Saturday, November 17, 2007

Put three articles together and you've got an "MFA Issue"

Just a heads up:

The latest issue of Poets & Writers (Nov/Dec 2007) bills itself as “The MFA Issue” and bears the headline “What You Should Know Before Applying” on the cover. Well, timing-wise, it’s probably a little too late for this year’s applicants. But it does have a good essay by Joshua Henkin, which includes some good ponderings about why so many people think writing is a skill that can’t be taught. Also included is an article about diversity in MFA programs, a current student’s take on the TA experience, and lists of new and “distinctive” programs…


JoeyD said...

Yeah, I read the "MFA" issue, and I noticed how Cal State Long Beach was listed as a "new" program, even though, as far as I know, it's been around for a three years now, maybe more...I don't know the exact inception date, but it doesn't seem that "new." And three short articles in an entire magazine does not make an "MFA"-themed issue...I understand why this blog entry seems to (implicitly) criticize this point. Great magazine overall--I'm a subscriber. But when they advertise the latest mag as an "MFA" issue, well, this is (in my opinion) a little bit misleading.

Sarah Perrault said...

Thanks for the heads up -- I will definitely have to check out the issue. As someone doing an MFA/PhD combo, with the PhD in rhet/comp, I am especially interested in the article on the TA experience.

In response to joeyd, I'm inclined to see a three-year-old program as fairly new. Three years isn't a long time to iron out the wrinkles. My program was in its 2nd, 3rd, and 4th years while I was there, and definitely was not yet wrinkle-free.

JoeyD said...

Yeah, you're right. I stand corrected.

Eric said...

This issue, ironically, got me thinking about grad school for next year. Unfortunately, the issue itself, after much researching, isn't very informative at all -- like the post says, it's just three articles, with only two of them having any real "meat."

happy hard harry said...

Hi all,

I'm considering applying for nonfiction MFA programs and am having some trouble figuring out whether there are schools with programs like Columbia's (in terms of how the program is structured) that are less expensive (and perhaps less competitive?) but of about the same caliber. Specifically, I'm looking for programs that will allow me to take a good number of electives in other disciplines within the university.

Would everyone agree that it's silly to only apply to one school even if it's the only one you've come across that seems kind of perfect to you (in every way except financially)?

Thanks so much for any insight...

All the best,


Bolivia Red said...

Throw out a few more apps instead of putting all the eggs in one pot. Sometimes what you think you want in a program will be different than what you really need and want when you get there. Several programs that I applied to looked great on paper, but when I got accepted and talked to their current students and faculty, and really dug into the particulars of the program, those same schools turned out to be poor choices for me.

A lot of programs encourage dabbling outside the major field for the electives, so there should be more than one perfect choice for you.

Kyle said...

I'm interested in an MFA program like Iowa's new emphasis on environmental writing for it's creative nonfiction program. But I don't want to go to Iowa. Is anyone else doing something like that?

Bolivia Red said...

Check out Chatham's creative writing program. Their emphasis in all tracks is nature/environmental writing.

Camplin said...

Those crazy journals, always behind the times. I found that getting into an MFA in the visual arts very tricky as well.

alexa said...

Kyle --- check out Wyoming too; you can get a environmental certificate there while getting your MFA.

Kennan said...


also montana's environmental studies program has environmental writing, the requirements for which are about what most MFA programs are. You do come out with an MS, however. Apparently you can also do both the MFA in creative nonfiction and the environmental writing, in 3 years, and come out with both an MFA and MS. You have to be independently admitted to each program first, though.

Jason Michael MacLeod said...

Iowa State also has an M.F.A. in Environmental Writing these days. (Used to be an M.A. in English with Creative Writing conenctration).

Seth Abramson said...

I think P&W and the AWP have dropped the ball on MFA programs--unfortunately, intentionally--and folks should plan to seek out alternative sources of information. I just picked up the AWP Guide to Writing Programs and not only does its skimpy 5.5-page introduction start off with a section entitled "Ranking the Best Programs"--which procedes to explain why the AWP has never, and will never, rank the best programs (but they got a few more people to buy the book with that cynical sub-heading, right?)--it then goes on to explain that the reason the AWP doesn't collect data (of any kind) from MFA programs, besides their location and credit requirements, is because "really, we have your best interests in mind...ultimately, a writer's career is forged in solitude, individual choice by individual choice....If you succeed as a writer, you will make billions of such choices; you can't let others make your artistic choices for you."

