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Researching & Choosing an MFA Program (In The Word Cellar)

sticker found on ground; iPhoneography

Last time in this column I told you the story of why I decided to pursue an MFA in writing. Since then, I read an interview that Susan Orlean gave to Lee Gutkind in the journal Creative Nonfiction. In it, she offers an interesting perspective on graduate writing programs. She says that she wasn't initially a big supporter of them because she "always wondered why you should pay for something to be edited when you could be out there in the world, writing and getting editing as part of it -- and being paid." But a few things happened to change her mind: "One, it's harder and harder to get those jobs; two, the reality of the good editing [not necessarily] being there for you...." After serving as writer-in-residence at a few MFA programs, she thought this:

"This is where this is happening now, the chance to get your work really read and edited.' In a perfect world, that wouldn't be the case, but I'm not sure you would still get the apprenticeship. The model I always looked toward was that apprenticeship model from the 1900s: When you work for a cobbler, you're actually fixing shoes, but he's right there, correcting your mistakes, and there's a customer who's waiting for his shoe. I'm not sure that exists much anymore, so I've softened my position on writing programs because I think they are filling a need that maybe isn't being served that way."

I like Orleans' ideas on apprenticeship. That's very much how my MFA program felt; I was an apprentice to working writers and editors. Even though I wasn't writing for immediate publication, I did have that end goal in mind. I'll talk more specificity about my kind of program (low-residency) in this column and the next, and perhaps more about my particular school (Vermont College of Fine Arts) in a later column.

** ** **

In this installment, I'll share some tips on how to research and choose an MFA in writing program. There's a lot of information in here, so you may want to get a cup of coffee or glass of wine and settle in. Or maybe buckle up. Or hang on to your hat. Some such clichéd metaphor.

(If you're not interested in MFA programs, I invite you to use your time more wisely and check out this visual history of literary references on "The Simpsons." Or you could browse past "In The Word Cellar" posts about other writing topics. )

Types of programs: Traditional vs. low-residency

First of all, there are two basic types of MFA programs: traditional and low-residency. Traditional programs are what most people think of when they imagine grad school. These degrees usually take two to three years to complete. During that time you attend on-campus classes and work toward a final creative thesis. One of the practical perks of traditional programs is that they often offer students significant financial aid through grants and teaching assistantships. If you're willing to move somewhere to attend grad school, traditional programs are a feasible option.

Since I wasn't able to move to a new city or state for a few years, I chose to go the low-residency route. The upside is that I didn't have to move, could keep working, and my program was amazing. The downside is that low-res programs don't offer the same kind of grants that traditional programs do. But student loans are definitely an option. (Just ask me how much of an option they are in January when my first payment is due. But I digress.)

How low-res programs work...

Low-res programs usually take four semesters to complete. A semester is six months, so you're basically working on the degree for two years straight. Twice a year you spend about 10 days on campus. (This is the residency part.) During residencies you'll attend lectures, workshops, and readings with faculty members and other students. I found that residencies were like an alternate reality: total immersion in the world of writing. The "real world" of home and work fade away and seem quite distant very quickly. Frankly, it's pretty fantastic to be immersed in the world of writing and the company of other writers.

The rest of the semester is spent off-campus. So it's just you and your writing wherever you live. Each program may be a bit different, but most work like this: Once a month you send packets of writing to your faculty advisor, who will then respond with detailed feedback and recommendations.

A low-res program culminates in the completion of a creative thesis, just as in traditional programs. This is essentially a collection of creative writing you've done over the course of the program. Mine had to be at least 75 pages. It included a collection of essays that belong together plus one "random" essay that wasn't part of the same set. Your creative thesis could be part (or all) of a memoir, a novel, a collection of short stories, or a poetry collection. (The page count for poets is always much shorter, it seems.) My other graduation requirements included writing a critical thesis and writing and delivering a 45-minute lecture.

...and why I think they're great.

It's often said that the low-res model more closely mirrors a writer's life than does a traditional program, and I think that's true. Most of the time, being a writer means sitting down alone and writing. Then you might share your work and get feedback from an editor or your peers, and maybe get together with some fellow writers at a retreat or conference a few times a year. And then it's back to the page. This is how I spent my two years in a low-residency program, which seems to be good training for my post-grad writing life. I'm still working on writing consistently, but I'm so much better at it than I was before grad school. The experience of having monthly deadlines has helped me to become more consistent in my writing. It's also reinforced my need for external deadlines, which I now feed by making commitments with friends to swap work or deciding to send my work to lit journals.

How to choose a program

Here are some things to consider whether you're looking at a traditional or low-residency program.

First, consider what genre you want to write in. While some cross-genre study is usually possible, you will usually focus on one main genre. Most MFA programs include tracks in fiction and poetry. Most also include a creative nonfiction (CNF) track, but not all do. (For example, Warren Wilson, a very well respected program, does not offer CNF as a genre. On the other hand, the also well-respected Goucher Collge offers only CNF.) Some programs offer other genres, such as writing for stage and screen or writing for children and young adults.

