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Learn from My Mistakes: Advice on Applying to an MFA Program, part 2

2012 May 29
by Timothy

This is the second post in a four-part series on applying for an MFA. See part 1 here.



In looking for programs, the first thing to consider is whether you’d like to enter school full time or part time. There are benefits to both options, but you’ll have to weigh them yourself to decide. There are fewer low residency programs out there, but many of them boast impressive faculty and beautiful locales. Entering school full time will give you more options for programs, especially if you’re looking for a less traditional program.

Are you willing to quit your job to enter school full time? If not, a low residency program might be for you. The point of a low-res program is that you can continue living your life, but with some focused direction in your writing. You’ll have mentors and classmates, and even face to face workshops several times a year, without having to uproot from your current home.

One of the drawbacks of a low-res program is that there are often fewer opportunities for funding. Scholarships, financial aid, and grants are sadly lacking from low-res programs, so entering a low-res program means you might spend a little more out of pocket on tuition. If you’re working full time and can swing it without taking out loans, then you’ll be just fine. If you need funding, you’ll need to look elsewhere.

In opting to pursue an MFA full time, consider where you want to be because you’ll be there at least two years, if not longer. If you hate the cold, don’t apply to Minnesota schools. Love New York City? Apply to schools there. You’re not just looking at an MFA program, you’re looking at a home for a little while.

Don’t forget to look at who is currently teaching at a program. You’ll be spending a lot of time with them, and will be indelibly influenced by them. MFA programs should help you become a better writer, not churn out clones of the faculty, but you’ll be in close proximity to other writers whose ideas will become a part of the way you think and work. Make sure you want your work to sound like your mentors’.

Finally, once you’ve identified the schools you’ll be applying to, make sure you’d be equally happy to get into each one. Having “safety schools” can set you up for disappointment. The best problem to have is to get into multiple programs and struggle to choose which one you want to go to because they are all a good fit for you.


There are a number of tools you can use to begin your research. AWP Writer’s Official Guide to Writing Programs is a great place to begin. Poets & Writers magazine has resources for finding programs as well, though their list of “best” has been controversial. (I won’t get into that here, but keep in mind that every resource you use has drawbacks, biases, and strong points.) Literary journals often have advertisements for schools, and while I don’t advocate letting an ad sway your decision, those ads are a great way to get a sense of what programs there are. Additionally, many journals are affiliated with institutions, so if you adore Ploughshares, check out Emerson College, if you dig FENCE, check out University at Albany.

For me, looking into the educational history of some of my favorite poets was a great way to build a list of schools I wanted to look into. I found out if they taught, and where, and looked into those schools. I found out where they got their MFA (if they got one) and looked into those schools. Of the schools I applied to, the majority of them I discovered by looking at the author bios provided by poets I admire.

In hindsight, one thing I wish I had done before applying is attend the AWP Conference. When I went, I discovered a dozen more programs, met people from the programs I did apply to, and talked with people about their own experiences with MFA programs. While it’s not a cheap way to research programs, it is an incredible experience that could lead you directly to the program of your dreams.

How many schools should you apply to? I don’t really have an answer to this question, but there are a lot of factors that come into play. How much time do you have? If, like me, you’re busy and can’t devote all your time to filling out applications, then you’ll apply to fewer programs. If you have the time to perfect applications for a lot programs, go for it. Here’s the thing, though: don’t submit a subpar application. It’s a waste of time (yours and the people reviewing your application), money (fees!), and, if you’re not applying online, paper.

There are a million pieces to consider when researching MFA programs. The best way to begin is by identifying what you want out of a program, where you want to be, and who you want to be with. Having some defined terms to limit your search will help when you finally dive into the wide and wild world of programs. It’s fine if these paramaters shift as you begin finding schools, but they’ll be an invaluable jumping point.

Next week’s post is about the application itself: what’s needed beyond a portfolio, how do you format it, and how do you even begin writing it? For those of you who are in an MFA, how did you choose your program? For those looking, where are you struggling, and where are you finding success?


One Response
  1. Ashley Roach permalink
    May 30, 2012

    Funnily enough, this is exactly the process I am going through! Giving myself a year and a half this round, so we’ll see how it turns out. Where did you go to school? You always have great comments in the Open Mic.

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