Applying to the Masters in Branding program at the School of Visual Arts
There comes a time in everyone's career feelings of inadequacy pop up, and it’s important to know that you’re not alone. You may say “I wish I knew how to do this better” or “I could get that job IF I knew more about this thing or had that degree.” As a queen of self-deprecation—I use critical humor to cope with things that are out of my control. This resulted in me becoming an over-achiever—exhaustively pushing myself and others to pursue what scares them and not take no for an answer. My feelings of inadequacy and lust for being part of a critical learning zone led me to pursue graduate-level education.
The quest led me from one school to the next — but for years that practical well-rounded program of my dreams remained elusive. Until one regular workday in late 2012 when I came across a tiny banner ad on Armin Vit’s Brand New. That’s when I first learned about the Masters in Branding program at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.
Was it Fate?
Those close to me know that I don’t believe in a higher power—but sometimes it really does feel as if things happen when they are supposed to happen. At this point in my life, I had never been to New York and had never heard of the School of Visual Arts. The week prior to stumbling across this innocuous banner ad—I had booked tickets to travel to NYC for the first time to see friends and so it was a bit of a strange coincidence to learn that the only open house the branding program hosts was scheduled for the week that I would be in New York.
Off to New York
Two months later, I’m in a room overlooking Manhattan with about 100 other prospective students who frankly scared the crap out of me. My feelings of inadequacy and nobody-ness were on full display around people who I felt were much better at working a room than me. Coupled with a room full of competitors were also my design industry idols like Debbie Millman and Dan Formosa. I felt like I was just the mid-level in-house graphic designer from LA who has this weird obsession with bicycles. Intimidation, anxiety, fear were flowing throughout every cell in my body, but then it all went away when we gathered in the classroom to learn about the program. One by one, professors and students stood up to speak—and it was their passion and energy that made me feel comfortable, welcomed, and familiar.
Upon wrapping 10 days in the big apple, I returned to LA and began to wrap my head around applying. Easier said than done…especially while simultaneously starting one of the busiest freelance periods of my design career.
Dusting off the Critical Writing Skills
Upon my return to Los Angeles, I began to wrap my head around applying to the program. There were about eight weeks before our applications were due and it had been nearly a decade since I had last done any academic writing.
The application requirements were straight forward, but I had to re-learn how to structure paragraphs, edit, and site facts. We were required to write two pieces — a statement of purpose and a formal brand critique. This is where leaning on your network becomes an invaluable resource, as I was lucky enough to have friends of friends who were much more skilled in writing to help edit and spell-check. My first few drafts came back covered in red markup, but as the revisions progressed, things got tighter and tighter.
Because I am a visual thinker, my approach to writing is to be as illustrative as possible because I want the reader to see what I see and feel what I feel. This approach along with choosing a theme for both writing samples that meant something to me personally was my tactic for being memorable.
Naturally, I chose cycling as my theme due to my road bike racing history and advocacy work but it was also because the sport pushes you to accomplish awe-inspiring intense physical feats that teach you how to press on no matter how difficult the challenge appears. I knew grad school was going to be hard, so I wrote my personal statements as if the program was the hardest and tallest mountain I was about to climb on my bike.
For part two of the application, the brand critique, we were required to write about a current brand, identify its market relevance, historical significance, and creative impact. I chose the high-end cycling component manufacturer Campagnolo—a brand steeped in history and well know industry innovator. While there was no shortage of passion, I had to write this critique in 750 words—which contradicted my visual writing style.
The Last Steps are Always the Hardest
After traveling to New York and pushing myself to intellectually write from the heart, getting my application package out the door was the last step but not the easiest. As a designer applying to an art school taught by design industry veterans, I felt that it was imperative to print my application materials on the highest-end paper I could source—in hindsight, it wasn’t that imperative.
What did happen was a Mr. Bean-like farcical involving:
• 2 Kelly Papers
• 2 FedEx/Kinkos
• 50 Sheets of Cranes Lettra
• 1 USB drive
• 1 Roadside Rescue from AAA
• 3 Exacto blades
• Several panic attacks
One Kinkos refused to print on the fancy paper, then my USB drive went missing, which while looking for led me to get locked out of my car. What should have taken an hour — took four. Thank you to the FedEx Office in Studio City, CA for being so positive and helpful despite my obvious desperation.
VCR on Pause
I’ll be the first to tell you that you can’t get anywhere in life without relentless hard work. There is no skipping the line and entitlement only serves to alienate you from your peers. At the same time, it feels as if some people have an easier time of it. For those of us who entered the workforce around the 2008 recession and have had a hard go of it—we feel as if our opportunities are limited for no reason other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. My strategy was to relentlessly work towards being as well-rounded and attractive as possible to potential employers. I never thought the job market would be as difficult as it was, but I got stronger and wiser with each rejection.
After turning in my application for SVA, I thought maybe I had a chance. On the surface I had the general requirements and history they said they were looking for — but was I good enough? Would my writing pass the test? My life felt like a VCR on pause. The screen was fuzzy, skipping frames, and life seems to happen around me as I waited to hear something on bated breath.
I snuggled my self-deprecation blanket in an effort to prepare for yet another rejection. Friends were positive and believed in me, but I knew that if I wasn’t realistic about the odds, I was setting myself up for an emotional disaster. And so I went through the motions of each day, went to work, and rode my bike.
Seven Weeks + Two days Later
Out of the blue in early April 2013, I received an interview request email. It was only 10 days before the school said we would find out about our applications — by then I had figured it wasn’t going to happen for me and had started the rejection coping process. Receiving that email was shocking, exhilarating, and also obliterated any ability I had that day to do any meaningful work.
I was so excited to get a chance, and for once to not be flat out rejected.
The following Monday, I skyped with J’aime Cohen, the graduate advisor for the Masters in Branding program at the time. I was expecting a somewhat in-depth interview where I would be asked theoretical questions about my application, however, the questions were more casual. She asked me how I found out about the MPSB program and where I wanted to take the education if I were accepted. My talk with J’aime was short — and afterward, I honestly felt less confident about my chances. I resigned myself and figured that if it was meant to be then it would be.
Thursday, April 11th, 2013—2:45 PM
Sitting in my cubicle after lunch trying to focus on some tradeshow graphics, I heard the email ding on my iPhone —the truncated notification on my tiny iPhone4 just said “Important Communications from SVA”—which caused me to jump from my chair and fumble to read the email.
The last time I got amazing news like this, I lost my cool, complete with tears and incoherent hollers. This time was different. I calmly stood up and walked to my coworkers' office where I promptly lost my shit behind a door.
Keep Calm and Ride On
So now, I’m about to embark on an extreme life-changing journey, risk everything, and let fate decide my future. There are a lot of people who helped me get where I am today and look forward to being there for them as they have for me.
In August, I’ll be moving to NYC and leave my wonderful life in Los Angeles behind. I have no idea what lies ahead. I’m terrified and excited. I’m sad to leave behind an amazing group of friends—but I’m also hungry for the opportunity to learn from the likes of Debbie Millman, Dan Formosa & Ken Carbone.