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Your Handy Getting-Ready-to-Apply-to-an-MFA Checklist

Are you wondering – what is grad school in creative writing? And: why do it?

Most programs are MFAs (Master of Fine Arts) in which you go to school for 2-3 years, taking primarily workshop classes but also (depending on the program) contemporary and canonical literature classes. Strong programs cover your tuition (really!) and even give you teaching experience, for which you get a modest stipend (10-25K/year range); these are competitive and hard to get into. But they’re are a lot of them, especially outside California.

You spend most days in grad school reading, writing, thinking about writing, and talking with other people about writing — it’s an immersive experience that can be productive, educational, and fun. It gives you time to focus on writing, basically, and maybe a little teaching (or, at some programs, editing) experience.

Research Creative Writing programs.

First: this is an amazing source of student-written information. Then read this article and this article and this article.

The next best place to go is a guide from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs to its member creative writing programs. This is a searchable database of MFA programs, and it lets you read about any and all MFAs in the country by location and program type (2-3 years, residency/non, genre, etc). As you read through the results, you should pay special attention to and take notes on these categories: faculty, application deadlines, necessary application materials, and financial aid information.

A much more subjective (but still helpful) guide is an old ranking of MFA programs put out by Poets and Writers. Don’t pay too much attention to the overall or genre rankings (the ‘stats’ they use are iffy), but do pay attention to these categories: funding rank/full funding, job placement rank, cost of living, and student/faculty ratio.

Use the information on these two sites to create a list of 10+ potential programs (plan on applying from anywhere between 6-10). Your search criteria are up to you, of course, but really keep in mind the quality of the faculty, the type (genre/residency/length) of program, tuition/financial aid, and success of graduates.

Discuss potential graduate programs with adviser.

In early fall semester of your senior year — or, better, in late spring of your junior year — set up an appointment with your major adviser and talk about the programs that have caught your eye; this can help clarify any questions you have or any things that might not have occurred to you, and it’ll help hone your list as you get ready for the application process.

Make a fall checklist/timeline.

Grad school applications are usually due sometime between December and February. They are complex, so it’s crucial you’re organized. Make a list of what you’ll need for each program you’re applying for, gather that information, and give yourself dates by which to complete all the various tasks. Those will include (but not be limited to):

  • Getting letters of recommendation: Most programs require three (3) letters of recommendation. Well in advance of the deadline (1-2 months, at least), identify the faculty who can best speak to your abilities, ask if they’ll provide letters, and give them all necessary information (addressed/stamped envelopes or online links; deadline dates), and explain what you hope they can address in the letters.
  • GRE exam: Many programs require GRE scores (the general test), although usually the scores themselves aren’t weighted in the admissions process too highly. Be sure to schedule an exam date, plan on paying the fee, and come test day have the scores reported to your application schools.
  • Personal Statement: Most programs require a brief statement in which you explain why you want to attend their program. It’s best to be specific here – discuss their faculty, the types of work they write, and how your own aesthetic interests are a good match. This involves a bit of research into who their faculty are and what they’ve written, of course, but it’s worth the effort. The personal statement can be easily modified for each school; they should be unique to each, but don’t worry about writing entirely new statements for every school you apply to. Your adviser should be able to help edit/revise the statement, too.
  • Creative Writing sample: See below.
  • Any other materials needed: Read the application guidelines and see what else you’ll need to do, and work it into your checklist/timeline. This might be anything from filling out a FAFSA, ordering official transcripts (these cost money and yes, you’ll need them), the actual application forms and fees, etc.

Work, work, work on your Creative Writing sample.

This is easily the most important element of your application package. Usually it’s something in the range of 10-15 poems or 15-30 pages of fiction/nonfiction. You want to turn in your best, most impressive work. Identify the pieces you want to use for your grad school sample (do this, ideally, the summer before your senior year) and focus your attention on them during your senior project class. (Hopefully, you’re enrolled in your senior project class in the fall, and this will allow you to hone your creative sample.) Focus early on conceptual revision — making it smarter, more complex, more tightly-structured — and later, as the application deadline approaches, focus on cleaning the language until it shines. Your creative sample should not only be thoughtful, unique, and memorable, but also detailed, grammatically correct, and typo-free.

Your adviser can and will help with all this, of course: stay in touch, ask questions, get as much help as you need. But most of all, head into the application process with a clear and smart plan, and work to be as prepared as possible once the deadlines begin to roll around.