Posts Tagged ‘MFA’

The Best Little MFA

It’s been four years since we started the low-residency MFA program in creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, and in that time, I think we’ve created the best MFA of it’s size around. Of course, I’m biased, and I’m grateful to the students and faculty of our program who have been so great to work with.

We’ve now graduated 15 MFAs (counting the five who’ve defended their these and will get their degrees in August), and we have an enrollment hovering around 40, which is right where we want to be. We started with three faculty, two of whom were part-time, and now have three full-time faculty, one who prefers to teach 2 classes and direct theses and so is still part-time for now, and several regular part-time faculty who teach one class per semester. This allows us to offer a wide variety of classes and serve the varied needs of our current students. And it allows us to have enough faculty to direct theses as students move from taking coursework to the thesis stage. We’ve seen theses in each of the genres we focus on in the program: fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and now drama with our first playscript as thesis defended in June.

What makes me think of our program as the best, though, are our students. We have a great, diverse group who work well together. They are writing in different genres (and some writing genre fiction or young adult), yet they provide a supportive environment in our online classes and when they get together at residencies. The energy in the building (despite this year’s headaches with A/C issues) has been fantastic. Every night at a full resicency, we host readings, featuring a faculty member or guest writer, a thesis candidate, and two or three other students at the residency. Our thesis students give great readings, are confident, and show they are ready to move into their professional careers. But the shorter readings by other students are fabulous, too. Here students take risks, sometimes reading for the first time in public, and the work they present is polished and compelling. You’d have to be there to know what I mean — and you could be, since they’re open to the public and we often have guests from town or beyond.

Besides the readings, I know our students are killing it through there publications. Hardly a week goes by without at least one notice of an acceptance from a student or alumn. We’ve had an AWP Intro Journals prize winner and an honorable mention, and our writers are getting into some great publications. We already have one graduate with two books of a three book deal published, and a poet with a micro chapbook and good leads on a full-length collection. And I expect more good news soon, given the strength of the theses I’ve seen.

I try to keep up with the all these accomplishments on our Facebook group, then periodically I ask students and faculty to send me their publications (I’m afraid I will miss some things on Facebook and Twitter) and list them on our accomplishments page.

I know there are more established and more prestigeous programs out there, and many of them do great work by their grad students. But if you measure the value of a program by the dedication of the faculty to teaching and by the cameraderie of the students and the writing (and publications) that this fosters, then we have a lot to be proud of. We’ve accomplished a lot in the first four years, and we’re looking forward to an even better fifth year.

That said, how would we like to improve? For one, I’d love to attract an even more diverse student body. We’ve been fortunate enough to attract African American, Asian American, Latinx, and LGBTQ students (and faculty). We also have students from all over Mississippi, every US time zone except Alaska and Hawaii (so far), and even a student in Italy (for now). We have students from all kinds of backgrounds and religious and political persuasions, yet everyone tends to get along very well because the writing is what really matters. Together, we have formed a great community, and to me, that’s what makes us the best little low-res MFA out there.

Transcripts for the MFA Application

I’ve reached Day 8 in Kenzie Allen’s 10-day course on applying for the MFA in creative writing, and she’s talking about the CV, transcripts, and the GRE. She has a lot of good advice, so if you haven’t taken her free course, you should. She even links to my blog a few times, so she must have done her research!

I agree with Allen about the CV — it should highlight your education and other experience, it should be professional and easy to read, and you’ll probably elaborate on most of those things in your letter or statement of purpose, but the CV brings them all together and is a place where you can list all of your publications (if you have them) without bogging down your SOP. At our program, it’s optional, so don’t stress about it, but do send one if it helps you make your case.

I also agree that the GRE has become less and less important. See if the schools you’re applying to require it, and don’t take it if you don’t need to. If you do need to report a score, remember that most MFA programs don’t care what your score is, but they may be required by their graduate school to use a minimum score as a requirement for admission. They may not publicize what that score is, and they may have some leeway in how they set that score (that will vary by university), but you’ll need to report it if they require it. Then the committee will likely ignore the score once they see you have met the minimum standard.

