Ron Tanner, a site for readers and writers

From High School to Grad School and Beyond:
If you're in high school and thinking about writing in college

As you know too well, most high schools don't offer much "creative writing." In fact, most schools offer one or two courses in fiction- and poetry-writing. And that's it. I don't think my high school offered any. There are a lot of historical and political reasons that explain why high schools are so backward, but we don't need to get into that here and now. Suffice it to say that it's frustrating, especially when parents and many teachers think learning to write poetry or stories or plays is no more important than learning to decoupage or do bird calls.

Choosing a College Major
No doubt, as you survey the prospects for college, parents and other well-meaning authorities are advising you to "be practical" and consider a major in business or science. Understand that, as calm as they may appear, they are freaked out about your future. In a word, they are scared. Shitless. Bless them for showing such love. But don't listen to them if they are telling you to do or be something you know will make you miserable. They may be paying the bills now, but you're the one who will be living your life -- for a very long time, if you're lucky. So nod your head, say, "That's interesting. I'll give that some thought. Thank you." Then follow the fire you have started for yourself.

For the really bad cases: I've met students in college who had to pursue the majors that their parents chose for them. Some of these students were clearly miserable, others were simply resigned to their fates. In any case, they were unhappy and felt they had no choice. Actually, you do have a choice. If you are being coerced into pursuing something you don't care about, don't go to college. There it is. I said it: just don't go.

Yeah, I know, that's easy for me to say because, yes, I had it easy -- my parents let me go free and clear. But consider this: if you can't go on your own terms, then, after graduating from high school, enter the job-force, save your money, apply for financial aid, win a scholarship -- do whatever you have to do to make it happen. You'll be a better person for it. (You'll probably get a pretty decent job if you tell prospective employers you're saving for college.) Your parents may reconsider. And then when you do go to college, you'll kick ass because you'll really want to be there.

What if you aren't sure about college right now? For most reasonably bright people, college is a pretty good idea. However, that doesn't mean you have to go right after high school graduation. Probably a third of the students who go on to college should not; instead they should go out, get a job, and grow up. If you're not sure, don't go right now. Do volunteer work for a year; learn a trade; write a novel.

Getting Prepped for College
Okay, back to the point: we're talking about how to prep yourself for writing in college. Your primary challenge right now is to get writing experience -- as much as you can and in as many areas as you can explore. For example, write for your school newspaper; write for your school literary magazine. If you don't have a magazine, start one. (That will look impressive on your college application.) See if you can also get some editing experience by working on a school publication.

Does your school have a newsletter? If not, see if you can start one. Learn the fundamental software programs that professional writers know (In-Design and Photoshop) so that you can create professional-looking newsletters and publications. Familiarity with these programs will allow you to diversify where and how you can promote, display or exercise your writing. Does your high school have a literary website? If not, how about starting one?

Even if you're in the most miserable high school in the obscurest corner of the country, you can probably find a half-interested faculty member to serve as an Advisor and a handful of students to construct and staff some kind of publication project, whether a website, newsletter, or magazine. College Admissions officers are impressed by high school students who show this kind of enterprise ("leadership," they call it), who make things happen, who are clearly driven by a passion--in your case a passion to write. So now's the time. I mean today; I mean pick up the cell and dial somebody now to get something started. N-O-W!

In addition to your writing and editing and production of cool stuff, you should be doing lots of reading. Not school reading. I mean real reading of stuff you think is good writing. Read during your winter break, during your summer recess, during your free time. If you don't know what to read, start browsing through book reviews. There are lots of them online. Try, for instance, or Or go to New Pages and check out the scene -- find out what others are saying about good writing. See if you agree.

Taking the SAT or ACT
A few words about the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test). Standardized tests like the SAT measure the dominant culture's notion of "standard" knowledge. As it happens, our dominant culture has chosen the Educational Testing Service to construct the SAT. Who are these people who have made a career of constructing tests? They are "educators" who know all about standard procedures for standardizing questions about all manner of educational standards. Am I making fun of them? Yes, I am. Does this mean you shouldn't take the SAT seriously? No, it doesn't. If you want to do well in the academic game, you have to study the rules of the game. And study them carefully.

