Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Mailbag 17 April 2008

The big day has passed and now the real fun begins.

Questions or comments? We've got coping strategies on demand.


Ankur said...

I'm still waiting to hear from 5, but I've lost most of my hope.

Kevin Wilder said...

Still waiting to hear back from Univ. San Fran. Also waiting for something from my two waitlist schools.

Bolivia Red said...

I would say that if you haven't heard from a school at this point, you might still remain hopeful. Remember that a lot of applicants waited until 15 April to accept an offer and turn down another, which means that slots have just re-opened. The next several days to the next week or so will be filled with more acceptance phone calls and emails (and even the odd snail-mail) to candidates on the waitlists (and remember, too, not all schools notified people that they were on a waitlist). The process to fill the reopened slots will take a few weeks to shake out, since the next person in line will have to be notified, and probably given a week or two to decide. Some waitlisters will have accepted an offer elsewhere in the meantime, which means that being in the middle of a waitlist still leaves you in the running.

Also remember that a late offer does not mean you were 57th in line and they're only taking you to have a warm body. You are most likely high on the waitlist, just a point or two off from having made the first round.

Elizabeth said...

I'm still waiting on two (BGSU and NC State) but I was accepted to Old Dominion University with no funding. I got a big shock when I told the program director I might like to visit, and she basically told me not to waste my time - she didn't feel it was worthwhile to attend any program that couldn't offer me funding, and she couldn't offer me funding. She said she did not think it was worth it to pay (or rather, go into debt) for an MFA.
Now, I never thought an MFA would bring me great riches, or even a job - I went in to find time to write. While I appreciate the director's honesty, it sounds like she's saying "our program isn't worth paying for."
Would anyone here care to offer some thoughts on the statement? I'd also love to hear from anyone out there who is currently indebting themselves for the sake of an MFA, and how that is working out.
Happy thoughts to everyone who is still waiting.

Ankur said...

bolivia red,

I appreciate your optimism, unfortunately, out of the five I haven't been heard anything, not even a waitlist. Perhaps I wasn't notified, we'll see what happens.


I visited AU last summer and was told the same thing by one of their professors. She said it really isn't worth it to go into debt for a degree that won't guarantee a job. She gave me the 'find a cabin' speech which is odd coming from a MFA professor, however I'm entering the cabin market and looking forward to pimping it out. : )

Suzanne said...

I just found out today that I am on the wait list for nonfiction at New School! I am very excited, and wondering if there is anything I can do to improve my chances of getting a spot if one opens. (Years ago, when I applied for a masters in public administration, I was wait listed and called the dean to see if additional materials would help. We met, and she admitted me on the spot. Not sure if this tactic works for MFA programs or alienates them.) Any advice would be appreciated. Thanks!

Pensive495 said...

Elizabeth... When I called BGSU's program to ask where I was on their waitlist, I was basically told that they waitlist almost every student... She looked and when I wasn't in the top ten waitlisted, she said my chances weren't good. I would call and ask about your status.


cotton said...

Ok, I know a lot of you guys are still waiting to hear from programs, but is it too soon to start talking aps for the fall? I'm currently an undergrad at UC Berkeley and am starting to think about my own plan of attack.
Here's my list in no particular order:

Indiana University
University of Alabama
Penn State
Louisiana State
UMass Amherst
U Mass Boston
George Mason
University of Pittsburgh

I definitely want to be on the east coast, as you can probably tell. Does anyone have any insight/thoughts about any of these programs or any others that are 1. east coastish (the closer to boston the better) 2.three years and 3. well funded? Does this list look well rounded enough?

Also, random question but can you go straight from undergrad to a PhD program (in creative writing) because I would possibly interested in doing that but I wasn't quite clear what the requirements are.

Thanks for your help and good luck with your own aps!

Kevin Wilder said...

gosh, bolivia red. that was quite encouraging. thanks!!

Richard said...


Are you applying for fiction or poetry?

You have 11 programs on the list, which seems about right. I wouldn't do many more than that because at some point the time you have to devote to each application begins to suffer. Also, it's time-consuming for your recommenders, who hopefully you will respect and will respect you. I applied to 12 and that was the most I could possibly have done.

I would add up the number of spots total you are applying for. If it's low, think about adding a larger program or two. I would also consider applying to any good state schools in your state of residence, it can be much easier for them to fund you.

I would look at schools based on writers you want to study with, but also schools with a reputation for great teaching and student support. Indiana, for example, sounds like a program that really works with and for its students. Their incoming fiction class is only six this year, down from twelve in the past.

Finally, to be clear, your manuscript is 98 percent of the decision, so put your effort there.


