Advice From the Programs

by Staff
From the September/October 2011 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

We asked directors, coordinators, and professors of full- and low-residency MFA programs to offer some advice for prospective students trying to decide which programs are right for them. Here’s what they said.

MFA applicants should read the books of faculty members in numerous programs, with the ultimate hope of finding not just a mentor, but an aesthetic ally. When I applied to graduate programs I checked dozens of books out through interlibrary loan, covered the names up with sticky notes, and read the work with no knowledge of the author’s identity. As writers, we know when we’ve found the writing of a kindred spirit, or someone who makes us consider the world in a new way. I recommend giving as much weight to the page as to the name.
Mary Biddinger
University of Akron in Ohio

Beyond important stats on the website—program and class size, duration, funding, teaching and editing opportunities, faculty Who’s Who, curriculum (genre workshops? more?), alums—lies a program’s personality. So surf the web, e-mail, phone, or visit, asking:  How accessible are faculty? Does the program interact with department, campus, town? Will you starve on the stipend? How’s the food? How’s the artistic mischief in and around the program? Are genres separate camps? Do the readings rock? Who edits the mag? Do the classes make you want to write? Does the aesthetic bent get bent? Where are people from? What do they do on Thanksgiving?
Robin Behn
University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa

Talking to students who are in the program right now is key. They can
give you the lowdown on the tone of the workshops and the atmosphere of the program. Read the work of the writers on faculty and match yourself up with writers whose work challenges and excites you. Consider the variety of electives and internship possibilities—if you are moving to a new location, immersion in place is an education of its own. Find out how flexible the program is about experimenting in a second or third genre. Trust your gut, but don’t go into too much debt.
Aurelie Sheehan
University of Arizona in Tucson

When applying to MFA programs, I asked myself three questions: Did I like the work of the faculty? (Don’t apply anywhere unless you do.) Did the program support its students financially, either with fellowships or teaching assistantships? (It makes no sense to go into debt for an MFA.) Was the program located somewhere I wanted to live? (Life goes on while you’re in school.) It’s always good to talk to faculty members and current students to get a sense of the moods and attitudes of a given school, and to visit if possible, but for most people these should be the three primary questions.
Geoffrey Brock
University of Arkansas in Fayetteville

Applying MFA students should consider: (1) Whether they want to relocate. If not, a low-residency MFA program might be the best choice. If yes, traditional MFA programs might work. (2) Whether they prefer MFA programs representing all literary genres, or programs focusing on one or only a few closely related genres. (3) The quality of books published by MFA faculty. (4) Each program’s commitment to quality teaching. Applying students should query active students. (5) The ambience of each program: Look for high aesthetic standards and a supportive environment that lends itself to the nurturing of new art.
Stephen Haven
Ashland University’s low-residency program in Ohio

Prospective students tend to sweat too much over the status of the program, but the important thing is to find a place where you can write and learn how to live as a writer. This is a time to dedicate yourself to the art, so you need to think about what will allow you to do that, and what will get in the way. Some writers thrive on competition and big communities; others need peace and quiet. Not every program suits every writer. Pay attention to how faculty and students strike you. This is a relationship, not a buffet.
Martin Corless-Smith
Boise State University in Idaho

What to consider when applying to MFA programs: Where: Do you want to be a city mouse, with myriad distractions that might stimulate your work; or a country mouse concentrating entirely on that piece of cheese? Size: A small cohort of your peers whose personalities and work you will come to know well; or a large group in which it might be possible to work quietly and almost anonymously? Reputation: Are the faculty members writing novels and poems that you respect, admire, and feel you can learn from; are the alumni, celebrated or not, doing the kind of work you would like to do, and is it appearing in the places you would like to be in? Aid: An artist should be willing to make sacrifices for his or her art; nonetheless, it is grand to have one’s tuition covered. Teaching: Can one teach creative writing workshops both at the university and in the wider community? Nature of the program: Do you want a leisurely experience, one that might last for some years, during which you might discover yourself as a writer (and find a spouse); or would you prefer an intense, rigorous, and even scholarly program? Would you learn most from a cohort that resembles you; or would you grow more from a workshop diverse in age, nationality, background, and interests? No program is right for everyone. Call some recent graduates and ask them about the experience. They will help you more than what I have written here to make the right decision.
Leslie Epstein
Boston University in Massachusetts