If there's one trick to playing the game, it is this: test-makers will give you a box in which to think. The box will be a certain length and a certain width. If you try to think longer than that certain length or wider than that certain width, you will be wrong. Forget what may be debatable or reasonable in other circumstances or other contexts or other boxes. Test-makers give you only one box. Learn how to recognize that box. Learn how to work inside that box. Don't second-guess the test-makers' box-logic.

What does this mean? Study the test. Study the test. Study the test. Buy the test books or find the test sites and samples online, then take a sample test, then study to strengthen your weakest skills. Study a little bit each day. Then take another sample test. Time yourself. Find out how long approximately you can take for each answer. Then study some more. Drill yourself. Take another sample test. Keep doing this until taking the test is second-nature--until it's as routine as doing jumping jacks. You are in training.

In recent years, colleges and universities have made the SAT and ACT optional. About time, I say. They've had to do this not because they believe it's best for students but because the market has grown more competitive and offing the knucle-chewing entrance exams is a good way to recruit students.

Choosing a College
If you're a high school student who likes to write, then you're lucky because you've got a lot of choices that people like me never had: there are now a lot of writing programs and a few writing departments in colleges. This didn't used to be the case. Traditionally writing has always been the poor cousin of English, and many English departments all but starved it (picture a rag-clad cousin shivering in the attic). This is still the case in many colleges, where English departments offer only a handful of writing courses.

If you're really hot for writing, go to a school that puts a lot of emphasis on it. I teach at a college that has an entire Writing Department, which offers two kinds of writing majors, supports two student-run literary magazines, and sponsors a reading series that brings nationally and internationally famous writers to campus to visit our classes and to read their work. It's a really cool thing.

If you don't know how to find out where the writing programs and writing departments are, then go to the AWP website and look at is Official Guide to Writing Programs.  "AWP" = Association of Writers and  Writing Programs.  Click here for the link.

You may think that in order to get a great degree you need to go to a Big Name college. It depends what you mean by "great degree." It's true that if you go to Princeton, Harvard, or Yale, most people will be impressed. However, it's not a forgone conclusion that such schools are right for you or that they will offer you the education you need. I myself am a big booster of state universities because they are affordable, diverse, and big enough to offer lots of opportunity.

You will find more than one excellent teacher at any school, and a truly motivated student can get a really good education even out of a mediocre state university. So don't let the Big-Names and big price-tags distract you. After you graduate, the most important consideration will be your performance--how you do on the job-not the name of your college.

It is true that, immediately after graduation, the name of your college can help you network and find a job. It is true, too, that those networks vary according to the reach of the college. Some colleges, for example, are known regionally; others are known nationally. But the value of the network also depends on the kind of career you plan to pursue.

As a writer and a college professor, I have never -- ever -- benefited from the network available to me through my undergraduate university, even though it is a large state university with a national reputation. Never. Which brings me to an important point: your choice of undergraduate institution isn't nearly as important as your choice of a graduate institution. (For more on graduate school, click here.)

So, find the college where you can pursue the kinds of studies that most light your fire and don't worry about the college's name or rep. Does it have good teachers? Will they give you the time and attention you think you need? Do they offer the kinds of courses you think you'd like?

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IF YOU ARE IN COLLEGE and want to prepare yourself to be a writer

Selecting & Managing Your Course-work in College

Getting on in life, like getting a job, is matter of packaging yourself. You start constructing that package in college, specifically through the courses you take. The question you need to ask yourself is, Does this collection of courses make sense somehow?

First, as a writing major or specialist, you should decide where you want to focus your writing: fiction? drama? poetry? essays? rhetoric? Then take courses that develop your interest to the max. Obviously, the more courses you take in your concentration, the more expertise you'll be able to deliver, either for your own use in your writing or for application in your career.

You should know that courses in most departments rotate, meaning you can't get access to everything every year. It’d be a good idea to plot out the courses you hope to take over the next four years, then find out whether or not those courses are going to be offered when you think you’ll need them. Also, when plotting your selection of courses, consider which courses in other departments would be most beneficial for your major. I found several semesters of Latin and French to be helpful as an undergrad because, in my reading of literary classics, I kept running across all of these Latin and French words. Generally speaking, the more foreign language you take, the better because we writers need all the textual and lingual exercise we can get.

