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carryover

Want an MFA in Art? 10 Pieces of Advice on Applying

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I'm going to a good program in the Fall, and these forums provided solidarity and were useful to me in the application process so I want to give back a little. I hope to prevent someone from getting stupidly in debt or making a huge decision without the right info.

 

Some background, I'm 32 and have been out of undergrad (RISD) for almost 10 years.  Since then I've worked for major contemporary artists and galleries in NY, LA and SF, and shown at mostly artist run spaces and small galleries.  All my friends and co-workers are artists, most went to good undergrad programs, some did MFAs all over.  Some have big careers now, some have are struggling.  So I've made my living in the arts and feel like I know the art world well from the inside, though not from the top :).

 

So here it goes:

 

#1)  The best MFA is no MFA.  Don't apply unless you are sure. Most successful artists did not get an MFA. Some of the most promising artists I knew in undergrad got totally messed up by contradictory advice, head games, and debt burden. And if you're in a relationship you care about, it probably won't survive the strain of being selfish and immersed with a ton of new friends under stressful circumstances.

 

#2)  Experience the Real World First.  Don't go straight out of undergrad. Being an artist is a long haul. It's really hard to make work and earn a living at the same time, and you will probably have to at some point. It's hard to be an adult and mature. It's important to build relationships in the actual art world, not just the school based one.  You'll be best off if you learn how to handle all these things first, so that you can get the most of the MFA when you go back and do it.  By then you will also know exactly which program fits you, and will be a stronger candidate if you can prove the ability to work and exhibit outside of school.  

 

#3)  Pick the Right One: The Lists are B.S.  The U.S. News and World Report is at best misinformed, at worst, it's an outright scam. It's full of big expensive programs, and the people they survey for the list? Faculty at big expensive programs. Almost all the good artists i know, the type who could go anywhere, went to schools with some sort of funding.  With the exception of a unique few like Columbia and CalArts, if it's expensive, it's not worth it.

 

Here's my list of the best schools to which my friends who did undergrad at Cooper, RISD, MICA, CalArts and SCAIC went on to attend.  I'm sure people will have a problem with it, but this is where friends I respect have gone. 

 

UCLA - cheap

CalArts - not cheap

Columbia - not cheap

USC Roski - destroyed

Hunter - cheap

Bard - affordable

Rutgers - cheap

UC Riverside - cheap

UC San Diego - cheap

Yale - cheap (need based funding)

MIT - ?funding

OR, Anywhere you're sure there are good people and the $$ is good,

 

#4)  Location   Most of the above are schools in NY or LA, or nearby.  That is where most of the art world is.  When you graduate a school you will have lots of ties and opportunities in the place where you studied.  It can be very hard to find work in the art world in these places, so you will have a head start.  There are plenty of amazing places to be an artist, but NY and LA have way more going on than the others.

 

 

#5)  Big Star Faculty are Unimportant  So what if a school has a name you're blown away by.  The bigger they are in the art world, the worse a teacher they are probably.  They will be too distracted with their studio deadlines to give you any attention at school.  You want to learn from teachers who make good work, but a mega art star is a shitty faculty member. Unless the person is actively going to prioritize teaching for a time, I would not count on them being great. There are legendary artists who are great teachers, I'm talking about 'hot' artists.

 

#6)  Start Your Application Early  It is a big logistical hassle.  Asking references, writing CVs, updating websites, getting transcripts, these all take time. 

 

#7)  Do Residencies  If you're thinking of applying to grad school, but aren't sure, or your portfolio is weak, do a residency.  They are like mini grad schools in a way, and are a great way to get the time to do a discreet body of work to add to your portfolio.  Even if you don't get into one, applying to them will give you practice in putting together writing and images.

 

#8)  A Portfolio of Good Images  Borrow or rent or buy a good camera and lights, and learn how to color correct and clean it all up digitally.  It makes a huge difference.  The portfolio seems to be the #1 thing that matters, with your writing second, and references a close 3rd.  Don't worry if you have bad grades, or studied communications in undergrad.  

 

#9)  Take the Interview Seriously  Prepare for it some.  Spend a few days at the school.  At least don't arrive an hour before it starts.  Get some sleep the night before.  Hang out with the other students and poke around the program.  A lot of times the other students get some say in who gets in, so getting to know them can help.

