and two of those three courses were taken pass/fail, so I don't think I'll be impressing any adcoms with academic rigor or anything. 

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On 12/15/2019 at 1:36 PM, politics 'n prose said:

My MFA was fairly studio focused: I only took three non-CW classes--two in the English department, one in an outside department--and two of those three courses were taken pass/fail, so I don't think I'll be impressing any adcoms with academic rigor or anything. 

From my understanding, universities with a creative writing major or an MFA degree are more likely to understand and see the value in an MFA degree and willing to take a "chance" on a person with an MFA degree. It's not an automatic acceptance but it beats being eliminated during the first round. I do think some admissions committees are looking at the whole application and person as opposed to whether or not you received an "A" in an field that may not be your specialty. 

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Part of my research for each program did involve checking out the directory of current PhD students, just to see if any of them had MFAs instead of/in addition to MAs; a few schools anecdotally seemed open to admitting MFAs, so that was heartening. (Not that any school would be openly antagonistic toward the prospect of admitting creative writers, but it stands to reason that some programs are more keen on it than others. I hadn't thought of this receptivity as corresponding to whether or not the schools themselves had creative writing undergrad/grad programs, but that's definitely a logical conclusion.)

Not to derail this thread too much, but I'm curious if any of my fellow MFAs are applying to their master's institution for a PhD. The school where I got my MFA happens to have an English program with strong concentration areas that align with my research interests, so I gave it a shot and applied for the PhD, but I'm not holding my breath or anything.

Edited by politics 'n prose
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On 12/15/2019 at 11:04 AM, merry night wanderer said:

Tangentially, we really need to trade notes at the end of this to settle the question of whether the M.F.A. puts us in the "has an M.A." pile or "no M.A." pile. This seems like it's been aggravating for many of us, and I suspect future posters would benefit from a postmortem, lol. 

Please keep in mind that there are [a] the reasons one thinks one did or did not get into a program and then there are the reasons one did or did not get into a program. Sometimes one can make some good guesses about [a], but one will really not know until one is actually enrolled in a program next fall and has had the time to develop relationships with professors who will tell you what factors went into the decision. (And by the time you're at that point, you may have so much on your plate that you look back fondly on the pain you experienced as an applicant.

As for the sense of "powerless" many may be feeling now, please consider the following course of action after taking some time to depressurize. Assume that you are going to get into a program. What can you do in the coming weeks and months to get ready? Are there must read books that one can take a stab at now? Can you start planning your move now? If you're in a relationship and you've been deferring a potentially painful choice about who goes where, can you start preparing for that conversation now? Are there other skills that you can develop that will benefit you during the next stage of your development? If you have issues that you have wanted to discuss with a trained professional, is now a good time to start doing that work? If you have family members who don't understand why you want to earn an advanced degree in a humanity, now may be a good time to start figuring out how to push back (rather than next summer when you'll be feeling a lot of pressure)? If you want to make a difference for next year's elections, what can you do now so that you will have enough time and bandwidth to focus on your academic responsibilities next fall?

But what ever you do, please make sure that you find some time to rest. The path ahead is ever steeper, rockier, darker, and twisted.  

Edited by Sigaba
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