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Advice From the Programs

My advice for people looking to apply to an MFA program is research the program extensively: See what classes are offered, what the sizes of the workshops are, what kind of funding opportunities are available, and who’s there. Indeed, this last point bears repeating. Too often I find students have no idea what the aesthetics of the faculty are. As we know, the “ranges of the possible,” to use the title of a recent anthology, are immense. Know the faculty’s poems, stories, essays; feel some spark of connection. And talk to current grad students about working with the faculty; both writing and teaching generosities vary widely.
Matthew Cooperman
Colorado State University in Fort Collins

Current students are the best and most accurate sources of information. Ask questions. Bear in mind: All workshops are not the same. Ask about size, time, and format. Are responses verbal, written, or both? Is faculty generous with its efforts? Is faculty available? All is not workshop—what are the additional requirements? Are the elective seminars and lectures exciting, varied, challenging, and useful? Are there supplemental courses of study? All is not classroom—inquire about extracurricular events, professional opportunities, and post-MFA guidance. Is there community and camaraderie? All is: How are (relatively recent) alumni faring? Publishing what and where? Prizes? Fellowships?
Binnie Kirshenbaum
Columbia University in New York City

I think students should ignore national rankings and take each MFA program on its own merits. Our program, for instance, is small, intimate, egalitarian, and intensive, and focuses strongly on teaching as well as writing. We think that what we have to offer is great, but some students might prefer a larger, less guided, more competitive environment, or one that doesn’t encourage teaching. Young writers need to think hard about what they need in order to be excellent, and find the program that will help them get there; they should consider their artistic and professional goals before they apply. Do your homework: Read professors’ work, research the town the school is in, e-mail current students. And once you’re accepted, visit if you can.
J. Robert Lennon   
Cornell University in Ithaca, New York   

It surprises me when students applying to our program do not take the time to read the work of our faculty. Do your homework and read the work of writers you want to study with. That won’t always tell you if that writer is a good teacher, but it’s a start. Students can’t help but be influenced by their mentors, so make sure a faculty has gender, racial, and age diversity, as well as an aesthetic range. Ask about the kind of community the program fosters—supportive or competitive? And finally, don’t take the easy way of trusting the rankings, which can’t begin to represent some of the rich and interesting programs that are out there.
Anne Marie Macari
Drew University in Madison, New Jersey

A vital step is deciding between traditional, continuous-residency programs and brief- or low- residency programs like our own. For many, brief-residency programs offer the flexibility of time and location that hectic schedules require, and yearly residencies are great opportunities to interact with an ever-rotating variety of writers and editors in inspiring settings. Writers whose interests stretch beyond literary fiction—say, writers of genre or commercial fiction—may also find support in our own brief-res program. Those seeking a sense of community can find brief-res programs that offer options like real-time online workshops or opportunities to edit a literary magazine.
Young Smith
Eastern Kentucky University’s low-residency program in Richmond

Familiarize yourself with the work of the writers who teach in the programs that interest you. Find out if those writers are dedicated teachers—you want to be honestly and vigorously pushed beyond yourself, neither coddled nor lacerated. Visit if you can, talk with current students and, if possible, alums. Is there a strong record of graduate publication? Check recent offerings, talk with the graduate-program director and ask focused questions. Do literature classes and electives fit well with workshops to form a broad-ranging but coherent advanced curriculum? Is there evidence that the program fosters community? Toxicity doesn’t help creativity, and suffering writers mostly suffer—and write in spite of it, hopefully. Check out costs, cost of living, work opportunities, and fellowship availability. What are the possibilities for teaching and teacher training? Go in trepidation of “The Rankings,” that stone tablet on which the axe has been sharpened to its acutely subjective edge. Successful investors do their own legwork, and you’re investing in your writing life and your future.
Daniel Tobin
Emerson College in Boston

After deciding on either a full- or low-residency program, you have three basic questions regarding the best-fit MFA program for you. First is the quality of the faculty. Faculty, however, need not only be well-published writers but also writers trained in the genres in which you are interested, as well as excellent and committed teachers. Second is the program’s ability to meet your specific interests (e.g., does it schedule meetings with agents and editors, offer internships in publishing, teaching opportunities, overseas options). Finally, since a program should feel like a writers community, it’s a good idea to interview students about the sort of environment you will be entering.
Michael White
Fairfield University’s low-residency program in Connecticut

Looking for a writing program is like drawing a self-portrait. Be sure the programs to which you apply are all good fits in terms of studio-academic mix, writing community, finances, opportunities, location. Investigate further upon your acceptance because transferring is costly. Beware of hype and ask yourself again if you are ready to make the commitment to your own creative growth. The program should employ tenured faculty. Part-time and visiting writers won’t be responsible for most of your experience. Look at student results: Interview current students. The character of a program is unlikely to change dramatically in two to three years. 
Cathryn Hankla
Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia

In considering the best creative writing program for a particular student, that 
student should start by looking at the faculty who teach in a particular program. Does the student find the faculty to be the type of writers whom he or she would like to work with? If so, then ask about the faculty’s reputation as teachers. If a student does not have the right teachers, then everything else is irrelevant. A student should ask about financial support, the type of student community, and the larger orientation of the program. Is the program principally focused on craft or does it involve graduate work in literature? And applicants should definitely communicate with current students. It is important to remember that a student should want a graduate creative writing program that will best enable that student to become an original and disciplined writer. Financial support is important, but it is not everything. Ultimately, it is the quality of the education that should receive the most important consideration.
J. Kastely
University of Houston in Texas

The most important aspect of an MFA is its faculty. Pick a program staffed by writers whose work you admire. Beware, however, that some MFAs list faculty who may be on sabbatical, who only teach once every year or two, who teach courses that are oversubscribed and you may not be able to get into, or who only teach a few evenings per year, rather than full-length courses. Before you apply, ask the program administrator exactly what the teaching roster will be, and whether you will be guaranteed admission to the classes. Also ask current students how accessible the faculty members are, outside the classroom. Finally, pick a program you can afford. There's no correlation between cost and quality, and many of the very best MFAs cost nothing to attend.
Gabriel Packard
Hunter College in New York City

When applying—and, more crucially, if accepted—to a low-residency program, request: (1) a residency schedule—you want to know if seminars, as opposed to lectures, form the craft curriculum, and whether faculty or graduating students do most of the teaching; (2) sample faculty distance-learning responses—these come closest to a class visit; and (3) student work samples—programs showcase only their successes, of course, but a program should have successes to showcase. Examine alumni accomplishments, but correlate them to the age of the program. The program that’s proud of itself will invite you to contact students and alumni, and its faculty will contact you. Visit an ongoing residency if you can.
Steven Cramer
Lesley University’s low-residency program in Cambridge, 
Massachusetts

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