 

#10)  Have Perspective, and Re-Apply  If you don't get into a school you like, re-apply. Don't settle for a crappy school because you were set on attending this year.  You will seriously regret it down the road.  Remember, you can only do an MFA once.  There are so many random reasons for accepting and rejecting people, I wouldn't take too much stock in a handful of rejections.

 

 

Hope this is helpful!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Im going to throw in three things:

1. Go to national portfolio day if possible, great way to get feedback/gauge a schools compatibility. It is also a chance to show your work in person. Extra bonus: had one of my application fees waived so that was nice.

2. Have friends/past professors proof read your essays. This was invaluable and all involved were happy to oblige. I also had a graphic designer friend help me with formatting my cv because i am useless at that sort of thing.

3. Keep your list small. I applied to three programs, three that i knew i would attend if accepted. This allowed plenty of time to focus on each essay/portfolio/etc. that being said, three may be on the skim side, but i anticipated a multiple year process and figured i should only apply to schools i really wanted to go to. The phrase "Terminal degree" is important to consider when applying, and was very much present in my mind throughout the process.

Background: 26, out of school for 4 years (mica), worked in preschool/coffee and have never shown outside of undergrad.

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This is my favorite board. You reinforced so many things that I was already thinking/wondering about grad school so thank you for that. Where are you going this year?

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This is my favorite board. You reinforced so many things that I was already thinking/wondering about grad school so thank you for that. Where are you going this year?

Thanks, I'm glad it stuck a note with you. I'm a little embarrassed by my list of schools above. Some kid is going to come out of Iowa and destroy the art world just to prove me wrong. There are lots of wonderful programs I'm sure. I just don't think the cost of many of the schools is realistic considering what we can expect to earn on graduating.

Edited by carryover

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#2)  Experience the Real World First

 

Personally, I disagree with the idea of telling people that they should take a year break before applying for grad school. I think this discussion is largely dependent on the individual and not the generalization that every undergrad is immature or undeveloped coming out of school. (fresh undergrads do get admitted every year) Honestly, best thing to do is talk to your instructor who knows your work best and attend Graduate Portfolio Day. From there you can make a informed decision. Regardless, of your applicaton success, the experience of applying to grad school alone, has to be of some value.  

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#2)  Experience the Real World First

 

Personally, I disagree with the idea of telling people that they should take a year break before applying for grad school. I think this discussion is largely dependent on the individual and not the generalization that every undergrad is immature or undeveloped coming out of school. (fresh undergrads do get admitted every year) Honestly, best thing to do is talk to your instructor who knows your work best and attend Graduate Portfolio Day. From there you can make a informed decision. Regardless, of your applicaton success, the experience of applying to grad school alone, has to be of some value.  

 

Its not about a specific lack of something, but about the value of what one can gain/learn from the time away from school.

 

To be clear, I totally agree that there is no catch-all advice, and that many are ready to go straight from undergrad, but I do think that carryover's advice is good, perhaps without the tone of definitiveness that (s)he uses.

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I think there are concrete things to be gained by taking time off between. Balancing studio time with a full time job is something you can only learn by doing it. figuring out what you want and where you want to be does come out of being in the real world. Establishing a studio practice without the support of a school is important. I dunno, my two cents i guess.

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#2) Experience the Real World First

Personally, I disagree with the idea of telling people that they should take a year break before applying for grad school. I think this discussion is largely dependent on the individual and not the generalization that every undergrad is immature or undeveloped coming out of school. (fresh undergrads do get admitted every year) Honestly, best thing to do is talk to your instructor who knows your work best and attend Graduate Portfolio Day. From there you can make a informed decision. Regardless, of your applicaton success, the experience of applying to grad school alone, has to be of some value.

There is no one way, I agree. But Bannedinbc put it better though; it's not about immaturity, it's about getting the most out of the right program at the right time. Having some experience of the art world first will enrich your study and choice of school. Getting to know about schools via interacting with alumni and faculty within a specific art community is much more meaningful compared with a portfolio day.