If you're interested in graduate school in Writing/English, you should take Art History (because art is so central to so much literature), philosophy in the 20th century, post-modern literary criticism, etc. Consult your adviser for more on this.

 It is up to you to consult with your adviser--early and often--to see when these courses and which of them are offered. If your adviser doesn't know, then ask him/her to find out. Don't wait for somebody to say, Hey, do you need advice? Take possession of your academic career! You get only one undergraduate education, make the best of it. Keep in mind that your advisor doesn't have to be your primary mentor. For advice on all matters, consult the teacher you're most comfortable with and, even then, seek out the advice of other professors--the more information you have, the more options you can consider.

Thesis and Independent Projects:
 these are good ideas, especially if you are determined to go on to grad school. Usually you have to plan your course-work well in advance to accommodate such projects. And usually you need the department chair’s permission as well. So check it out now.

Making the Grade and Selecting Professors
Believe it or not, your first employer after college will not give a flying rat’s ass about your GPA. Nobody will ask. Nobody will care. I know, I know, you find this absolutely unbelievable. And you know why? Because you have been brain-washed, my bookish birdy. Brainwashed by years of parental brow-beating and teacherly guilt-tripping and societal mind-knuckling. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t make good grades; I’m just saying that, once you’re out of college, your grades won’t mean diddly. Not even one did of a diddle.

Why? you ask with a gasp. I’ll tell you: what matters outside in the so-called Real World is what you can do, not what you can promise. To tell a prospective employer that your GPA was 4.0 doesn’t tell your employer anything except that you knew how to play the school game well. It doesn’t guarantee that you will make the company a million bucks or that you won’t lose their best client. It doesn’t guarantee anything, actually, except that if someone were to quiz you on, say, the American Civil War you might get the answers right.

That’s why you don’t have to put your GPA on your resume; that’s why no employer will ask about it.

Now, if you’re going to graduate school, grades matter, it’s true. Because grad schools, for obvious reasons, revere the school game. (We’ll get to grad schools in a minute.)

So, my point is this: unless you’re planning to go to graduate school, stop fretting about grades. Spend your energy selecting the classes you think you’d really like—not, dare I say it, the classes that will earn you a good GPA. And take the professors who will give you a really hard time so that you grow smarter and intellectually tougher. It should go without saying that I assume you’re smart, you’re motivated, and you can play the game well—i.e., that you will earn good grades no matter what.

Remember, as you orchestrate your academic career, be on the look-out for professors you really like to work with and who really respect you. You’ll want to find at least two of these and take at least two courses from each. That way, these professors will be able to write you credible letters of recommendation for your job file or for graduate school. If you do not earn an “A” from these people but you think you have made a good impression on them, be sure to ask them if they feel they can write you a strong letter of recommendation. (For more on letters, see below.)

Other preparations for success:
What about an internship? Get one. If your college doesn’t have an office that handles student internships, then ask your professors about it. Then call local businesses -- a publisher, a magazine, a newspaper-- and ask if they have an internship program. If they require that you get college credit for an internship -- and your college doesn't have an internship program, then arrange to take it as an independent study, overseen by a professor who supports your ambitions.

What about Computer Literacy? Virtually every avenue of writing now relies on computers. In the workplace writers are often responsible not only for writing but also for laying out and producing newsletters, web pages, brochures, press releases, pamphlets, fliers, and books. The more you know about software programs—especially Dreamweaver and In-Design for website production and publishing layout (also Adobe Photoshop for graphic manipulation) -- the more marketable you will be.

Most colleges have really good computer facilities, plus courses and tutorials to help you learn the programs. Take advantage. At the very least, get comfortable with the three programs I just mentioned. This kind of preparation will put you six months ahead of those job-seekers who don’t have this knowledge.

Extra Credit You want to get ahead? be smarter? discover more options for your creativity? bring more ideas to your writing? Start your own private course of study. Find an author you really want to learn more about, or a kind of writing you want to explore. Ask your teacher for a list of suggested reading that you can pursue during your summer and/or free time. What free time? You can make time when you need to make time. Yeah, something has to give, so give it up: your head-work is Priority One

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All About Academic Jobs, Teaching Assistantships, and the Horror Show of the College Professorate by One Who Should Know--a former Writing Department Chairman (if you don’t care about academic jobs, then spare yourself this rant and go to the next section)

At this very minute, as you read this sentence, there are lots (hundreds) of young, talented writers in America who have published lots of essays, stories, and poems in respectable magazines and have earned their M.F.A.’s from respectable, even famous, writing programs and are now looking for full-time employment as college professors. These are smart, capable people, many of them with one or more books published by major presses. And yet they cannot find a steady college gig. Why?

