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How to Choose the Right MFA Program for You

choose mfa - authors guild

choose mfa - authors guild

If you decide to apply to MFA programs, you will be presented with a veritable cornucopia of choices. There are hundreds of MFA creative writing programs across the country, and they come in a wide range of sizes, communities, and styles. AWP’s Guide to Writing Programs will let you sort through the various programs by state, genre, and program type. Since no one can apply to three hundred programs, how do you know which is the right program for you? Here are some of the questions you should ask yourself while narrowing down your application list.

Full Time or Part Time?

The first question you should ask yourself is if you want to go to a traditional full-time program or if you’d prefer a part-time or “low-residency” MFA. There are advantages to both types. A full-time, on-campus program will immerse you in classes and have you interacting daily with your fellow students. A low-residency MFA, on the other hand, will give you more time just to write by yourself. Low residency may also be a necessary choice if you have a full-time job or can’t move away from your current location.

Too Little, Too Big, or Just Right?

Choosing an MFA program can feel a bit like Goldilocks choosing a bed: you have to make sure you find the one that fits just right. Programs can have as few as three students per genre per year or as many as 30. There is no relation between prestige and size either; Iowa and Columbia are known for their large classes while Cornell and Syracuse have small classes. It is a matter of individual taste. Would you prefer to be in a small, tight-knit group taking the classes with the same peers many times, or would you prefer a bigger cohort and likely a wider variety of classes and teachers offered? Something in between?

Where Do You Want to Live?

If you aren’t doing a low-residency program, you will have to live near your university. There are MFA programs in cities of all sizes and in each region of the country. Are you the type of writer who wants to be immersed in the New York publishing world? Or do you want to focus on writing in a smaller town without big-city distractions? Do you need to be near the beach or woods? You have to decide what type of environment is best for you, and how near other things (family, jobs, etc.) you would like to be.

How Long Do You Want to Study?

MFA programs are typically either two or three years. Shorter creative writing programs are normally MA degrees, and longer ones PhDs. The third year, if there is one, is usually devoted entirely to writing, with no classes required. Would you like that extra year to finish up your thesis or would you like to get out of your program after two years to do something else?

How Much Does It Cost and Do You Want to Teach?

Once you’ve decided what kind or program you want to apply to, and where you’d like to live, it’s time to think about money. Many people will tell you to never go to an MFA program that doesn’t fund you. At the very least, it is rarely a good idea to go into debt to pay for an MFA degree. Many programs fully fund all of their students, and others will fund some of the students based on merit. Fully-funded programs typically—although not exclusively—require MFA students to teach undergraduate classes. This can give you valuable experience if you are looking to teach after your MFA program. When narrowing down your choices, decide if you want to teach while learning yourself, and make sure that you can actually afford to attend the program if you get accepted.

Once you’ve narrowed down your programs, polish up your best work and apply! You’ll never know until you do.

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