Applying for an MFA Program? Whoa! Not So Fast

‘Tis the season when undergraduates’ thoughts turn toward applying for admission to an MFA program, which has me thinking of how different the culture is these days than it was when I got my B.A. in 1978. Although I knew I wanted to write, I also knew I needed a bit more seasoning. In those days, it was assumed that some much necessary time would pass between that undergraduate degree and the attempt to enter an MFA program. It was also very clear that the competition was fierce and admission wasn’t guaranteed. When I finally thought I was ready to try four years after that B.A., I wrote to the Associated Writing Programs and asked them for a list of MFA programs. When it arrived, it was a single sheet of 8 1/2” by 11” paper. The list from the front side continued on the back and stopped about half-way down the page.

Now, thanks in part to the proliferation of MFA programs, many undergraduate students believe not only that they’re ready to apply, they’re also convinced that they’re entitled to admission. Entering an MFA program seems to them as logical of a progression as it was from high school to college.

As a teacher of creative writing, I have to take some of the responsibility for creating this new culture. I find some degree of talent in all of my students and I commend them for it while also trying to make clear that they still need to work on their craft. I try to build their esteem because I happen to think that students do better work when they know that you have confidence in them. They also work harder to improve their weaknesses if you make them want to please you. It’s a tough balancing act between nurture and criticism, but it’s one that I’m convinced pays off for the student in the long run. It’s true, however, that in the process one might become unrealistic about the level of one’s skills.

Last week, one of my talented undergraduates asked me if I thought she was ready to apply for MFA programs. I admire her for asking that question and being willing to listen to my answer and to take it for what it was, an honest assessment of where she is at this point in her career. I told her she had talent and potential, but I thought her talent was young. I thought she needed to work on creating more textured pieces, more resonant with significance, the sort of pieces that come from a wiser, more experienced perspective. I listed three things she’d gain by not rushing to apply for an MFA program. Here they are, along with my thoughts and advice:

1.         More life experience.  Let’s face it, four years in college doesn’t exactly open the world to you. Why not take some time after graduation to work and to travel? You’ll expose yourself to a variety of people, and it’s a good thing for a writer to have to imagine the world from the point of view of someone very different. You’ll also probably find yourself in some uncomfortable situations, and that’s a good thing, too. A writer needs to feel the pressure that comes down on him or her in those moments of discomfort, contradiction, choice, and consequence. It all comes down to this: Live a little longer and make your art a little deeper.

2.         More time. I know that after my undergraduate degree, I needed more time to hone my craft. To read the writers I needed to know, to read craft books, to write and write and write and write. I needed time to identify my weaknesses and to start working to correct them. Most of all, I needed time to create the best writing sample that I could to accompany my MFA application. I was twenty-six when I entered my MFA program, and I was glad I gave myself that additional time.

3.         More challenge.  It’s easy to convince yourself that you’ve accurately charted your life’s course—Oh, to be a writer!—when you’re still an undergrad caught up in the excitement and esprit de corps of the creative writing workshop. You need time to test your commitment. How will you fare once you’re out there on your own, probably working a job that drains your energy, and trying to find time to do the things a writer does? I worked a lot of jobs after graduation and before my MFA application; some of them were mind-numbing, some of them were physically demanding and wearying. I kept writing. I kept reading. I started to see that this wasn’t just a fling I was having with the writer’s life. It had something to do with the way I chose to interact with the world and the way I chose to see myself. It wasn’t just something I did. It was who I was.

Writing is a life-long apprenticeship. Make sure it’s the apprenticeship that you want. Make sure it matters enough to you to go through all the challenges and disappointments that are sure to come your way. Before you apply for an MFA program, make sure you’re in this writer thing all the way and for the duration, come what may. Work steadily to improve your knowledge, your vision, and your craft. Be patient with yourself the way your teachers have been. Give yourself all the time you need.


