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motet
Dana Davis / Moderator
e-mail user

May 4, 2007, 7:00 PM

Post #1 of 454 (10664 views)
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     Choosing an MFA Program (2008)  

The decisions for the 2007 school year have been made. Now it's time to begin to look toward the next application opportunity.

Choosing the right MFA program is an often difficult and sometimes agonizing decision. There are so many choices to be made when it comes to the type of program, cost, location, and duration. Which is best, a full-time program or a low residency? Is it affordable? How's the funding? Will you be freezing cold for most of the year or sweltering in the humidity? Can you spend three years or only two?

This topic is a good place to start answering these questions and others.


For a complete listing of all the active topics in this forum, see DIRECTORY - Topics in the MFA Forum.


als02


May 16, 2007, 7:48 AM

Post #2 of 454 (10636 views)
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     Re: [motet] Choosing an MFA Program (2008) [In reply to]  

So, I've been doing research the last few months (with Tom Kealey's book, Anna Mendoza's website, school websites, and a bunch of other print/web resources) on MFA fiction programs, and have somehow narrowed it down to this list of 12 schools. My biggest concern with this list is that there are too many small programs and not enough of the bigger ones (Kealey and others have suggested more of a range). But... if anyone has any other advice of things that seem out of place here (or ways I could make the list more well rounded), I'd appreciate the input.

Cornell
Syracuse
University of North Carolina--Greensboro
University of Alabama
University of Florida
University of Mississippi
University of Minnesota
University of Texas--Austin
University of Nevada--Las Vegas
Indiana University
University of Virginia
NYU

And, yes, I know that NYU has very little funding. It's kind of the sore thumb on the list, but I thought I'd give it a try.

I mainly based these choices on funding, reputation, course offerings (for example, I like the idea that programs give *some* flexibility outside of the department and the possibility of learning about another genre now and again... though all don't offer these, of course), etc. I also prefer having teaching experience (but would forego it for Austin :-)) and then some other stuff for each program that attracted me to it (for example, I'm rather socially conscious, so it was added bonus when programs had built in volunteering/community activities/etc.). Of course, I plan to look more at faculty's writing and such, but I'm currently teaching and living in South Korea and have no access to an English library. So, I'll get to that when I'm back Stateside in the fall.

Anyway, I've looked at and rearranged this list (along with the other "maybes" off the list) long enough, so I wanted to put this out there and see if there's any extra guidance I can get. Thanks in advance for any input!


jacarty
Jessie Carty
e-mail user

May 16, 2007, 9:30 AM

Post #3 of 454 (10625 views)
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     Re: [als02] Choosing an MFA Program (2008) [In reply to]  

Sounds like you have put a lot of good thought into your list!

What genre are you in?

Schools I have heard the best overall about: UT --Austin and UVA. I am fond of UNCG because I did my undergrad there and there are some really talented and interesting professors there. Greensboro is also a nice town, in between a small town a big city, ya know?

Feel free to send me a private message. I'd also like to hear about your experience overseas teaching. My husband and I are talking about doing that once I finish my mfa. (I'm low res at Queens)

--jessie


http://jessiecarty.com


mattk


May 16, 2007, 10:21 AM

Post #4 of 454 (10613 views)
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     Re: [als02] Choosing an MFA Program (2008) [In reply to]  

This list looks great to me. This might be obvious advice, but apply to *a lot* of programs - are you applying to that whole list? I applied to maybe thirteen programs - ten MFA, three phd (I already have a masters) and got into half the MFA programs and 2/3 of the PhD programs, so the lesson I learned was to cast a wide net (this was not my first year applying.) There also was no clear correlation between where I got in and where I didn't. One thing I did was apply to a few 'safety' schools - new programs at reputable schools, large programs without much funding, lesser known programs. One thing that strikes me about your list is that they're all pretty well known - maybe throw one or two new, up-and-comers into the mix?


als02


May 16, 2007, 10:56 AM

Post #5 of 454 (10606 views)
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     Re: [mattk] Choosing an MFA Program (2008) [In reply to]  

Thanks for your reply. This might be letting the cat out of the bag, but any particular suggestions for the up-and-comers? I had some (I think) lesser-known programs on my "maybe" list, like Univ. of Illinois--Urbana-Champaign (the MFA started in 2002) or some of the "sleeper programs" on Kealey's website (like Purdue). Any other suggestions?

