Applying to MFA Programs

Want to learn more about applying to MFA programs in Creative Writing? Trying to decide if it's right for you? Check out our FAQ with advice from faculty members and Creative Writing Ph.D. students to help you decide and learn more. 

 

Click on a Question to Get Started: 

 

 

What is an MFA?

  • "An MFA is a Masters Fine Arts, which you can get in Poetry, Fiction, or Nonfiction Writing (fewer programs are available in Nonfiction). There are also MFAs in visual art. The program is 2-3 years and involves taking seminars in which you study literature as well as participating in a group workshop where you read and comment on your peers’ writing. An MFA can qualify you to teach creative writing or other college-level writing/English courses. More importantly, it is time to read a ton and write a ton. I wouldn’t do an MFA because you are interested in professionalization; I would do an MFA if you have a writing project you are excited to pursue and/or if you are committed to simply developing and growing and improving as a writer."
—Emma Wood


 

Should I get one? What should I consider in determining whether or not to pursue an MFA?

  • "You should get an MFA if you have the passion/desire/drive to spend two years focusing on a writing project and workshopping that project with peers and faculty. An MFA alone will not qualify you for teaching at colleges and universities. You would need to have an MFA and at least one published book." 
—Micah Perks 

 

 

Where should I go? How can I decide? How are programs ranked?

  • "Some of the best advice I received when I was applying was to not go anywhere that doesn’t fully fund you. Definitely look at work from the faculty and from students who came out of these programs. I’d also advise that you think about the type of writing environment you want—if you want to be able to work in multiple genres/cross-genre, for example, some programs are more accommodating to that than others."
—Kiley McLaughlin

  • Go where you won’t go into debt and where you feel like the curriculum, faculty, campus location, and student body reflects your needs and interests as a writer and as a whole Although a valuable experience, an MFA is an investment that has no guarantee of a return--no matter how prestigious or celebrated the program--which is why going into debt for it is hard to justify. Visit the schools and talk to faculty and current students. Are they welcoming? Are they happy? Do they make you feel valued? Do they value similar things as you (professionally and personally)? Can you see yourself among them? Are there students of color in the program? If not, why not? 
—Nathan Osorio 

  • "Please do not go into debt. This cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often. The best advice is to only go to a program that fully funds you."
—Chacko Kuruvilla  

  • "I think applying only to what pops up when you Google “Top Ten 10 Best Creative Writing MFA programs” is not the kind of research you need to do. Find out the success rate of the graduates at programs you are interested in. Read the books of the teaching faculty. Research deeply before you apply. If you can, go visit and arrange to observe a class. Pay attention to the culture of the place to see if it suits you and ask other students in the program what has worked for them."

—Melissa Sanders-Self
  • "In addition to finding a school that will support you financially, and after narrowing your search according to where you’d like to live (or where you’d refuse to live), you should consider who you might like to study under. If you have favorite authors, find out if they teach, and where, and then investigate those programs. Be strategic."
—Gary Young

 

 

Do I need to be published?

  • "Definitely not! Though it happens occasionally that someone starts an MFA having published a book, most people who start MFAs have never published a single poem/or story even in a journal. They’re looking at your potential. And, in fact, some MFAs might not want to accept a writer who already seems “established” (i.e. widely published in top-tier publications and/or a book or two)." 
—Emma Wood 
  • "No, but publishing something demonstrates a certain amount of initiative on your part, while specific venues can signal certain aesthetic and/or political predilections."
—Whitney DeVos

 

How much does it cost? What kind of resources will I need?

  • "Again, don’t go into debt for an MFA. Find a program that will support you."
—Gary Young
  • "Every MFA program costs a different amount. Some programs provide full-funding, partial funding, or no funding. The best way to find out how much financial aid the program you are interested in provides is to visit the program’s website."
—Thais Miller

  • "Keep in mind the cost of living in major metropolitan areas--and certain college towns-- is significantly higher than in other areas. Be active in researching the cost of on-campus housing & go on Craigslist, Zillow, etc., to have a good idea of the current state of the rental market within a 5-10 mile radius of campus."
—Whitney DeVos

 

 

What is a fully-funded program? (What are some fully-funded programs?)

  • "'Fully funded' means you will receive both tuition remission (or its equivalent) and a stipend. In other words, you (as a single person) should not have to take on debt to complete the program; the university covers both the cost of attendance (tuition) and pays you an income (stipend), through a combination of fellowships, teaching assistantships, or other work-related opportunities, such as serving on the editorial board of an affiliated literary journal. At more prestigious programs, multi-year fellowships may be awarded in the financial aid offer associated with your acceptance letter (this is an ideal scenario in which you receive an income just to write, with no additional work-related responsibilities), while other fully-funded schools with less money of an endowment ($$) will fund your degree provided you also agree to teach or perform other related-labor; at such schools, short-term, competitive fellowships may also be available upon arrival. Apply for these, which look good on your CV and will give you a break from teaching in order to focus on your creative work. It can happen, however, that some fellowships ultimately provide less money than teaching does, especially after taxes. Again, make sure you have a sense of your budget based on the current cost of living (expect it to rise, especially in urban areas) so that you can confirm the university’s stipend will be enough to support your needs." 
—Whitney DeVos

 

What sort of teacher training will be provided at a program in which teaching assistantships make up a large portion of the funding?

  • "It REALLY varies, and this is a great question to ask current grads in these programs, either before or after you’re accepted, while you’re trying to decide where to go. In my MFA program (Iowa), training and oversight varied greatly depending on what department you were TA-ing/GSI-ing for. For the Literature department proper, we had a week-long orientation/training, and for Creative Writing we had minimal training, but were paired with a TA Coordinator (a second-year grad) who worked one-on-one with us to observe classes and provide feedback."
—Kiley McLaughlin

 

What do you wish you would’ve known about MFA programs before you applied?

