Three Questions for MFA Applicants

It is that time of year when those who are deciding whether and where to apply to an MFA program in cretive writing are busy preparing their applications or deciding where they will actually apply. Whether you’re in the final stages or just getting started, here are three questions I think you should ask yourself.

Why Do I Want an MFA?

If you’re writing your statement of purpose, one of the key questions you’ll need to answer is why you want an MFA, and if you’re just looking at MFA programs to see whether you should go down that path, then it is also important to know why. What do you write already, and in what ways do you want to write better? An MFA can jump-start your writing by introducing you to writers you likely wouldn’t find on your own. Contrary to what some people claim, I firmly believe that writing can be taught or I woudn’t be in the business of teaching creative writing. Knowing what you want to learn can help you choose the programs that are right for you.

An MFA also gives you a built-in community of writers, the faculty and fellow students, as well as visiting writers who come to give a reading or lead a seminar. These are connections that will stay with you throughout your lives, not just the few years you are in a program. An MFA can be the start of networking as a writer and can lead to professional connections down the road. And an MFA trains you to be a writing professional, to take your writing and yourself seriously (and how to do that). Knowing why you want an MFA can help you find the programs with the culture that will be right for you.

An MFA will also challenge you to grow as a writer in unexpected ways. Are you ready for that challenge? Have you adequately prepared for your MFA? Have you researched programs and learned everything you can about what will be expected of you, and are you ready for that? There’s nothing wrong with discovering that you aren’t ready, if that discovery helps you recognize what you need to do to be ready.

Do I Need an MFA?

As I’ve written in the past, no one absolutely needs an MFA to be a writer. There are other ways to grow and even network as a writer — summer workshops, seminars, retreats, local writing groups, etc. — so the answer to this question shouldn’t automatically be “yes.” But there are many reasons why you might feel you do need an MFA. Besides the reasons you might want an MFA, you might need an MFA as a credential. For instance, if you want to teach at the college level and don’t already have a Master’s degree or a Ph.D. Or you may have an advanced degeree in another field, but you want to teach creative writing, then you may need an MFA to be qualified. Similarly, in secondary education, having a Master’s degree can be advantageous to your career. Or you may feel that an MFA degree can help you break into publishing or other writing-related careers. Outside of academia, the MFA degree isn’t an absolute requirement of any position that I know of, but it can certainly help you advance in your career. And if your employer recognizes it as a degree that can lead to promotion, then that is another good reason to say you need the degree.

As you look at both these first questions, consider how much you want an MFA and how much you need one or how useful it can be to you, and weigh the two. One (wanting it or needing it) may be more important to you than the other, but both are important to consider as you think about your goals for entering a program, and both can help you decide on the kind of program that will be best for you.

How Can I Afford an MFA?

Assuming you’ve weighted both why you want an MFA and why you need one, and that you’ve come to the decision that you should pursue one, then the last question is how you can afford it. If you really want to pursue one, then there will be a way to make that happen, but you should always consider the costs and the benefits. That may also affect your choice of programs to apply to. If finances are the biggest issue and if you are at a place in your life where you can go to a traditional residential MFA program, then you should definitely look into fully funded programs. Most programs will ask you to work your way through by teaching composition, creative writing, or possibly literature. If you don’t get into a fully funded program, then you definitely want to consider how much tuition you can afford. Can you get into a partially funded program so that you don’t need to go into a lot of student loan debt? Can you keep working and go to school? This is often possible in a low-residency program. It’s best if you can afford the program without taking out a lot in loans, but if the program is affordable enough and your loan debt isn’t too high, then you may feel the benefits outweigh the cost.

I always urge students to try to support themselves as much as possible without loans. If they reserve loans for tuition and books only, then they may be looking at a loan they can pay off in a reasonable amount of time. Also consider who to get the loan from. Federally subsidized loans are usually the best, but if you don’t qualify for them, there are other options. A family member can lend money to you at pretty low interest rates, and that can be mutually benificial, since you know the interest you pay is going back to someone you know. Of course, you have even more incentive not to default on a family loan. There are also private lenders who offer student loans, though the interest rates are generally not as good as federal loans.

Finally, consider other expenses that you are likely to have while you’re in school. If you’re planning to buy a house, get married ,or start a family, or if you have to move or care for aging parents, these can all be factors that will affect your finances. I’m not saying you can’t go to grad school and do any of those things, but you at least want to consider the financial burden and decide whether now is the best time.

That can be a sobering thought to end on, but it is important to know what you’re getting into and to have a plan for how you’ll be able to pay for grad school. With appropriate planning, you can make it happen, but you may need to look for additional sources of funding besides what your university can provide.

Answering these three questions can help your application and can help you decide which programs are the best ones for you to apply to. Don’t just automatically apply to the same programs everyone is applying to, find the programs that will meet your needs, and your chances of being accepted will be higher and your satisfaction with the program you choose will likely be higher, too.

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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