Simple answer: graduate programs have done their work very well and flooded the market with smart, accomplished writers who are now looking to do what their teachers did, teach writing in college. As a result, the competition is fierce. In many cases, perhaps most, you can’t even get an interview for a full-time college teaching job unless you’ve published one book or more.

Complicated answer: I know of no graduate writing program that claims it credentials its graduates to teach at the college level. The M.F.A. is not a teaching degree; it is an arts degree. More, specifically, it’s a studio-arts degree that promises only to allow students time enough — in the studio — to hone their craft.

It just so happens that, in order to make their programs more affordable, graduate schools across the country give tuition remission to those students who agree to work as slaves in the classroom. These slaves are called Teaching Assistants. They labor for less than minimum wage, often with minimal support and no training, so that the School can operate in the black--and, not coincidentally, allow its talented, senior faculty to teach fewer courses.

Although the TA scam has been exposed and excoriated for years now, it remains well entrenched for a number of socio-political reasons we don’t need to flog at present. Suffice it to say that, if you get financial “support” as a graduate student, you will most likely be assigned to teach a couple of lower-division classes to unsuspecting teenagers who think their good money has supplied them with a wise and seasoned professor.

Chances are that you will have no idea where to begin as a teacher, you will spend many sleepless nights fretting about your own incompetence, and, oddly, it will not occur to you to blame the School itself for this painful situation. On the contrary, you’ll probably blame yourself because the School, and America culture, has led you to believe that teaching should be easy and natural, like . . . jumping into a vat of boiling oil?

My point is this: it will take more than an M.F.A. and a few semesters of college teaching to make most of us into college professors. For starters, if you want to become a college professor, you should consider getting a Ph.D. It’s the only degree the Academy truly respects. I know, I know, all of us PC-minded academics support the M.F.A. as a legitimate and respected terminal degree (see below for explanation of terminology) and, I hasten to add, in my own department we fully support the hiring and tenuring of M.F.A.’s. Nonetheless, I refuse to Stevie Sunshine you about this issue. The Academy (what regular folks call “college”) is one of the most conservative forces you will ever encounter: the professorate loves its Ph.D.s and only grudgingly acknowledges the legitimacy of the M.F.A. or, for that matter, the arts of any kind (with the exception of the “liberal arts,” which to their mind isn’t the same thing at all).

So there you have it: the M.F.A. will not automatically make you a teacher, much less a professor. Nonetheless, the M.F.A. (or the M.A.) will allow you to teach at the college level as an adjunct if you so choose. An "adjunct" is a part-time college instructor who, like the TA, works for slave wages and is generally poorly treated. In some schools adjuncts have no offices or are crowded into an office with several other adjuncts (not all at the same time, we hope). Usually adjuncts have no say in departmental matters and, in the worst cases, they are like ghosts: seldom seen, if at all.

Even if you get a Ph.D., you will find the going tough. The job market has never been more competitive. Applications for positions in English departments (where most writing programs reside) have never been more numerous, sometimes as many as 200-300 for a single opening in literature. An opening in Writing may attract as many as 200 applicants—even for part-time positions.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go to graduate school. I’m saying only this: you shouldn’t go to graduate school with the expectation that your degree will win you a teaching job.

Reasons to go to grad school:
# You really want to become an academic and/or teach.
# You feel you really need more academic experience to hone your abilities as a reader and writer.

Reasons not to go to grad school:
# You’ve got money to burn and no inclination to do anything else
# You think getting a graduate degree, especially an M.F.A., is going to secure you better employment than a desk-job in your daddy’s real estate office.

