Friday, March 14, 2014

So, You're Thinking About an MFA in Creative Writing...

By Susan
I borrowed this gorgeous logo from Oregon State University's program.

In January, I embarked on a new journey in my writing life by beginning my first residency for my Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing.

Perhaps it was easier to choose a program than it should have been. Perhaps I should have spent more time worrying about my application, because once I made the decision to apply, things moved very quickly. And yet I'm very happy with my decision and feel as though following my gut was the right choice for me. I thought today would be a good time to share my own path to finding the right MFA program.

Think About It
I checked my journals for the accuracy of this statement, but it's true: I spent well over two years thinking about getting my MFA before I applied anywhere. By thinking, that means I made lists of pros and cons-- even excel spreadsheets comparing programs-- researched the costs of different programs, investigated faculty and visiting faculty, and attended AWP (The Association of Writing Professionals annual conference) which literally swarmed with MFA candidates and representatives from different universities. Before you apply anywhere, think about your motivations and ask yourself these questions:
  • ·      Why am I interested in an MFA?
  • ·      What do I hope to gain by having the degree?
  • ·      Am I prepared to be a full-time student and balance my life at the same time?

Read Up
I read Poets & Writers Magazine and spent hours comparing programs. Each year, their September/October edition is devoted to ranking MFA programs and is considered THE source for program rankings. I was able to quickly narrow my search to the low-residency programs, because I'm not in a position to relocate to go to school. This link to Poets & Writers can give you even more information to assist you in narrowing your search for the right program for you. In addition, are you interested in poetry, creative non-fiction, or fiction? Certain programs gear their fiction toward the short story rather than the novel. A new book by Chad Harbach, MFA vs NYC, just came out this year and may be worth the read. When reading up, make sure you ask yourself these questions:
  • ·      Which is better for me, a low-res or full-res program?
  • ·      What schools are most appealing to me, and why?
  • ·      Do I want an international travel option? Is the campus, location, and prestige of a program important to me, or not? How much weight do I give the P&W ranking?

Talk About It
I called friends who are currently attending MFA programs. Several were kind enough to email me detailed and well-thought out letters regarding their particular program and the pros and cons. I spoke to people I'd taken writing workshops from who were professors and writers, and weighed their opinions heavily. I talked to my agent. I called the schools themselves and talked to the program directors. Here are some questions to ask:
  • ·      What's been the greatest benefit to you regarding your program?
  • ·      To my friends who attend programs, what was the most important thing in choosing a program? (Hands down, the answer to this was the quality of the faculty and the one-on-one relationships formed with mentors.)
  • ·      What advice would you give me in researching programs?

Consider the Cost
I received early advice to not go into debt for an MFA degree. In this person's opinion, and MFA wouldn't make me a better writer, necessarily, but would function to give me connections into both the New York publishing world and the academic writer's world. I can say that in these first few months following my first ten day residency that I've learned things about my own writing and about literature that I wouldn't have been able to discover on my own. For that, I am already thankful. Yet when it comes to cost, ask yourself the following questions:
  • ·      How am I going to pay for this: government student loans (for which you must fill out a FAFSA to begin the process), credit cards, pay cash, or pull from your savings? If you can't write a check each semester, I'd advise that you pay for at least some of the cost. (I certainly wouldn't borrow for the entire amount, but I know many students who have.) Think long and hard about how to feel about debt before diving in to a program.
  • ·      What is the return on my investment by obtaining an MFA?
  • ·      Am I prepared for the workload, debt payments, and payoff in obtaining this degree?

Go With Your Gut
I choose the University of Tampa. Yes, the campus is beautiful.
I looked at several schools and narrowed down my top ten, then my top five, and then my number one choice. I based my decision on the quality of faculty and visiting faculty, the location of the residencies, and the newness of the program (my final choice, the University of Tampa, is only two years old, and isn't even ranked by P&W yet.) I made several phone calls, and spoke to the director of
the program, the administrator, and even  faculty before making my decision. I liked the personalized attention and their attentiveness to my questions. Here's what my gut told me:
  • ·      Personal connection was important. I liked the quick call-backs, the late-night email replies, and the friendly, honest tone from everyone I talked to at my chosen school. I liked the faculty list and researched them extensively.
  • ·      Geography was important. I narrowed my top five down to the southeastern US. This may not be as important of a factor to you, but for a multitude of reasons, it was to me.
  • ·      Reputation and other's opinions mattered to me. I took the advice of friends, professors, and other writers who knew things about the specific programs I researched. In addition, I was swayed by visiting faculty. (George Saunders, Karen Russell, Tom Franklin, Beth Ann Fennelly, and Robert Olen Butler made a difference to me.)

In the end, I chose a new program so we could grow together. I liked the idea of building something and the enthusiasm that came with a new program. I love the connection I feel with my first mentor as I work with him and communicate regularly with him on my writing.

If you are looking into MFA programs, I'd recommend lots of research, soul-search, and investigation before you decide on a program. Good luck in your journey!


  1. Thank you for writing this very thoughtful post. I am considering getting an MFA from my alma mater's low-residency program. I also work there, so I would get free tuition. Otherwise, I'd never be able to afford it.

    I am doing the soul-searching right now. Do I want to commit to the workload? Do I want my life to be all about writing for the next couple of years? What about my other hobbies?

    I did also want to ask you something. I have been out of school for a while and while I wrote professionally for more than 10 years, I'm a bit rusty (except for journaling). Before jumping into an MFA program, do you think I should take an online writing course?

    Thank you! I look forward to your opinion.

    1. Sandra, I think anything that helps your writing and gives you the confidence to pursue your dreams is a good thing, and an online writing course may do that for you. I've not taken an online course before, so I can't speak directly to that. In your application, you'll need to include a writing sample (20-30 pages for fiction and non-fiction, less for poetry) so an online course may be a good opportunity for you to write that sample, or to polish something you already have ready. Good luck!

  2. Hi Susan, could you share a little about your experience at UT so far? It's on the top of my wish list and I would appreciate any first hand experience you could offer. Thanks!


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