However, I realized that, though I agree with most of what Allen says regarding transcripts, I hadn’t written about those and there are a few things I can add from a program director’s perspective. For one, Allen says that in her experience it doesn’t matter if you have studied English as an undergraduate. While that’s true for many programs, I also know of some that require a certain number of prerequisite English or creative writing undergraduate courses. Usually, they don’t ask for specific ones, but a certain number of hours of literature. You might be admitted without these, but required to take them in addition to your regular degree requirements.

Our program doesn’t require any prerequisite English courses, and I’m happy with that. We’ve admitted a dancer and an accountant, among others. I’ve probably forgotten more of our students’ undergraduate majors than I remember, since once you’re in the program, it won’t really matter. But your transcript will still make a difference: it tells me things I want or need to know.

1) What you’ve studied

Naturally, we like to see that you’ve studied English, whether or not your major was in English. Many of my best creative writing students over the years have not been majors, so I’m open any major. If you never took an English class as an undergrad, that can be an issue (in terms of your preparedness for our degree), so I’ll want to see evidence elsewhere of your active reading life and of your sophistication as a scholar. After all, some of our classes demand that you do literary research, so you want to show you’re prepared. We also like to see undergraduate creative writing classes in the mix, but if you haven’t had that opportunity, we understand. Things like summer workshops or activity in local writing groups can help your application if you don’t have creative writing classes. So if your transcript has holes, you want to address them in your SOP by talking about what you’ve done since graduation. Most of the applicants to our low-res program have been out of school for many years, so their experience since undergrad should weigh much more heavily than their undergrade, except it does tell about your academic record.

2) How well you’ve performed in school

The one thing you can’t change is your undergraduate GPA, and that can be very important for admissions. Actually, you can change it by going back and taking some undergraduate classes or by enrolling in another graduate program. If your GPA is deficient and you’ve gained a lot of experience and motivation, you may be well-served by taking a semester or two, even part-time, to show that you can now do better than you did the first time.

For our program, you need a minimum overall GPA of 2.75 or a GPA of 3.0 in the last 60 hours of work in order to be fully admitted to our program. If you don’t have that, then taking additional credits might help you bring up those last 60 hours. We consider every semester in its entirety, so if your the 60th hour is in a semester with several other hours, I would have to consider the whole semester. Taking additional classes might even affect which semesters would be considered in your  last hours, which might help as much as earning higher grades.

(These requirements will likely be different for each university on your list.)

3) How you can be admitted

GPA makes a big difference in how we admit students. The choice of whether to admit someone hinges more on their overall academic record and what they’ve done since graduation. I’ve admitted students who were marginal at best during their undergraduate years, yet who had gone on to achieve remarkable things. I want to look at the whole picture, in other words, but I also have to consider your potential as a student and I have to live within the rules of my institution’s admissions policies. Check these out for any school you’re interested in, esp. if you’re worried about your previous record.

I can fully admit someone to our program if they meet our admissions standards or I can conditionally admit anyone to our program if I feel there are mitigating circumstances.

Conditional admission means that you are limited to taking two classes in your first semester (or three if you come to our 1-hour residency), and you must earn a B or higher in those classes to show you can handle graduate school. (You’re only allowed two Cs in your program, so to get one in your first semester would be a very bad sign. Why should we keep taking your money if you’re not going to succeed in our program?) Conditional students are also not eligible for federal loans, so you would need to pay for your first semester out of pocket or with private loans. But once you’ve proven yourself, you are then fully admitted and can study full-time and qualify for loans. I’ve had plenty of people do this and do very well in our program.

So, if you’ve had a rough patch in your academic career, know that we’ll understand. It’s probably something you want to address or even get your recommenders to address in their letters, but it shouldn’t be something that will stop you from earning your degree. You can tell us why you hit that rough patch, if you want to — sometimes it may now be exactly what inspires you to write — or you can simply acknowledge it and talk about the things you’ve done since then that show you can succeed.

If you’ve been a great student but in areas other than Engish, then acknowledge that as well and show us how you combine your other interests with your writing or tell how your journey took you to a love of writing.

Your transcripts are important documents that show your preparedness and your aptitude for scholarly work. They are not the end-all-be-all of your application, but they provide a unique window into who you are that is complemented by your writing sample, statement of purpose, and letters of recommendation.

