Three Tips for Choosing an MFA Program

Last week’s entry featured my advice that undergraduates delay their applications for MFA programs, but if those undergraduates are still intent on making their applications, it’s time to think about how to choose where to apply. Of course, this advice will work for any applicant, no matter his or her age.

Follow the Money

There are plenty of programs (like the one here at Ohio State, for example) that will fully fund you during your graduate study through fellowships, teaching assistantships, or a combination of the two. You’ll receive a monthly stipend and a tuition waiver. Your only cost will usually be a nominal student activity fee. If you’re on a teaching assistantship, you’ll of course teach each term in exchange for your stipend and tuition waiver. At Ohio State, our MFA students teach one class each semester; at other schools, GTAs teach two classes each term. One or two classes a semester in exchange for free tuition with a monthly stipend thrown in? It’s a great deal, no matter how many classes you end up teaching. It’s possible to get the MFA without accruing a burdensome debt. So unless you just have a burning desire to be a member of a certain program that doesn’t fully fund all of its students, why not follow the money to a program that will?

Follow the Faculty

It’s a good idea to do your homework. Read the work of the faculty at the schools you’re considering. How do their aesthetics match up with your own? These are the people who will be reading and evaluating your work for the next two or three years. Imagine how uncomfortable you’ll be if you’re an experimentalist, let’s say, and the faculty are all dyed-in-the-wool realists. You want to feel as if the faculty will be a good match for you. If you’re excited about what you read, there’s a good bet that you and those faculty members share a sense of what a good story, novel, essay, poem should be. It’s also a good bet that those faculty members have traveled the same aesthetic landscape that you want to travel. They’ve gone on before you, and they have some shortcuts to share to help you be the writer that you want to be. A shared aesthetic doesn’t guarantee, however, that a faculty member will be a good teacher for you. That’s why the next tip is particularly important.

Follow the Community

You want to end up in a program that has a mutually supportive community of writers, a place where all the students have one another’s best interests at heart. Imagine how painful it would be to spend those two or three years in a program filled with jealousies, resentments, and just plain low-down meanness. All of those things zap your energies as a writer. It’s much better to be in a place where students root for one another and take pride in one another’s accomplishments. Get to know a few folks in the programs where you’re thinking about making application. Ask them what it’s like there. While you’re at it, ask them about the faculty members and how involved they are with their students. Find out where the good folks are.

I know there are personal factors such as geographical location that are unique to the individual. Once you decide on location, your knowledge of student funding, faculty compatibility, and the community of the program should be key in your decision-making process.

When I was Director of Creative Writing here at Ohio State, the last thing I told the candidates I was trying to recruit was, “I think we have a good deal to offer you, but the most important thing to me is that you end up in the program that will allow you to do your best work. I hope you’ll decide that program is ours, but, if you decide to go somewhere else, I’ll stay your fan from afar, and I’ll be thrilled to see your published work and to know that you were able to succeed in the program that you chose.” I meant what I said. I still do. So I offer my three tips in hopes that they’ll help you find the program that will best allow you to thrive. Good luck with all your applications!

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