Posts Tagged ‘MFA Creative Writing’

A Few Do’s for the MFA Applicant

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post titled 15 Things to Do Before a Low-Res MFA (plus 5 bonus things). That title was a little tongue in cheek because I’m not a big fan of numbered lists (since there’s no magic number), but they were some good things to at least consider before embarking on an MFA. I thought it would be good to follow up A Few Don’ts with a few things to do, and revisiting that list is a good place to start.

  • Read literary magazines both so you can get a sense of the many kinds of writing that is out there and to begin to get a sense of the many places your writing might land. It’s a little daunting to see how much good writing exists, and it’s exciting to see how many people, programs, and organizations are busy publishing that good writing.
  • Submit your work, get rejected, maybe even get published. If you can’t handle the pain of having a magazine not love your poem, story, or essay, then you won’t be ready to handle rejection by an MFA program. Odds are, some program will turn you down; and odds are, if you apply to enough of the right programs (for you), one or more will accept you when you’re ready.
  • Learn about the business side of writing. Yes, a good MFA program should be the place where you learn more about how to make it as a writer, but the truth is, most programs focus more on your writing than on the business side of things. That’s because here’s no one right way to go about making your life as a writer, so we can present you some options, but ultimately it will be up to you. Why wait until you get in a program to start that journey? Inform yourself about the practical side of your chosen career by reading Poets & Writers and books like Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer or Stephanie Vanderslice’s The Geek’s Guide to the Writing Life, two great resources that didn’t exist when I wrote the original post.
  • Research the programs you want to apply to. Don’t just apply to the top-rated schools (and don’t give up on them either). Find the programs that seem right for you! Those should be programs that will support the kind of writer you think you want to be and programs with a culture that fits the kind of person you are. Consider fully- or partially-funded programs, and consider low-residency programs that allow you to work your way through your degree on your own terms. Depending on where you are in life, one might be the better option for you.
  • Make a financial plan. This doesn’t have to be super formal or complicated, but it also should be realistic. Consider how much your MFA could cost and how much you have saved or can earn while you’re in school. Yes, you can consider taking on (more) student loan debt, but don’t bury yourself in debt to get an MFA. There ought to be ways to earn your degree and keep your debt load to a minimum. If you already have a lot of student loans from college, you may need to consider paying them down somewhat before starting another degree. Talk to your loan counselor, so you know what your options are. And try not to live above your means while you’re a graduate student. You shouldn’t starve, but you aslo may need to live simply. Know what you’re getting into.
  • Consider whether you really need an MFA. Might there be other opportunities for you to grow as a writer through writer’s colonies, summer workshops, residencies, local writer’s clubs? I believe in the value of a good MFA program, but I also realize that for some writers it may not be the only or the best way to obtain your goals. No writer has to have an MFA, but many have benefitted from earning one. If you do your research and decide it’s right for you, and if you find the right programs for you, then you will be happy with your decision and your application will be stronger.
  • Write, read, and write some more. Don’t wait until you’re in an MFA program to get serious about writing. Write right now, and read, read, read, so you’re informed in your writing. And write and read what you enjoy. Find a community of writers where you are and get involved. You’ll be preparing all the skills that will make you a successful member of your MFA community, should you decide to apply.
  • Take time for yourself. Walk the dog, pet the cat or feed your goat. Fall in love (or not). Live your life, and let the MFA application be one part of that, but don’t let it become an all-consuming part. It will happen (or not) and you will be happier with your choice if the rest of your life is also happening when it does, though life can get complicated—that also keeps it interesting and maybe good material for writing.

A Few Don’ts for the MFA Applicant

It’s getting to be that time of year again, when college seniors and graduates planning to go to grad school start thinking about their applications in earnest. I’ve written a fair amount about the process and even compiled some of my best advice in a Guide for Applicants for my MFA program in Creative Writing that I hope is helpful for anyone. I even compiled a list of things I think you ought to do before applying for an MFA program. Recently, as I was going through some old emails and cleaning up my office, I decided it might be good to add a list of things to avoid when applying. These may not get you into the program you most want to go to, but they might help you avoid giving the wrong first impression. So here they are, in no particular order.