    • Lee Martin on October 21, 2013 at 1:24 pm

      Thanks for sharing, Dinty. I did an M.A. after my undergraduate degree and then went out into the world of work for three years after that. My M.A. had no creative writing component to it, only literature courses, which gave me some good preparation for the MFA when I eventually attempted it.

    • Rebekah Mays on October 21, 2013 at 2:54 pm

      Very helpful advice. Thank you!

      • Lee Martin on October 21, 2013 at 2:57 pm

        Thanks, Rebekah, and thanks for taking the time to read the post and to leave a comment.

  1. Chris Boese on October 21, 2013 at 3:21 pm

    Lee, you mention how you have (indirectly) contributed to the explosion of MFA programs by being a creative writing teacher. There’s something else going on as well, and sometimes MFA faculty and students (and hell, the Poets and Writers magazine, which seems to subsist almost entirely on ads from the gazillion MFA programs out there) inadvertently contribute to it.

    That’s this: with the dawn of the 70% adjunct teaching staff at universities across the US, with the overturning of faculty governance by a continually growing administrative class (who often claim to run universities like a “business”), a new “bottom line” mentality is driving this beast.

    1,000 MFA programs bloom while classics and philosophy majors are discontinued, because MFAs are a “cash cow,” with enrollment applications an easy hit for the admissions drug these administrators are so high on. Numbers numbers numbers. So the faculty want to keep the size of these things small. They like individual attention. All that. But lots of applications. And always a full house. Even in a down year? Even if all the GRE scores are really low, and the GPAs (in this time of undergrad grade inflation) are mostly in the low-middling B range?

    I’ve looked at master’s applications those kinds of recruiting years, back when I was teaching. I’ve tried to get good work out of some of those students as grad assistants. Sometimes it took me twice as long to get work done, because I had to REDO everything my grad assistant did, while drunk (not just writing, this was HTML code and worse! Javascripts broken…)

    Sure, some programs (and faculty) shouldn’t be allowed to “reproduce”. The world doesn’t need 30-50 new Milton scholars every year, no matter how many Milton PhDs manage to secure positions and entice grad students into making Milton their reason for being in this world. All this succeeds in doing is populating the adjunct underclass, indefinitely.

    MFAs walk a line between contributing to academic careerism dead ends and sneering at it, as writers who relish coloring outside of the lines, focusing on living a life worth writing about, sucking out the marrow, all that, are wont to do. So we get out of that guilt parade, sorta.

    But should MFA programs be allowed to “reproduce” at the numbers that the entire academic system is turning out, year after year?

    With those kinds of numbers, and student delusions that creative writing (and unfortunately, the memoir) is sort of like PE class, you get the grade for just showing up. So many of the proliferating MFA programs (not yours, Lee, or the one we both came from) are a bit lite on the rigorous workshop critique, from what I’ve seen (or worse, are too homogenized to differentiate, the “workshop poem,” the “workshop story”).

    When does it hit the point of diminishing returns? Of pyramid scheme, like selling Amway? Of Ponzi, like some Wall St numbers that always go up?

    When do we get to the point where the benefits only accrue to those who get in early enough and can find enough people to still sell them to?

    Or when the publishing business has collapsed to the point writers are writing for weddings, just like magazine photographers no longer work for magazines, but they produce “magazine spreads” with Annie Leibovitz budgets, for weddings only, as magazine publishing can no longer afford photographers?

    I’m just wondering. Cuz I’m sorta dark like that. And I have to.

    Chris /rant

    • Lee Martin on October 21, 2013 at 6:54 pm

      Good points all the way around, Chris. Actually, here at Ohio State we’ve found ourselves downsizing the MFA program a bit, becoming even more selective.