Sara E.G. said...


I don't think it's too early to start working on apps for next year. I received my BFA in Creative Writing 3 years ago and I'm itching to get back.

My list for the coming year currently stands at 12, though I'm looking at roughly 20 programs, trying to boil it down.

University of Minnesota
University of Wisconsin
University of Oregon
University of Illinois
George Mason
Notre Dame
UNC Wilmington
UNC Greensboro

Oh, and I'm applying for poetry.

Good luck to those still waiting!!!

Sara E.G. said...

Oh, and as you can see, I want out of the East Coast. I'm currently in Boston and want to be in the Midwest. To each their own ;)

Samara said...

What about UNH?

r.p. said...

It's true- there's still a chance you can get in right now. I just turned down Montana 2 days ago so they may be bringing another person in.

And if you're on a waitlist, they have until fall to contact you. It's rare, but still possible.

Elizabeth- I was told the same thing by mentor who is an MFA grad from Iowa. She told me that the MFA is not worth it if you have a ton of debt coming out because things can be so uncertain even after we graduate. But I can't believe the director was so blunt about it-- I mean, they do want students, right??

Rebecca said...

This is a very awkward question, but how do you know if you're good enough to apply? I know where i stand in relation to my fellow undergrads in workshop and I just won some awards (thank you Avery Hopwood, it's great to be a Michigan Wolverine)but I don't know what an MFA applicant's manuscript should look/feel like and if I'm doing that sort of writing. I do hope to take a year or so off before grad school (Teach for America is my top choice) so I think I'm only applying to *dream* schools but I don't want to feel as though I'm submitting something that's going to be laughed out of the room.

Also, if anyone has suggestions of well funded programs that are in cities larger than Ann Arbor, that would be great. Thanks!

Samantha said...

Rebecca - I share your thoughts about writing quality. I feel like a good writer in my undergrad classes, but I'm not sure I get good feedback/criticism about my work. I also have no idea if my work is "good enough" for MFA programs and what they are looking for from applicants. Maybe there should be a separate message board on here to discuss when and HOW people know whether or not their work is developed enough to apply for MFA's.

Elizabeth said...

Pensive495 - thanks for the advice. I've left messages at BGSU twice now, I'm guessing it's a matter of calling at the right time to catch someone.

r.p. - that's exactly my reaction! I mean, honesty is good, but I'm wondering if they really want me in the program. It's good to hear I'm not the only one who's been told that, though.

Speak Coffee said...

rebecca; samantha:

I didn't think I would be "good enough" for an MFA program when I was an undergrad. I did well in comparison to my fellow writing majors but I had this notion of MFA being way over my head. Then I spent a week at the ever so wonderful Kenyon Review Writer's Workshop. It was amazing and I got to see my work in progress in that week compared to other amatures, MFA candidates, and professional writers that were attending. And after my reading went well, and people kept asking me where/if I was going to do an MFA, I started to get the notion that hellyeah I was good enough to do this!

I got in to 3/6 writing programs this year, )but I will say that I applied to a wide range, some top of the top, one that no one had heard of, but a range is important).

So my suggestion is looking in to a workshop like Kenyon's that's going to give you a feel for the writing world outside of the undergrad community.

Abigail said...


Why not ask your writing teachers at Michigan if they think you're ready, or how they recommend you prepare further? In all likelihood they've sat on an admissions committee or two. My undergrad writing professors were extremely helpful and encouraging. Plus, you want to know if they believe in you before you ask them for recommendation letters! I ended up waiting four years before applying, though, and I don't regret a day of it.

Check out Vanderbilt. Nashville's not a huge city but it's definitely bigger than Ann Arbor. It's a small program, but this year they guaranteed tuition waiver, teaching and stipend to all admitted students. I ultimately turned them down, but I had a great visit and it was a hard decision.

Good luck!

mshea said...

I think it was Joshua Ferris who recommended the young writer work as a reader at a publishing house. It's encouraging, he said, to see how crappy 99 percent of the writing looks.

cotton said...

Oops! I'm applying for fiction.

Sara e.g.- I like your list. Have you checked out UC Irvine SF State?

Also, how do you go about figuring out how many people the schools accept. I know some of them have it on their website, but others don't.

And I work for a lit mag and I second mshea- we even get a lot of work from MFA students that don't seem so great.

Hope some of you have heard good news!

Sara E.G. said...


There are figures for how many apply vs. how many are accepted on Sean Abramson's blog (I believe the figures are for 2007). There's a link to his ranking list somewhere on the MFA blog.

