How to get into an MFA Program

It was about this time two years ago that I was in the thick of MFA applications. Cohorts are small and spots are coveted. Some people go through two or three application cycles before finally ending up somewhere. For those of you who might be touching up your writing sample and finalizing your list of schools as I write, here are a few things I learned:

1. Start early. Most applications are due in December and January. If you wait until then to begin the applications, you are wasting a lot of money and basically deciding not to enter a program next fall.

2. Familiarize yourself with Seth Abramson. He seems to be the MFA guru if there is one.

3. Read Tom Kealey’s book about creative writing programs. Among other resources (including Abramson’s list), it helped me create my own list of schools to apply to.

4. Read and participate in the discussions on this blog. It will answer your questions, and it becomes a great tool during the acceptances/rejections season to follow what various schools are doing.

5. Join the current MFA Draft group on Facebook. It’s a great resource to communicate with other people who are in the same process as you are in and even with people who have navigated it before and who know are in an MFA program. You can ask your questions here (or at least commiserate!) and expect honest answers.

6. The writing sample is the most important part of the application. Everybody says this, right? But seriously. I eventually accepted an offer at a school that told me very directly that my acceptance was because of my writing sample. As you begin your application, you ought to have a piece that you’ve spent months working on and workshopping if possible. If you are just now starting the writing that you intend as your writing sample, you might be better off waiting another year before applying.

7. Save money ahead of time and expect the costs. I know, it sucks. But if you feel like you belong, your applications are an investment; you want to end up in a situation with as much funding as possible. I consider myself lucky in this regard, but I spent somewhere around on a thousand bucks on application fees, sending out GRE scores and transcripts, and postage.

8. Apply to a bunch of schools if at all financially possible. Anyway you look at it, there’s a level of subjectivity in the process, and you never know with whom your writing will click. If I had applied to only five or so, I might have ended up with all rejections. But I applied to a diverse set of 15 schools, which resulted in 12 (painful!) rejections and three (satisfying) acceptances. The rejections — expect them! — are par for the course, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be hard to receive them.

9. Be meticulous about the process. Schools tend to ask for similar materials, but each one is slightly unique in its own way. Ask questions of individual schools when necessary.

10. Stay with the process through and even beyond the date on which decisions are supposed to be made. Waiting lists especially create a sort of domino effect, and you’re never quite sure what will happen. The acceptance for the school that I now attend came literally a day before the deadline. It was the first I’d heard from them in any way.

If you’re an MFA student or alum, and know of something I missed, go ahead and add it as a comment!

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