And, yes, I was planning to apply to all 12. Like you say, casting nets...


(This post was edited by als02 on May 16, 2007, 10:58 AM)


Clench Million
Charles

May 16, 2007, 12:44 PM

Post #6 of 454 (10586 views)
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     Re: [als02] Choosing an MFA Program (2008) [In reply to]  

Just in the interest of providing multiple viewpoints, I would argue against applying to "safety schools." Unless you have unlimited funds and time, you are probably going to apply to around 12 programs. There are more then enough very good reputable programs that fit your criteria and I would go with them. I think that probably the two most important things you will get out of an MFA program (other than just time in an environment that encourages writing):

a) Access to quality professors and the possibility of mentorship. While it is probably possible for a less regarded program or an up and coming program to have a lot of quality teachers, it seems to me pretty impossible to know. Even if you like the writing of a professor it is by no means sure they will be a good teacher (I'm sure we all know plenty of horror stories about that). The top programs have sorted through their professors and for the most part kept the best.

but more importantly b) Access to a network of other young writers, a quality peer group from which to learn and grow. I think most people I know at MFA programs would agree that it is the students who end up affecting your experience the most. A workshop either thrives or dies based on the students it in, much more so than the teacher. And most likely it will be your student peers that you work with outside of class, who you discuss writing with, etc. The peer group is extremely important, IMO, and you are only going to find a high quality peer group at the top programs.*

Yes, it is possible you will apply to 12 top programs and not get into any and then wish you had applied to some safeties, but you might also end up only getting into one or two safeties and be wishing you had used your 4 safety slots on some other quality programs that you might have gotten into. And if your writing is not ready to get into one of the quality programs, perhaps your writing is just not quite ready for an MFA. There is nothing shameful in waiting a year and applying again.

Just another opinion to consider.


* to clarify, when I say "top program" I mean roughly the top 25 or so programs, not only the top 3 or 4. I still think the US News and World Report list is the best source for seeing the quality of the top programs. Although I'd supplement with Kealey's book to understand what has changed and also the funding situation.


hamlet3145


May 16, 2007, 12:51 PM

Post #7 of 454 (10582 views)
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     Re: [als02] Choosing an MFA Program (2008) [In reply to]  

I too think that is a nice list. Have you checked to see how well the programs' aethetics match up with your writing? I know programs often say "We love all types of writing!" but what I've observed is that there do seem to be inclinations. Example: fiction at Brown seems to be largely experimental while fiction at Montana largely isn't. (I bring this up because I've been in a workshop where I was writing one way and everyone else was writing another before and it made for a fairly miserable experience--multiply that by 2-3 years in an MFA program and that can be hell). Just some thoughts anyway and good luck.


(This post was edited by Hamlet3145 on May 16, 2007, 12:57 PM)


mattk


May 16, 2007, 3:15 PM

Post #8 of 454 (10558 views)
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     Re: [Clench Million] Choosing an MFA Program (2008) [In reply to]  

Just to clarify, in response to Clench's post (which I largely agree with) - when I say safety schools, I guess what I'm suggesting is that you try to stretch your list (and funds) and apply to one or two of the schools that are on your maybe list that are still fine programs (despite their ranking on a 1997 US News list or whatever) but might not have made it to your main list - like U of I at Urbana or Purdue or U Mass Boston comes to mind (new program, interesting faculty) - what I'm saying is apply to as many schools as you can afford. If you don't get into any but the bottom of your list, you don't have to go to them, but it gives you the option. But I think he has a good point about using those funds to applly to schools you'd really like to attend (but I would assume those would come from your maybe list.)