I have looked at UC Irvine but after researching the area I don't think it's somewhere I'd ultimately like to live for a few years. I'm still taking a look at it though.

I was an editor for a national poetry mag for a few years in college and was always surprised by the wide range of submissions. I often felt like I could have been applying to MFA programs then, but am really glad I spent the three years working and roaming about.

Samantha said...

Speak coffee -
Thanks for your response. It encouraged me and I smiled when I read that someone felt the way I feel about MFAs/the undergrad writing experience, etc.
I am going to check out Kenyon as well as some other programs - maybe they will be eye-opening.
Congrats on your acceptances!

martha grover said...

I was accepted to CCA and PSU. Rejected from Montana, Pittsburgh and Iowa. Last year I was accepted to George Mason but decided not to go. I would just say if you don't get into the school you want, apply next year and keep writing. As long as you keep writing and reading, you can only improve your skill and chances to get into a program that works for you. I am going to cca and couldn't be more excited!

Nick McRae said...

I've been wondering whether MFA programs look more favorably at students that already have an MA. Would it be smarter to apply to an MA program first and then apply for MFAs after finishing that degree?

I'm sure there's no concrete answer. Insights would be nice, though!

NJ said...


As far as TFA...

If you are looking for teaching experience, then go for it, but know what you are getting into. Your first years of teaching are no joke, esp. in an underperforming school, i.e. no time to write. Teaching in that environment can often be frustrating and not all that rewarding. It is one helluva commitment and God bless you for considering it, but please understand that many a headstrong young teacher folds it up and heads back to law school/M&D's basement/Starbucks/Jesus anything else! after teaching for a year or less (leaving both their program & underserved community in a lurch.)

The same goes for TFA, as for an MFA: look into it carefully and interview lots of people from the program. TFA is an aggressive recruiter, but is not without its faults. There are many other programs out there with their own approaches, philosophies & things to offer. And even with all that, it's not for everybody. Good luck.

-NJ (spouse of a veteran inner-city school teacher)

Corinne said...

So that is why I haven't heard back from BGSU yet.

francis said...

martha grover--
Congrats on CCA. Did you get in for poetry, fiction? I got accepted for fiction, but don't know if I'll be heading out that way though I really love the program.

r.p. said...

Rebecca-I think that a lot of us feel insecure about our work, second-guessing, antagonizing.

Coming out of undergrad, I was in a similar frame: I felt confident about my work, built relationships with writing faculty, was published in the undergrad journal and won an award at the university.

The most important thing is your manuscript. It's the biggest piece of the pie-- a glimmer of what they're investing in. And then comes life experience. This is what I was told by the professor who called me from Johns Hopkins.

While I was applying, I felt overshadowed. I realized a lot of other applicants probably had a list of publications or more awards, etc. In the end, I was accepted into Montana and Johns Hopkins.

If you're confident in your work and have been disciplined in your writing life and have the passion for pursuit, I would encourage you to apply.

It's easy to put ourselves down, run all these embarrassing scenarios-- or even oppositely, become arrogant and egotistical. I think it's important to be truly honest with yourself-- so if you think your work is good, then maybe it really is.

mgratherjr said...

I've been accepted into the program at McNeese State. I am wondering if their are any resources or books you guys could recommend that I should have starting out.

Sarah Yost said...

i"m wondering about two mfa degrees. I'm in a position now that I can only attend the MFA program in my city. But in a few years I have more options. Ideally I'd like to attend locally then in a few years apply for MFA programs elsewhere. Does anyone know if this is possible?

Samara said...

I think it is possible. There was a thread about this at the Speakeasy in the "preparation for an MFA" area. And my sister, a visual artist, is currently getting her second MFA in the same subject.

Samara said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
s.t.liaw said...

RE: insecurity about our work.

First, ditto r.p.

I didn't apply right out of undergrad, but I was a math major in college discovering poetry the last year or so there, so I felt (still feel) very under-read and unfamiliar with the poetic world.

It wasn't until I read Donald Hall's essay "Poetry and Ambition" (wasn't allowed to post link, but you can find it easily on the internet) that my desire for writing solidified into a sense of lifestyle that I wanted to pursue, applying to MFA being one of the commoner options.

FWIW, I was accepted at Oregon and UCI for poetry (going to UCI!).

Good luck!

Scott said...

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I love the site, some really cool stuff on here.

Scott said...

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Scott said...

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I love the site, some really cool stuff on here.

Scott said...

Hi all

I love the site, some really cool stuff on here.

phineas said...

Hi everyone!

