Applying to MFA Programs
Choosing Where To Apply
If you’re applying to MFA Programs, then you’ll first need to decide where you’re going to apply. You don’t want to throw application fees at programs you wouldn’t want to attend, but you’re likely going to want to apply to multiple programs so you have a greater chance of getting into a program.
Poets & Writers has an excellent index listing the more than 200 MFA programs in the United States. They have a chart listing those that are full-residency programs, and a chart listing those that are low-residency programs.
Each university will also have an English department webpage that will have a list of the MFA program’s course and thesis requirements, funding info, scholarship info, and assistanship/fellowship info. This stuff can be harder to find that you might like, however.
So here’s a big tip: google ‘X University English Graduate Handbook.’ You might just find the actual handbook some English departments give to their graduate students. (Check the year to make sure it’s recent.) If you don’t find that, then one of the top search results might be still have the info you’re looking for.
From here on out, I’ll be focusing on full-residency programs, as that’s where my deeper experience lies. If you are looking for more information on choosing a low-res program, I recommend looking at the P&W guide above, as well as AWP’s “Hallmarks of an Effective Low-Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing” and posts on The Masters Review website.
Things to Consider When Choosing Where to Apply
With over 150 full-residency programs in the United States alone, it’s hard to know where to start. How do you get that list of 150 programs down to a more manageable, say, 10?
Below is a list of 9 different things to consider (in no particular order) when narrowing down that list. I’ve also made a google spreadsheet you can download to keep track of the programs you’re looking into. It includes cells for each of these 9 considerations and more.
I recommend trying to find around 20 to 25 programs that roughly fit your criteria, with the goal of later trimming that list down. As MFA programs are pretty competitive (with acceptance rates often hovering around 2% or 3%), it’s often advised to apply to around 10 programs unless you have specific restrictions. I submitted to 6 programs because of application costs, for instance. Some people recommend as many as 15, but that's not an option for many. If you are submitting fewer applications, there’s a higher chance you might have to apply a second or third time. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though, depending on what your wants and needs are.
1. Location, Location
Where you choose to go for an MFA will be your home for at least two to three years. If you’re the kind of person who truly doesn’t really care where you live, then good! You can move on. But maybe you’re a die-hard city person, or maybe you want to live somewhere quieter. Maybe you want to be in a place with great public transportation, or you can’t stand snow. Perhaps you want to be in driving distance of your family.
Granted, it’s only a few years. But if you’re going to be deeply unhappy during those years because of where you’re living, I think that’s strongly worth taking into consideration. This is one of the easier places to cross programs off the list.
2. Cost of Living
Different places come with different kinds of expenses. A program with a $22k might sound better than one that one that offers $16k, until you realize rent will cost a lot more while attending the former. Don’t automatically discount programs with lower (but still fully-funded) stipends, and don’t automatically discount programs in larger cities, as they may have surprisingly good funding.
What’s more important is the ratio of what you expect to earn each month against the area’s cost of living. You won’t know exactly what the finances will look like until you see what how your funding shakes out, but it’s helpful to get a rough idea about what the costs in each place might be.
3. Funding Opportunities
A big thing to consider is what a program’s overall funding looks like. Some programs offer full-funding to all admitted students, and other programs are partially-funded, meaning they offer some unfunded (or very differently funded) packages to some students. The MFA Years has a list of 56 fully-funded programs that offer all accepted students full-funding. If you get into one of these, you can rest assured you’ve gotten a tuition waiver and a stipend.
However, there are a lot of great partially-funded programs that do give some students “fully-funded” packages, and you should shoot for those, too. Based on my discussions with other writers, though, this “funded or unfunded” discrepancy can sometimes create tension in a program. Because of this, I recommend that you apply to at least some fully-funded programs so you may have choices when acceptances go out.
If a program doesn’t offer any full tuition waivers to any of its students, then you should consider that before applying. I cannot speak to what anyone’s personal finances, financial safety nets, or family finances look like. But you should consider what amount of debt would inhibit you and your future, as having an MFA will probably not help you make a lot of money right out of the gate. $3k in student loans to help pay rent for a few months? (Probably doable!) $80k in loans for tuition? (Maybe not so much.)