bighark


May 16, 2007, 3:54 PM

Post #9 of 454 (10548 views)
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     Re: [mattk] Choosing an MFA Program (2008) [In reply to]  

I don't think there's such thing as an MFA safety school.


mattk


May 16, 2007, 3:58 PM

Post #10 of 454 (10546 views)
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     Re: [bighark] Choosing an MFA Program (2008) [In reply to]  

OK, maybe wrong terminology - sorry to cause so much noise. Just advocating applying to some programs that are still good that by virtue of being newer have smaller applicant pools than some of the more popular choices, if you can afford to. My experience was even though I ultimately didn't choose one of these programs, it was nice to have more choices than not. I also found that funding was more of a sure thing with these programs. YMMV


gcsumfa


May 16, 2007, 5:52 PM

Post #11 of 454 (10523 views)
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     Re: [als02] Choosing an MFA Program (2008) [In reply to]  


In Reply To
and then some other stuff for each program that attracted me to it (for example, I'm rather socially conscious, so it was added bonus when programs had built in volunteering/community activities/etc.).


You should consider applying to Rutgers-Newark. They just began a new MFA program (first class matriculates in Fall 2007) that seems to "fit" your profile.

The program takes the motto, "Real Stories. Real Lives." They're looking for a diverse class of writers who are socially conscious. Tayari Jones (who used to teach at U of I-Urbana, btw) will be teaching there, and she's awesome. I’ve had the opportunity to talk with her a few times.

Don't quote me on this, but I think they have decent funding--18K stipend, IIRC. Of course, you have to factor high cost of living into that figure, considering the area. The program is a three- year program, and you minor in Lit/Book Arts, Cultural Studies, or Performance and Media Studies.


(This post was edited by gcsumfa on May 16, 2007, 5:53 PM)


Clench Million
Charles

May 16, 2007, 6:14 PM

Post #12 of 454 (10516 views)
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     Re: [bighark] Choosing an MFA Program (2008) [In reply to]  

There aren't schools you can guarantee getting into, but there are schools who have much small applicant pools and accept a lower quality of applicants that you will have a much better chance of getting into.

It is like submitting work to magazines. You aren't a sure-shot to get work in anywhere, even some random university journal. But you will have a much better chance of getting into the Podunk review than the Paris Review. The question is do you want to do that that though....


als02


May 16, 2007, 7:02 PM

Post #13 of 454 (10507 views)
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     Re: [Hamlet3145] Choosing an MFA Program (2008) [In reply to]  

Regarding the writing aesthetics of the programs, I know-- at least, "know" in the sense that I read this information mostly in posts in these forums--that Alabama is known to be more experimental. But, as someone who doesn't usually write experimental fiction (yet, at least), I don't know if that should disqualify Alabama from the list--or if it's just most students there write experimental fiction. In my board-lurking, I also read that Indiana students often include themes of important social issues but not necessarily all students do. Other than that, I'm less sure about the other schools' aesthetics.

Does anyone know anything about the extent of experimentalism at Alabama? Or aesthetics issues I might have at some of the other schools?

Thanks for all the advice so far...


gcsumfa


May 16, 2007, 7:17 PM

Post #14 of 454 (10497 views)
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     Re: [als02] Choosing an MFA Program (2008) [In reply to]  


In Reply To
Regarding the writing aesthetics of the programs, I know-- at least, "know" in the sense that I read this information mostly in posts in these forums--that Alabama is known to be more experimental. But, as someone who doesn't usually write experimental fiction (yet, at least), I don't know if that should disqualify Alabama from the list--or if it's just most students there write experimental fiction. In my board-lurking, I also read that Indiana students often include themes of important social issues but not necessarily all students do. Other than that, I'm less sure about the other schools' aesthetics.

Does anyone know anything about the extent of experimentalism at Alabama? Or aesthetics issues I might have at some of the other schools?

Thanks for all the advice so far...


I would research the faculty at each school you're applying to. For instance, Michael Martone teaches at Alabama--he's definitely "experimental."