To the ppl wondering if they are good enough to apply for an mfa... look at it like this: Do you feel you are a mature writer FOR YOUR AGE? I say this because when I left undergrad I didn't apply precisely case I was too young and inexperienced. Then I started to really think about it, and to write a sort of autobiography. And then I felt that I was pretty darn mature for my age, that an admissions comittee should be able to recognize that, and appreciate my writing precisely because 20 year olds deserve to develop as writers too if they are already showcasing good potential.

In other words, when you feel you're ready, or when you can make a rational case for it, you most probably are.

phineas said...

Me again. I would tie my comment to the very-well put comment from Mr. RP.

It is easy to underestimate our work, but how about giving ourselves a little credit for having the ambition, discipline, and passion to actually go through the process of dreaming, organizing, writing, proofreading, editing, rewriting, AND showing a finished piece of work to others?

That is no small feat.

Lizzy said...

Sarah Yost,

Yes, I know people who have two MFAs or are planning on getting a second. If you're going for another MFA, though, I'd think you'd be better off getting a PhD in CW. The PhD is handy because it lets you teach writing as well as lit. The only reason to get a second MFA would be--I assume--to get funded time to write. In that case, a PhD will give you that PLUS a very marketable degree.

D.M. Nichols said...

Hi everyone, first time commenter.

Quick Question:

How does everyone feel about attending the same school for both undergrad and MFA? I am currently a CW undergrad at Florida State, I am seriously considering applying here for grad school. I love the faculty here. I love the way they run workshops. I think it would be a good exerience for me, but I'm afraid that other Universities might frown upon my lack of a more diverse experience (in case I ever wanted to go onto another program after my MFA is complete). What do you guys think? Has anyone on here recieved multiple degrees from the same institution?

lavademon said...

On the "am I good enough for an mfa" question (I don't want to beat it to death, but...), I think another important thing to consider is "am I in a place in my life where I am able to pick up and move wherever my potential acceptances take me?" I realize this is a moot point if you don't get any acceptances, but if you are at such a place and you want to apply, why not apply? For me, the time was seven months out of college. Yes, if I had waited one or two more years to refine my craft, I might have been a more competitive applicant, but in two years I also might have had a job, a spouse, a mortgage. Who knows? Not being tied down can be a rare occurrence in life, and the longer you wait, I think, the more those pesky life responsibilities will pop up.

Also, I think the function of the mfa is to grow as a writer and not necessarily to be an already amazing writer who is just looking for the connections that the gold stamp of the mfa can provide. And everyone in an mfa program is starting their mfa growth from a different point. Some are very refined and have a clear sense of style, whereas others are rawer and still in the process of discovering what kind of writer they want to be. An mfa can be great for both situations. So, I agree with the idea that if you want to apply and are able to apply, then apply to a range of programs (some super competitive dream schools and some quality lesser known, less competitive schools—all in cool places that you’d like to live), and see what happens. Good luck!

r.p. said...

Hi Phineas, it's Ms. RP :)

Bolivia Red said...

nick m--
I think people have been answering your question indirectly when they are commenting on the "how do I know it's the right time for an mfa" question, but here's a direct answer. No, you don't need to have an MA to get into the MFA. It doesn't necessarily give you a leg up except in the sense that it's given you confidence as a writer and student. Only one person in our current program of 24 has an MA to my knowledge. Some people came from non-English major backgrounds or had only been writing for a short while. What programs want are people with potential, not necessarily a bunch of publications or an MA in hand or already super-polished writing. Also, just think what having an MA means--another 2-3 years in school (and poverty). If you simply want the time to be a student and write for five years, or if you think the MA will give you more confidence and writing experience (I assume you're asking about a CW MA and not just a lit MA), then it would be worth it. If you don't think you're ready for the MFA, you'd be better off keeping your day job for two years and working on your writing, maybe taking a few CW night classes or workshops.

Suzanne said...

Still seeking advice about improving one's chances to get off a wait list? Any thoughts? I am hoping that contacting the program and expressing enthusiasm is OK...

Jordan said...

Hey guys,
What a great discussion going on here. I've realized there needs to be a location for all of this helpful information -- something that is searchable and archived, too. I'll be applying to some programs at the end of the year and could use a nice place to get some questions answered, and just to hear what everyone else is thinking and doing. I went ahead and set up a forum for everyone. Hopefully this makes it easier to continue some of the discussion. Check it out at
Thanks and good luck everyone,

Tory Adkisson said...

Hello all, I have been secretly stalking this blog for the last month since I am planning on applying to MFA programs (for Poetry) in the fall. One of my advisers told me I should apply to only 8 programs instead of 10-12, because it will make sure I apply to programs that I want to go to, rather than ones I am willing to go to. What do you all think?

