A Writer’s Education

Apologies in advance; not gonna talk about writing for the moment. Instead I’m going to talk about the writing life, in a way. See, I took the GRE on Saturday.

I did OK. Astounding on the verbal and abysmal on the quantitative, as I expected. I’ve been using my verbal skills steadily and with increasing intensity throughout my adult life, after all, and I haven’t done combinatorics in 20 years. No amount of short-term cramming can really make up for that, and I didn’t expect it to. All I really wanted to do was not embarrass myself, and I think I succeeded in that goal.

Still, I’m annoyed by the whole process.

I’m thinking about getting an MFA, see, in creative writing. I want to teach writing — and yeah, even with published novels, even with an extant masters’ degree, even with 10 years of experience teaching college students (albeit in a different area), it’s looking like I need the MFA to get a foot in the door. It’s not that I don’t like my current career; I do. But it’s mostly 9 to 5 work, and given that my writing career has taken off, I need the kind of flexibility that teaching would provide. I’m working on my next book already — no, can’t tell you about it yet — but I can’t move at the pace I need, which is almost as frustrating as writers’ block. It’s not a matter of money; I’ll likely make less as an adjunct or non-tenure-track professor. But I’ll gain time, and writing time has become my most desperately-needed resource lately.

We’ll see how that goes. But as I’ve spent the past few weeks’ writing time and a solid chunk of money on preparing for and taking this test, I have to say I’m finding myself really put off of any program that requires something like this for admission. I understand why they do it; in this day and age, American universities are under increasing pressure to prove that the expensive educations they provide are worth the money. They’re also facing the same struggle as every other part of American society: trying to find ways for the majority to do more with less while a privileged minority gobbles more than their share. No university admissions office has the time or resources to do an in-depth analysis of every propective student; most rely on numbers. Numbers are easier to explain, anyway, to people who don’t understand educational systems but nevertheless have power over them. As a result, some of the schools I’m applying to require high test scores from applicants so they can “objectively” say that they are bastions of the best and the brightest. Thus do they justify their own top-heavy existence.

But here’s the thing: the GRE tested me on absolutely nothing that I would need to survive an MFA program. In fact, it forced me to do things that made me a worse writer, from a creative standpoint. See, when I did the word-choice sections on practice tests, the words I tended to choose were those which had the right meaning, but which also added some accessibility or artistic elegance to the passage. But those choices were wrong. I kept getting terrible practice scores until I realized I needed to choose plainer, more obscure words. And this makes sense, given the purposefully dry and esoteric nature of scholarly writing… but in a creative writing program, I’m not going to be doing scholarly writing. It is by definition a program focused on artful writing. So in essence, I had to not write to the best of my ability in order to do well on the test, and thereby get into a program which would ostensibly teach me to write better.

I had a similar problem with the math. Problem-solving is an ingrained skill for novel and short story writers; developing a coherent plot requires it. But solving problems isn’t the point of the math component on the GRE; in fact, people who spend too much time actually solving problems are unlikely to finish. The GRE requires you to instead figure out the rules underlying the problems. A useful skill — but again, I had to train myself to do the opposite of what a good writer should. Which means I survived this test by avoiding the skills I actually need to survive an MFA program.

There’s no sane reason for an MFA program to require this of its applicants. It’s batshit that I have to prove my ability to be a fiction writer not by, you know, writing fiction, but by proving my ability to do something completely irrelevant. Other peoples’ experiences of late-in-life standardized tests have been similar: this guy tried some of the tests that kids in his state are required to take, and found that they tested him on almost nothing that actually applied to adult life.

And this whole experience has been costly, even though I pretty much took the cheapest possible path: the test itself was $160, and the test-preparation book I bought was $22. Taking a GRE test-preparation course from a company like Kaplan would’ve cost almost $1300; I can’t afford that either financially or time-wise. But there are people out there who can’t even afford the test itself, which means that this MFA program is unlikely to admit many people who come from poor backgrounds. Or people who are published trying to survive on a writer’s income, for that matter.

I’m going ahead with it, because at this point I’ve already put in this much effort; might as well not waste it. Only one of the schools I’m applying to — the most prestigious of them — requires the GRE. But I have to wonder what kind of writers are likely to emerge from a program that discourages competence, privileges those with cash to spare and free time in abundance, and is essentially unavailable to a goodly chunk of the populace. Just by throwing up this one roadblock, this school has moved from first to last place on my list.

ETA: So apropos: Graduate School Barbie!

16 Responses »

  1. And actually, the GRE isn’t weighted that heavily in the decision making either. They are far more interested in the letter of ap, the writing sample, and then the letters of rec, and then maybe the scores. Which is probably a good thing, but I’m with you, why require it? I guess it goes toward the general university interest in national rankings and so forth.

    Where are you thinking of going? Somewhere in NY? Or low-res program?

  2. All of the places I looked into when applying for my MFA got chosen because they didn’t require the GRE. Since I didn’t actually take it (awful math skills and no tolerance for dry literary analysis), it’s eye opening to see what they really put on there.

    I’m still floored that I got into my program. So basically, if they let me in, you’re pretty much accepted by your publications and awards.

    That being said, good luck to you, hope you have a wonderful time getting your MFA, and if we end up at the same school, I promise not to make you want to stab me by being annoying.

  3. Dammo. Forgot to add something. I couldn’t afford to take the GRE either, so that was also a factor.

  4. I work for a University, and the standard admission structure for higher education is two-fold: you have to be accepted by the Graduate College, and then by the program of your choice.

    Most likely the Creative Writing program agrees with your assessment of the GRE in relation to their degree, but are held to the University Graduate College standards of admission. I doubt they’ll put much weight on your score unless it’s a highly competitive program, and then every little bit matters to separate yourself from the masses.

