From one student researching MFA programs to another, here are some of the key factors that you should be considering.
By Bri Griffith, Carlow University
“What do you want to do after graduation?”
Although other students don’t often ask me about my post-graduation plans, every day I ask myself, “What do you really want?” Sometimes, I think about moving far away from Pittsburgh, taking a break and giving myself time to breathe. Other times, I think about staying in Pittsburgh, taking advantage of my connections and working somewhere like Autumn House Press. Most recently, I’ve been thinking about attending graduate school to earn my Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing.
Although I still have some time to decide what’s best for me, recently I’ve been looking into graduate school programs, and weighing the pros and cons of earning an MFA.
Nothing is definite, and knowing me, I may end up wanting to do something completely different by the time I become a college graduate. Still, if you’re a student looking to earn an MFA in Creative Writing, here’s what I’ve learned so far.
1. When to Start
You may be thinking, “When should I start looking for MFA programs?” My career development coordinator suggested conducting graduate school research the spring semester of my junior year, which is exactly where I am at right now. Over winter break I started a list, and I’ve been adding MFA program options to it ever since.
Don’t set your sights on one school; it’s important to have options, and to know that not every school you apply to will accept you. I know application fees exist, but there are ways to avoid them. For example, if you receive a Pell Grant (I do), universities may waive application fees. Also, universities typically include information on application fee waivers on their websites; know your options, and plan accordingly.
Deadlines are different for every school; make sure you know exactly what the school is looking for, and when they’re expecting it. I don’t plan to write my personal statement a week before an application is due. Instead, I’d like to chip away at my personal statement slowly, as well as spend some time in my university’s career development office.
Don’t do the application alone; reach out to the head(s) of your university’s creative writing department, and work on your application(s) with them. I know I want my own academic advisor to read over my personal statement before I send anything to anyone else. Considering my advisor workshops my poetry every week, she’ll know how to highlight my work, and help me put together an impressive portfolio.
2. Stay Connected
In reference to the application process, letters of recommendation can absolutely give you an edge. A friend of mine had one of his letters written by poet Aaron Smith, author of “Blue on Blue Ground,” winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett prize.
Aaron Smith’s letter, in addition to the rest of his application, earned him an acceptance letter from the University of San Francisco. Although he decided against attending, had he gone, he could have studied with poet D.A. Powell.
To give you an idea of how huge that is, think about Meryl Streep leading your acting classes. Yes, I’m serious.
My friend met Aaron Smith while reading poetry at a Carlow University event. My advice is to go to readings, connect with the writers/readers in attendance and keep in contact with them. Find them on social media, and invite them to your campus for creative writing-related events. You never know what could happen.
3. Helpful Professors
You have to know who teaches where before applying for graduate school. Studying with a poet or writer who embraces and publishes work like yours will make all the difference.
You don’t want to study with a poet or writer who doesn’t understand your work; you want to study with someone who will dedicate extensive workshop time to making your pieces better.
You don’t want to study with a poet or writer who tells you to “write about something else,” or advises you write poetry/etc. that specifically appeals to the mainstream publishing world; instead, you want professors who encourage you to write about anything and everything.
If you’re unfamiliar with a university’s faculty, look them up and read their work. Attend their readings if you’re able, and see where they’ve been published. One of my professors told me, “Who you study with will determine whether or not you want to stay in the program,” so doing additional research is vital.
4. Location Matters
Think about where you might want to earn your MFA. Personally, I’ve lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, my whole life; I’m ready and willing to go somewhere completely different. I’ve looked into programs in Portland, Oregon, as well as a number of programs in the states of California, Florida and even Texas.
Do you consider yourself to be more of a city person? Maybe you’d like to stay in the city, or maybe you’re ready to live somewhere with more grass and fewer people.
My academic advisor/creative writing professor was accepted into the University of Iowa, home of the most prestigious writers’ workshop in the country. While she loved the faculty, she didn’t like living in Iowa, and ultimately decided to leave the program. She told me, regardless of where I go, that I should visit before deciding to live there. She didn’t visit Iowa before moving there to earn her MFA; taking a trip would have saved her a lot of time.
Also, consider weather and job opportunities before applying to an MFA program. Having lived in Pittsburgh for years, I’m used to the below-freezing winters and (sometimes) blistering summers; however, poetry is popular in Pittsburgh, which has allowed me to flourish as a young writer throughout my stay at Carlow.
5. Find Funding
Graduate school is expensive, and knowing where to find funding can make choosing an MFA program easier. “The MFA Years” was last updated on December 16, 2016, and includes a detailed list of fully funded programs.
Most universities offer financial assistance; I would read through their websites before applying. Look for scholarships specific to creative writing, and don’t be afraid to reach out to your professors—they’re experts in their field(s), and they want to see you do well.
If you’re thinking about earning an MFA in Creative Writing, I hope my insights have helped you, even just a little bit. Although graduate school isn’t for everyone, it’s important to know what to look for when choosing an MFA program. In the meantime, enjoy what’s left of your undergraduate experience before you have to make hugely impactful decisions.