MFA Applications Advice 2020

It’s after Labor Day, which means another year of MFA applications are starting. Over the past five years, I’ve been writing advice on how to write a statement of purpose, what to include in your writing sample, how to find the best programs for you, etc. The fact of the matter is, from year to year that advice doesn’t change all that much. As our low-residency MFA program has grown and I’ve seen more and more applications, I’ve adjusted or added to some of my original advice, yet those early posts still get the lion’s share of hits, which is fine, since they’re still valid.

Over the years (our program started in 2015), I have tried to give advice, not just on how to get into a program, but on whether to do that and how to afford it if you do. I’ve written on the choice between fully-funded residential programs (great if you can get in and if they’re right for you) and typically not well-funded low-res programs (where you are able to keep your better-paying job if you have one). I’ve also pointed readers to my program’s Guide for Applicants, which combines a lot of this advice in one pamphlet that I hope is helpful for any program, though tailored for ours.

If I had to give advice to someone considering applying for grad school this year, I would encourage them to consider established low-residency programs that know how to deliver distance learning. Compare low-res programs for the two main types: the individualized mentoring model or the online course model (hint: ours is the latter) for their relative strengths and weaknesses and for the kind of experience you are looking for. In the age of COVID, many MFA programs have moved online for the fall semester and probably for spring as well, so it makes sense to compare resident programs with good low-res programs who have established practices. Look at how low-res programs are handling their residency requirements (many of us are holding virtual residencies) and see what resident programs are doing to provide that kind of content that used to be face-to-face.

Who knows what Fall 2021 will bring. Maybe things will be closer to normal by then — we all hope they will be — but if not, a program like ours that is built to work in a distance environment may be your best bet. On the other hand, if you can get funding for a resident program, even if that program starts out online, it may still be your best choice. Consider how you’ll work as a teaching assistant or what other duties might be associated with your aid if undergraduate classes aren’t face-to-face. Fortunately, there will come a time when COVID-19 is not the first thing we think of when making any decision, even if that is hard to imagine right now. Unfortunately, I can’t predict when that will be.

When choosing programs to apply to, don’t just go for the most well-known ones with the most glamorous writers. Do your research. There are many smaller programs with excellent teachers who may not be household names (are any writers household names?) but who will be excellent mentors and even friends, and who attract serious, committed MFA-student writers who will become lifelong writing buddies. Really get to know the programs you want to apply to, and you will write a better letter. You will increase your odds of getting accepted because you will apply to schools that are a better fit for you and you will present yourself appropriately. That’s really all we’re looking for: serious writers who have taken their application process seriously and who will be a good fit for the culture we’ve tried to foster in our programs.

Looking for more advice? Here are my 10 most recent posts in the category MFA Application.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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