Here is the list of the 8 programs I definitely want to apply to, in alphabetical order:

Brown University
Cornell University
Johns Hopkins University
New York University
University of Iowa
University of Massachussetts
University of Michigan
University of Washington

I'd love to hear from anyone who knows anything about these schools, especially in regards to funding which is basically essential for me. I know quite a bit already, but a new information would be helpful.


captain america said...


I understand where you're teacher is coming from, but those are all elite programs you're thinking about applying to and unless you're really that good, you might be setting yourself up for a humbling experience. I would take a more tiered approach. Apply to ten schools. Choose four or five from your list and then add smaller, not as prestigious programs with decent funding. Just off the top of my head, I really like Notre Dame and Vanderbilt. You can find more if you do the research. If you can get a TA-ship, I also really like Colorado State. I believe this blog also has a list of under the radar programs. Good luck.

Eric said...


I'm an undergrad at Washington, and can't recommend the poetry faculty highly enough. The program is great, the city is great. The funding isn't great, but the dept. is on the verge of receiving a huge endowment that I imagine might help.

Samara said...

This is a last minute question.
I just found out that I received a fellowship for next year, which will be my first year in the program. My program already fully funds everyone through assistantships, but the fellowship would mean I didn't have to teach my first year. The other difference is I would be funded through the summer, but I would be required to take classes. Otherwise, I think the monthly stipend would work out to be about the same or maybe a little bit more than the t.a. stipend. My question is, some people have said that it's better to get the teaching experience--in fact, one person told me she asked not to be considered for a fellowship so that she could get extra teaching experience. However, I would be teaching anyway during my second and third years. Should I be at all concerned about missing teaching my first year? I have until April 30th to decide whether I will take the fellowship.

Nick McRae said...

Personally, I would take the fellowship. Like you said, you'll still have 2 years to teach, which is still good considering some programs are only two years anyway.

Tory Adkisson said...

wow thanks for the responses!

captain america: i agree with your assessment of my choices being elite programs, but i feel like these programs are the best for me, both in terms of education and location, and i really want to test my work against the highest caliber being put forth. for my own sense of being, it is important for me to go to a program of prestige; i have cut the lesser ones from my longer list in revision. and i am concentrating on schools on the east coast with some midwest options because i am tired of my home state of california. and my personal preferences make the south somewhat uninhabitable (which is why UVa is not on my list).

eric: i wonder if you've ever had a workshop with heather mchugh--i am going to see her read in a few weeks and was told good things about her by one of my advisers who is a good friend of hers.

while funding can be spotty seems like everyone is offering better financing than columbia these days, hahahahah.

i must say that i think i am applying to iowa on principal because proximity to larger cities, in some instances, is important to me because i want to be in an area where more than just writing is going on. i get the sense that iowa city is not such a place.

Mark said...

Tory -

I have heard that U of Michigan has a stronger fiction program than poetry. And also that the poetry professors are a bit aloof. Although I think they are hiring a new person...

Also, I understand the sentiment of wanting to test your work against the "highest caliber out there," but I'm not convinced that the best writers go to the most elite programs. From what I know the acceptance processes can be very arbitrary and random. If your work doesn't mesh well with someone in the first round of reviews, it may not even make it into the creative writing faculty's hands. I'm not trying to discourage you, just pointing out that the most elite programs may not be the best for your writing, based on whether or not your style or goals match the programs.

Ethan said...

