Is rejection an intrinsically good experience or a future hindrance for an MFA program application?
November 13, 2009 12:17 PM   Subscribe

Is it a bad idea to apply for a competitive graduate program, knowing you will probably get rejected or will it be a good experience for a future attempt at the same program?

My SO wants to apply for a highly competitive MFA program. The program accepts less than 10 of the over 300 applicants every year. She feels that her portfolio is not up to snuff as she has been out of the art world for a few years and the bulk of her current work rests in one large piece.

She's decided to spend the year improving her portfolio, and apply next year.

I'm of the opinion that it can't hurt to apply now and get the experience and feedback that the process will provide, but I know the academic world is often very political.

Does the cloud have an opinion on whether an application before her work is truly ready will be a hindrance to future her chances?
posted by Jeffy to Education (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Most grad programs I know of will not give you any feedback on why you were not accepted. Do you have any reason to think this one does?
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:21 PM on November 13, 2009

Fear of failure is never a good reason to avoid something. I'm with you on the "it can't hurt" point; if the biggest risk is a bruise to ego, risk it.

That said, I'm not familiar with competitive graduate programs. If there is a chance of hurting her odds of succeeding in the future, they should strongly weigh into her decision now. So I'll shut up and let someone who knows more about this sort of thing address that part.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 12:23 PM on November 13, 2009

Well, she'll probably be out ~$100 for the application fee. That's something.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:24 PM on November 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm applying for some very competitive social science grad programs, and have been told that repeat applications are common and not at all stigmatized (unless they are repeated over several years-- some Ivies have a cutoff of three years of rejected applications).

However, if she's sure she won't get in, not just being humble, I'm not sure how much valuable feedback she'll get beyond a rejection letter. It would probably be more helpful for her to get in touch with a respected figure in her field (old professor or something) and meet with him/her a few times to discuss her plans for the next year.
posted by oinopaponton at 12:24 PM on November 13, 2009

I don't think it would hurt, but she may want to see if the program has a number of times one can apply.

I know for example that one can apply to the Harvard Arts and Sciences school three times before they will no longer be considered --- that means a person has one shot at three different programs, three shots at the same program, of however it is he or she wants to divide the attempts out. I don't know if this is true for the Business, Education, or Law Schools as well --- but it's a very clear feature of the Arts and Sciences school.

The Naval Academy allows applicants to apply three times only as well.

And I'm sure there are many more such examples out there. If this is a really competitive program, there may have something along those lines as well, in which case she'd do better to apply next year when her portfolio is better and hopefully be accepted or to apply the year after if she's rejected when, hopefully, her portfolio would be still better.

If they don't have such a rule in place, then of course there's no reason not to!
posted by zizzle at 12:27 PM on November 13, 2009

PercussivePaul: No, I don't have any reason to believe that. The program seems pretty intimate, and we know people involved in other colleges at this university, so I'm hopefull we'd be able to get some info, but I don't know for certain.

The Winsome Parker Lewis: I think we're coming from the same angle on this one. I'm all for trying and failing as a learning experience, but my concern is the future implications of a failed application. I don't want to advise her to try if it's going to count against her in the future.
posted by Jeffy at 12:27 PM on November 13, 2009

oinopaponton & zizzle : I will have her check on the application limits for this program. Thank you. I was unaware of such things.
posted by Jeffy at 12:35 PM on November 13, 2009

I don't know that the "learning experience" is a really good reason. I don't know if MFA programs work differently, but most likely she won't get a lot of feedback when she is rejected -- especially if they are rejecting so many of their applicants. I doubt they will have time to give detailed (or any) feedback to her. Plus the application fee is probably ~$100, plus I would imagine she'd be responsible for the costs of sending portfolio materials to the university. Plus it means hitting people up for reference letters, mailing transcripts, etc. It is a lot of work to apply to a grad program, and it is obviously worth it if you are accepted, but I can't imagine that there is a lot of benefit to doing it for the experience.