I think that defining contemporary writing by broad “schools” is often reductive and not very useful, except when it comes to applying for programs. Not all (but some) programs have a broad type of writing in applicants they’re drawn to. If you have a very particular aesthetic, knowing which programs share a similar aesthetic can give you a boost (and maybe save you some money on application fees).
Program websites aren’t going to say “our program has an X aesthetic” outright, but you can get a sense of it from reading the work of professors, current students, and recent alums (particularly recent alums). If you write a lot of ecopoetry, flash fiction, hybrid essays, or experimental work, then make a special note of the programs where professors and/or students share some of that aesthetic. Likewise, if the program seems to produce writers whose work is drastically not like yours, maybe cross it off, unless it's one of the few programs that fits your other criteria.
If you want to take classes in a genre other than the one you were admitted for, check out their website and course catalog to see if programs allow you to take courses in other genres. If you’re into translation, be sure to find a program that has classes in translation or professors who are translators. They might be willing to do an independent study with you.
I don’t recommend applying to an otherwise incompatible program just to study with one professor, however. Many students have been burned this way, because professors take sabbaticals, retire, and get new jobs, so there’s no guarantee that all the current faculty will be teaching during your coursework. Make sure you have plenty of other reasons to apply. If you have a very specific reason you want to study with that professor, you can email the English department’s administrative assistant and see if they know the professor will be on campus and teaching during your years.
5. Size of Program
An incoming class of MFA students can be as small as 8 or as large as 40. Do you want a program that’s relatively intimate, or do you thrive in hustle and bustle? The P&W chart above lists programs’ general class sizes. I tried to look at smaller programs because I’d gone to a very small college, and I had a gut feeling I would do better in a smaller program. In a larger program, you will probably have a wider array of other students with whom you can become close friends, but you might have to try a little harder to get a lot of one-on-one time with professors. At a smaller program, it might be easier to get individual attention from professors, but your cohort will be smaller, too. Consider how big or small you might be willing to go for a program.
6. Program Structure
Different programs have different structures. As you can see on the P&W chart, most programs last two to three years. For most programs, you complete a creative thesis (often book-length for your genre). All the while, you’ll probably be working either on or off-campus, depending on your funding. Though all programs differ, here’s a very general outlay for most programs:
Coursework your first year. You take workshops and lit classes. Maybe you don’t get a lot of writing done your first semester because you’re getting used to this new grad school life. You have summer off, but might (probably) will have to find a summer job.
Your second year, you complete your coursework and your thesis. Your first semester you’ll probably be taking a normal course load and starting to get your thesis together. Your next semester you’ll probably take fewer or no courses and be spending most of your time on your thesis. You defend it between March and early May, and then you’re done.
Coursework your first and second years. Again, the first semester will probably be an adjustment period, and you’ll probably have to work in the summers. Towards the end of your second year, you start compiling your thesis.
Your third year, you take no or very few classes. You work primarily on your thesis. You defend it between March and early May, and then you’re done.
Note that there are a few three-year programs that are set up like two-year programs, but give students a third funded fellowship year to teach with no coursework or thesis requirements.
You can see that the primary difference between two- and three-year programs is how much time you’ll have to focus on your thesis. If you want to get grad school over and done with as quickly as possible, look at two-year programs. If you want some extra time to write, apply to three-year programs.
Some programs have specific course requirements, such as language requirements or certain literature requirements. Don’t let these scare you off of otherwise great-looking programs (as long as you like literature classes, of course). There are often multiple ways to meet language requirements, and literature courses are sometimes cross-listed with topics you might love.
7. Professionalization Opportunities
You’re a writer, so you’re probably not doing it for the money. The word “professionalization” might chill you to the core. But it’s worth thinking about what kind of knowledge you’d like to gain outside of workshops in your MFA.
Do you know what you want to do after your MFA? If you want to be an English teacher or professor, apply to programs that have teaching assistant positions and a variety of courses you can teach. If you want to do editorial work, apply to programs that have journals or presses you can work at. If you want to do literacy outreach, apply to programs that have outreach programs, such as teaching creative writing at local afterschool programs or prisons. Some universities will allow you to take free undergrad courses outside of the department, so if you’re curious about, say, web design, look into programs that might let you take a non-degree course on the side. If you have no idea what you like (as I didn’t), then the MFA can be a valuable time to learn.
