15 Things to Do Before a Low-Res MFA (plus 5 bonus things)

Here are 15 things you should probably do before applying to a low-residency MFA in Creative Writing like ours:

  • Read at least a dozen different literary magazines (find some at your library or local bookstore)
  • Read multiple issues of at least two literary magazines
  • Submit to your favorite literary magazines multiple times
  • Get rejected by magazines multiple times
  • Maybe even be published once or twice if you’re lucky (not required)
  • Revise your best story, group of poems, essay, or play at least four more times
  • Read annual ‘best of’ anthologies in the genre or genres you want to write
  • Read at least a dozen recent books in the genre you want to write
  • Subscribe to Poets & Writers or Writer’s Digest
  • Take a creative writing class or weekend/summer workshop
  • Find a good, local bookstore and attend several readings
  • Join or form your own writing group
  • Get a job, so you can learn to balance work and writing
  • Consider going into a career that will actually earn you money, then realize that you have to write (don’t give up your career unless you can’t stand it, then find another day job you can stand), so you realize that now is the right time for you to take that next, daring, crazy step.
  • Research at least 20 different writing programs and apply to at least 6

You might not have to do all those things to get to the last step. And once you get there, you should probably consider doing some of the things you skipped, plus these added bonus things:

  • Add up the cost of tuition for 2-4 years of your MFA
  • Add to that the cost of lost income if you don’t keep your job
  • Add to that the cost of interest on student loans if you need them
  • Consider whether this financial investment will still seem worth it even if there are no immediate financial rewards from earning your degree
  • Consider how having a Master’s degree in Creative Writing might affect your career, but don’t assume you will have a high paying job as a college professor

My point is not to frighten you away from pursuing an MFA, but rather to encourage you to take a long, sober look at the financial costs and professional benefits of attaining the degree. Be prepared, both professionally and financially, before you start. An MFA won’t make you a writer — it should make you a better writer.

There are other ways to be a writer, though an MFA program may be your best and quickest route to becoming the writer you want to be. You should go into it with a financial plan to avoid excessive debt, and you should go into it with clear goals for how the degree can improve your professional life as well as your writing life. Then make sure your program will help you attain those goals.

You should also go into an MFA program with a sense of the literary marketplace and the market for the kind of writing you want to do. And you should go into it after exploring that marketplace and determining that an MFA really is the best route for you and  that the programs you’re applying to will take you on that route. Often an MFA is the best choice, but not always, and you will be much happier and more successful if you make an informed decision so you really know what you’re getting into and what you want to get out of your MFA.

If you’re considering a traditional residential MFA program, then you should probably do all of these things, too, except you may not need to already have a day job, and your financial decision might depend on whether you are accepted into a program that fully funds you. Typically you work, teaching undergraduate classes to earn that full funding. You will give up any job you have now, move to the university that houses your program, and become a full-time graduate student/instructor.

Low-residency programs tend to be for students who already have career and/or family and aren’t able to uproot their lives and move to a new city for their program, so they should have a job where they are or have savings or other means to support themselves during their degree. Scholarships may be available (and there are national scholarship programs) but teaching options tend to be more limited because you are not on campus.

See our program’s Guide for Applicants for some advice on funding an MFA and for links to resources.

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