The final application has been completed! After two years of research, portfolio building, school visits, and letter writing, I’ve reached the other side of the river that is submitting graduate school applications!
After much work and deliberation, I ultimately applied to five schools, to their Master of Fine Arts in Ceramics programs. I don’t know whether I will be accepted or not so I’m not going to name the schools here. But during my application process, lots of people asked me- what’s the big deal with these applications? Why are they keeping you so busy? What do you have to do anyway? I also know that there are probably other people like me out there who might be looking for advice or at least want to hear what someone else did in their application process. So, I wanted to make a post about applying to MFA programs in ceramics, and what my experience was like.
Of course, as I mentioned, I have no idea if I was accepted into any of these schools since it is only January, and from what I have heard schools do not send their replies until March or April. So it’s too early to say if my methods were successful or not. However, I do feel as though I sent in my best possible materials, so even if I am not accepted, I will have no regrets whatsoever about my portfolio or any other part of my application. From what I have heard, the field of people applying to MFA programs in the visual arts is a competitive one, and oftentimes it is hard for schools to choose because there are so many qualified candidates. People who apply to MFA programs do not do it frivolously, and are usually very motivated and passionate about their work. To add to that, art can often be a subjective thing, and with the portfolio being one of the largest factors in a school’s decision, it may come down to a question of whether the committee responds to your work or not.
Knowing all this, I wanted to make sure I was as on the ball as possible with this whole grad school thing. So here I will share some of the things I did that I found most helpful in choosing a school. In part 2 of this post, I will describe the actual application process. So if you’re not interested in how I chose my schools, skip on ahead to the next post!
Research, research, research!
I began looking into schools almost two years before I ended up applying. I don’t think everyone necessarily needs that much time, but there are a lot of schools to look at. I found this list of schools with ceramics programs by Digitalfire helpful- though not all the schools listed have MFA programs, FYI. I also was helped out by Ceramics Monthly’s MFA Factor feature they have been running, which profiles different schools’ MFA ceramics programs. There are a few factors I looked at when choosing schools. Everyone’s priorities will be different, but mine were:
1. Professors. Is there at least one professor who is a figural sculptor? That is what I want to do, so it made sense to me to seek out a mentor.
2. Money. Does the school offer any assistantships where you can trade work for a tuition waiver or other benefits? Many schools do, and in my opinion, gaining work experience as a teacher or studio tech while also getting tuition waived is a double win.
3. Location. Is the school in a location where I would be happy to live?
4. Length of program. Is the school’s program two or three years? Personally I wanted to stay in school as long as possible, in order to learn and develop my work as much as possible while there, so I sought out three year programs.
5. Ranking. How is the school ranked? Now here I have to say that ranking was one of the least important factors for me. I say that because I personally believe that a school does not have to have huge name recognition to give a truly excellent educational experience. But I did check the US News & World Report rankings nonetheless. In my opinion a better barometer than rankings is to go on the school’s website and see what kind of work current grads are making, and many schools also post lists of their past grads. If you see a long list of artists you admire and recognize on that list (which I did for several schools), then that is a good indicator of the school’s “rightness” for you.
Once I started narrowing down my list to the schools that fit the above conditions, I think I got to about 20-30 schools. Then I whittled that down to top 12, then top 6. I used an excel spreadsheet to list all of the five factors I mentioned above about each school so I could compare them easily side by side.
So how did I narrow it down? Some schools had programs that technically offered ceramics, but didn’t seem to recognize ceramics as its own area. You could “major” in it, but your degree would be called “Sculpture” or “3D practices.” Something didn’t feel right to me about that. I wanted a school that recognized ceramics as its own area worthy of mention right there on the degree. So a few schools were eliminated that way. Some schools were eliminated because none of the current grad work resonated with me. Some schools had programs whose setup seemed either too open-ended or too regimented for my liking so they were crossed off the list. However it is hard, because most of the information I was getting was coming from the schools’ websites, which admittedly is a rather impersonal way to learn about a place. Which brings me to the next step:
Once I had my list down to the top 12, I began asking questions of anyone I could to find out more about these programs. I am sorry to say that many schools’ websites can be confusing to navigate and it can feel like a wild goose chase trying to get certain pieces of information. Most times the websites do list a contact person for the department and they are usually very helpful and fast in answering questions. Don’t be shy about emailing them! I was lucky enough to work at Arrowmont and Penland over the summers, and there were many people there knowledgeable about the various ceramics programs I had chosen. I even had the good fortune to meet some professors from the schools on my list, and all of them graciously agreed to answer my questions. Also, my undergraduate professor from Truman State, Wynne Wilbur, was a huge help in giving advice and linking to lots of great articles with more information. Thanks, Wynne!!
Once I had it narrowed down to the top 6, I began planning which schools I would actually go and visit. If you can, I recommend visiting BEFORE you send your application. If you don’t like the school after the visit, you can save yourself the trouble and application fee. And if you DO like the school, the professors there will already recognize your name when your app comes in. That can’t hurt! Personally I visited three schools. Two blew me away and one ended up seeming like not a great fit for me. So it was helpful knowledge to gain. If I would have had the time and money I would have liked to have visited all my schools. Personally I think the visit can tell you the most about a school so I recommend it highly!
Most schools have information on their website about who to contact about a visit. Lots of times you can ask to stay with a grad student so you don’t have to worry about getting a hotel room. While on your visit pay close attention to the attitude of the grad students and their relationship to their professors. I was looking for an environment where everyone worked hard but also got along and supported each other. If possible I wanted a place where people actually enjoyed each other’s company into the bargain.
After my visits, I had made up my mind on my final five. Then began the application process. To follow me through that part of the journey, click over to the next post!