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Advice From the Programs

Time and money are uppermost in the mind of an MFA applicant and they are important considerations. What is the length of the program of study? How is the program structured; what balance does it provide among taking and teaching classes and getting time to write? Beyond these basic considerations, however—and perhaps more important—applicants should consider the quality of the community they are about to enter. First, who is on the faculty and what kinds of work do they produce? Ideally, an applicant should have a real desire to work with particular people, rather than choosing a program based solely on its financial package or structure. Second, what is the program’s size? Applicants need to decide what kind of atmosphere helps them flourish: a large, energetic, competitive atmosphere or a more intimate, overtly supportive one? Finally, applicants should look for diversity, as a way of determining the degree to which they will be challenged. Students who enter an MFA program with fixed ideas about their writing or their work-in-progress, with little flexibility or willingness to change and experiment, gain little from the experience. Ideally, a program will edge students just enough outside their comfort zones that hidden potentials come to light and grow.    
Tracy Daugherty
Oregon State University in Corvallis

Seek a program that will challenge you—one that is both rigorous and flexible. Do you want a full university residency or a low-residency program that fits a busy life? What faculty will you actually be able to work with, what range of styles do they represent? How many students does each carry? What kinds of attention will your work get? What specific courses are available or required? Is it a supportive community? What do graduates achieve? Most of all, are you aiming for an academic career or an ongoing writer’s life? These are not necessarily the same.
Stan Sanvel Rubin
Pacific Lutheran University’s low-residency program in Tacoma, Washington

Look for a faculty of extraordinary talent. Hands down, the defining aspect of the best programs is an accomplished, productive faculty who also teach with brilliance and good humor, and whose work reflects diverse styles and interests. The way to intuit that is to read their writing, including interviews. One should also seek a spirited community: a safe place to be an individual, a community that welcomes a range of writers, including those with an edge to them, or who see the world upside down. Wit counts, as does joy and a higher seriousness.
Shelley Washburn
Pacific University’s low-residency program in Forest Grove, Oregon

With myriad writing programs to choose from, what's most important is that students consider carefully the type of environment they need in order for their work to flourish. At Solstice we believe that our art does not thrive in a hierarchical, competitive atmosphere, but rather in one of mutual respect and encouragement. Find opportunities to talk with the staff, current students, and graduates of a program; ask how faculty members approach the workshop, the classroom, and the individual mentoring process; and finally, ask if there are opportunities for students who write across the genres, and if there is strong support for alumni. 
Meg Kearney
Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts

I think applicants should consider funding, program duration, faculty, faculty-student ratio, and reputation. Ideally, all students in a program should be fully funded. I’m an advocate of three-year programs and programs that offer post-MFA funding, because it can be very difficult to complete a strong manuscript in two years. Faculty is extremely important, but keep in mind that you may not get to work with every writer. Some questions to ask current MFA students: Do you have enough time to write? How available are faculty? Would you describe the program and community as supportive? Do you receive guidance about life post-MFA?
Porter Shreve
Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana

My MFA is from Iowa, the country’s oldest program, but now I direct one of the newest MFA programs, at Queens College in New York City. These two very different experiences lead me to this advice. First, find a program that believes in community building and bringing students together outside of class, through readings, events, the chance to work on a magazine, or form student-run workshops. Second, go to a program where you can do something very different from what you usually do as a writer. Step outside your comfort zone. This is the time to take risks. Nobody cares if we write, but you have to care so much you won’t ever stop. Go somewhere where you can make that happen.
Nicole Cooley
Queens College in New York City

Read the professors’ work. Obviously. You don’t want to send your hip-hop poetry to a coterie of diehard formalists, or your structurally inventive sci-fi novel to a program where all the fiction writers produce straightforward domestic realism. But a writer’s own work isn’t always a reliable guide to how he’ll teach. Some writers accept only clones; others scoff at imitators. Ask the current MFA students how responsive the professors are to different styles, how supportive, how available. Look for a program that encourages you to experiment some, and that offers not only a range of professors’ voices, but also a spectrum of courses other than workshops. Make sure you’re comfortable with the degree requirements, keeping in mind your career goals—remember, for most entry-level university jobs, you’ll need to demonstrate some teaching flexibility.

Lisa Zeidner 

Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey

Choose a program with well-published, award-winning, nationally known faculty who actually mentor students; avoid programs with numerous adjuncts, or whose ‘stars’ teach every second or third semester. Choose a student community that’s diverse in ethnicity, age, and life experience, and an aid structure that doesn’t require competition. Consider geography: A program should promote internships and support access to a (usually urban) literary world. Look at design: A reading series fully integrated into the curriculum is unusual. Don’t go deeply into debt: You are committing to an artist’s life. Visit programs to which you are accepted and speak with current students. Be inspired.
Jayne Anne Phillips
Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey

Don’t apply while you’re still in college. Write on your own for a while. Maybe you’ll thrive, maybe you’ll flounder—either way, the information about yourself will be valuable. Don’t apply because you think you kinda maybe sorta want to write. Apply only if it’s the only goddamn thing in the world you want to do. When you do apply, apply to many schools. Your chances get better with each application you send out. And if you get rejected everywhere, don’t despair. If you want to write, keep writing. You don’t need an MFA to fulfill yourself as a writer.
Brian Morton
Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York

Some key questions to ask about an MFA program: How diverse is the community? Is the atmosphere competitive or supportive? How many faculty members can I choose from? How much response to my work will I be getting from faculty? In addition to workshopping and reading contemporary texts, will I be reading the classics, learning literary traditions, literary theory, and skills such as form, meter, and dialogue? How flexible is the program? Can I work cross-genre if I choose? In addition to teaching opportunities, are there opportunities for community service, artistic collaboration, and other kinds of literary activity? How involved are alumni? 

Annie Finch

University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast low-residency program in Portland

Once you make the fundamental choice between a full-residency program (three years, with traditional vacations and continued campus life) and a low-residency program (two years, work mostly from home, no vacations) you simply need to look into the programs by asking questions of the directors and some of the students in the program. (If directors won't connect you to current or former students, buyer beware.) Is the program hierarchical or more community-minded? Do big-deal 'visiting writers' actually work with students in workshops and master classes or just helicopter in and give a reading (see hierarchical)? Is there a focus on specific genres and subgenres? How many students in the program? (Smaller programs build tighter writing communities, in my experience.) Is there an advisory board of agents and publishers who actually interact with students? And of course that old chestnut, have any students come out of the program with publishable books (with a few examples of student/graduate contracts with agents and publishers)? Once you've received answers to those questions, your choice more or less makes itself.
Robert Begiebing
Southern New Hampshire University’s low-residency program in Manchester

First and foremost, ask what type of financial support you will receive and what the cost of living is in the area where the program is located. Then ask about the ratio of students to faculty and how many students are in the workshops. Ask the students in the programs what type of community exists and to what extent the faculty are involved in the community. Ask how many writers come to give readings or to teach as visiting faculty. And finally, ask if the program is more focused on career or on craft.
Christopher Kennedy
Syracuse University in New York

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Advice From the Programs (September/October 2011)
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