    Good luck, it sounds like fun!

  5. I agree, even for other humanities gre scores aren’t that important. I’ve always done not great on them, like 600ish for verbal and 500ish for math and I’ve gotten into some good programs.

  6. Hi Diana!

    Yeah, I’m going to stay in NYC if I can. Since there are a good half-dozen programs in the city, seems a shame not to take advantage. I can’t afford a low-res program, money-wise or time-wise; I’m hoping to get a program where I’m mostly or fully funded and can work as a TA.

    And yeah, rankings are everything to some universities. I totally get why they’re doing it, in this economy and political climate. But it’s still stupid.

  7. Tiffany,

    I did the GRE years ago, before my first masters’, and did well even on the math back then (when the material was fresher). But the scores expire after X years, so I had to re-do.

  8. Sandy,

    Yeah, I figured something like that. Still frustrating.

  9. Yeah, the GRE doesn’t really test to see how well you’d do in the area you’re studying in. It’s more of a test to see if you’re “worthy” of doing graduate level work. “Can you read good? Can you do maths? Do you know how to write a simple essay?” If you can, then you’ll do well in graduate level coursework. If you can’t, well thanks for trying.

    Thankfully these days there are programs that realize that the GRE is not the end-all and be-all, and that it cannot be relied upon to predict an individual’s future success. You just have to look for those programs. On the other hand, it’s easier to rely on a test to predict who is and and who isn’t worth the effort of teaching.

    Good luck. I understand your frustration with 9-5 work; it’s stifling even to those who don’t write. Are you going to try again with the GRE or are you satisfied with your score?

  10. My first masters degree was a Masters of Accountancy. For this one, I had to take a GMAT, even though I was an undergraduate at the same school, graduating summa cum laude with two separate degrees, one of which was from the same department. I was told that it was merely a “check the box” requirement.

    Next week I am graduating with my second masters. This one is from a very large public school in Public Administration. When I entered the program, there was a GRE requirement, but it has since been dropped. So there is progress. (Actually, the GRE told me that I wrote better than I thought I did. I received the top marks on the essay portion, which surprised me. I know I was good at the analytic stuff; not so much the verbal stuff.)

    I’m starting a third masters in January. Even though it is in a technical area from a large private university, there are no standardized testing requirements.

    The moral of the story is that the requirements for standardized tests are all over the board, and constantly changing.

    Best of luck going back to school.

  11. I’m an astrophysics and religion major at a liberal arts college, and had similar problems on the general test on both counts when I took it a few months ago: I wanted to solve the quantitative, and I wanted to add flourish to the qualitative. These are things that I have been trained to do. The subject tests are worse: the excessive amounts of physics courses I have taken still put me in the 5th percentile when push came to shove. I didn’t do poorly, but these days people are just trained to get perfect scores. These people — who by the numbers look like a safe bet to grad schools — often do poorly in research and problem-solving in grad school. I’ve been turned down by several grad schools already because of my GRE score, and it pains me to no end that I have to give up my dream to be an astronomer because of a three-hour test. And what really gets me is that I don’t even want to try again.

    Good luck with your graduate pursuits; go live your dream!

  12. I was worried about my GRE scores too, but don’t sweat it. I got the cut-off score on the math portion and still got into an awesome grad program because I had a great G.P.A. and an awesome personal statement. Since you are an AMAZING writer(brilliant, really), I don’t think you should worry.

    If you still find yourself worrying, then do not waste your money on a Kaplan class! It was a tremendous waste of money for me at it only helped me raise my score by 50ish points. Here is the thing, Kaplan hires really smart people to teach their courses, but it is still one person teaching 20+ people in one way. Everyone learns differently and how that person teaches is going to be how that person learns best. Also, just because you are a math whiz doesn’t mean that you are an awesome teacher.

    Instead, I recommend just spending time with a friend that is a math whiz as well as a great communicator and taking them out to dinner or better yet taking a course at a community college to brush up on the quantitative portion. You can get extra tutoring at a CC too. It is significantly cheaper than taking a Kaplan course.

  13. Dear NK Jemisin,

    I am a high scorer on the LSAT. For a lit-major type, I am remarkably good at math (got through calc by the end of high school). I test well, tho’ I’ve never taken the GRE. I’m a total yuppie, raised and prepped my entire life to do well on standardized tests. I did well on the math section of the SAT and scored in the 97th percentile on the LSAT.

    And I agree with you on every point. None of those skills have anything to do with what makes a good creative writer, and they totally privilege those with cash to spare and create useless hurdles.

    Just remember: MFAs are hoops to jump through to get teaching jobs, and that’s all. Doing well in academic writing programs, sadly, doesn’t make you an original or interesting creative writer. You already have that. I hope that whatever MFA program you do end up going to will be a good excuse to spend some time reading delicious works, will fully fund you, and will enable you to teach wherever you feel like it. I know that students would benefit from your style–we need more SFF types out there, and especially your (excellent) kind of SFF.

    Best of luck!


  14. When I took the GREs — alas, pretty much nonoptional for the literature Ph.D. programs I was applying to — I ended up spending most of my time studying for . . . the math. For whatever reasons, I picked up the verbal and logical sections fairly quickly, and I did well on the subject test as well, but I spent several months relearning high school algebra and geometry which . . . of course has had absolutely no relevance to anything I’ve done since. (And like you, I did it via review book, since I was both working full time and in no financial position to pay for a course.)

  15. You would think your transcript from your first graduate program would’ve been enough to prove you could do graduate-level work!

  16. Sounds like the GRE is an industry unto itself. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn there is some quid pro quo with the universities and the educational-industrial-complex.

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