So you’ve been writing, revising, reading magazines and books (as I suggested in Part 1 of this series), and you feel like you’re ready to start the application process. How can you navigate the difficult journey to an MFA? Fortunately, there are a lot of resources that can help you choose a program and figure out how to write the best application possible.
First, how do you know when you’re really ready to apply? Sometimes you just have to take that plunge, but it can help to do some relection before you start the process. My low-residency MFA progam has a Guide for Applicants that can help you make that decision and help you navigate the process, and we hope it’s helpful for any program, not just ours. I’ve also written extensively on this blog about the application process. See the category MFA Application for posts like 15 Things to Do Before a Low-Res MFA that can help you prepare.
AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs also has a series of articles about the MFA application process that can be very helpful in thinking about the process and deciding whether you’re ready to take the plunge. Poets & Writers also publishes an annual MFA issue in Sept./Oct. that can be very informative with articles about the MFA experience and advice on choosing a program.
Another free resource that I highly recommend is Kenzie Allen’s 10-day course at Literistic, “MFA Applications 101.” [Update, apparently you have to pay to access Literistic now, even content like this that used to be free. April 2023] This series of ten emails will walk you through the application process and provide many links to more resources than I can cover here. If you’re starting the application process or even just thinking about it, you owe it to yourself to sign up. The more you know about the process, the better you’ll be able to do to write your letter and hone your writing sample.
Other great resources include the MFA Years blog and the MFA Draft Facebook group: a new group is started each year, so search for the group if my link doesn’t take you to the right one. You must request membership and show that you’re an applicant, not a program director like me.
Finding a program is a little more complicated. Of course, you want to apply to the best programs you can where you’ll be competitive, but you also want to bear in mind the cost, location, and the culture of the schools you’re looking at. The best places to start your search are the guides at AWP, Poets & Writers, New Pages, and Publisher’s Weekly. You can find out everything you need to know to get started from these sites, and they all list slightly different information, so checking more than one is worth the time. They also link to program websites, which makes it easier to dig down to find out more about the programs you’re most interested in.
The common advice you hear about writing programs is to choose based on the writers who teach in the program. There’s a certain amount of wisdom in that — it they write like you write, then you might have a better experience working with them. That’s if those writers are truly active in their programs and if they are good teachers as well as good writers. But many of the best teaching writers out there are not the most famous writers you’ve heard of. Yes, the reputation of your thesis director could make a difference, but the vast majority of writers will make their way based on their own merits, not on who they worked with in grad school.
Better advice that you hear is to contact students in the program to find out what it’s like. Ask about hidden fees and about the culture of the program. What’s it like to live in the town for a full residency program or how a low-residency program works: do you work with a mentor or take online classes? How do you exchange files? etc.
Another piece of advice for choosing programs that I don’t hear a lot about, but have been thinking about recently, is to read the program’s literary magazine. From the magazine, you’ll learn a lot about the esthetic of the graduate student editors. Sure, the contributors for the magazine won’t be from the program (or if they are, that would be a huge red flag), but students in the program have chosen every piece published, so you learn what kind of writing interests them.
There is no magic bullet for choosing the right program. That’s why you’ll want to apply to more than one program, and you shouldn’t stop researching once you’ve sent in your application. Keep exploring the choices you’ve made, try to make connections or visit campus, write the programs to ask questions or get in touch with current students, so that when you are faced with a decision, you’ll have a better sense of what you want to do.