We do need to see official transcripts from every post-secondary academic institution you have attended, whether you received your degree from there or not. (Some schools make exceptions for transcripts with fewer than a given number of hours, but many do not.) Go back over your transcripts (as I will) and look to see if you transferred any credits from another school. Make sure we have the transcript from that math class you took at community college, etc. Doing that on the front end will make things easier when it comes time for us to make our decision.

Revisiting the Statement of Purpose for the MFA

This week, I’ve been learning how to apply to MFA programs in creative writing: I decided to take a free course, even though I direct an MFA program. I’m taking the course to see what Kenzie Allen has to say about the process and to review what I think about it, since I’ve written a number of advice articles and our program’s Guide for Applicants. This morning’s ‘class’ (each morning for 10 days you get an email with advice on applying) was on the Statement of Purpose. It got me thinking about the importance of this part the application, which I’ve written about previously.

Allen has some good advice, and she links through to several articles by others about how to write a statement of purpose. They all pretty much agree, though each gives a slightly different take. There’s no one-size-fits-all advice for this, or the statement wouldnt’ be personal. Incidentally at my program, we call it a Letter of Intent. We do that in part to make it seem less daunting, in part to make it paradoxically seem more personal, and in part to emphasize your goals. You’re not selling me on who you are; you’re selling me on what you want to do in our program (and that you are the person who can do those things).

What I was struck by in my reading this morning is just how important this letter is. Everyone says the writing sample is the most important, and that can be true, but the statement of purpose or letter of intent is just as big a deal, and it’s probably harder to write.

I’ve seen letters of intent that definitely got an applicant into our program. Their writing sample was competent, but not terribly exciting, but their letter was moving and read like very good creative nonfiction. I could see the potential in this writer from their letter, even though I could tell from their writing sample that they were still struggling to find that voice in their fiction or poetry. The letter showed me that I had someone who was ready to make that leap in their creative writing.

I’ve also seen letters that swayed me the other way. I’ve seen many that used the clichés every advice article warns against: all the permutations of “I was born to write,” for instance.  A few have been accompanied by writing samples that made me overlook the naiveté of a poor letter (yes, I know how hard they are to write!) and others that led me to believe the writer simply wasn’t ready for an MFA program yet.

I’ve even turned down one applicant, who wrote back an impassioned response defending themselves and arguing why they were ready and didn’t want to wait another year to reapply. I told them that this should have been their letter in the first place, and I allowed them to send me more writing. Eventually they were admitted to our program and are doing quite well. However, I don’t recommend that strategy!

We’re a small, young program, and so far we’re not overrun with applications. I can take more time with every applicant than the programs whose admissions committees see hundreds of applicants each admission cycle. We can give more personal attention, and so far, we can accept nearly everyone who seems to be ready for an MFA and who seems like a good fit for our program. That may change, and we may be faced with more difficult decisions. Yet even now, the statement of purpose/letter of intent is a very important part of your application, along with your writing sample. Those are the first two things we’ll see, and they form the basis of our initial decision whether or not to encourage you to complete your application and pay the application fee, send transcripts, and get letters of recommendation.

We want to know who you are and how you got to where you are, and we want to know where you think you’re going and why our program is a place that can help you get there. We want you to be as specific and detailed as possible, and we want your letter to be well-written, somewhere between a personal letter and a creative nonfiction essay. If you can do that, and if you send us writing that you’re passionate about that shows your promise as a writer, then the odds are in your favor.

The rest of your application confirms that you are who you say you are. It’s important, don’t get me wrong. But your letter and writing sample will literally give the first impression, and therefore, they carry the most weight.

Writer’s Resolution: Start or Update Your CV

This post is primarily for my MFA students, though it is a good new year’s resolution for any writer: start or update your CV. Curriculum Vitae is a fancy term for resumé, though the difference is that the focus of your CV is broader, and you will use it for applying for academic jobs, grants, awards, residencies, etc. A CV allows you to give a fuller representation of your life’s work, not just your employment and job skills.

As with a resumé, format it as a series of lists with headings. Start with your basic contact info: name, address, phone number, email. Follow this with Education, listing your college and grad school degrees and including any thesis or dissertation titles and directors. Include a degree program you a currently enrolled in before you get your degree, and list your expected graduation date.

For all your lists, start with the most recent accomplishments first, then you can add to the top of each list as you update it with new entries.