  • Don’t apply to grad school because you don’t know what else you’re going to do with your life. Realistically, many people do this, and sometimes it turns out for the best. But you risk wasting time and money on an education that you won’t use, so it’s better to figure out realistic goals for your education, and especially when applying for a creative writing degree, to have Plan B. In other words, if you’re going to grad school just to avoid getting a job, then figure out how going to grad school will help you get a better job when you’re finished. Or consider taking a year or two off after college to work in a job (that doesn’t have to be your career) and figure out what your goals really are. Why is this important for your application? Grad programs make an investment in you; even if they don’t provide a scholarship, they give more than you pay in tuition, trust me. They want to admit students with clear goals who will stick with it throughout their degree program.
  • Don’t apply only to the top-ranked programs. I tell this to my undergraduate students all the time. Pick the programs that seem like the best fit for you! It’s fine if some are highly ranked, but you need to remember that the odds of getting in are stacked against you (just because they receive so many applicants, many of which could be as great as you are, and they only have a few spots). There are great programs that may be a better fit for you, so do your research and find a good range of programs. You will be happy if you have two or three programs to choose from at the end of the application process! You may be happy if you have one school to choose from! But you won’t be happy if you apply to one or two highly competitive schools and don’t get in. If that happens, though, then learn your lesson and apply to a wider range the next time — it doesn’t mean you can’t write, only that you didn’t find the right program for you.
  •  Don’t wait until you apply to ask for letters of recommendation. Your recommenders will appreciate some advance notice, and they’ll be able to write a much better letter for you and get it in by the deadline. Contact your prospective recommenders as soon as you decide you’re going to apply. Ask them politely if they would be willing to write for you. Esp. if it’s been awhile since you had them as a professor or worked with them, it is a good idea to say something nice about your experience as a reminder and to fill them in on what you’ve been doing since you saw them last. Give them a list of the programs you’ll apply to and the deadlines. Getting your letters in on time can help your application a lot, so it’s up to you to give your recommenders everything they need to make that happen.
  • Don’t send a writing sample that is too long or too short. I’ve seen writing samples that definitely seemed padded and others that really needed more material. Either error can be a deal breaker. Length is fairly subjective, though, so how do you know what is too much or too little? First, follow the guidelines for each program! Ours states that you should send 10-30 pages. 10 pages is for poets or flash fiction writers. You can probably show a good range of work in short genres in 10-15 pages, so there’s no need to strive for 30. Fiction writers may feel that 30 pages doesn’t give them enough room to work with, and though I’m willing to entertain 31-33 pages if it seems necessary, I don’t have time to read your full novel. I tell prose writers to send me one or two pieces. If your stories or essays are short enough, you could send two or three if that shows the range of work that you’re doing. But I’d rather see one 15-page story than two, unless the second really adds depth to your portfolio. Either the first one is going to be best, so why give me another that is a let-down? Or the second is best, in which case you may have lost me before I got there. Send your strongest work and send a good selection (esp. of short work) that represents the kind of writer you are. But don’t send more just because you can.
  • Don’t use non-standard fonts. Trying to reach the minimum page count? Don’t do it by increasing your font size. Trying to keep within the maximum? Don’t make your font tiny. You want me to be able to read it! And don’t use a funky font unless you’re a poet and there’s a reason for it. For prose and most poetry, 12 point Times New Roman is a good standard font and size. Don’t stray to far from this golden mean.
  • Don’t make your letter or statement of purpose too long or too short. I’m more than happy to read a 2-page letter, but probably don’t want to read much more than that. On the other hand, a letter that is less than a page shows that you haven’t put a lot of thought into your application. You do want to tell some about who you are, but you don’t have to describe your full résumé (especially if you’re allowed to include one with your application. Hit the high points and give more personal detail in your letter than in the résumé. You should also indicate why you’re interested in the program you’re applying to and what your goals are for the program and for your writing career.
  • Don’t be too informal in your letter and in your follow-up correspondence. An MFA is a professional degree, so you should act professionally. Yes, it is also an art degree, so you don’t have to go all corporate on us, but we do like to be treated with respect. If the director of a program uses their full name, don’t address them with a nickname unless you know them personally and know they don’t mind. Using a salutation, like Dear X or Dear Dr./Mr./Ms. X is wise, even in an email. Treat the initial email like a business letter and subsequent emails like professional emails. You might drop the salutation in your follow-up replies, but generally follow the other person’s lead. Remember, there is a difference between emailing with your friends and emailing for work or school. Keep the tone of your email professional as well. Every piece of writing you send a program makes an impression. Make it a good one!
  • Don’t ask the program to tell you whether you have talent or not. If you apply to the program and they accept you, then you can assume they think you have potential. If you apply and they don’t accept you, then you can assume you weren’t the best fit for that program (or just weren’t lucky), but it doesn’t mean anything about your level of talent.
  • Don’t expect a decision overnight. MFA programs follow their own schedules, and admissions committees and program directors lead busy lives when they aren’t reading your writing sample. Some programs may wait until after their deadline to begin reviewing applications. Some work with a committee. It can take weeks or even months for a program to make a decision (see the program’s website for information on their process). Patience is a virtue, though it can feel like torture. To relieve the stress and maybe gain some insight in to your program’s decision-making schedule, consider joining the MFA Draft group on Facebook, where people post their experiences and whether they have been accepted, etc.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions! If you’re unsure how to apply or whether your application was received, a polite query is perfectly fine. If you have a problem submitting your application or paying your fee, someone will be able to help. But no one will likely help you if you don’t ask them first. Peppering the program with questions is probably not a good strategy, but neither is maintaining complete silence during the application process. You don’t have to ask questions if you don’t have anything to ask about, but you shouldn’t feel intimidated either. We are humans. We understand, and we’d rather fix something if it isn’t working right than let people become frustrated.