Wendy Rawlings is the other fiction faculty member at Alabama; haven't read her work, but I do know that she's published some stories in the Atlantic, which should be easily accessible.


Clench Million
Charles

May 16, 2007, 7:55 PM

Post #15 of 454 (10488 views)
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     Re: [als02] Choosing an MFA Program (2008) [In reply to]  

To my knowledge, the only big program that is truly largely experimental is Brown.

Columbia is known for being pretty experimental and from what I can tell it is more open to most programs for different writing, yet the majority of people here definitely are not experimental. The majority are doing the traditional domestic realism thing that everyone does. Looking at the faculty is a good move, but it won't guarantee anything. No one here at Columbia, that I've read, is writing like Ben Marcus.

I don't think you should have a problem writing traditional stuff at any MFA program.


hamlet3145


May 16, 2007, 8:27 PM

Post #16 of 454 (10478 views)
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     Re: [gcsumfa] Choosing an MFA Program (2008) [In reply to]  

I bribed Martone into allowing me to re-post his "The Sex Life of the Fantastic Four" on the Unoffical Montana MFA website. I really need to get the Huckleberry Jam, grizzly bear figurine and beef jerky out to him soon.

http://www.montanamfa.org/ffsex.html


mattk


May 16, 2007, 9:15 PM

Post #17 of 454 (10468 views)
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     Re: [Clench Million] Choosing an MFA Program (2008) [In reply to]  

I think you're argument is biased. There are plenty of off-the-radar programs where you'll receive a fine (often free) education and be around top-notch student writers. This is a very limited sample, but the two most accomplished writers I know personally (journal editors, tenured professors, multiple books) came from absolutely unknown programs, and I know at least 3 Columbia grads who have gone nonwhere (except into debt!) I'm not saying you shouldn't apply to and/or attend well-known programs, but your acceptance into any of them is not a measure of your chances for future success,, so I think it's a mistake to write off smaller or new programs. You should at least evaluate them. You'll get out of them what you put into it. It's like saying that the New School isn't worth going to because it's not Columbia, or that the only mags worth publishing in are the top - it's just not true. If you wait around for the Paris Review, you may never see anything in print.


In Reply To
There aren't schools you can guarantee getting into, but there are schools who have much small applicant pools and accept a lower quality of applicants that you will have a much better chance of getting into.

It is like submitting work to magazines. You aren't a sure-shot to get work in anywhere, even some random university journal. But you will have a much better chance of getting into the Podunk review than the Paris Review. The question is do you want to do that that though....



gcsumfa


May 16, 2007, 9:54 PM

Post #18 of 454 (10456 views)
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     Re: [Clench Million] Choosing an MFA Program (2008) [In reply to]  


In Reply To
To my knowledge, the only big program that is truly largely experimental is Brown.

Columbia is known for being pretty experimental and from what I can tell it is more open to most programs for different writing, yet the majority of people here definitely are not experimental. The majority are doing the traditional domestic realism thing that everyone does. Looking at the faculty is a good move, but it won't guarantee anything. No one here at Columbia, that I've read, is writing like Ben Marcus.

I don't think you should have a problem writing traditional stuff at any MFA program.


True, true.


Peaquah

e-mail user

May 16, 2007, 10:04 PM

Post #19 of 454 (10454 views)
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     Re: [mattk] Choosing an MFA Program (2008) [In reply to]  

Hello all. I'm a long-time (two year) lurker who has finally decided to apply to programs this fall, and decided it was time to come out of the closet. I've heard (from somewhere I, of course, can't remember) that your success depends more on your ability to get into a prestigious program, and less on going to one. By that I mean if you could get into Iowa, but chose not to go, you would end up just as successful (in the long run) as someone who did go. I'm not sure I completely buy that, but I thought I'd throw it out there nonetheless.

I went to the University of Montana as an undergraduate, and in addition to Hamlet (who gives great, enthusiastic Montana advice) I can talk about Missoula and the professors (who also teach us lowly undergraduates) if anyone has questions. So that I don't subject you to my obsessive parenthesis any longer I'll just go ahead and finish with: nice to meet you.


