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Advice From the Programs

An MFA program is not simply a place to have space and time to write. Applicants ought to look first and foremost at the program of study. What kinds of literature courses are offered? Are some of them historical and cross-cultural? Does the faculty teach theory, poetics, and philosophy, to help students think about basic questions such as “What is writing for?” Personnel may change, but the orientation of the curriculum is more constant. Don’t undersell yourself; sign up for a mental challenge. The only real reason for entering an MFA program is to be taught. Make sure the one you pick offers solid goods.
Johnny Payne
University of Texas in El Paso

First, review the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ guide to creative writing programs: guide.awpwriter.org. Once you’ve selected eight to ten programs, visit every program’s website; it should answer all of your questions. If it doesn’t, think twice about applying. Next, ask the undergraduate creative writing professor you're closest to for advice. Then submit your best creative writing sample, as it will determine your admission. No other factor will. If you are offered admission, contact the program’s coordinator, who should be happy to answer any questions you have. Ask to speak to or correspond with three students currently in the program. Get their opinions about courses, faculty, visiting writers, assistantships, and living in the area. If you would like to visit, arrange your plans with the program’s coordinator, who will make sure that you meet students and sit in on a workshop and a seminar. Do not take on a lot of debt to attend an MFA program. Do not decide which is the best program; decide which program is best for you. Then make a decision you’re certain you will never regret.
Thomas Grimes
Texas State University in San Marcos

There are many legitimate reasons for attending a writing program, and prospective students should ask questions pertinent to their goals. If teaching creative writing is an interest, then it’s imperative to attend a program that will offer that as part of the package. Knowing the books of the teachers is always a good idea, since it may be easier to learn from someone whose work one already respects. I’d always suggest talking to current students in a program to get the lowdown on the atmosphere of the writing community and quality of the instruction.
Clint McCown
Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond

When looking for an MFA program, prospective students would be well advised to consider the faculty, the financial package, and the history of the program. Are the faculty publishing the kind of writing you admire? Good teachers will always work with the individual, tailoring their teaching to the student’s aesthetics, so it’s not really necessary to choose a great surrealist prose poet, for example, to learn how to write great surrealist prose poems. On the other hand, it can’t hurt. Bottom line: Pay attention to the faculty. They’re the people you’ll be working with for the next two or three years. Also pay attention to the financial package: the more time, money, and freedom to write you have, the better. And if a program has a substantial history, try to determine how its graduates have fared over the years. For example, if Flannery O’Connor, Denis Johnson, and Charles D’Ambrosio all graduated from the same MFA program, I’d want to go there too. (Oh, that’s Iowa. Guess that’s why everyone wants to go there.)
Ed Falco
Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg

The first thing students should consider when looking at MFA programs is the quality of the writing and teaching among the faculty. This sounds obvious at first, but I’m always surprised at how many students take money and location into account first. I don’t think either of those considerations will be all that meaningful five years after your MFA is over, but a true mentor can make a world of difference to prospective writers, both during their apprenticeship and for years afterward. Look first to what truly moves you and seek out study with someone whose creative work you find inspiring. Then try to go where he teaches. Programs will usually put you in contact with current students, and at that point you can ask about the quality of the teaching. If you are lucky, you might end up in a program that has a variety of fine writers who are also excellent teachers.
Pimone Triplett
University of Washington in Seattle

No single criterion will measure all programs against the needs of all students. But I highly recommend speaking to students who are enrolled in the programs one is considering, preferably students working in one’s own genre(s). Any program coordinator should have at hand a list of students who are eager to speak with prospective students. If one is considering low-residency programs, I highly recommend visiting a residency, if possible. The residency is where real personal connections are made among students and faculty; it is the heart of any low-res program. If one can’t visit, then at the very least ask current students about the residency experience.
Brian Clements
Western Connecticut State University’s low-residency program in Danbury

Most writers worth equivalent salt know the mantra “Know Thine Audience.” (You’d never send a sonnet to a journal that publishes only free verse.) It works the same for MFA applications: Know The Program. A tailored cover letter with goals and recommendation letters that illustrate some familiarity with what our program delivers gets closer attention. Since our fiction track specializes in commercial and mainstream, a recommendation letter bragging about an applicant’s experimental prose style won’t impress us. Same for our poetry track, which specializes in verse craft—a writing sample that doesn’t include even rudimentary attempts at form doesn’t demonstrate what we need to know.
Mark Todd
Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado

It’s important that prospective MFA students prioritize what they want from a program. Is it a connection to a fabled program with big-name faculty? Is it location? Is it the opportunity to teach (and earn an MFA without incurring debt)? Is it the chance to become involved in activities apart from creative writing, such as international service? Is it the opportunity to be part of a small program with supportive faculty? There is no ideal MFA program for every applicant. The more that  applicants understand what they want from an MFA program, the greater the chance they will find the right fit.
Mark Brazaitis
West Virginia University in Morgantown

Since you’re going to be committing two to three years of your life, and a significant portion of your aesthetic and ego to the faculty, you really need to read their most current work. I’m always amazed to hear how many students enrolled at programs I visit who aren’t familiar with their faculty’s work. That’s not to say you want to look for work that’s like your own, but look for work that excites you and makes you want to write. Then find out (by speaking with and e-mailing current students or recent graduates) if they’re good, supportive people who will share hard truths and earned praise and who are willing to help you make important connections when they feel you’re ready.
Darren DeFrain
Wichita State University in Kansas

Making a program choice is like the ABC’s of buying a car. Appropriateness: What are the goals/outcomes of the program? Do they align with your needs? Will you leave with skills, prepared for a writing life? Budget: What are all costs associated with that program, including food, room, IT, university fees as well as tuition. Compare total costs in order to know what you’re getting for your investment. Comfort: Are there writers who can mentor you in your thesis project? Do you want to write a Y/A novel, but no one on staff seems interested? Are you bound by home, family, or job? A low-residency program may work for you; you have fifty-five such choices. Do you need to see other students at coffee shops, and meet faculty face-to-face often? Then you should choose a full-residency program.
Bonnie Culver
Wilkes University’s low-residency program in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania

No one should go into debt for an MFA 
degree—but beyond the basic funding package, it’s important to inquire about matters like teaching load and travel support. These things will tell you how much a program puts writing right at the heart of the MFA experience. And don’t assume that the faculty’s own aesthetics are the only aesthetics the program supports. Talk to faculty and current students in depth about the philosophy of their program. Lastly, think about how important the time in the program is to you versus the time after the program.
Beth Loffreda
University of Wyoming in Laramie

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Advice From the Programs (September/October 2011)
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