Next list your relevant Employment. You don’t have to list every job, though it’s good to list your recent jobs going back to college. What you want to avoid is he appearance of a long gap without employment or education, so if you worked at a temp agency to support yourself in grad school, you could leave that out and rely on your education listing as the most important activity in those years. On the other hand, if you waited tables for a couple of years after college while you wrote your first novel, you may want to include that job to account for those years.

After those two mandatory sections, you have some choice about the order of sections and what you want to label them. Writers will always list their Publications, though many of us break this into subcategories by genre: scholarly articles, poetry, fiction, etc. It is also common to have separate categories for Books and Anthologies. Readings or Presentations are good categories to include, as are Writers’ Residencies, Workshops or other professional activities you have attended or led. A section on Grants and Awards is also good to include, once you have one or more.

There is a good article on writing an Artist’s CV on The Practical Art World and another on CVs in general at The Interview Guys. These sites give examples that will give you ideas on how to format, and you’ll see that the typical CV is for academic jobs, so it highlights scholarly publications and achievements, while the artist’s CV highlights creative achievements. A writer’s CV is often a combination of these two approaches and can be rearranged and revised for the situation you want to use it in. You might highlight scholarship when applying to academic jobs and publications when applying for a grant, for example.

Once you have your CV started, add new accomplishments as you learn about them. List work accepted for publication as “forthcoming” and update with the full publication information once the it appears. Starting a CV may be the hardest part, so do it now when there isn’t a rush and when your lists aren’t too long. Then add to it periodically and take advantage of the new year to review it and make sure you haven’t missed anything from the past year (or more).

Dispatch from the #MSBookfest

MS Book Festival with capitol dome
This past Saturday, I spent almost 10 hours outside on the capitol grounds in Jackson, Mississippi. Under normal circumstance, you might have to be crazy to do that in August, but this was no ordinary Saturday. It was the 3rd annual Mississippi Book Festival, and I was there in my third role.

The first year of the festival, I came down as a volunteer, and spent my morning in the Information tent, telling people where to go and how to get there: questions I quickly learned how to answer, even though I hadn’t been there myself. Fortunately, by afternoon, I was relieved from my post and went inside. I even managed to get into a few of the panels (attendance was high that first year, and you had to get in line early — attendance is still high, but there are more sessions in bigger rooms, which helps).

My second year, I was on the poetry panel, so I spent much of my time indoors waiting for my panel, reading, and listening to other panels. I did go outside to sign books and then to browse the bookstores and exhibitor booths.

This year, I opted to be an exhibitor myself, getting a booth for our low-residency MFA program. I also brought along brochures for our undergraduate concentration, the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium, the Ephemera Prize for High School Writers, Poetry South, and Ponder Review. I even brought my books and a brochure for A Writer’s Craft.

One thing I learned was that if you arrive at 7am and stay outdoors all day, it doesn’t seem as hot as it does when you come back from a midday break indoors and experience the heat full strength. The shade helped enormously, of course, as did the occasional downdraft of cooler air from one of the pop-up thunderstorms that went over, but didn’t drop much rain (thank goodness, though I had a tarp, just in case). And naturally, it’s good to bring plenty of water and dress appropriately for the weather. I kept my water bottle filled, and I wore a new quick dry, W Owls polo.

View from our table at MS Bookfest

It was also fun to meet the other exhibitors, and to talk to all the attendees who stopped by. It was great to meet prospective students, writers, high school students who were excited about the Ephemera prize, and W alumni who wanted to reminisce about the good old days.

Thanks to Carol Ruth Silver and Michael Farris Smith for stopping by, as well as to current MFA students Sally Lyon and Katrina Byrd. It was also great to see all the young kids who were enjoying the book festival: one barely old enough to read, but very excited to be there.

I gave away nearly all my brochures, and even ran out the one for the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium. I passed out copies of Poetry South, along with bookmarks, calls for submissions, pens, stickers, and the ever popular W mints. Though I didn’t get to go inside to catch any readings (next year, I need some helpers), when I did go in for my break, I could tell the crowd seemed every bit as big as in years past, and every bit as satisfied with the event. And when I was outside at the table, I was entertained by live music, people watching,  butterflies, and a gorgeous day.