Advantages of grad school:
  * you'll be with like-minded people, in a supportive community
    * you'll learn to be a better reader/writer
    * you may make meet people who can help you later
    * you may find an agent
    * you may make contacts for employment after graduation
    * you'll be more qualified to teach
    * you may be offered a teaching assistantship, which will make you more qualified to teach and allow you to teach (adjunct) at the college level
    * you'll get more time to think about writing and your future

Types of graduate degrees:

M.A. (Masters of Arts) in English, a 2-year program, an intermediate degree that serves as a stair-step to the Ph.D. and may, with transfer credits, cut about 2 years off your Ph.D. program if you choose to continue. The M.A. culminates in your writing an original thesis (50-100 pages) of literary criticism.

M.A. in English with a concentration in writing, a 2-3-year program that offers some workshops in writing (fiction, poetry, or nonfiction), may also fold over into a Ph.D.

M.F.A. (Master of Fine Arts), 1-3-year program, with an emphasis on the arts (writing, in this case) instead of academics, though there will be some academic courses. This is a terminal degree, meaning there is no higher arts degree.

Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) in English: traditional academic program in which you take many seminars, write lots of papers on interesting and not-so-interesting books, then come up with an original book of criticism yourself for your dissertation, which takes 1-3 years to write. Depending on the program, you will be tested on your proficiency in 1-3 foreign languages. Total schooling time involved: 5-7 years.

Ph.D. in English with a creative dissertation: same as above, only you can write a novel or book of poems instead of a work of criticism.

Ph.D. in Creative Writing, a fairly new degree and is not as marketable as a traditional Ph.D. in literature because most traditional academics still believe that “creative writing” has no rigor and is better left as a hobby. This is old view changing, however, and there are several, very good programs that offer a Creative Writing Ph.D.

D.A. is a Doctorate of Arts, usually a teaching degree (focus on English) and sometimes it does not demand that you write a dissertation to graduate.

D. ED. is a Doctorate in Education, which is most common among people who wish to teach education (teach about teaching) at the college level. D.ED.'s are also common among high-level administrators in public school systems (principles, supervisors, boards of education).

Getting into a Graduate School

Nowadays, getting into a writing program (MFA in writing) is analogous to getting into medical school. Competition has never been tougher, mostly because, for the past 20 years, undergraduate programs have been producing ambitious and accomplished writers. But know this: traditionally, writers have never gone to grad school. This is a recent phenomenon. Before the MFA-program craze, writers simply did whatever they had to do in order to write.

Chances are, if you're a fiction writer under the age of 22, you're not ready for grad school. I certainly wasn't at that age. Mainly because writing short stories demands the kind of sustained effort that only experience allows. The average age of fiction-writers at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, the last time I checked, is 30. However, poets are often able to start their graduate career earlier, I have found.

There are always exceptions, of course. In any case, if you're determined to go to graduate school, you need to decide when would be the better time: now or later. If now, then you're going to learn a lot of things in grad school you could learned on your own, if given time. Grad school will serve as a boost to get you started. If later, you'll be able to make more mature use of the instruction you'll find and the experience will serve you more as a finishing school.

YOU SHOULD KNOW: graduate school works best for the most motivated student — those who have been pursuing their studies passionately, reading voraciously during their free time, seeking out advice and suggestions on further study from their teachers, and practicing their craft relentlessly. In short, grad school is not something you decide upon because you can't think of anything better to do. If you think something magic is going to happen to you in graduate school, you’ll be wasting your time and money.

YOU SHOULD ALSO KNOW -- t the risk of contradicting much of what I’ve just said -- that graduate school in many ways is no big deal. I was scared shitless when I went because I’d been out of college for 8 years and I thought I’d be overwhelmed by the brilliance of my classmates. While some were indeed brilliant, most were just regular folk. Some smart regular folk, yes, but some surprisingly dim regular folk too. Now, mind you, I was 30 when I went to grad school, so I’d been around and I’d had time to think about what’s what. Still, if you’re fairly smart and motivated, you will do fine. And, chances are, you’ll be surprised to discover that the world is far from over-populated with brilliance.

Checklist for Applying to Grad School:

    * you'll need to take the GRE (see GRE PREP. Below) (600 scores in both English & Math recommended) -- 3 letters of recommendation (go to LETTERS, below.)
    * 2 stories or essays or 4-6 poems
    * $50+ per application
    * a one-page statement about yourself, your goals, etc.
    * a 3.5 GPA or better

Key points for making your application:
1) Apply to at least 3-5 programs in order to secure as several options. I applied to 7 myself and finally got the best deal at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. If you get an offer from more than one school, you can—very diplomatically—negotiate a better deal at the school you most prefer. In some respects, acceptance and rejection will seem like a lottery: some places will reject you out of hand, while others will be clamoring to get you.