    • Patrick Madden on October 22, 2013 at 8:34 am

      Chris: You make many good points. I don’t see all MFA programs as “cash cows,” however. The traditional (residency) programs that I know give teaching assistantships to every student admitted, so that no one studying pays any money to the school. Perhaps, you could argue, then these student-teachers are exploited to cover freshman composition classes at lesser pay than full-time, tenure-track faculty. This is true. But they’re paid more than adjuncts in many cases, so unless they’re simply “adjunct factories” (producing more adjuncts for the future), they’re not directly producing income for universities. And in any case, are universities themselves “cash cows,” but with diverse sources of income (tuition, state funding, government grants, donations/endowments, etc.)? My buddy in science tells me that universities almost universally charge a 50%+ “overhead” markup on every government grant a faculty member receives. If a scientist gets $1M for research, the university gets a cold $500,000 (it’s sometimes 65% he assures me!), ostensibly to pay for keeping the lights on and running machinery. In any case, in my experience, not all MFA programs are cash cows, and I’ve even seen some recent low-residency MFAs shutting down, likely because they didn’t bring sufficient return on investment.

      • Lee Martin on October 22, 2013 at 9:50 am

        At Ohio State, every MFA student receives a graduate teaching assistantship or a fellowship, which means the University actually ends up paying the tuition. Thanks, Patrick, for bringing the fact of departmental subsidies to the conversation.

      • Chris Boese on October 22, 2013 at 2:56 pm

        Hi Patrick!

        I don’t disagree with what you say, and I am also a product (now many moons ago) of a fully funded MFA program, the same one that produced Lee Martin (which is now considerably different, I discovered this summer on a return visit).

        Perhaps I am preaching to the choir, since so many of us here come from the “old core” of MFA programs, before the ballooning growth, esp with the low residency programs, and, like I said, the administrative imperative that just about every school have an MFA program, like ticking a box. Check.

        When I say “cash cow,” I don’t mean literal cash, because the economics of universities isn’t really cash that comes out of the pockets of students. That’s an old tuition model. This is aggregate cash. It is indirectly the vast sums of student loan money that keep entire physical plants and universities afloat– that is one form of subprime that is still due for collapse, and when it does, it could take many higher ed schools with it.

        Secondly, it is also the form of “economic capital” that is a school’s reputation. Yes, I’ve been at such schools, with a new president that is hot to make his “name” and move the school from R2 to R1 ASAP. All of a sudden, whether we needed it or not, there were all these new capital campaigns, foundation drives, for new buildings, new programs, new endowed chairs, new labs. New new new.

        And yes, we started that new PhD program even tho the universe really does not need another humanities PhD program, and there are a glut of unemployed PhDs as it is. But by god, we started one. Cuz it was a step closer to raising the US News and World Report ranking, that kind of capital (we all know PhD students don’t “pay” either).

        And we started a digital press too, even tho publishing was on the rocks and the world really didn’t need another deep-thinking university press-type source of books about scholarly topics that nobody reads, and that for sure live only behind high library fee firewalls.

        These are the administrative imperatives I am speaking of. These are what are driving explosive university physical plant growth, financial aid to students who are already wealthy with “merit-based aid” and the recalcification of class at the university level (nothing short of un-doing the middle class gains and near universal sufferage of the post WWII GI Bill that so transformed universities).

        The rubber band of that universe is springing back. It’s an economy of reputation, and MFA programs, advertised in Poets and Writers, a gazillion on every page, and everyone an aspiring writer, just like everyone an aspiring Amway distributor, are just wheels in so many administrative reputation machines. Tick the box. New gym? Check. MFA program? Check.

        • Patrick Madden on October 23, 2013 at 3:59 am

          Hi, Chris, Thanks for your thoughtful posts. You lay out a complex argument, which I cannot refute, though it does seem to suggest a widespread problem with universities generally, not with MFA programs particularly. I guess I ultimately believe that if MFA programs falsely represent the typical results of an MFA degree (if they pretend that every graduate will be guaranteed a published book on the NYT Bestseller List), then they’re doing wrong. If they help people improve their writing and enjoy it more, then they’re legitimate. Willard Spiegelman spoke at BYU a couple of weeks ago about the hobbyist painter or pianist, suggesting that there might also be hobbyist writers, in addition to ambitious writers. If you sum all the money parents pay for piano lessons for their kid who never becomes a concert pianist, it might be close to what some adults pay for MFA degrees. If they enjoy the process and improve at writing, then all is well, in my book.