If you haven’t been to the Mississippi Book Festival, you owe it to yourself to go next year. If you’re a writer, you might get on a panel (or set up your own booth for self-published and small press authors). If you are with a literary or arts organization, then you might want to have your own exhibitor’s table. And if you’re in the general public, then you can just go and enjoy all the free readings and entertainment, and maybe even buy a book or two. There are also plenty of food trucks with po’boys, catfish, popsicles, and other summer delicacies.

It is billed as the “hottest book festival in the country,” but don’t let the fact that it’s in August hold you back — if my fellow exhibitors and I can handle staying outside all day in 90+ degrees with a heat index over 100, then you can handle trips to the outdoor tents sandwiched in between readings in the Capitol and neighboring venues.

Low-Res or Fully Funded: an MFA Decision

I write a lot about MFA programs because I direct the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing at Mississippi University for Women. I mention this to let you know I am biased on this topic, but I’ve been thinking about the advice people often get about applying for MFA’s: don’t unless it’s fully funded.

On the surface, this seems like good advice. No one would advise you to go into a lot of debt for a degree that doesn’t promise a career with great earning potential, and creative writing is one of those fields where only a very few make it really big — the rest of us do okay, but not well enough to take on a ton of debt. So if you can get someone to pay for your education, why not?

That’s what this post is about. I agree with that advice, but I also think there are trade-offs you should consider. It would be great if someone is going to pay you to write and then give you a degree at the end. There are a few programs that can do that, but even most of the fully funded programs don’t hand out ‘free money.’ They do hand out money; it just isn’t exactly free.

Most programs that are fully funded expect their graduate students to work for that stipend. Usually you will be a graduate teaching assistant or research assistant. That’s great, if you’ll be gaining experience in the field you want to work in. (Do you want to teach at the college level? What are your chances of landing an academic job after graduation?) Often you will start teaching composition, sometimes you might have a literature survey (or lead a discussion section), and maybe you’ll get to teach creative writing at some point. Yes, that can all be good experience, but there are other ways to work your way through your degree.

If you consider that fully funded stipend a wage, then you’ll soon find that it’s not a huge salary. Of course, you do usually get a tuition waiver, which adds to the value of your stipend, and sometimes you are eligible for health insurance, which is another huge benefit to teaching. If you’re fresh out of your undergraduate degree and you don’t have a job, then a program that will give you a job that meshes well with your graduate degree and comes with built-in support from your department can be an excellent opportunity.

Low-residency programs, on the other hand, often don’t offer graduate assistantships. Students don’t live on campus, so it is more difficult for them to work at the university. That’s why many low-res programs aren’t fully funded, but that doesn’t mean they’re a bad deal. The low-res model is set up to allow you to work where you are while you are in school. If you already have a job, you can keep it, and odds are that you’ll earn more at a regular job than you would teaching (though a tuition waiver can make a big difference). Low-residency programs allow you stay where you are, so those with family obligations or other reasons why they don’t want to or aren’t able to move for their graduate degree can still get one.

Those who already are mid-career might be giving up a lot in order to take advantage of full funding at a full residency program. When considering offers or considering where to apply, compare the amount of aid and the cost of the degree against a low-res program where you can keep your current job.

What else should you think about when considering fully funded programs?

I would say you need to bear in mind that fully funded MFA programs will receive the most applications. Competition will be stiff, especially for the best scholarships or assistantships. It’s great if you get one, but your chances are slimmer, so it might be a good idea to widen your application pool to include some partially funded programs or programs without much funding if you think you can afford them.

When considering any program, think about the culture and the writers at that school. I wouldn’t say that a fully funded program is always going to be worse, but it might not be your best fit. If you only go to a program because of the money, you might end up unhappy. If you go to a school where you really fit in and a program that genuinely supports the writing you do, you’ll likely be happier. Finances should be a big part of your decision, but they shouldn’t be the only part, in other words.

The goal should be to get a good degree, work with good writers (teachers and other students), and not go into a ton of debt. Full funding is the most obvious way to achieve that, but a low-residency program (or a partially funded resident program) can do just as well. If you realize that for most fully funded programs you will work your way through school, then keeping your job in order to work your way through a low-residency program may seem like a good alternative.