Then there is the money issue. In a world where all schools are free of charge I'd probably have a different opinion. I'd say, go straight in, go to the 'wrong' school, chase an interest even though you may stop making art in 5 years, like alot of our peers. But a lot of these programs are freaking expensive.

There are so many things you can do to stay active outside of school. You can start an artist run gallery. You can do a residency, make publications. You can learn a lot working for other artists or as a graphic designer. These are more organic and tied to reality than academia. Not going to school doesn't mean shutting down and closing off your education.

Edited by carryover

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Its not about a specific lack of something, but about the value of what one can gain/learn from the time away from school.

To be clear, I totally agree that there is no catch-all advice, and that many are ready to go straight from undergrad, but I do think that carryover's advice is good, perhaps without the tone of definitiveness that (s)he uses.

Okay so I applied straight from undergrad and got in several places. I had to work while in school and had to manage my time at both work and school and art. I have two degrees, a BFA and french. I spent two years in France to get real life experience in my sophomore and junior year of college. I've matured greatly and developed a core foundation of critical thinking that I apply to my life everyday. I think ones track is personal and unique. Some people come out of undergraduate school mature and well rounded. Others don't. I would say it depends :).

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Okay so I applied straight from undergrad and got in several places. I had to work while in school and had to manage my time at both work and school and art. I have two degrees, a BFA and french. I spent two years in France to get real life experience in my sophomore and junior year of college. I've matured greatly and developed a core foundation of critical thinking that I apply to my life everyday. I think ones track is personal and unique. Some people come out of undergraduate school mature and well rounded. Others don't. I would say it depends :).

 

In response to heyward2323, It's not just whether someone is mature enough, or if someone should go to school straight from undergrad.  You're focusing on just one of several points I'm making about why going to an MFA shouldn't be the default, normal thing for an artist to do.  

 

You're also going to a school (Tyler) that disturbs me. I was curious what the tuition is there so I went to the website, and it's difficult to find. They brag prominently about their ranking as a top 10 mfa program, but I had to look in several places and do some math to find out it costs @35K/yr to go there. Even with 50% aid and a stipend, you'll likely graduate with a lot of debt.  

 

 

 

In my opinion the person best situated to make great art and succeed is someone with no debt who can live in their studio and get by working part time. By going to openings and hanging out all the time with other artists they can get a lot of the feedback and community you find in art schools.

 

Anyone can live like this. In Grad School you get to do this for 2 years.  

 

BUT, how are you going to go back to that lifestyle when you have to pay $400/month in student loans? Or when you have an inflated standards and don't want to go back to slumming it? In the end this should all be about what's best for the Art and the Artist. We have to be careful because so many programs will act as yes men and be happy to take our money while we pursue what turns out to be a vanity project.  

 

From what I've seen a lot of grads are not in a good place, and the work that results isn't either.  It's not a good thing for Art if it's made by a bunch of stressed out overeducated artists desperate to sell work that is inaccessible yet cynically aimed at the market.  

 

To make good work you want a lifetime of being free.  Enslaving yourself to debt payments is a sure way to ruin that.

Edited by carryover

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My comment was not about tuition or debt, but that one can have experience from undergrad. Plus no one is finishing in four years, some artists I know run galleries during their Bfa practice and even before they got a BFA. just that the only person who knows if they are ready is themselves. 

Edited by heyward2323

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I also stand by decision, even if it "disturbes" you. It shouldn't because you don't know me, it doesn't concern you, and you have no idea how I intend to pay for college or what funds I have.

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Taking three years off between graduating and beginning grad this fall was the best decision I could have made for my art. My work has progressed immensely, I had the opportunity to enter many more juried shows, get a bunch of grants & awards (many grants are only open to those who aren't enrolled in academic study), get art related jobs, figure how to balance studio with a day job and be resourceful with materials, be part of the local art community. The portfolio with which I applied was 95% those three years. I am headed to a fully-funded school where I'll not only be getting paid to attend but will graduate without owing anyone a dime.
Everyone is different, but I urge those considering going straight from undergrad to grad...ask yourself what harm taking a year off would do?
Just a thought; everyone has different circumstances. Do your thing.

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I also stand by decision, even if it "disturbes" you. It shouldn't because you don't know me, it doesn't concern you, and you have no idea how I intend to pay for college or what funds I have.