Another thing to consider is a program's faculty. Check out how many faculty members teach in your genre. If you can, try to get a feel for their work. I admit that I didn't do this due to a time crunch and a feeling of overwhelm. I started researching grad school right before the next round of applications were due. (Low-res programs usually accept applications twice a year.) Plus, I looked at a lot of schools. Trying to research that many faculty members and what they had written was impractical. But it's truly one of the best ways to choose a program. It's impossible to read everything every faculty member has written, but it's nice to get a general sense of their work. It's also nice to see how long they've been teaching -- and where. A great writer isn't necessarily a great mentor or teacher. (Side note: A lot of the faculty who teach in low-res programs also teach at other universities and traditional MFA programs.)

Talk to current students and alumni. Contact the schools that interest you and ask to be put in touch with students or graduates. This is very common, so don't feel weird about it. I talked to a number of current and past students from several of my favorite programs. Since graduating, I've volunteered to talk to prospective students. It's a great way to ask questions and get an insider's look at the program. I even requested to speak with a faculty member after I was accepted to a number of schools and was trying to choose a program.

Does the program have any special features? For example, the low-res program at Antioch University in Los Angeles has an emphasis on social justice. Queens University of Charlotte's low-res program has students participate in distance writing workshops (which means that you interact with other students to share and critique work even when you're not on campus for residency). Some schools have a strong  interdisciplinary approach, an emphasis on publishing, or extra certificates in areas such as translation, publishing, or teaching. One or two that I know of even dispense with the "critical" component of the MFA. (I'll talk more about creative and critical work in the next column.) I'm not in favor of this approach, even though it does sound appealing. (More on this next time.)

Consider practical things such as class load, graduation requirements, residency length, location, and dates (for low-res programs), and financial aid. (For low-res programs, also look at past residency schedules to compare the amount and quality of lectures, workshops, and other events.)

Consider reputation and ranking. These are tricky areas. By reputation I mean both the academic reputation and the general vibe of the place. Rankings (see below) can help you sort out a school's reputation, but they have their limitations. (There is currently a kerfuffle raging over the Poets & Writers' ranking system.) Talking to students and alumni can help to give you a feel for a program's culture: Do students get a say in what faculty members they work with? Are faculty known for being friendly and available or elitest? Is the atmosphere of the student body competitve or collaborative?


**The current issue of Poets & Writers (Sept./Oct. 2011) is devoted to MFA in writing programs. The cover story is titled "MFA Nation: Do You Want To Be A Part Of It?"

Here are some other resources to help you research schools and programs.

This list isn't comprehensive, so please share anything I've missed in the comments.

How to apply

Every program will have its own application requirements, so be prepared to get organized, especially if you're applying to multiple schools. Most programs require some combination of the following: 

  • application form;
  • writing samples;
  • entrance essay(s);
  • undergrad transcripts; and
  • letters of recommendation.

Traditional programs may require GRE scores, but low-res programs usually don't. Oh, and there's an application fee, usually around $50 per program.

You can probably use the same writing samples for most programs, but make sure you adhere to the requested page limits and formatting requirements. You may also be able to use some version of your entrance essay(s) for several schools, though you will want to tailor this to each specific request.

Traditional programs often accept students once a year, for enrollment in the fall. Low-res programs usually accept students twice a year, for enrollment in summer and winter. Pay attention to the deadlines.

To how many schools should you apply? That's up to you and your own style of madness. I have a Type A personality when it comes to these things. I also have a keen inability to gauge my own talent and skill level. I had absolutely no idea if I could get into an MFA program. So, to increase my odds, I decided to apply to seven (yes, 7) of them. (I had a very specific timeline in mind in my head, and I didn't want to risk having to reapply in another six months.) In the end, I applied to just (just!) six. I only skipped the last one because I found out I was accepted to my top choices before the final application was due. Most people I know don't undertake this kind of craziness. A lot of my MFA friends said they applied to two or three schools. Some took a chance and applied only to one.

Since I'm often asked where I applied, here's my list.

Okay! That's all for now. (If you've made it this far: Thank you.) I'll do at least one more installment in this MFA series of "In The Word Cellar." If you have questions about grad school, please let me know. And please feel free to ask general writing or creativity-related questions, too, as I'll be returning to those topics in future posts.

In The Word Cellar normally sometimes runs on the second and fourth Wednesday of the month. Read other posts in the series here.

Reader Comments (4)

Thank you for sharing this Jenna!
September 27, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjennifer h
You're welcome, Jennifer. Thanks for reading!
September 30, 2011 | Registered CommenterJenna McGuiggan
Jenna, this is a really valuable post. I included it in this week's Creativity Tweets of the Week. Hope you're well! http://bit.ly/ntHH8Y
September 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick Ross
Thanks, Jenna! Someone just asked me to talk to their friend about selecting an MFA program. The first thing I'm going to do is point them to this post!
October 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSion Dayson

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