How to Apply to Grad Programs in Creative Writing
Updated: Jun 4, 2019
An MFA or MA in creative writing is a beautiful opportunity: Two to three years of wide open space to work on a book, workshop your chapters, and meet writers, professors, agents and publishers. In addition to providing that critical space to write and workshop, an MA (non-terminal degree) and MFA (terminal degree) open the door to teaching positions at colleges and universities. And best of all—this is the jaw dropper most of my undergraduate students don’t know about—an MFA in creative writing is free. In fact, the schools pay you while you write. Grad school application is in season (typically a Fall to Spring endeavor), and a handful of my senior writing students will enter the process. But applying for graduate programs is not just for undergraduates. In my MFA were writers ranging in age from twenty to sixty, from all walks of life. It’s about the writing, not the writer. Here is my general advice for those wishing to apply:
When making a list of programs, you want to keep in mind each program's reputation, regardless of in-residence or low-residence program structure. This isn't snobbery, it's practicality. The better programs will attract better visiting writers, visiting agents, offer more stipend money to their students (this is big), and help open doors to teaching jobs. You can find rankings of grad programs online easily enough. I highly recommend visiting AWP (the recognized national authority on all things creative writing).
Another thing to consider: Once you do an MFA, you can't do another, so it's important to accept an offer from a school you want to go to. An avenue you may not have considered is the MA in Creative Writing. The MA to MFA route is an interesting approach, because it gives you a year to two in an MA to hone your art, and then you apply/reapply to terminal MFAs. Not a bad idea to apply to both MAs and MFAs.
The advice given to me was simple but good:
1: Make a list of schools, MA and MFA, via reputation and ranking and desirability (pick about ten to fifteen).
2: Cross out ones where you definitely don't wish to live and write.
3: Apply to the rest (each has their own arduous requirements and fees listed on their websites, so just claw through it. There is no easy way).
4: Wait patiently (and silently, don’t “follow up” with MFA directors) and then go to the one that offers you the most money for a TA/Fellowship/Stipend. You don't want to go into debt for an art degree, no matter how romantic the idea may sound. The good news is, you don't have to. Reputable programs offer tuition waivers and livable stipends. Again, it’s all about the writing.
While every grad program application is frustratingly nuanced, writing programs care most about three primary elements: Your writing sample (usually around ten to twenty pages, and this writing needs to sing), your letter of application (1 - 1.5 pages, single spaced), and your letters of recommendation. Give your recommenders plenty of time to craft a letter, and send them your resume/cv so they can write it well.