 

I'm sorry, but, as you posted on the topic that I started, disputing the advice I'm trying to share, it's my business to defend the points I'm making here, and not just the one about going straight to school out of undergrad.

 

It's not just me, there are plenty of people who are disturbed by how much schools are charging for an MFA.  This is something that's been building for a while in the arts community, and is coming to a head at places like USC Roski, Cooper Union and more.  

 

If only schools were not so inexpensive, my attitude would be very different.  Often it works out fantastically for people to go to the "wrong" school at the "wrong" time in their development.  But as the majority of artists don't have endless money to throw around, and as being in debt can cripple your career, I think it does matter, and that everyone should approach the decision with extreme caution, and wait a bit.

 

Obviously it's annoying to give this advice at a time when most people have already made a decision.  I both hope this thread gets taken up next season, and that by then I'm paying attention to way more important things.   

Edited by carryover

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On 6/3/2015 at 1:10 PM, thepictureisstill said:

Taking three years off between graduating and beginning grad this fall was the best decision I could have made for my art. My work has progressed immensely, I had the opportunity to enter many more juried shows, get a bunch of grants & awards (many grants are only open to those who aren't enrolled in academic study), get art related jobs, figure how to balance studio with a day job and be resourceful with materials, be part of the local art community. The portfolio with which I applied was 95% those three years. I am headed to a fully-funded school where I'll not only be getting paid to attend but will graduate without owing anyone a dime.
Everyone is different, but I urge those considering going straight from undergrad to grad...ask yourself what harm taking a year off would do?
Just a thought; everyone has different circumstances. Do your thing.

I"m jealous of this.

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So I wanted to add a small piece of advice to this. (Some of you probably did this, but I surely didn't) 

Don't allow the deadline of your application to determine chronological order of strength. For instance, I applied to seven schools ranging from A school to G -school. The precision that was in my G-school application wasn't there in my A-School application (imo). Rather what I should have done is use one or two of those backup schools (maybe D and E schools) as warm-up for programs that I would attend in a heartbeat. After the first two or three applications, language, images and decisions become more refined; in this way when it's time to submit to your top-choice program you are all warmed up and on a roll. 

So not because A school deadline is the first of your deadlines on 7th January means that you submit A-school's application first. Instead submit C school's on January 5th and D school's 6th Januray, that way when it's time to submit A school, you're prepared. Hope that made a bit of sense.n

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Great bit to add! I'm still waiting to hear from my A school, which was also the 1st app due for me. I definitely felt the later applications I submitted were more refined. 

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Yes, that is very much what I also did not do. Wish I had read you before Poodle Doodle. But seems like you also figured it out afterwards. :) 

But what I did do before was applying for residencies that had deadlines due December so I would start warming up for the application season in January. 

 

 

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Hey carryover & others,

 

I think these points are excellent, but I want to add my take as both an MFA graduate and now the Grad Coordinator for CU Boulder. I'll keep your headings and just add my thoughts as follows:

 

#1)  The best MFA is no MFA.  

It is true you don't need an MFA to be an artist, but it depends on what you are trying to get out of an MFA if it is a worthwhile investment. Most institutions and some private high schools insist you need an MFA to teach. Yet, not everyone is interested in teaching. You may also be interested in the resources the school provides, such as the opportunity to experiment with equipment, space, and faculty mentorship. For example - pre grad school, I wanted to experiment with three channel video projections. This was not affordable as an "experiment" on my own, nor was I sure I wanted to stick with that as an art form. Our Film Studies MFA has equipment beyond your wildest dreams, that an individual just does not have access to typically.  I'm also seeing seasoned artists come back for MFAs because they are hitting road blocks for the MFA requirement to get a job. I think knowing yourself, what your personal goals are, and being certain about what resources and guidance you need is important. An MFA is definitely not the only answer or the right fit for everyone. 

 

#2)  Experience the Real World First.  