I’m sure there is more advice I could give, but for now, this is a pretty good list of things to avoid and a few things to do when you you are applying for MFA programs in creative writing.

How To Find the best MFA program in Creative Writing (for you)

Summer is a time when many prospective MFA students begin searching for programs. Or maybe you’ve already begun that search, but it is now intensified as the application season approaches. Those who want to apply for an MFA need to have a good idea of their top choices soon, so they can work on crafting their writing samples and honing their statements. Application deadlines range from December to March, with most falling in January or February, so it’s not too early to start hunting for the perfect programs.

One of the best resources for this search is still <a href=”https://www.amazon.com/Creative-Writing-Mfa-Handbook-Prospective/dp/082642886X&#8221; rel=”nofollow”>The Creative Writing MFA Handbook</a> by Tom Kealey. I recommend it to my undergraduates (and often let them borrow a copy) not only because it has a good list of programs (though that list is getting a little dated), but also because it gives good advice on choosing a program. The best advice Kealey gives is that you should find the best program for you, which is not necessarily going to be the top-ranked program. He goes into much more detail about the kinds of choices that exist. Things to consider are the culture of the program, the kind of writing that the professors do or that recent graduates have done, as well as cost, location, and program structure. Finding the right programs for you to apply to is complicated. In his guide, he doesn’t give a ranking of programs because everyone’s rankings ought to be different. He does give valuable information about the programs he lists, though more programs have sprung up since the book was published, and programs change over time.

For up to date information, consult guides like those found at AWP, Poets & Writers, Publisher’s Weekly, and New Pages. Each of these sources provides some different information, so it’s a good idea to consult more than one and compare what you find.

In all of these listings, you can search by state, by genre, by type of degree, etc. This can help you narrow your search. It won’t take long to realize that there are a plethora of programs to choose from and that there is incredible diversity in their offerings. This is why some serious research at this stage can be beneficial.

Of course, there are rankings of MFA programs from sources like The Atlantic or Poets & Writers. What I tell my students about these rankings is that they’re most valuable for finding out where everyone else is probably going to apply. I don’t discourage students from applying to the top-ranked schools, but I do warn them to be aware of their chances. Most of these programs have very limited enrollments. They receive many, many more highly qualified applications than they will ever be able accept. We’ve had someone get in a very competitive program, so you shouldn’t ever sell yourself short, but you also shouldn’t limit yourself to applying only to the top-ranked schools. There are many other high quality programs out there that may be a better fit and where you may have better odds. I recommend applying to a range of schools. Don’t apply anywhere that you wouldn’t want to go, but don’t be so influenced by the rankings that you overlook schools that would be a great fit for you. Consider all of your options, and you should find a program that is the best for you.

Resources like The MFA Years blog or The MFA Draft group on Facebook (the link is to 2018, but a new group is started every year) can also help you research your decision and deal with the process of applying to programs. Also, be sure to read AWP’s Advice Articles about the application process.

In the end, taking the time and effort now to research the programs that are best for you will give you a much better chance of success. Not only will you find the programs that are the best fit, but you will likely also learn a lot about who you are as a writer and what your goals are. This will lead to a clearer, stronger application, and I would hope to a more rewarding experience in the program where you eventually choose to enroll.

How to Afford Your MFA in Creative Writing

Naturally, this topic will have different answers for different people. The best way to afford an MFA degree depends a lot on you, your schedule, and your finances, so the the best answer will be different for everyone. What I want to do in this post is to present a few scenarios that will help students navigate their options and help them decide which option is best. You should also talk with the director and/or your advisor about your best route through the program. You want to design a program of study that is affordable and that also gives you the best educational experience. The information and examples presented are based solely on Mississippi University for Women’s Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing program. Other programs may not allow the same level of flexibility that we offer, since our residency courses are not directly tied to other courses and we are set up to allow part-time students. Some programs want everyone to take courses in the same sequence and do not allow as many options, but you may still want to think about the main questions: should you progress through a program quickly to save on tuition costs or progress more slowly to be able to work your way through and avoid some loans.

