How to select MFA programs

Picture of Caroline Crew

Author: Caroline Crew

Of the many mistakes I made during my application season, the most inane were during this stage. If you’re reading this, I guess you’re serious about this. This is probably one of many MFA advice articles you’ve read. Well, so did I—and I nodded along, agreeing, and yet the advice didn’t really sink in. So I will try and break down the pitfalls I almost disappeared into:

  1. FACULTY FIRST

Applying for MFAs is a little different from the usual grad school experience. Not saying that rankings don’t matter, but the rankings aren’t the usual big-name schools. There isn’t a whole lot of point applying somewhere just because it’s got a good reputation. The first port of call in writing a preliminary list of programs is who teaches there. Find out where your favourite writers teach. Without a doubt, the places I got into this year where those places where I knew the work of at least one faculty member.

  1. DRAFT, DRAFT & DOLLAR

The first list is great. Entirely dream-like, and probably long. Probably about 30 schools long. And applications are EXPENSIVE. From your first list you want to get to a final list of 10-12 schools. Some people apply to more or to less, but this is about the most sensible number, even if it does feel like a lot. How to whittle it down from 30 to 10? Realism, my friends, cold-hearted realism.

This is where the dollar comes in. I made the mistake of being entirely idealistic, thinking that wherever I got in, the money side of things would just work out. This will not happen, I repeat, THIS WILL NOT HAPPEN.

Be honest about your finances, your debt, and what you’re willing to beg, borrow or steal. And once you’ve done that, look at the funding opportunities for each program. Is teaching involved for funding and how much? Do you want to teach? What other opportunities for money are there?

If I did this again, I would only apply to fully-funded programs—it is really heart-breaking to turn down an offer from a place you love because of money.

  1. STILL DRAFTING

So you’ve gotten rid of a few places that just wouldn’t work financially (cough Columbia cough), but the list is still too long. Now you can cut based on more practical details. It might seem silly to shred Wisconsin from the list because you hate the cold, but you have to live in this place for two years or more. So check out the cities and the writing community going on locally, as well as considering the community that will be your cohort—class sizes vary dramatically, and this will obviously impact not only on the selectivity but your potential experience there. Don’t forget that current students are a great way to get a more real picture of a place, and more often than not, they’re happy to answer questions and be up front about the pros and cons of their school.

Also, it could be more than two years of your life: a fact I annoyingly was extremely ignorant of. Personally, longer programs really appealed to me, but I hadn’t applied to many.

Luckily I landed at a three year program, and I recommend thinking about it as key. Of course, it’s worth mentioning that full-time programs are only one option: low-residency programs are growing in popularity, and if that’s something you’re interested in there’s a ton of information available.

If you’re hovering on your final list and need to cut a few more, let’s get back to the money problem: specifically the GRE. Taking the exam, and buying the study isn’t cheap, and if your current list only has a few GRE-requiring programs, that might be something to consider for final cuts. And if money for applications really is tight, start as early as possible getting in touch with programs about application fee waivers. You don’t get if you don’t ask.

  1. SPREADSHEET OF DOOM

You have your list, friends. The potential dozen. I was told a good way to think about the final list is to try and imagine how you would feel if you only got in to one place. If you’re happy with that idea for all of those schools, you’re golden. Go forth and make a spread-sheet of doom (dates, fees, page length, online vs. mailing) and start getting it down, EARLY.