(On preview: plus the whole possibility of getting a limited number of shots, good point.)
posted by SoftRain at 12:43 PM on November 13, 2009

Based on my experience at a large state school MFA program, repeat applications were the norm, however if you weren't on the short list any time previously, you probably weren't even noticed, and I (an administrator) would generally have to mention to faculty if someone was a repeat applier, because they didn't even notice on their own. We had an extreme case, an older lady who seemingly applied for the fun of it, because she was never under serious consideration, she never followed the guidelines and was turned down 7 times at last count. It was her money, and I always tried to help her when I could, but I never understood why she was applying.

If you want feedback, save yourself the application fee and contact the faculty directly. Seriously. You're not going to get any otherwise. Just a form letter from an administrator and your stuff back if you sent an SASE.

Personally, I'd put my best foot forward from the word go. To me this means waiting to apply, after talking to faculty about whether you'd be a good fit in the school, after building a portfolio, even after taking a few (non-degree seeking classes) before throwing my portfolio to the pack of dogs to tear apart. You may not get second chances on first impressions, so make sure you're showing your best.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 12:48 PM on November 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've done this every other year since 1994 -- except I don't ask for the recommendation letters or send in the application. I go to the open houses, sit in on crits, talk to current and past students, edit my portfolio, update my artist's statement, and keep in touch with potential recommendation-writers. The open houses especially are really useful, because you can compare your standing to other applicants that you meet and see where your presentation may need improving. It's also very valuable to see the current work being produced in the program -- some programs just won't be a good match in terms of artistic direction.

At some open houses, people have asked about reapplications, and the standard answer I've heard is that they'd be looking for growth in your work the next time around. I have often wondered if it'd actually be a benefit to apply twice, as it shows the program how committed you are. (I have friends who applied to an MFA one year, didn't get in, and the next year applied for Psych or Women's Studies, etc.). So I don't think it'd be a detriment if she applied twice, so long as she can protect her tender soul from the feeling of rejection, and she has a realistic plan for getting new work made between now and when she next applies.

[I still haven't applied anywhere. I can't justify the expense unless I can go to my ideal program at a time when I can give myself over to it as completely as possible.]
posted by xo at 12:53 PM on November 13, 2009

If you can somehow wrangle a portfolio review, I think that is the sort of feedback that you're looking for. I don't think that applying is necessarily the right way to do this--does the school have an open house or admissions event?
posted by kathrineg at 12:55 PM on November 13, 2009

I went through an MFA program that is as competitive or more than the one you're describing. I would encourage her to apply. Our admissions involved an initial portfolio submission and application that was reviewed without feedback, and then a certain percentage of candidates would go through an interviewing process at the school. The interview was basically another face-to-face portfolio review that included a critique of your work and an opportunity for you to ask the faculty questions. After that it might be suggested that you sit in (and participate in) a first year class. Then that professor and the students in the class would give the chairs input on you. Although it was pricey for many people when you include the cost of visiting the school, the amount of feedback you got in return was worth it. People frequently applied more than one time (in fact, one of my classmates got in on his 4th application) and the story from them was that they kept your file and were keen to see how much you had progressed.
posted by Thin Lizzy at 1:22 PM on November 13, 2009

By all means, she should apply - not for the experience and feedback (she won't get any feedback), but because she could very well be accepted! In the MFA program I've been a part of, application numbers have been way down over the past few years, and the program may not be quite as competitive as you've heard. The whims of a selection committee can be unpredictable, and being "out of the art world for a few years" is not necessarily a negative thing if the work is strong. How has your partner been spending her time instead of being "in the art world"? Other experiences besides making art can contribute greatly to someone's success and ability to contribute to an MFA program - I would emphasize rich life experiences such as teaching, travel, and relevant jobs in the CV and cover letter.

Someone might easily apply multiple times without anyone noticing. Think about it - the committee is going to look at the work for about 2 minutes, at the same time they look at 200-300 other portfolios. The committee does not consist of the exact same people every year anyway, and presumably her portfolio will not be exactly the same each time she applies. Tell her to stop worrying about it, stop putting off the application process, and APPLY.
posted by oulipian at 2:23 PM on November 13, 2009

Have her apply. I got rejected by University of Oregon grad school but accepted to Columbia. I have no idea why on earth I was accepted. So give it a go.
posted by tarvuz at 3:11 AM on November 14, 2009

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