Also Tory,

If you are wanting to only apply to "prestigious" programs, I would take a second look at Iowa and maybe reconsider, especially since you don't seem that thrilled about Iowa City. Tom's book does give Iowa its due credit, but the general consensus I have run into about Iowa on this blog and from other analyses similar to Tom's is that the notion that Iowa is a top tier program is about a decade outdated. And on a personal note, I did my undergrad at the University of Iowa and I can tell you that yes, there is not much here for someone used to the big coastal cities or looking for a vibrant cultural scene. I actually crossed University of Iowa off my list because I did not want to spend another two years here. It is very much a college town, so there are some good campus/community theatre/cultural events and a vibrant progressive political scene, though I would say that is mostly reactionary to being in a state that is largely traditional/conservative--the camppus is 98% white and the vast majority people that attend are from Iowa. Also, the big thing that drew me away from UI is that the campus and community is totally a culture of undergraduates. The downtown scene (about 4 square blocks with nearly 40 drinking establishments and not much else except a pretty respectable community theatre and some good indian, sushi, and thai restaurants) is VERY young, since 19 year olds are legally allowed into the bars during drinking hours. Iowa City weekends basically consist of thursday through sunday drinking drinking drinking, lots of bar crawls, lots of frats/sorority girls partying downtown. We are a party school, and the culture of the school and the downtown community very much revolves around that--the 19 ordinance is good for business and that's why it remains on the books. It really can be stifling for grad students who basically can't stand going downtown or can't for fear of being facebook-photographed next to one of their students without even knowing, which doesn't leave anywhere else to go hang out really. Also, UI does have a ton of problems with grad student and TA funding issues, and the graduates here have had to basically organize into a union (called COGS)to fight the unversity tooth and nail for better pay and benefits. It has gotten downright nasty at times. I was out walking to class one day and saw a few of my TAs picketing on campus, and they were pissed, bitter, and resentful. Not a culture I would want to get into, though I have heard the situation has improved little by little every year but that is due to some pretty intense conflict. The University puts all its resources into the medical school campus, which builds a new wing onto its hospital about once a year, its athletics, and its undergrads. I guess I am saying I would think twice before applying here "on principle," since you already have reservations about the place, and since I indeed think there would not be much for you outside of the writing program. UI's reputation has slid recently, too, I would listen to those instincts that you would not like it here and look at another program because I don't think having the word "Iowa" on your degree will be worth it if you are not into the town.

togol said...


While I agree that Iowa City isn't the most diverse place, I think your assessment of both the town and the Workshop is way off. First of all, you're looking at it from an undergraduate's perspective, and from an undergraduate's perspective of course the social scene is going to seem very much like the social scene at any large university, whether you're talking about Michigan, Virginia, Indiana, Florida, etc. You're going to have your frat boys, your undergraduate bars with 50-cent pitchers of crap beer, and so on. But there's a whole other side to Iowa City that you're overlooking or may not even know about. As someone who attended the Writers' Workshop, I can tell you that the writing community in Iowa City is larger and more vibrant than any writing community I've ever encountered, and not only among the graduate students, but also among recent graduates and all of the other people who graduated from the program in past years and stuck around town. Prairie Lights is quite possibly the best independent bookstore in the country, and between the reading series they run and the reading series run through the Workshop, you probably have more famous writers coming through Iowa City in a given year than you do any other city in the country, save for New York and possibly LA. On top of that, neither the prestige nor the level of talent at the Workshop has diminished at all. If anything, it's increased, as evidenced by the larger number of recent graduates publishing books and the record number of applications (almost 1000 this year for fiction alone).

As for funding, it's been well documented that the funding situation is only getting better and better and that everyone admitted to the program receives some funding now and that the program has a new policy that they won't ever “lose” a student to another school because of funding. As for Tom's assessment of the Workshop, some of that information was incorrect (especially the stuff about Iowa having a hyper-competitive atmosphere, which it simply doesn’t anymore) and will be corrected by Seth Abramson in the second edition of the MFA Handbook. Because Iowa has always been regarded as the most prestigious program in the country, there have always been people trying to knock it down, and I’d urge all potential applicants to be wary of the rumors that they hear, as the large majority of them are false. Instead, you should ask yourself why no other program in the country gets more applications or produces more successful writers. There’s a reason that the degree from Iowa carries more weight than any other, whether you’re talking about academic or literary circles, and though it’s certainly not the school for everyone, if you care about being part of an incredibly talented and vibrant community of writers, or if you care (like Tory) about prestige, there’s really not a better place to go.

Luke said...


I wonder if you're looking at the MFA in the right light. It seems as if you're treating this degree the same way you would an MBA or a JD, which seems a bit off. In the grand scheme of things, the name of the university on your degree seems to mean very little, at least as far as job searches go. What's much more important about the MFA, in my opinion, is that you find an environment in which you can work, a place that both challenges and encourages your writing. My guess would be this has little to do with rankings. Not that they're meaningless, it simply seems as if you're lending them a bit too much weight by assuming that because those schools are ranked the highest they are the only places you would find "high-caliber" peers.

Tory Adkisson said...

I am not so much looking at the programs themselves as possessing any particular degree of caliber one way or another--far from that, I am definitely interested in their individual characteristics and how best they might facilitate my writing. The caliber I speak of is the perceived caliber of the students I will be taking my workshops with, and I think it is a fair assumption that better funded and better known programs attract the most serious students with the greatest amount of potential. Obviously no program can really claim to be the best in a field as subjective as writing where the success of graduates is difficult to measure when based on traditional terms. That being said, certain schools are better funded, offer a greater amount of opportunities and give some prestige to those who obtain degrees from them, vain as it may be.