That's a quote. Wow. I guess, then, there's no use in trying to find out how the 50,000 MFA students that came before us liked their programs--and whether any patterns have emerged--because if we're real "artists" we'll reinvent the wheel, right?

I guess my point is, we should not look for any help, ever, from P&W, or the AWP, in this area. They've abdicated any responsibility for guiding prospective writers toward informed decisions about MFA programs, out of a desire to please (i.e. not offend) existing successful writers who teach at MFA programs.


Sarah Perrault said...


Thanks for posting that. It's pretty unsettling. I think ranking can be problematic, but also useful if done well.

After I finished my MFA I was asked to write a review of it for some organization, and did so. I can't remember what that organization was, but I'll try to find it and post the information here. There may not be much quantitative information (e.g. publication rates of graduates), but there could be some good qualitative insights.

Has anyone else done such a review, and do you remember who was soliciting them?



Seth Abramson said...

Hi Sarah,

It's wonderful to hear that you did that; so many writers are afraid of reprisal if they criticize their alma mater, and certainly the AWP seems to fear it would lose members if it demanded data from them: e.g., # of applications; acceptance rate; yield; size of incoming class in each genre; student-to-faculty ratio; funding regime (with specifics); and so on.


Seth Abramson said...

I should clarify: "location" and "credit requirements" are the primary pieces of data the AWP compiles; technically, it should also be noted that they compile (for some schools):

* contact information
* workshop size (not program)
* funding overview (w/o specifics)

The upshot of those last two pieces of AWP-compiled "data" is that every single program caps its workshops at basically the same number (12) and has at least one internship and one fellowship that it can crow about doling out each year.

The eerie similarity in all the entries in the AWP MFA Guide comes from the fact that if a program knows data will be reported, they make sure they're in line with everyone else. For the 95% of the data that isn't reported, the schools differ wildly (e.g., one school generally thought of as "top twenty" will have an acceptance rate four to five times higher than another "top twenty" school).

E.g. (not considering yield, which is unknown, as it's unreleased):

University of Virginia: 1.7%
University of Arizona: 15.1%


Devashree said...

I know it's kinda late for this request and also somewhat unreasonable, but can someone, especially ex-MFAers please put up their Personal statements just for a read? I'm really getting confused about writing six whole pages about myself! If you cannot put up your actual PS then, at least give some precise guidelines. I searched online for some sample PS, but they are all related to different fields (not exactly related to Creative Writing or Film Studies)
Thank You...

Bolivia Red said...


Who's asking for six pages? When I applied, most of them had word limits (700-1000 words). I assume though, that you are using "Personal Statement" interchangeably with "Statement of Purpose" as schools seem to use them to mean basically the same thing. Disregard this if I'm off the mark and some school is asking for six pages.

M. Ramirez Talusan kindly shared her SOP on her blog. Look for the link under the Mailbag, Week of 4 November post.

Tom's statement to the Stegner people can be found at: (thanks lizzy)

As I said in another comment, I haven't looked myself, but others have mentioned that the P&W website has threads where people share work and talk in detail about application stuff. You'll find the link under the right sidebar on this blog's main page.

Finally, if you go to the upper left-hand corner of this blog's front page, there's a box next to "search blog". Type in "Personal Statement" and "Statement of Purpose" (separate searches)and quite a few posts come up with various info and suggestions.

Sarah Perrault said...


Thanks for the kudos, but writing a review of NMU's program wasn't actually all that brave. There are advantages to going through a low-status "They have an MFA? Since when?!" kind of program, and the year I started was its second year in existence.

Mind you, I think the program has some wonderful aspects, but it doesn't have delusions of grandeur, or at least didn't when I was there.



Blogger said...

Nice post. Especially part about "writing is a skill that can’t be taught". Welcome to my blog about articles writing. Thanx.