 2) Go where they really want you. Usually that means they give you financial support.

      Support is as follows:

# tuition remission: the program gives you free or half-cost or in-state tuition.

scholarship: money paid toward your tuition costs.

# RA (research assistantship): you assist a professor in his/her research, gathering notes, summarizing articles, etc.

# TA (teaching assistantship): after some, usually minimal training, you teach freshman composition or introductory literature; two classes in the fall, say, and one in the spring.

# fellowship: usually a free ride all the way, and usually with no teaching involved.

Call up the program to see how receptive it is: are they friendly there? does the director or someone with authority take time to answer your questions? You can tell whether or not you want to work with these people if, after receiving your application, they are eager to talk with you.

3) Talk to other people who have been to this program. Some of the big programs are nothing more than shark pools--blood and guts and in a swirl of feeding frenzy. Some of the smaller programs may have less prestige but they will take you more seriously and give you the kind of support and encouragement you may be seeking.

4) On the letter-of-recommendation form, where it asks you, "Do you waive the right to examine this document....," say, yes, you waive that right. This indicates that you are not afraid of what your teachers may say about you. If you have any doubts as to what a teacher may say about you in such a letter, then you should not ask that person to write you a recommendation.

5) In your personal statement/essay, do not tell your prospective school that you hope to publish a novel or a book of poems some day. That is a given. Discuss, instead, the concerns and issues you like to explore in your writing; the writers who have influenced you (and why); and a current project you are undertaking. Have your teacher/mentor read over this to make suggestions for improvement.

6) Decide which schools you are most interested in by October of your senior year so that you can get the application forms and submit the letter-of-recommendation sheets to your professors no later than November.


No matter where you go, no matter what job you'll apply for, you're going to need letters of recommendation. Whether or not you're going to use these letters soon, ask for them well before you graduate--usually the fall semester before you graduate: September is good. No later than November. Definitely not December. (For grad school, most letters are due in January-February.)

You ask for letters now because now your teachers can talk most specifically about your academic strengths and your character. We teachers deal with 70-100 students a semester. After a few semesters, how much do you think we can remember specifically about any one student, even one as memorable as you?

Get 3 letters. If you are not going to use them now, ask your teachers to keep them on file. Get letters from teachers you have worked with more than one semester and, we hope, teachers who think you're really smart. If, so far, you have not worked with any professor more than once, make plans to do so!

Get 2 letters from teachers in your major and 1 from a teacher in any other field. At least one of these letters should address your particular area of expertise. Other letters will confirm that, generally, you're an excellent student and a great person. The main thing a letter of recommendations conveys to a prospective employer is that you are a good bet. Keep in mind, that employers or grad schools  invest a lot of time, energy, and money in a new employee (or student)  and so they need as much reassurance and encouragement (to hire you) as you can give them.

In addition to asking for letters of recommendation, ask these same professors if you can list them as references on your resume. The resume is a "summing up" of your career. Also called a "curriculum vita" or "c.v." (the "course" of your life), it should be brief, precise, and look very clean. One page is sufficient: 1) Name, address, phone number 2) education, 3) work experience, with a very brief list of your duties, 4) related experience (optional), such as work on the school newspaper, literary magazine, etc. You could include this under item 3. 5) skills, such as computer programs you're familiar with (optional--you can mention these in your letter of application or in item 3), 6) hobbies/interests (optional: if the job calls for a more personal touch), and 7) references (offer 3, full addresses, with phone numbers--many employers simply phone them up instead of asking for a letter).

When writing a letter of application, you want to be as professional as possible, obviously. That means saying enough to make yourself sound good, but not so much that you sound either desperate or arrogant. Your challenge is to sculpt your qualifications into a nice fit for the job. Don't simply catalogue your attributes. Pitch directly to the business you're talking to: how would your qualifications make that business better? Be sure to offer specifics--examples help--to illustrate your qualifications. It is acceptable to enclose a sample of your work.