  2. Nicole Amsler on October 21, 2013 at 3:44 pm

    This bodes well for us 40-year old MFA drafters. We don’t have the option to move around and relocate (or most don’t) but we have life experience, years of read books, and unique perspectives. Thanks for your insight!

    • Lee Martin on October 21, 2013 at 6:48 pm

      Hi, Nicole. Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment. I love working with older students, particularly at summer writers’ conferences.

  3. Debra on October 21, 2013 at 5:08 pm

    Wise, wise words. And good for your for being truthful when undergraduates ask.

    • Lee Martin on October 21, 2013 at 6:47 pm

      Hi, Debra! Thanks so much for your good words.

  4. Angus on October 22, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    Thanks for this blog post Lee. The discussion it started is also really good!

    • Lee Martin on October 22, 2013 at 2:31 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Angus!

  5. […] of his undergraduate students asked him if he thought she was ready to apply for MFA programs. Read the three things he advises any undergrad creative writer to do before applying for an MFA […]

  6. Lisen Minetti on October 22, 2013 at 3:33 pm

    Thanks for the great post. I myself have been considering going back to school for a second masters – this time in either Fine Arts or Creative Writing. Having finally gotten back to writing; I realized what a huge part of my life it is and what I was missing by not doing it. Conversely however I now have so much other experience (both in and out of school) that I have so much more to bring to the table than I would have had I pursued it as a first masters. And one thing I have learned with writing – no matter where you are with it, there is always more to learn.

    • Lee Martin on October 23, 2013 at 9:26 am

      Thanks for sharing your story, Lisen. You’re so right that there’s always something more to learn.

  7. Leslie on October 23, 2013 at 8:17 am

    As a poet of a certain age with adult financial obligations (albeit fewer than many of my peers) and an MFA applicant, I am struggling with the decision of whether or not to accept my admission into a low-res program. It’s considered one of the top programs, and I know some who have taught there, so this wouldn’t be strictly a vanity degree. However, the mountain of debt I’d accrue over two years seems insurmountable, despite a small merit scholarship.

    While the low-res model is attractive to me because of the ability to keep my job and stay close to my family, I’m not sure I’m prepared to invest that much money in either an avocation or a late career change that may not be able to support me, so I am exploring well funded full-res programs. I’ve heard the din of voices: “Don’t go into debt.” “You can’t make a living as a poet.” I know them to be honest and true. But I also hear the muses in my dreams. At the moment, I am favoring the muses.

    Thank you for another perspective and thank you to your colleagues for their responses. I’m looking forward to reading Dinty’s article as well.

    • Lee Martin on October 23, 2013 at 9:25 am

      Thanks for your comment, Leslie. Sounds like you’re considering all the appropriate issues relevant to your decision. I’ll let others who have more intimate knowledge of the low-res programs off their advice. Anyone care to respond?

    • Anthony Martin on October 24, 2013 at 5:46 pm

      I am not as far along as you, Leslie, but I have begun considering the same questions as I move toward the completion of my MA and the beginning of the application process for MFA. A handful of the schools on my longlist–UC Riverside, for example–are low-residency programs, which has me asking myself: Will you accept admission to a low-res if your ASUs and your UCIs and your UCSDs pass on your application?

      With the debt accumulated while earning my undergraduate degree some years ago, I am having difficulty listening to the muses, as you put it, because the rationale of the other voices in my head is a sound one: You might go completely broke.

      • Lee Martin on October 25, 2013 at 4:15 pm

        Thanks for entering the conversation, Anthony. I wish you all the best with your MFA applications.