Faculty artistry is paramount. Read professors’ work! Do you get goose bumps? Ask MFA writers in the program if faculty show a genuine interest in their work. And are there generally enough assistantships to go around? Be wary of large workshops and/or ones with a remarkable number of non-MFA candidates in them. Can you work on a magazine or press? Can you teach a section of creative writing? Ask whether the program requires an electronic thesis. If so, will your thesis be subject to unbridled access on the Internet, access after an embargo period, or something else?
Wendell Mayo
Bowling Green State University in Ohio

Choose a program with professors whose work you love, though certainly be open to aesthetic diversity. Place matters, whether it’s loud and clanky cityscapes that feed your work or easy access to Walden Pond. And, of course, don’t neglect such practical considerations as the financial package you’re offered, cost of living, the presence of a reading series, access to museums, teaching opportunities, the chance to help staff a literary journal. You’ll likely learn as much from classmates as professors, so surround yourself with other engaged writers, as measured by where alumni have published. Before signing on the dotted line, ask current students what they like and don’t like about a program. Finally, throw yourself into the maelstrom and don’t look back.
Lance Larsen
Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah

There are many factors one should consider. The quality of the faculty. The size of the program (if too small, it can feel incestuous; if too big, you can get lost). The location. Is there an opportunity to teach? How expensive is tuition? Finally, visit a workshop if you can; go out with the students for beers. You’ll learn more about the program that way than from all the statistics you can compile. At Brooklyn College, we get over five hundred applications for fiction alone. It’s two years of your life. It’s worth making the trip to see the program up close.
Joshua Henkin
Brooklyn College in New York City

Be practical, and not practical. Writers have to be both: Start now. The prospective student should pay attention to pragmatic issues: Get a good financial arrangement, at least keep your debt under control; look for the teaching and editing programs that suit you best, a city you like, writers you want to meet. But pragmatics mean nothing if the program won’t make you a better, more fulfilled artist, and that part of the decision is subtle and personal and sometimes surprising. Before you decide, try to visit, watch a workshop. Try to see the teachers and students in downtimes, for example, just before or after class: Those are revealing. And don't be afraid to make an intuitive choice—you'll be making lots of them later, if everything goes right. Hope this helps.
Andrew Levy
Butler University in Indianapolis

Here is the most important thing: The best MFA program is the one that’s best for you—for your writing and related professional aspirations. Don’t rely on any “best of” guides or hearsay. Know your writing and where you want to take it. Are you an essayist? Make sure there’s an accomplished essayist teaching workshops in your dream program. Read what the faculty members in your genre are writing. Read their latest works in journals as well as their books. If they have interviews, articles, or reviews, read those, too. Do an aesthetic check. How likely are they to understand and embrace your vision? Are they superstars? Make sure they actually teach classes. Writers often teach or work as editors. Will your dream program allow you to teach and edit? Look for in-house and national literary journals, a solid reading series, a sense of community, and an opportunity to teach creative writing as well as composition.
Jocelyn Bartkevicius
University of Central Florida in Orlando

Prospective students should ask, What makes this program different from any other MFA program? Is there a specific focus? Are there certificates or concentrations that add value to the program? Prospective students should also quiz both current students and alums about the kind of relationships they have with the faculty. Are these relationships nourishing and sustaining (that is, do they continue beyond graduation)? Do the faculty seem too busy or overworked? What is the student-faculty ratio? Are there examples of faculty going above and beyond their job description to help students?
Sheryl St. Germain
Chatham University in Pittsburgh