How to pay the least amount of tuition

One way to think about affordability is simply in terms of the total dollars spent on the degree. This is the plan you might want to consider if you are funding your whole degree yourself and want to finish in the least time possible. You should plan to devote all of your time and resources to the MFA, if you do this schedule, since you will be taking a heavy course load!

  • Full time
    • Time to degree: 2 Years
    • Hours per semester: 13 for 3 semesters = 39 hours
    • Summer classes: 2 Full Residencies = 4 hours
  • Part-time
    • Hours per semester: 5 hours for one semester (or possibly in summer)

In this schedule, you would take 4 3-hour courses per semester plus a short residency in the fall and another 1-credit-hour course in the spring, which might be another short residency or a 1-hour internship or independent study. In your final semester (or another semester), you would take 5 hours, which would likely be 3 hours of thesis and two hours of internship or independent study. The reason this plan costs less than any other is that at MUW you pay the same tuition for full-time classes from 9-13 hours. So you pay for 9 hours and earn 13 hours of credit.

It might be a little tricky to organize one semester with 13 hours and one with 5, so a slightly more expensive way to do this is to take 13 hours during two semesters and 12 hours during your other full-time semester. Your part-time semester in this scenario would be 6 hours, so you would pay for 1 more credit than you would on the fastest track. But you would still finish in the same amount of time. In this scenario, your final year would likely be your thesis semester.

One advantage to this schedule is that you pay for 36 hours and earn 48 hours of credit, which at current tuition rates would save you $3855. Another advantage to this schedule is that you finish in the least amount of time possible and are able to move on to other things (potentially earning a higher salary). You could practically finish in a year and a half at this pace, if you took summer classes (5 hours) between your first and your second years; though you would still be required to return in the spring of your second year for your final full residency. For scheduling reasons, the full residency classes will only be offered once a year in May or early June.

The disadvantage to this schedule is that you would not have as much time for your writing to develop during your MFA program. Another disadvantage is that you could face burnout. Needless to say, this schedule is only advisable for the student who is incredibly focused, is very far along in her or his writing, and is willing to devote themselves 100% to their MFA studies for two years. In other words, this is a very intense schedule and it may not be the best for everyone. In fact, we expect most students to take 6-10 hours of classes per semester, and some will take fewer than this.

A Slightly More Expensive Full-Time Schedule

As we have seen above, a student can still finish in 2-3 years by going full-time and taking 10-13 hours some semesters and 9 hours during other semesters. You can save a little money anytime you take more than 9 hours, even if you don’t take the maximum number of hours every time. Anyone should consider taking an extra class now and then. If you are full-time and taking 9 hours per semester, adding the short residency hour won’t cost you extra (other than room and board costs). If you find you can take 12 hours one semester, you can save a little money that way as well.

Part-Time Schedules

Since the cost per credit hour of a full-time 9 hour schedule is the same as the cost per credit hour of a part-time schedule, I want to consider part-time next. You can decrease the time to graduation by taking 9 hours per semester, but you won’t save money unless you take at least 10.

The advantages to a part-time schedule are that you can take more time to pay for your education and you have more time for your writing to develop during your MFA program. You won’t feel so rushed, and you are less likely to face burn-out. So for many this is the best option, and it may end up costing less.

What you save in tuition on the full-time schedules, you might end up paying back in interest if you have to take out loans to make ti possible to have such an intense schedule. If, on the other hand, you take fewer classes at a time and avoid some or all debt by working your way through your degree, then you might end up paying less over time, even though you pay more for tuition. So one way to think about what is affordable is to consider how many credits you can take per semester without taking out a loan (or by taking out the smallest loan possible).

As we have seen above, you can finish in 6 years even if you take 3 hours per semester. In order to qualify for federal loans, you need to take at least 6 hours per semester, in which case, you can finish in 3-4 years. How quickly you move through the program may depend on how many classes you can afford each semester or how much time you can devote to your classes in addition to your work schedule.

What Is Affordable Really?

When thinking about affordability, you should consider the total cost of your MFA program, in other words. Don’t only look at tuition, but consider what it will cost to pay off your loan — and if you do have loans, remember that you can reduce the cost of the loan by paying back more than the minimum amount each month: the sooner you pay off some of the principal of a loan, the smaller amount of total interest you will pay over the life of any loan. If you can work your way through your degree, you might decrease the amount of loan you need. If you can finish sooner, you might get a better-paying job sooner and be able to begin paying off your loans sooner. If you have saved up enough money to be able to take 2 years off and complete your degree on the fastest track, then that might be the best option for you. If you want more time and want to keep working while you’re in school, then a part-time track may be the best option. And if you’re somewhere in the middle, you might plan on taking at least 9 hours per semester so you can take advantages of the savings that taking an extra hour or two now and then can bring.