Finding MFA programs and picking which ones to apply to is really hard.
When I started this process about two weeks ago, I decided to poke around some websites and make a "short list" on a spreadsheet. You know, just copy some links and some basic information about a few schools to refer back to later. I used a highly organized and scientific method of seeing a school on the list whose name or location vaguely interested me, clicking on the web link, saying, "Oh, this looks nice," and pasting the link into its designated column.
Meanwhile, forty schools later, I am so far from narrowing down my list that I don't even know where to go from here. Sixteen (sixteen!) are Top 50 schools according to this guy, and an additional eleven were given honorable mentions as Underrated Schools.
And here's the thing about applying to graduate school, as opposed to undergraduate: With the exception of the rankings of specific programs within the schools, "good" undergraduate schools are self-evident. Ivy League schools are clearly at the top, followed by other good private schools and top-tier state schools, then average state schools, then shitty state schools, and then most community colleges (not that there's anything WRONG with going to state school or community college, before anyone gets their panties in a bunch - I'm talking about prestige and name recognition here). You can start with that knowledge and then research specific programs to find schools that suit you.
Graduate, professional, and law programs do not work this way. Individual programs, rather than schools, distinguish themselves. For example: the University of Iowa boasts the #1-ranked MFA creative writing program, but its law school (though still pretty high) ranks in the Top 30 somewhere. Conversely, Yale is home to the #1 law school in the country, but if it has an MFA writing program at all, I can't even find information about it. The point, then, is that searching for good programs by school name is like hunting for the proverbial needle in the proverbial haystack.
So instead I consulted the above-mentioned lists. There were dozens of really neat programs, many of them well-funded. I got increasingly excited as I browsed the pretty pictures of the campuses in the fall and imagined myself hammering out my self-assured masterpiece of a thesis in the local, independent funky-college-town-coffee-house and writing lesson plans for my eager undergraduate students.
And then I (sort of) crashed back to reality. What the hell was I doing? Applying to the schools I had on my list at that point would be like applying to all eight Ivy League schools and a few highly selective private schools for "safety." Considering that many of the programs I've researched have acceptance ratings somewhere in the single digits, I needed to lower the bar just a tad.
Which brings me to my current conundrum: how does one find middle-of-the-road programs? Aside from that Underrated list (which probably isn't "underrated" anymore now that everyone in the MFA universe has seen it), where would I be able to find something that's good but not too good? Modest but not a joke? Every program's website talks about how amazing and perfect they are, so how am I supposed to sort through them?
Hence the spreadsheet, expanding by the day like the Navidsen family's House of Leaves (mmm, how about that literary reference?) - I finally had to just go through just about every full-residency program on this database.
So now I have to make my cuts. I'm freaking out. What if I cut schools that would be amazing, and apply to places that I'd hate, or wouldn't accept me or wouldn't give me any funding at all?
And this is all before I start dealing with the GRE, my 3 letters of recommendation, hundreds of dollars in application fees, writing my sample, composing a personal statement for each school, etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum.
So, yeah, I'll say it again. Fuck.