(This post was edited by peaquah on May 16, 2007, 10:06 PM)


gcsumfa


May 16, 2007, 10:07 PM

Post #20 of 454 (10453 views)
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     Re: [mattk] Choosing an MFA Program (2008) [In reply to]  


In Reply To
There are plenty of off-the-radar programs where you'll receive a fine (often free) education and be around top-notch student writers. This is a very limited sample, but the two most accomplished writers I know personally (journal editors, tenured professors, multiple books) came from absolutely unknown programs, and I know at least 3 Columbia grads who have gone nonwhere (except into debt!)


Good points. I went to a small, out-of-the-way program (for free) and had excellent teachers and made plenty of connections with established writers.

The MFA degree itself is pretty much a "podunk" degree that most folks in academic circles look down upon anyway--insofar as being "terminal"--esp. now that more places are offering the PhD in Lit/CW (read the “Is the PhD the new MFA” article in the latest P&W). Unless you have at least one well-regarded, published book or two to go along with your MFA, the degree is good for freshman comp gigs and editorial work in large cities with high cost of living standards.


(This post was edited by gcsumfa on May 16, 2007, 10:09 PM)


tyakabob


May 16, 2007, 11:10 PM

Post #21 of 454 (10441 views)
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     Re: [gcsumfa] Choosing an MFA Program (2008) [In reply to]  

The conventional wisdom is to apply to a huge range of programs to increase your odds of getting in somewhere. I applied to six programs that I was enthusiastic about based on some basic criteria:

Funding
Ability to mix genres in program
Location
Type of university, big school, small school, etc
Whether I thought I'd mesh with the professors

The first four were pretty easy to find out, although I did have to make some information lists because when you're sorting through all the necessary information when you're looking up dozens of programs, things tend to bleed together. Funding was really important to me because I can't afford paying to get an MFA-a degree that offers almost no financial security once you're done. I don't know what I would've decided if I had only gotten into a program that didn't offer much funding, but I did the research beforehand so I didn't run into that problem.

I applied as poetry, but also write fiction and want to give screenwriting and nonfiction a shot too, so it was important for the program to have flexibility. I'd only been writing poetry for about a year before I applied, so I didn't want to be tied to that genre although my best recent work was in poetry.

The location and type of university were important because all the schools that I've ever gone to, save my Australian university, are within 2 miles of each other. My undergrad university has 2000 people, so I was ready not only to get out of the area, but to experience a big, gung-ho university. I picked an SEC school, so I can check those off. Variety of experience helps writing, right?

The last one, which also might be the most influential on you actually getting into a program, took a little bit of time. I asked my undergrad professors what they'd heard about the different programs and professors, and they were familiar with some of both, so they helped me make decisions. I also tried to find the professors work at bookstore, even using the "Look At This Book" (or whatever it's called) function on Amazon's site.

I was put on two waitlists and was accepted off of both. When I talked to people at the university I ultimately picked, I found out that one of the professors who's aesthetic I thought meshed well with mine really went to bat for me to get me into the program. You may have great grades and test scores, but the people who're in the program, their opinions count the most.

When you've decided what programs to apply to, you shouldn't be afraid to call those programs and ask questions, even just to establish a bit of presence with those programs. They post their numbers for a reason. While I wouldn't go overboard and make an annoyance of yourself, it can't hurt to show interest in the program beyond applying. I was told visiting was key to show your interest in a program, especially if you're on a waitlist. I don't know how true this is, but I was able to visit two school on the way back from a spring break trip, and it was well worth the extra time in the car, even if it didn't sway the faculty either way. I mean, shit, you're going to live and work there for 3 years, great faculty and funding won't mean a lot of you're miserable the whole time.

