Tuesday, August 22, 2006

MFA Tip Sheet

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.


tankpony said...

Hey Tom,

I'm currently a senior undergraduate in the midst of applying to MFA programs for the fall of 2007. How much, if at all, will being fresh out of college factor into the admissions process? I've heard all different things. Thanks.

Moriah said...

Hey Tankpony -

Ultimately it is all about your work, so if your writing is better than the applicants who have more life experience than you may be accepted. From the point of view of someone who took time off between undergrad and applying for an MFA, I HIGHLY recommend taking time off before you apply. Experiencing the world outside of academia will benefit your writing in ways you cannot anticipate right now, and trust me, it's worth it to learn how to budget your time and keep writing a priority while working a full-time job. Then there's the possibility that if you go straight to an MFA that when you graduate you won't be a very appealing candidate in the job market, despite your master's degree, due to your lack of work experience.

Good luck in your decision.


M. said...

I am currently a graduating undergrad senior, and I applied to a bunch of schools, and have already been accepted by UMass Amherst, Emerson, and University of East Anglia. The thing is, I cannot decide where I'd want to go, and I still haven't heard from a few other schools. It doesn't make it easier that UMass wants a response by April 1st. Any advice you could possibly give me?

cobalt said...

Hi Tom,
Can you advise me on your comparison of low residency MFA's? I got into Bennington, Warren Wilson and Vermont College. I love Vermont, but I have heard that WW is the top school in low residency programs. I'm supposed to give an answer by April 9th. Anything you know in the low res world would be extremely appreciated! thank you!

Laura Scott said...

Hi Tom,

I would like to get a teaching job, and I know my MFA is a step. What else is vital to acquiring a teaching job?

Joy said...

Hi Tom,
Are you familiar with Western Connecticut State's MFA program? It's low residency, but I noticed you didn't mention it in your recommended list. Any particular reason? Your thoughts & suggestions are appreciated as I've considered applying.

Anonymous said...

I'm one of these that, after high school, went straight for the "life experience," bypassing - with a certain cavalier abandon - college altogether. I am now, ten years later, quite interested in what a well-chosen MFA could offer. Is there some resource - perhaps this book - that lays out which, if any, programs, based upon writing alone, have the ability or desire to accept such rogues as me?

Megs said...


Thanks for this blog! It's really heartening to read that people actually get into MFA programs. I'm preparing applications for fall 2008, and it is all so overwhelming and impossible...


Rachel said...

Hi, I'm currently a senior majoring in English at UC Berkeley. Recently, I"ve become very interested in MFA and MA programs in creative writing.

I'm especially interested in programs in England and Ireland. However, I can't seem to find any information on them. Mostly, I"ve just been looking at the websites of schools that I already know of (such as Trinity, Queen's in Belfast, Oxford).

Does anyone have any suggestions on how to find out more information about creative writing programs in England and Ireland?


Quotidian Poet said...

Hi Rachel -

I did a critical MA at Queen's in 2005-2006, and being a writer I became close with the whole MFA crowd, attending some of their classes and being part of the community there. So if you want a personal perspective and/or to be put in touch with a few people, I'd be happy to help (an old friend from high school also went to the UEA program).

As for other resources, maybe others will have some to suggest, but for the most part creative writing programs are not especially well supported/regarded in the British Isles. And informational resources in general are rather more scarce over there.

A few general things to keep in mind regarding UK/Irish programs vs. the States: as far as finances go, the exchange rate is a real killer, and you most likely won't be eligible for any aid (though you might perhaps investigate a Fulbright, Mitchell, or Marshall). You also typically won't be able to get work teaching at the university like you would in the states. On the other hand, the programs are typically one year, so that means one year's worth of tuition rather than two or three. On the other other hand, you'll have to decide whether you think one year is really enough for this type of degree - personally, that's part of why I'm only considering US programs for my MFA.

I think an important question at this stage is why you're particularly interested in going abroad to do a CW degree when you don't yet have information on the programs? Not that I'm against the idea in itself, but it may be good to consider whether getting abroad experience through some other means, and then doing the CW degree somewhere that's really right for you, may be a more appropriate approach.

Hope that helps at least a little.

Amy (Wevodau) Malskeit said...


I completed an MA at Lancaster University in the NW of England in 2002 as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar. Lancaster is the 2nd oldest CW program in the UK, started a year after UEA.

I do think it is a good idea, especially if you are going to the UK, to check into funding sources, unless you have a trust fund. It's bloody expensive...but I finished without having any debt.

The travel opportunities were phenomenal, and being in a very international community enriched my writing in ways I still experience. The literary scene is smaller (and some would argue more incestuous). I was able to meet and become friends with editors of poetry presses because of events I went to and classes I took (like the Arvon Courses offered in the summer).

Going to another country to do your MA isn't magic though. Ultimately, it is still you, your pen, and a blank page. And it can be really lonely. Make sure that you are considering those aspects too.

Feel free to give me a shout if I can help, or put you in contact with people.


Scarlett said...

Hi, I’m an American who has lived in Spain since graduating from college in 2000. Doing an MFA is almost impossible due to my location and work situation. (Low residency programs cost a fortune!) So, I’ve decided to apply to the Sewanee Writers Conference for 2008. I was wondering if anyone could offer any tips about the application process or suggest other summer programs…


Robert Vasquez said...

To Those Weighing MFA Programs:

What do you want from an MFA program?

If you'd like to eventually secure a college-level teaching position, make sure you select a program that requires you to teach composition as well as opportunities to teach creative writing.

If reasonable tuition/residence costs are important you you, apply to programs that routinely grant tuition waivers to all who are accepted and that provide inexpensive on-campus housing.