Not having time in-between is not a deal-breaker. However, taking time off allows you to work and save money for the transition to grad school, reflect on why you are absolutely sure that is what you want to do, and build a body of work to apply with. Let's face it - most of us don't graduate undergrad with a competitive portfolio that reflects a cohesive body of work. If you do - great! But most people change when they have absolute freedom outside the institution, and it helps your work to see your personal voice form when you are making work on your own. I do think you learn a lot from knowing how the art world works, and bringing in your own connections and working knowledge. You also develop a "cohort" with your peers and ideally leverage your connections to help one another as you become your contacts in the art world after you graduate. You might meet a person in grad school that works for a residency every Summer or has an art space contact in the city you really want to show in, etc. 

#3)  Pick the Right One: The Lists are B.S.  

I've heard it explained this way - rankings work in ten-year cycles. Either a school is on the way up or on the way down- and it takes about ten years for the reputation to catch up with them. One of your top choices may be on a decline, and others might be more valuable than you think! This makes it hard to gauge value based on a number. Once you get to top ten, the difference between schools gets more subjective. For example - CU Boulder just was bumped from #8 to #5 in Ceramics. The difference between 1-4 is very slight. (We've also just increased our funding - so watch out)! Our Painting & Drawing program is also doing amazing things, and our faculty is amazing, but we're not registering on these top lists yet because the reputation hasn't caught up to us...yet. What sold me on Boulder is showing up and touring the facilities. Without seeing in person and talking to current grads it can be very hard to make a choice and know what's out there. Talk to your mentors and professors. This is what I did. During my last two years of my BFA I asked every single visiting artist and faculty member what they thought about MFA programs, as well as doing all the research I could. 

 

#4)  Location   

Colorado is landlocked, but we have very active faculty who are part of the LA and NY scenes. Some of our grad seminars take field trips to LA, and many of our grads come from LA and NY to join our MFA program. So, there are still opportunities to engage in these networks without getting into these schools. It is true it is easier if you live in the area, but you will also pay for it and not everyone will want to live there or can afford to live there or will get accepted into those programs. 

 

#5)  Big Star Faculty are Unimportant  

Whew, this is important. You need access to mentors. Your artist idol might be on sabbatical for a year or consumed with a commission that has them avoiding studio visits and rationing their time. What if you asked in your interview, "How committed are the faculty to mentoring grad students? How much time does each faculty devote to mentorship and studio visits"? You need to go somewhere where the faculty are active in their field, yet in a program that really values their MFA program and devotes time to mentorship. This could help you during that, "Do you have any questions for us?" awkward moment. 

 

#6)  Start Your Application Early  

Yes! Each application system is different. Make a folder for each school, because you will likely have to reformat your images and materials a couple different ways depending on what they are asking. More and more we are wanting Vimeo links for video - so if you work in video lean on external hosts for your content and link it in! Update your website, make sure you give your referees at least 2-3 months notice (tell them now!) you will be asking for a letter of rec. For letters - send your application materials to them with your CV, letter of interest, and images so they can have something to help them write that letter of rec (especially if it's been a while and they aren't up to speed on your latest work). 

 

#7)  Do Residencies  

Yes. This helps give you experience and develop your work. Post-bacs are also great. 

 

#8)  A Portfolio of Good Images  

Your portfolio is 95% of the decision. Do whatever it takes to take professional documentation of your work!!! 

They read your statement next and look at letters of rec and transcripts last. They are trying to understand your work, your motivations, and your track record. They are investing in you, and they need to feel good that you are going to make the best use of this opportunity. 

 

#9)  Take the Interview Seriously

Boulder does Skype interviews before making offers of acceptance. Some areas might do phone interviews. You should prepare for this. Research the faculty, know their work. Be prepared to answer tough questions about the conceptual grounds for your work. 

 

#10)  Have Perspective, and Re-Apply

I would have patience and try a second or third time to get into the program you really want rather than setting for a program you are not enthused about. It's really about being a "good fit" for a program. Your work can change dramatically from one year to the next, and you should visit the programs you are really excited about and know a lot about that program. We only accept 2-4 grads in a certain area, and sometimes there are really close calls for the runners up. Spend another year polishing your work and taking amazing images, and you could be top pick the following year. 

 

There is no shortage of opinions here, but I am glad to add mine in as having been on all sides of the fence - former applicant, MFA candidate & graduate, and administrator. 

 

 

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