We get a lot of repeat questions on the Blog. If you're entering the MFA waters for the first time, take a swim through our Tip Sheet. Lots of basic information here that will hopefully save you, and me, some time. Rock on. -- TK
MFA Blog Tip Sheet
1. If you can afford it, apply to between 8 and 12 programs. The selection process is unpredictable. Keep your options open.
2. Quit whining about not wanting to take the GRE. Take the damn GRE: it will expand your potential program list. Your GRE scores won't factor much into the selection, but you can't apply at a lot of programs without them.
3. You'll need some combination of writing samples, personal statement, letters of recommendation, GRE scores, undergraduate transcripts, and maybe a couple other items. Your writing sample will count for about 90% of your acceptance or rejection, so be sure to make it count.
4. Don't ask the Blog about whether you should apply in fiction, poetry, screenwriting, or any other genre. How are we supposed to know? Apply in the genre you're most excited about.
5. Ask for letters of recommendation from people you can count on. (i.e. People who will actually write the letters and who will say nice things about you). Getting someone dependable is more important than getting someone famous. Generally speaking, you'd like to have two letters from teachers and one from a former boss, or editor, or fellow writer. But go with what you've got.
6. When considering programs (and this is my advice, and not often the same advice of many other people): Consider location, funding, and teaching experience, in that order. Make a list of places where you'd like to live and where you could stand to live. Think about your financial situation (and don't drop 35K a year on a writing program), and select programs that meet your funding needs. Consider whether you'd like teaching experience or not. Using these three items, you can get your list down from over 100 to about 20. Then, factor in program reputation and professors and anything else you deem important.
7. The MFA degree is an artistic degree and not primarily a professional degree. Don't expect that the degree will get you a teaching job and a book deal. Expect that you'll spend two to three years focusing closely on your craft within a writing community. It's an MFA degree, similar to MFA Art degrees.
8. For your personal statements: Come across as formal and friendly. Come across as a serious writer and a dependable person. Discuss your life experience, your goals, and the reason you want to take this time. The letter should be no more than 1.5 pages.
9. One you're accepted at (hopefully more than one) programs, get in touch with current students and ask them about the atmosphere there. You'll learn a lot by getting the ground's eye view.
10. Some programs that I like (regarding reputation and funding) that you might consider (these are in no particular order): Purdue, Massachusetts, Oregon, Iowa, UC-Irvine, Indiana, Syracuse, Johns Hopkins, Michigan, Minnesota, UNCG, UNCW, Virginia, Florida State, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Wisconsin, Arizona, Arizona State, and Texas. Low Residency programs include Warren Wilson, Lesley, Antioch, Bennington, and Vermont.
11. Keep in mind that some programs offer 5 slots a year, while others will offer 30 or more. Try to choose a good mix between small and large programs so that you'll have options.
12. I'm sure I've left things out. This is a work in progress. Best of luck, and do visit us at the main MFA Blog.