Though an MFA is foremost a time to improve as a writer, it’s worth thinking about picking up some skills to put on your resume. No, the MFA is probably not going to land you a fantastic job right out of school. But you can use your MFA experience to gain skills that might help you earn a living, and I highly recommend doing so. Relatively few MFA students will go on to be tenure-track professors, so think about what programs might offer you experience that could help you become a freelance editor, a nonprofit staff member, an English tutor, a high school teacher, or whatever you’re into. You’re gonna have to eat after your MFA, so look into programs that will actively help you do that.
Higher education is overwhelmingly homogenous, and MFA programs are no exception. The writing community has worked hard to create more diversity in MFA programs, and there has been a lot of positive change as a result. But MFA programs still tend to be a lot less diverse than the writing community itself. This means that MFA program communities are often pretty white, pretty straight, rarely disabled, upper-middle class if not upper-class, and so on.
The question for you is: Would having faculty and students with similar shared experiences to yours make your time in an MFA better?
The answer is probably yes. In reading accounts from writers and listening to friends, the culture of your MFA will matter a lot. If you’re marginalized in any way, there’s a good chance you’ll hear some of the same nonsense in workshop or class that you’ve heard before. In my own (limited, white, cis) experience, having other queer writers, women writers, and Southern writers in my life as friends and mentors has been a gift. Obviously, you’re going to have supportive friends and teachers whose lives are different from yours in many ways. But having even just a few other students and teachers who understand where you’re personally coming from is invaluable. Being a writer is tough, so it’s important to surround yourself with people who help remind you of the validity of your voice and experience.
In order to get a sense of an MFA’s culture from afar, you can look at the faculty hired, the work of current students, the work of recent alums, and by reaching out to students. If you don’t like sending personal emails to strangers (I know I don’t) you can reach out with questions to current and past students in the most recent MFA Draft facebook group. It's really helpful, but as with all social media, don't let it hurt more than it helps.
Also look at what other departments the English department is affiliated with and see if you can take classes. There might be a great department you can take cross-listed courses in, such as: Disability Studies, African-American Studies, Native American and Indigenous Studies, or Appalachian Studies.
Gionni Ponce has an excellent essay in The MFA Years about her methodology for choosing programs that were more POC-friendly programs. I recommend everyone read it. I could see her process being adapted for programs that were more LGBTQIA-friendly and disability-friendly as well. There’s also a facebook group specifically for POC applying for MFA.
This is my no means an exhaustive list, but you might want to consider the culture of programs in regards to:
gender & sexuality
nationality & geographic region
income & class
and anything else that’s important to you!
9. Other Personal Needs
The 8 points above are not an exhaustive list of needs or desires in an MFA program for all people. For me, it was important to have health insurance, so I only applied to places that offered at least some version for graduate students. Maybe you want a university that has resources for student parents. Maybe you want to be in a town that has a strong community for your religion. Maybe you need a university with strong mental health resources for its students. Maybe you need to be somewhere with good employment prospects for you partner.
Whatever it is, if you’re going to be happier and healthier during your MFA because of it, you should aim to have it. The writer part of you will be thankful, too.
One Final Note, On Prestige
I’d be lying if I said there aren’t some programs that are considered “more prestigious” than others. These programs may provide better material connections (such as editors from big journals and houses visiting), but prestige doesn’t automatically make a program great for you or your writing.
Perhaps the one good thing about the tenure track job-market being so competitive is that it means there are exceptionally talented professors everywhere. And it’s important to remember that some of the best teachers are not the biggest names. I’ve seen folks go to highly-ranked programs and have a miserable time, wishing they’d gone somewhere else. I’ve seen folks go to smaller underdog programs, love it, and end up getting tenure-track jobs a few years later. And vice versa.
Apply to the fanciest programs. Apply to the quietest programs. What matters most if that you feel a program will be right for you and your values. Don’t sacrifice the experience you truly want for the experience the world says you should have.