My basic point in writing this long post was to say that don't feel obligated to apply to a huge amount of programs, especially if you're not comfortable envisioning yourself there. If you apply to 12 programs, 6 that you can really see yourself at, 6 that you have mostly because you want to get in SOMEWHERE and you think that you could manage that with them, from my perspective, save the money and time on the 6 maybes to put towards reapplying next year to your top programs in case you don't get in there. Unless you really really just want to start an MFA program ASAP. Or if you have a ton of programs that you're really in love with, apply to the lot of them. I got into 3 of the 6 that I applied to, so keeping it small worked out for me. If I hadn't, maybe I'd be boring everyone with a different long ass post. Get as much information that you can, start as early as you can, and make up your own mind. Don't be swayed too much by blogs and Best Programs lists, but always keep your ears open.

Good luck. It's a long, drag-ass process, but soon enough you'll be calling grandma to tell her that next fall you're going to XXXX to start your masters. It's a good feeling.


__________



May 17, 2007, 12:02 AM

Post #22 of 454 (10436 views)
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     Re: [als02] Choosing an MFA Program (2008) [In reply to]  


In Reply To
University of Alabama
University of Mississippi
Indiana University

Good list, but I'd second that bit about how your style jibes w/ the school. Each of the above seems radically different from one another.


six five four three two one 0 ->

(This post was edited by Junior Maas on May 17, 2007, 12:03 AM)


gcsumfa


May 17, 2007, 12:07 AM

Post #23 of 454 (10435 views)
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     Re: [tyakabob] Choosing an MFA Program (2008) [In reply to]  

Nice post.

One more benefit of applying to less programs is that you will be able to spend more time tailoring the SOP to each school.

Let's be honest--if you're applying to 12-15 schools, you're not going to have enough time to really tailor 12-15 SOP's to 12-15 schools.


Clench Million
Charles

May 17, 2007, 1:04 AM

Post #24 of 454 (10422 views)
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     Re: [mattk] Choosing an MFA Program (2008) [In reply to]  

I don't believe I'm biased at all. I am preaching advice I followed myself.I'm not making any suggestions about specific programs. I'm just saying you should try for one of the best programs and not go for weak programs just because you will have a better shot at getting in. At least not your first round.

Should you wait around for the Paris Review forever? No, of course not. But when you submit to magazines it is best to start at the top and work your way down. I think the same applies to MFA programs. Unless you absoltely HAVE to go to an MFA program today no matter what, then I'd apply for the best programs (that fit your needs and goals) on your first round. If you get into none of them, work hard and apply again and make throw in a few safties.

An acceptance into a program (or journal for that matter) is not a measure of your chances for future success. That isn't what I said. I said you will get a better education and get more out of your MFA experience amongst top peers and top faculty.

As for the anecdotal evidence.... obviously there will be famous writers with MFAs from unknown programs and ones with no MFAs. But the point is there are a lot more writers of note from programs like Iowa, irvine and Columbia and your peer group at programs like that will be better. Again, IMO the peer group is one of the absolute most important aspects of an MFA program. That has been my experience as well as the experience of the people I know at various MFAs around the country.


All I am saying is that I know a lot of people in MFA programs. Even at the top programs, most people are fairly unimpressed with the quality of the student work. The MFA programs have been so dilluted in recent years with the exponentially rising number of programs that even the top programs have a lot of sub-par students. The people I know who opted for weaker programs were mostly very dissapointed with the quality of their peer group. As such, I think one should make sure you weigh the potential peer group and quality of teachers heavily when deciding where to apply to.


(This post was edited by Clench Million on May 17, 2007, 1:19 AM)


jlgwriter
Jeanne Lyet Gassman
e-mail user

May 17, 2007, 1:30 AM

Post #25 of 454 (10419 views)
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     Re: [Clench Million] Choosing an MFA Program (2008) [In reply to]  

Clench,

I know you're talking about residency MFA programs here, but I wondered if you had any opinions on the quality of the various low-res programs. I'm planning to apply for the spring and have my own "short list," but I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the top-ranked low-res programs--if you care to share.

Thanks.

Jeanne


http://www.jeannelyetgassman.com
http://jeannelyetgassman.blogspot.com

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