  • "When I was an undergrad I ignored the best piece of MFA advice I was ever offered. When I told my writing mentor that I wanted to go to New York to get an MFA, she said I’d be better off moving there for a summer and waiting tables till I shook the desire out of my system and then could apply elsewhere. When I reflect on my NYC MFA experience for too long, I always come back to her wisdom and wonder what would have happened if I had listened to her. Which is to say, NYC is great but is incredibly expensive and isn’t."
 —Nathan Osorio

 

  • "Different programs have significant aesthetic differences. If you write very experimental, politically-charged, multilingual poetry, for example, you are going to feel out of place in any program that does not have a significant proportion of faculty whose work demonstrates similar concerns. DO A LOT OF RESEARCH. Also, know that you can apply to MFAs more than once; it is okay to approach your first round of applications as a practice round. And, if in that round, or a subsequent round, you only get into one program, make sure it’s a program you really want to attend. If you arrive at a program and it truly turns out to be a bad match, know that you can also apply to transfer to other programs. It’s not common, but people do it."
—Whitney DeVos

 

  • "There is a range of amazing programs that will fully fund you, you can find a good fit that will not put you into massive debt. I also wish I’d known more about the pedagogical & cultural differences between programs, because there is a range, and prestige isn’t always the best indicator of what will be the best fit for you."
—Kiley McLaughlin
  • "Do not go to a program you have to pay for in full unless this is really not a concern for you/your family. Just remember: you aren’t becoming a lawyer. There’s no promise of income at the end of the MFA tunnel. So that debt is going to be a huge burden for a long time."
—Emma Wood
  •  "Two-year programs go by in a flash."
—Gary Young

 

 

How do I apply? What materials do I need to apply?

  • "Personal statement and a writing sample of about 25 pages. Some programs require the GRE. Three recommendations." 
—Micah Perks
  • "You can apply to most programs online. You need a BA or BS degree. The most important component of your application is your manuscript. Most programs ask for 10 pages of poetry; 25 pages of fiction. Personal statement, three letters of recommendation, current CV or resume."
—Gary Young
  • "You will need some kind of personal statement talking about your desire to get an MFA--why in general, why now, what it would mean for you in the future--as well as a writing sample (for poetry, this is usually anywhere from 10-15 pages). Some programs may also ask for a teaching statement and/or a diversity statement. You will also need 2-3 letters of recommendation."
—Emma Wood

  • "You will also need money to pay application fees, sometimes between $70-120 per school. Sometimes, fee waivers are available. Make sure to ask." 
—Whitney DeVos

 

 

When should I start thinking about whether or not to apply for an MFA? What is the typical timeline for applying, hearing back from programs, etc?

  • "I strongly suggest you do not apply while still an undergraduate at UCSC. Creative Writing students at UCSC spend the spring of their senior year focusing on revising a manuscript. That will be the strongest work you do while at UCSC. If you apply in the fall of your senior year, it will not be with your strongest work. It’s hard to get into an MFA program. MFA programs prefer to take people who have been out of school for a while, have proved they will continue to write outside of school on their own, and perhaps even have a publication or two or have done some work in the writing/literary community."
—Micah Perks 

  • "In terms of applying and hearing back, it’s just like college. Applications are due in the Fall, you hear in the spring. Recently, the past few years, we’ve had more and more students applying in the Fall of their Senior year and I think that timing doesn’t allow for maximum realized potential on your final year at UCSC. Our program is designed to have you focus hard in your last year producing a manuscript you have revised, are proud of and may even send out for publication. I recommend taking a break and giving yourself a few years to do life after college. And graduate programs like applications from well-rounded people who have done something other than school. Another benefit of waiting is when you’re not in school and are out in the world, you’ll have more to write about. Consider internships at Literary publications, or even applying to artist colonies to have focused writing time which will also look good on your resume if you do ultimately apply . . . You can also join organizations for writers, like AWP, attend conferences and talk to people, which will help you know if an MFA is really the path for you." 
—Melissa Sanders-Self

 

  • "I agree completely. Taking some time off between your undergraduate career and graduate school is usually a good idea. But if you think you want to go into an MFA program sooner than later after graduation, you should consider your senior thesis a springboard to the manuscript that will get you into a graduate program. If you graduate in June, your grad school applications will be due in a little more than five months. You can use that time to polish your manuscript, your CV, and your statement of purpose."
—Gary Young 

 

Who should I ask for recommendation letters? 

  • "Ask previous, recent creative writing, English, and literature instructors who are very familiar with your writing, creative and critical. Ask the instructors of multiple courses for which you received high marks. Do not ask your piano instructor, even if you’re a Music major and no matter how close you are, if they have never read your writing."
—Thais Miller

 

 

How do I ask for recommendations? How far in advance should I ask?

  • "I always ask for a copy of a student’s manuscript, statement of purpose, CV, and a list of the classes they’ve taken from me. Offering this material when you ask for a recommendation is always appreciated. You want to make your recommenders’ jobs as easy as you can."
—Gary Young
  • "You should ask AT LEAST two months in advance. Make sure to remind the faculty member what classes you took with them, why you’re applying, what you’ve been up to since graduation, and ask them what you can do to make it easier for them. You should sign up for Interfolio so that the faculty member has to do fewer letters. It’s good to politely remind faculty as the deadlines get near." 

—Micah Perks 

 

What are other resources I can look into?