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Advice From the Programs

Look closely at the faculty bios of different MFA programs. It’s not only important to work with writers you admire, but also with a broad range of faculty in different genres—poetry, fiction, screenwriting, drama, and creative nonfiction. Be sure to take into consideration the cost of the MFA program. Be on the lookout for those programs that offer tuition remission, generous stipends, and so on. Make sure the teaching load of TAs in the MFA program is reasonable. Be on the lookout for editorial possibilities with journals and publications. Find out from MFA students why they chose the program they’re in over other possibilities. Was the location a factor? Often a writer can be stimulated by being in new and unfamiliar territory.
James Wilcox
Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge

While writers should consider the size, cost, and location of a program, along with faculty, curriculum, and opportunities for teaching and internships, the core of any MFA program is its workshop. A good one lets you take risks. The atmosphere should be rigorous rather than competitive, with students invested in furthering one another’s work and faculty who support a variety of styles rather than championing just one. Ask if you remain with your cohort or meet new students each year, if workshops require critical reading as well as writing, and if there’s a thesis workshop or class.
Joyce Peseroff
University of Massachusetts in Boston

The University of Miami’s mission is to send writers and poets into the world to contribute to Contemporary American Letters. (WRITE BOOKS!) Time and space are important, but so are mentorship, funding, and community. Read the faculty. Their teaching philosophy grows out of their writing. Students will recommend good mentors. Seek full funding. Programs that believe in you will fund you. Talk to alumni and students about the program’s writing culture. Supportive? Divisive? Who are the program’s distinguished alumni? Read their books. Finally, ask the director what the program expects of its graduate students. Then see if the students agree.
M. Evelina Galang

University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida

You don’t necessarily want to attend the program that offers you the biggest fellowship, but you should think twice about attending any program that charges you tuition. Even if you can afford to pay, the program isn’t making any commitment to you as a writer. Look for programs that offer roughly the same financial aid to everyone. How can anyone be objective if some people in the room are thinking, “I’m working two jobs to be here. She got a free ride. And she calls that a story?” Don’t be afraid of a program’s academic requirements. At most, you will need to take only a few literature courses. If you end up teaching in an English department, you will be glad that you read Chaucer and Moby-Dick. And everything you read can be inspiring. Don’t be swayed by promises that you won’t be required to teach. Sure, you might have a bit more time to write. But the chances that you will score a six-figure contract and never need to support yourself (or your family) are next to nil. Besides, teaching really does teach you a lot about your own writing. Visit every program you are considering and hang out with the current students. Your decision should depend less on the answers to specific questions than your gut feeling as to how happy you might be in that environment. How much do the faculty members seem to care? Do they merely show up for workshop and let the students run the show, or do they offer helpful criticism and suggestions? How talented and committed are the students? After all, you will learn as much—if not more—from your classmates as from the faculty. Is the ethos of the place that students are helping each other to succeed, or that they’re competing against one another? Twenty years from now, will your former classmates be willing to read your novel? To recommend you to an editor or an agent? Or will they say, “Sorry, you’re on your own!”
Eileen Pollack
University of Michigan in Ann Arbor

As for where to apply, I always encourage students to go by gut feeling. If a program feels welcoming, inclusive, and responsive on its website and other materials and in all dealings with you, it probably is, meaning you will likely be joining a real writing community. The names on the door do matter, somewhat, and full scholarships are wonderful, when available, but it’s much more important to feel that, disciplines and financial aid aside, you are in this together with every other writer in the room. I also tell students that the talent level of one’s peers and teachers is important, but talent can crop up anywhere. Community, however, is something a program either actively cultivates or it doesn’t happen, and it’s through writing communities that new writers are most likely to get that first story, poem, or book published, or work produced, or find a first job or agent in this always-overcrowded field.
Michael Pritchett
University of Missouri in Kansas City

The first consideration is the faculty. The faculty become the leaders of the workshops (at the heart of most programs) and thus are the strongest voices heard in critiques, and indeed they control the direction of comments. And the faculty work one-on-one with students in independent study as well as on the thesis; they work with students in other, informal ways, too. So read the work of the faculty, choose a program that includes writers you admire, who write what you hope to write, who have published well (meaning not just with a New York house but even with a good literary [small] press) and recently. After you narrow programs down by faculty, select one that offers some sort of financial aid or—if it is a state university with little to offer—at least makes it easy to work and take classes. Look for programs that allow you to work on a literary journal, too. Look at programs whose graduates have published well, and at those with WITS programs. Most programs will allow you to sit in on classes or to contact current or former students.
Mary Troy
University of Missouri in Saint Louis

 “A rose is a rose is a rose,” but an MFA is not an MFA is not an MFA. So, how do you choose a program that’s right for you? Start with reading the work of the faculty, but don’t stop there. Look for programs that offer opportunities to study with diverse and prominent visiting writers. The curriculum should be progressive and challenging with interdisciplinary, cross-genre, and crosscultural courses that encourage scholarly and creative development. Small class size is key for optimal attention on your work and for mentorship. Look for professional opportunities in teaching, literary publishing, and literary archives. Finally, search for unique programming aspects such as letterpress printing, teaching in the schools, or flexibility in taking courses both in person and online.
Michelle Naka Pierce
Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado

As Joseph Campbell often and rightly said, “Follow your bliss.” An MFA is neither a credential nor a career path. It is an idyll, two or three Arcadian years in the company of people who love what you love and are happy to devote themselves to something little valued and even less understood outside their charmed circle. Choose with love and devotion in mind. Seek a program where the faculty are women and men whose works you truly enjoy and where the students are genuinely fond of and genuinely inspired by one another. In the years to come, it is not the climate or the stipends you’ll remember. It will be the company you kept.
Donald Revell
University of Nevada in Las Vegas

Much of your happiness in an MFA program will depend on two relationships: the one with your instructors and the one with your fellow MFA students. For the first, find out the degree of faculty accessibility. How often do instructors meet individually with students? How thoroughly do they read student writing? Are their comments constructive or deflating? What tone do they set in their workshops? Competitive or supportive? The happier students are with their faculty, the happier they are with one another. This translates into more productive workshops, more productive writing groups, and flourishing friendships. The writers you meet during your MFA experience will become your readers for life, the trusted friends to whom you send your manuscript drafts. Choose wisely. 
Sue Hertz
University of New Hampshire in Durham

Think carefully about which program would be the best fit for you. Visit. Meet with faculty, sit in on classes, speak with students. Does the program offer teaching opportunities? Community outreach? A reading series? A student-edited literary magazine? How much fellowship support can you expect? And, most important, who teaches there? One of the greatest gifts an MFA program can offer is access to mentors. Writers come to NYU, for example, to study with Anne Carson, E. L. Doctorow, Jonathan Safran Foer, Yusef Komunyakaa, Sharon Olds, Charles Simic, Zadie Smith, and many others. These relationships can be vitally important—even life changing—for developing writers.
Deborah Landau
New York University in New York City

Go to some place that will inspire you and enlarge you as a writer—not just a program or university, but a landscape, a city, an environment where you will feel energized to write like mad. Choose a community of writers that will both support and challenge you. Know what you can bring to that community to add value to the experience of your fellow writers. Remember, the MFA is not a credential—it’s a transformative experience.
Philip Gerard
University of North Carolina in Wilmington

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Advice From the Programs (September/October 2011)
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