For most fully funded programs, you will have to uproot yourself, move to another city and live there while pursuing your degree. That may be precisely the adventure you want or need to stimulate your writing. Or you may have work or family obligations — parents who need care, or a partner or spouse whose job isn’t portable, children whose school or family life would be uprooted in a move — that would make accepting a fully funded program’s offer difficult. A low-res program allows you to work from where you live and travel to your program’s campus for residency periods now and then.

Low-residency programs also have some advantages. Because you don’t need to move and because you don’t teach, low-residency students can find internships in their local area. They may explore fields like publishing, marketing, literacy programs, or other writing related careers. And they can learn about those careers where they are. Many writers don’t intend to go into academia, so getting experience outside academia during your MFA can be beneficial.

Which kind of program is right for you: low-res or fully funded? There is no one right answer for everyone. For many, the advice to only get an MFA if it is fully funded seems too limiting. Low residency programs allow you to be creative about how you will fund your MFA from where you live, combining work and university or private scholarships to pay the bills.

More Thoughts on MFA Applications

About a year and a half ago, I wrote a series of posts about MFA applications, beginning with “What to Say in your Statement of Purpose.” At the time, The W was just launching its low-residency MFA in Creative Writing, and I wanted to be transparent about the application process by telling prospective students what I would be looking for. Now that we’re starting our second year of the program, and I’ve been through 3 application cycles (we have considered a few applicants for the spring semester), it seemed like a good time to revisit those posts, which still get quite a few hits, and to add some thoughts based on recent experience.

Looking back over what I said about the writing sample and letter of intent, everything still seems pretty true: I’m looking for your best work that is publishable and looks like it will fit in with our program. In your letter, I still want to know about who you are (as a writer), where you’ve been, and where you’re headed (what your goals are for your writing). So if I were to add anything, it would be that the letter and the writing sample really do go together.

Our successful applicants, the ones who have been admitted into the program, have had clear goals and a history that shows they have a good chance of achieving those goals. Their writing sample is a good fit for the goals they have in mind. Even if it’s not a direct fit, if their past writing and their future goals don’t line up exactly, the letter of intent explains how their past has led them to these new goals. It draws the connection between the writing sample and the MFA program experience they want.

Their goals are not just “to be a published writer,” which pretty much goes without saying for anyone applying to an MFA program, but instead are more specific: what kind of writer, what kind of publishing, what do they want to do to earn a living while working to become a published writer, and how will an MFA program help them along this path.

Most of the writers we’ve turned down haven’t convinced me that their writing and/or their understanding of the career of a writer is fully developed yet. When I turn people down, it isn’t because they’re bad writers, in other words. It is because I feel they aren’t ready to make the investment in an MFA, which will cost a fair amount in terms of time and money, so I try to offer advice on how to develop as a writer before applying to programs again.

As I look to the future, I think my responses to applicants may change, though. So far, the number of qualified applicants has pretty much kept pace with our goals for the program and exceeded our expectations, but not by so much that we had to turn people away. That may change. As more people learn about our program, we are more likely to consider ‘fit’ an important criterion. There will come a time, I have little doubt, when we have to tell qualified writers that we believe our program is not the best fit for them. As the competition grows, quality will by necessity no longer be the only deciding factor. When looking at several dozen qualified applicants and deciding whom and how many we can support, the needs of the program will be more and more important.

In other words, giving a clear sense of the genres you want to work in will be helpful (though I can’t predict which genres will be overrepresented in the future). Giving us a sense of the kind of writing you want to do within those genres will also be imperative. Not knowing the answers to these questions might rule someone out, even if the writing sample seems competent enough. Still, I don’t know that we will always choose the ‘top’ writers from the applicant pool. We will begin to look at other intangibles, such as background, style, and personality, to find a mix that will make a positive experience for all of our students. A good writer who has a clear sense of where she’s going and who adds diversity (of style, of background, of age, etc.) may be chosen over a writer with a slightly better writing sample who doesn’t surprise or add much to our program. Someone who is brilliant but too different from what we are set up to handle might also be turned away because we don’t feel we can support him or her.

So when you’re working on your writing sample and letter of intent, what can you do? Turn in your best work, and be as specific and as thoughtful about your writing and your goals as you can. Be honest, be yourself, and know that if our program turns you down this time, you will find the right place for you another time — and it may even be our program when you are ready for us or we are ready for you.