Prestige, however you quantify it, bares some importance to me because I am a person given to such things. I am an undergraduate at UCLA now, and can't imagine getting my MFA at a small state school in the middle kentucky, regardless of how fair, big or well funded the program is. It's simply not me. And I feel as though the majority of people who apply to schools like that are afraid that they are not good enough for the most prestigious programs. It's all based on the applicant pool. I want my work held up to the most penetrating scrutiny, next to the most deserving, talented applicants, because if I am not good enough to get into one of those schools, I am not ready to get my MFA yet. It is a numbers game, though, because of the insane competitive nature of the process. I have a friend at Iowa, one at Brown and another going to NYU. I feel confident in my work now, and after the extensive writing (and most importantly, revising) I plan on doing this summer, I will feel more confident.

I don't think I am the best, but I think I have a strong voice and strong sense of what my aesthetic perspective is. I think I know myself well and that I am better than some. Call it arrogance; as a writer how can you exist without some necessary degree of arrogance. Either way, I know what I want.

That being said, I will probably apply to University of Minnesota, in addition to what I put above, and probably the University of Indiana, so I have 10 schools. If anyone knows of any good programs in Chicago let me know, because I would love to live there (blame Sufjan Stevens). I know of Columbia College and the School at the Art Institute of Chicago, but know little about them. And what about the New School?


Abigail said...


I don't know much about the Columbia College MFA, but the SAIC program is expensive and sporadically funded. It's known for its inter-disciplinary nature; they might even require that you take courses in other arts than the literary ones. In my opinion the best faculty in town tends to be in the program at Northwestern (Stuart Dybek, John Keane and Aleksander Hemon have taught there in fiction, don't know about poetry), but I don't think they offer full funding, either.

Also, good for you for your confidence. I think its wise to apply only to places you're 100% thrilled about. I applied to 7 schools, only one of which(Montana) accepted more than 3% of its applicants. (no- I didn't do much research, didn't know about the MFA handbook, etc, didn't want to spend the money on 12 applications) An MFA is not the only way forward. If nothing works out, you can apply again later with different work. Or you can just move to Chicago. I came here after graduating from college, and its a great place to live affordably and develop your work surrounded by abandoned industrial buildings and catalpa trees. I'm gonna miss it like hell for the next three years!

Good luck with your writing and your applications.

Ethan said...


Of course a current student is going to be more knowledgeable of the situation on the ground at the WW, so it's good of you to come to the defense of your program. I stand corrected, and I hope those updates are added to the book if they indeed are needed. And I do agree that the literary community here is exceptional. I attend Prairie Lights' readings as often as I can and have for years. That bookstore is a real asset to the town and to the workshop. These are great things. But I must say I don't think my view of Iowa City is way off. I have been working at the University professionally for 2 years since my graduation and have made many close friends that are graduate students and younger faculty members from many departments, and I like to think that I know the different scenes of undergraduate and graduate/graduate-student life fairly well. And while the literary community and Prairie Lights are definitely bright spots, many of us still feel starved for just a little more of what a more diverse/urban environment can offer (having come from the Chicago area, personally). My main point was that if one has reservations about leaving that urban experience, Iowa City, as great as it is, may not be the place for such a person, especially since there are TONS of quality prestigious programs in urban areas if an applicant is willing to do the research and more suited to that environment. If that is important criteria for someone, I would consider saving the application money or at least visiting the place before you decide to attend—and not just the Dey House where the program is housed. Try to get a feel for the rest of the city, ideally on a weekend just to see what it’s like and if you think you would be happy here. I only spoke up because the poster expressed worries about IC and seemed resigned to applying in spite of her misgivings, which I think could be a mistake, and I wanted to share my experience. Admittedly, I am coming from the perspective of having been here 6 years, so I was ready to get back a big city for my mfa. I was looking for a culturally (and, yes, racially) vibrant community outside of just the literary community, not that there aren't niches that I have found and enjoyed in IC, but I can count on one hand the number of places downtown that I can stand going on weekends. That is enough for some, but it wasn't for me. Not applying to Iowa was a hard decision, especially as a settled state resident, and it is a quality program, perhaps still the best, as you claim, but I wanted more from my surrounding environment. I’ll give you the last word, though. I don’t want to derail this post by turning it into another University-of-Iowa-or-not-University-of-Iowa argument.

NJ said...

Tory & Abigail,

A couple of days ago Northwestern officially announced a 16 course (3-4 year) evening MFA beginning in the fall quarter.

They offer little in the way of funding (From their website: "MFA students in good academic standing will be eligible for tuition scholarships for the final four courses of the program.") No word on how much/whether the scholarships are merit or need based (or both.)