If you want excellent workshop instructors and mentors, ask people who've already earned MFAs and whose opinions matter to you (maybe because you like their work?): Who did they like or dislike and why? (If Richard Hugo were still alive when I finally applied for grad school, I would have placed the Univ. of Montana at Missoula at the top of my choices: He gave a poetry reading at my undergrad school and just blew me away; I was overwhelmed by his talent, charm, and humor. The guy was incredibly appealing as a human being. But after his death, I had no compelling reason to attend an MFA program where the nearest metropolis was Seattle--nearly eight hundred miles away.)

If "po-biz" is important to you, apply to the schools that could be considered within the top 10-25: They're often highly ranked because many of their graduates not only publish books but win awards, honors, etc. That's probably the main reason why the Univ. of Iowa is always ranked number one: It has one of the largest--if not the largest--number of MFA candidates (well over 100) in attendance.

If you wish to earn a "terminal" degree (for a variety of reasons), make sure the institution you attend is a true university and not a college that calls itself a university. Universities generally require their tenure-track faculty to teach no more than four to five courses per academic year (if faculty teach six or more courses per year, they teach at a college). Moreover, the institution should offer terminal degrees in numerous disciplines; if the institution you're considering only offers a few terminal degrees, it's what we used to call a teacher's college or "normal" school: their main emphasis is to train elementary and secondary teachers. If your target institution's Department of Education has the largest number of graduates each year, it's probably a college. (Read Paul Fussell's text Class if you want to learn more about America's propensity to rename almost every educational institution a "university.")

When I decided to seek an MFA, I researched about twenty programs and narrowed my choices to two universities, the Univ. of Calif. at Irvine and the Univ. of Iowa. I got accepted by both, but I chose UC Irvine over Iowa for two major reasons: UC Irvine required all of their MFA candidates to teach composition and expected all second-year candidates to teach creative writing (something Iowa can't require or expect because of the large number of MFA candidates in their program), and everyone received plenty of financial aid via tuition waivers, fellowships, and/or teaching assistantships.

If you can determine exactly what you want to get out of an MFA program, you'll be in a better position to make informed decisions.

hoogeh said...

Question. I am 39 and ready to go for an MFA. Will my age hinder me or will they just look at my samples? Thanks to anyone who can answer this.

Stephanie said...

MFA programs-poetry

I am going to be a senior this fall, and I am researching MFA programs to apply to.

I have a couple questions
1) Does anybody know of MFA programs that deal much with "Environmental Writing" or "Place Theory." This is a field I am very interested in.
2) I am thinking of taking a year off to do Teach for America (or something else along those lines). Would taking a year off help or hinder my acceptance chances?
3) I would eventually like to get a PHD in creative writing. As I understand it, almost all of these programs will require me to learn a second language. Anybody know of MFA programs that offer study in foreign languages?

Unknown said...


1. chatham

3. u of Mississippi

apparently Indiana U and Washington U allow you to take classes outside of the dept as well.

Unknown said...

I do genre fiction and screenwriting. By 'genre' in my case I mean speculative fiction: fantasy, science fiction, horror and the like.

Which would be some good schools to consider that would be interested and open to speculative fiction writers? Canadian or US schools are both options for me.

Morgan FitzPatrick Andrews said...

I noticed that Goddard College is absent from your list. Any reason?

Recession Women said...

I'm next up to pick Tom's brain...

I have a BA from an OK state school (have an OK GPA), but I took time off to work as a journalist.

I've covered every beat, interviewed celebrities for the Boston Globe as a stringer, did some investigative reporting, wrote about food and fashion and technology for glossy magazines.

My real duende was feature writing, and I figured I'd use clips -- 15 pages of featurey-type clips -- coupled with 15 pages of a novel-length memoir to apply to the nonfiction MFA at Columbia.

I hope they don't just send my application the journalism school...

Any thoughts? Thanks.

Sarah said...

Hi, I just discovered your blog, and am so thankful that I did. I am working towards by BA in English, and am graduating in January 2011. I hope to attend a MFA program starting Fall 2011, but am nervous about getting in. I have a decent GPA (unless I flunk a class I expect to graduate with a 3.7 or so) and have professors that like me and my work, so obtaining good recommendation letters is not a concern. The problem is the amount of schools I can apply to. The issue is not a financial one; I live in Brooklyn and for personal reasons must attend a school nearby. Brooklyn College is my first choice, and I plan to apply to Adelphi, Queens, Hunter, and the New School. Is five schools too risky? Or is there a program I overlooked?

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celia said...

As someone who is considering applying to MFA programs in creative writing, I need a nyc-based class/workshop to help prepare my writing sample. (I personally write short stories, but any fiction class/workshops should do.) I have done extensive research online about places to take a class/workshop, and I can find no voice of authority about which establishments are good or not. Essentially, my question is this: is one better taking a [continuing ed] class at a college/university (ie NYU SCPS), or a non-school affiliated workshop (ie Gotham Writers Workshop)? It would be great if there was a "ratings list" about all the top classes and workshops in nyc, but I haven't been able to find anything like that. I know a lot of people who are looking for information like this... It would be a great resource if someone could create a small guide for people who have finished undergrad and are looking for some writing help before applying to MFA programs. Or do any of you commenters know the deal with workshops in nyc? Thank you!

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Mike of the Old Republic said...

So, if a school says they're going to notify candidates "by March 25th, 2012 if they have been offered admission and support" (three guesses which program I'm talking about), and it's now March 26th and I haven't heard anything either way, that probably means they're just procrastinating on sending out my rejection notice, right?

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Unknown said...

Hi Tom,

Thank you so much for these tips, especially the one about applying to multiple programs, some that have few slots, others with more—so useful.



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