Tuesday, August 23, 2005

From the Mailbag... Week of August 22nd

Each Monday I'll be answering four or five questions regarding the MFA experience, including the researching and application processes. You can send your questions to my email address. Here we go...

I'm going to be applying to programs this coming fall and had a question about the GRE. I've talked to multiple faculty within a couple different programs, faculty who read for admissions, and they tell me the GRE doesn't matter at all -- not one whit. The test is really just a formality of the graduate colleges, and the creative writing departments don't care at all about the applicant's score. Is this true universally? I ask because I want to put forth as little time as I need to studying for it. It seems it would be so much better spent polishing my stories.

Thanks --

Thanks for your question Jason. The short answer is: The GRE doesn't count for much in your application. Your writing sample (about 20 pages of prose or about 10 pages of poetry) will count 90% of your application. If the committee likes your work, then they'll look at your personal statement and perhaps your letters of recommendation, and then they'll make their decision. If the committee loves your work, then they'll accept you regardless of the rest. Generally speaking, committees will accept from 5-10% of applicants.

Your GRE scores may count if there is a university-wide fellowship at stake, but those cases are rare. The one thing I'll say about the GRE: The scores are basically for the graduate school, as opposed to the writing program. In other words, the writing program chooses their student, the files are sent on to the graduate school, and someone in the administration approves them. So, it's important that your scores fall somewhere in the "range" of other graduate students accepted that year in all departments. If your scores are not in that range, then you may be accepted to the program, but rejected by the university.

Bottom line: Do study for the GRE. But my advice is to put only about 10-15 hours of time into this task. Get a good score, not a great one. My comments are related to the MFA only, and GRE Literature Subject scores will count a little more for Ph.D. and M.A. applicants.


That's a good question about the GRE. I have a similar question: My grades as an undergrad were horrific. I'm surprised I even got a diploma. I've been out for five years now, and last year I applied to five programs and was accepted to only one--and that was on a probationary basis because of my transcripts. Is this going to be something that will hinder me forever? I plan on applying again this winter, and one of the professors here at the university in my town thinks I shouldn't worry: if my writing is good enough, my grades won't matter. Still, even with her advice, I am in a constant state of anxiety. How can I convince these schools that I am in a far different place--mentally--than I was five, six years ago?

Thanks for your question Isaac. If your undergraduate grades were truly horrific, then I think it's in your best interest to address them in your personal statement. As I said in the previous answer, your writing sample will count for 90% of your acceptance to an MFA program. But committees will also ask: Is this person ready for graduate school? Is this person reliable, does he or she complete tasks, and does he or she play well with others? I would definitely encourage you to acknowledge your grades in your personal statement, explain why they were low, and then explain why they are not a reflection on where you are now as a potential graduate student. If you've excelled in other areas: work, volunteering, other academic work, then point this out. Be clear that you are committed to making the most of your experience. I think you can do this in one paragraph of your personal statement, about the length of this paragraph.


Hi Tom,

Which of the Ph.D. programs in creative writing offer significant fellowship and/or TA money, plus tuition waiver?


Kyle Minor

Kyle, the Ph.D. programs with good funding that come to mind are USC, Florida State, University of Missouri, UNLV, and Utah. This is a starting point, and I'd encourage you to research as many as you are interested in. Funding is a prime criteria for selecting a program, and we'll be talking more about that in future mailbags. If anyone has other schools to add to this list, please include them in the comments section below.


I'm a writer friend of Steve's....I'm actually considering getting an MFA in Creative Writing (non fiction focus), so I'm interested in your research. What have you found out about low-residency MFAs?

I'm weighing the desire to hone my writing skills with a mentor and create a focused finished product with what I'm sure is the downside of a low-residency program: less exposure to good contacts.

I suppose this gets to the next question....what's an MFA for? If it's just for increased skill, shouldn't you be able to do it from anywhere? Traditionally, you'd get an MFA for the contacts (at least in my former life, which was academic theatre).

Any thoughts on this? I'm on the fence at the moment.


Thanks for your question, Lori. I don't know if "good contacts" count for much. Certainly that is a selling point at Iowa and Columbia, and many other universities, but it's not like agents are roaming the hallways there, or hanging out in professors' offices. There are certainly examples of professors who have forwarded student work on to agents, but my guess is that this is about 1% of cases. The MFA is about learning, deepening, and challenging your craft, not about finding an agent. If someone has indicated otherwise, then I'd be wary about that person. The MFA is an artistic degree, not a professional degree. Often, the best contacts you make are with your fellow students.

The definite upside of the Low-Residency programs are that you get to work one-on-one with a writer and teacher via email, post, or phone. You get a lot of attention. The downside is that there is less of a community atmosphere that is present in residency programs. Generally speaking: If you have to stay where you are for professional or family reasons, then the Low-Residency route is a good one. If you can be mobile, then I'd encourage you to go the residency route.

Best of luck with your decision. Your final question: "What's an MFA for?" is an excellent one, and I'll be addressing it early next week in another planned posting.

Thanks for all of the questions. I'll be answering more from the mailbag next week, and we'll have some visitors here starting in September.


Danyel said...

cool blog. glad I found it. I'm about to start my second year as an MFA (fiction) at the New School University.

Anonymous said...

A good blog idea and long overdue.

I would like to take respectful exception to the idea of low-residency programs merely as a convenience for people who can't move away to a residential program. An increasing number of writers - me, for example - are choosing low-res programs on their own merit over traditional programs. It's more than a matter of one-on-one attention. Students write a lot more in a low-res program, turning in 30 pages of original work and criticism each month, as opposed to being "up" once or twice a term in workshop. The low-res routine is similar to the life of a writer and doesn't require as difficult an adjustment after graduation. Strong bonds do form between and among students and teachers, absent the competition for attention and aid that is common in residential programs. And the residencies still provide for two high-quality workshop experiences per year.

The best reason to choose a residential program is the shelter it provides a writer who needs several years to focus on craft. A low-residency program doesn't offer that refuge from the real world. It's worth noting, though, that the high workload for TAs in residential programs can intrude significantly upon that refuge, and the low pay can result in a post-graduate debt equal or even greater than that of low-residency grads, who usually receive no aid but keep their day jobs. It's important to choose a residential program where the teaching load and financial aid allow the time and space a writer is seeking.

Tom Kealey said...

Bob, can you write back to me (my email is in the profile section) with your email address? I really appreciate what you wrote, and I'd like to include it in a post, along with whatever you'd like to add to "Strong bonds do form between and among students and teachers, absent the competition for attention and aid that is common in residential programs," which I know a lot of prospective students would like to hear more about.

The funding issue - regarding residency vs. lowresidency - is an important issue, and I'll expect to talk about it more as we move through the next few weeks.

Thanks again for your post.

-- TK

Anonymous said...

The University of Southern Mississippi's Center for Writers also offers a creative writing Ph. D with $15,000 fellowships available competitively to PhD students. You missed them in your list, but the program is strong with the Barthelme brothers on faculty, a great visiting writers series, and the Mississippi Review.

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