The faculty is great, but bring your checkbook (~$40K w/o tuition inflation & it costs more if you take >2 classes/quarter.)

I love living in Chicago, but remember it will still be here when you graduate from Iowa, IU, Minn, etc. and the $40K you save could go a long way towards future rent while you write the books that make you famous.

Good luck.

lavademon said...


There are three other MFA programs in Chicago that I know of. Columbia College, Roosevelt University, and the School of the Art Institute at Chicago. They all carry a big price tag and more less have little funding, limited opportunites for TA or RA'ships if any, and, oddly enough, they are all pretty close to each other on or near michigan avenue right downtown. I am going to RU this fall, and I am really excited and got one of the better funding deals available, I think. Plus, they have some cool internship requirements built into the degree. But among the top caliber programs you are looking at, I am not sure if any of these schools would totally match up. I don't know a lot about CC, but I did look at SAIC, and it is about 30K (a year!!!) while RU and CC are about 15K per year. And honestly, the writing samples that SAIC sent me in their magazine publication really turned me off. Very "the purple vortex swallowed the head of the girl who cried neon tears onto bloody flowers" kind of stuff--and these were the prose short story sections, mind you, not the poetry. It's an art school through and through, it seems, which was not a good fit for me.

r.p. said...

Hi Tory-
You've got a wealth of info. here but I wanted to say that I was also trying to pare down my applications. I started with 13 and ended up applying to 11 schools-- 4 of which are on your list.
I think that it's a wise and brave thing to shorten your list to the MFA programs you would attend. Why apply to ones that are sub-par to your standards. Just be sure that you're willing to swallow the admission rates, too. Your average rate will be about 1-5%, which is tiny but still possible.
Out of my 11 applications, I was admitted into 2 schools. I'm going to the Johns Hopkins program in the fall. All 11 of my choices were top 20 MFA programs. So I completely understand your thinking.
Be sure to look at funding in each place, too. You don't want to get into a top program and have to shell out a bunch of money and go into debt. The great thing about many of these elite schools is that though their admission rates are so low, everyone gets funding (Cornell, JHU, etc).
Best of luck! If you want more information about JHU, let me know.

Lautreamont said...

Everyone I know who went to the New School loves it. Which brings me to a very important MFA Blog point. I haven't ONCE on this thread seen the name of a professor or MFA faculty member even fleetingly mentioned. I would love to say that MFA's consist of your college's name and the city (or farm-land) where it is but, frankly, the faculty is going to have a major impact on your work. That said, I am surprised schools like Johns Hopkins with so-so David Smith pulling ALL the program's weight or Cornell whose A team consists of Cyntha Chase and Phyllis Janowitz (snore) are the major programs people apply to. Meanwhile, OSU is rocking Henri Cole; and David Lehman, the editor of most anthologies you own, is pimping out at the New School. I didn't even want to mention UNH where Simic, the current poet laureate, and Bridgit Pegeen Kelly teach. SO all I want to say to you potential MFA'ers is Go Look at the Fucking faculty where you want to go to. It changes often and schools often try to hide it from you. Believe me, when you get to the workshops your professors will be looming seriously large.

forgotten the cat said...


I agree with you on the importance of finding a faculty you like, and about considering the often passed over schools that employ fantastic writers.

But in your criticism towards the big programs like Cornell and JHU, you've raised another point. Great writers don't have to be poet-laureates, nor do they have to be a name you have heard of in your college classes. Do your research. Undergraduates can have a limited scope to their reading (I know I did). You may not love Dave Smith, but JHU just hired the fantastic duo of Mary Jo Salter and Brad Leithauser to their faculty. If Cornell's 'A-team' doesn't float your boat, try Alice Fulton (to name one).

So, I agree with lautreamont. Do check out the faculty at the schools you apply to. But don't write them off just because you haven't heard their name in your CW thesis workshop.

Lisa N.R. said...

Hello, another lurker, already obsessing over apps for fall. I will basically have to go low rez (may be out of my league financially, with mouths to feed) or get into (and funded for) the U of Washington. Does anyone have any advice about UW for fiction? I accidently talked to a current MFA student at the graduate library and he was pretty chagrined in all kinds of ways, but I don't know if he was just a crank or a voice crying in the wilderness. I adore the program at Warren Wilson, in every way, but it gets discouraging to hear people say "you shouldn't go into debt for an MFA." I just keep writing, desperate to get better, any way I can. I know the UW MFA is considered a good program (in Tom's book, at least)...does anyone else have experience first-hand? Thanks and best wishes to you all; this is such a generous group, sharing info and positivity.