WHAT does the GRE measure? It's pretty much like an advanced version of the SAT. There's a Math section (basic algebra and geometry), a Verbal section (vocabulary and reading comprehension), and an Analytical section (a persuasive essay).The point of all this is to give the graduate school some numbers to judge you by. Always assume that numbers matter in grad school because America’s university system is just that—a system . . . that delights in medieval hierarchies and a Machiavellian scramble of desperate aspirants for limited resources. It’s not a place for the insecure or the weak-stomached.

HOW do you prepare for the GRE? Don't let anyone tell you that you can't prepare for such tests. You can. Vocabulary drills, math exercises, anything will help. The best strategy is to go to the book store or library or online and pick up some test booklets. The same people who make directories of colleges and SAT prep books make GRE prep books based on past GRE exams. Take as many of these mock-tests as possible. Familiarize yourself with the rhythm of the exam, with the logic of the questions, with the basics of the material. Study your weaknesses. And study daily, or at least every other day, two months before the exam. You will improve your score.

WHEN do I take such an exam? At the very latest, in the fall semester--October or December--of your senior year (if you're planning to apply to grad schools for the following academic year). It takes at least 6 weeks for the GRE to send out your exam results. And many graduate school applications are due in January.

WHEN exactly are the exams given? Any time you like, you can go to Sylvan learning center or Kaplan testing center and take the GRE on computer. Double check with the GRE folks to make sure: Educational Testing Service, PO Box 6004, Princeton, NJ 08541-6004.

WHAT is the GRE subject exam? This is more or less the college equivalent of an advanced placement exam--it shows your expertise in the area of study you have selected. It’s kind of like Trivial Pursuits for the Lit. nerd. Study for it by reading those big fat lit. surveys, like Norton’s. Learn to recognize key writers by style and theme. (Alice Walker, for instance, isn’t going to be writing about white folk in a shopping mall.) Some, but not many, Masters degree programs demand that you take this exam before making your application. Most Ph.D. programs require it.

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If you’re reading this, then either you have left a graduate program or you don’t feel inclined to join one. Plenty of graduate programs are poorly run—which means you could find yourself in a program that is designed mostly to make money or, just as bad, to make a “reputation.” And plenty of students go to graduate programs for the wrong reasons—which means you could find yourself in a workshop with a gang of yahoos who are mostly interested in posturing and gossiping. So, yeah, there are many reasons why you wouldn’t stay in such a situation or put yourself there to begin with.

Know this: graduate school for writing is a recent phenomenon. It’s only since the 1980s that M.F.A programs have proliferated. Ultimately, their benefit to young or “emerging” writers is debatable. Writers of previous generations had no formal writers’ workshop experience and certainly had no graduate degrees in writing. They created their own highly-individualized courses of study, read widely, practiced their craft for years (often in isolation), and, when they could, conversed with other writers and artists in order to stimulate their own ideas.

You can do this too.

For those of you who really want the workshop experience but don't want the hassle of doing the whole grad-school thing (or want to bide your time before you make that kind of commitment), you could try a summer writers' conference.

There are dozens of writers' conferences (for poetry, fiction, and nonfiction) every summer--you can find one in practically every state. Writers' conferences usually last one or two weeks. They cost a fair amount (over $1000) in order to pay the heavy talent they bring in as teachers. The settings are casual, the students themselves range in age from 18-70, and the talent among these workshoppers may be as various, too, though you will always find at least one or two in every workshop who will be good company and good readers.

Every conference offers one or two scholarships to the most talented (and/or neediest) applicant. Also, many conferences have agents, editors, or publishers come for a visit to lecture and, sometimes, read the best manuscripts. Agents do visit the better conferences to pick up new talent.

Application to these conferences is "competitive," though, for nearly all of them, you can get in if you're willing to pay the fee and you're a fairly competent writer (which you are) and you don't apply at the last minute. To find out more about conferences, look in the AWP Guide to Writing Programs, which has a section in the back about conferences: link here. Check, also, for announcements in "Writer's Digest" magazine, "AWP Chronicle," and "Poets and Writers" magazine.

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what is a rabbit writer?

link to ron's blog








what is a rabbit writer?

link to ron's blog








what is a rabbit writer?

link to ron's blog








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what is a rabbit writer?

link to ron's blog