  8. Angus on October 23, 2013 at 6:06 pm

    Another degree for undergraduates to consider in this conversation (as a first masters or instead of an MFA) might be an MA in applied linguistics. In my case, I found that studying things like systemic functional grammar, sociolinguistics, critical discourse analysis and corpus stylistics helped me to become a much better writer and thinker. Plus, the degree qualified me to teach English as a foreign language at universities around the world on contacts where I wasn’t under any pressure to publish academic work and could travel extensively during the summer and winter breaks, which exposed me to all sorts of cultures and situations that were brilliant for my writing.

    Really enjoying everyone’s comments!

  9. Jessica Handler on October 24, 2013 at 5:23 pm

    Lee, thanks for this post. I feel like I earned my MFA just about at the beginning of what’s become a proliferation (five years ago, and a long way from my 1982 B.S. degree.) While I definitely see Chris’s points, what comes to me most from you post is the reminder to anyone assessing an MFA is the reminder to ‘make sure you’re in this writer thing all the way and for the duration.’

    • Lee Martin on October 25, 2013 at 4:16 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Jessica. I really do think the important thing, as you say, is to assess your dedication before going the route of the MFA

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    […] Applying for an MFA Program? Whoa! Not So Fast […]

  11. Megan Haynes on November 8, 2013 at 9:08 am

    Thanks for sharing this post, Lee. I was recently thinking back to my experience as an undergraduate in the creative writing program at the University of Arkansas in the mid-1990s. I clearly remember sitting class (one which held both undergrads and MFA students) while my professor suddenly sat on the desk at the front of the classroom and put his face in his hands for a moment. He looked up and sighed and then put his hands out, warning us that what he was about to say might hurt. “You all need to live a little more. You need some time between here and there. To write well, you need to have more experience.” I looked around and saw the younger students puff up and the handful of older students nodding vigorously. I felt exposed. How did he know that I felt a hollowness in what I was writing?
    I took his advice. I graduated and then worked. Sometimes in miserable jobs. I married, got a Masters in teaching, taught, had children, divorced, lost my ex-husband to suicide, moved, married again, had a fourth child — all while reading and writing whenever I could. Now there is so much to say but there’s just a little problem in finding the time to say it!
    I hope a few undergraduates hear what you say and take it to heart.

    • Lee Martin on November 9, 2013 at 7:51 pm

      Megan, thanks so much for sharing your story. Here’s wishing you an abundance of time to say what you have to say on the page.

  12. Mike on November 13, 2013 at 12:26 am

    Hi Lee,

    I really enjoyed reading your thoughts about taking time off before grad school. However, I read them with mixed feeling because I am an MFA student who came to my program straight from undergrad. When I interact with older students in my program, I am aware of my relative inexperience. Perhaps I made an impatient choice, and I do worry about my writing being less textured as a result. On the other hand, maybe there is something useful about realizing my limitations early on, and being in the company of more experienced writers. Sometimes being the youngest sibling makes you tougher. Who knows. I would be happy to hear any thoughts you have to share for someone in my position, but no pressure.


    • Lee Martin on November 13, 2013 at 2:20 pm

      Hi, Mike. Thanks very much for your comment. I don’t think we can categorically say that all undergrads should wait a few years before entering an MFA program. I think it all depends on the student’s level of maturity and talent. The fact that you’re already thinking about the benefits of being “the youngest sibling” tells me that you’re responding well to the culture of your program. I sometimes support an undergraduate’s desire to immediately enter an MFA program, and I’ve seen those students go on to do well. We’ve also admitted people directly from their undergraduate degrees into our MFA program at Ohio State, and some of them have done extremely well. I think, then, it’s an individual matter. I like hearing from you that you’re aware of your what you call your “relative inexperience” and that you’re willing to open yourself to the learning process. I wish you all the best, and thanks so much for reading my blog.

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