Tips on Applying to an MFA Program

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Since beginning my Masters in Fine Arts (MFA) at the University of Central Florida, I’ve received a lot of questions from friends and former classmates about how to go about applying. As a first year student, I do not pretend to have all the answers. But there are a few things I’ve learned along the way which (hopefully) may be helpful to future applicants.

What is an MFA? 

An MFA is a terminal degree in the creative arts. For creative writing, you can receive an MFA in poetry, fiction, or nonfiction.

Is it the same as an MA in Creative Writing?

No! An MFA is a terminal degree and your thesis is a creative project. An MA (Masters) is not a terminal degree and would require a PhD to teach at the college level. It is also more focused on critical research and scholarly writing instead of creative writing.

What is the difference between full-residency and low-residency?

Full residency MFA programs have you taking classes full or part-time on campus at the institution. Low residency allow you to have classes online and then attend residency weeks on campus at specific times throughout the year. There are pros and cons to both formats. But do consider that there are usually not as many funding opportunities/graduate assistantships with low residency models since you won’t have the chance to work on campus as a GTA (graduate teaching assistant.)

What are the components of an application?

Typically, you will need: GRE scores (General, not subject test), transcripts, letters of recommendation, a creative writing sample (the most important part!), a personal statement, a resume or CV.

  • Letters of Recommendation: Ideally, most letters of recommendation should come from someone well acquainted with your creative writing, such as a professor who ran your undergraduate workshops. You can also ask writing mentors, editors, or other leaders in your life. For my application, I asked two professors and also an editor who could speak to my work experience and journalism.
  • The Personal Statement: The personal statement allows you to introduce yourself to the admissions committee. You have the opportunity to tell them 1) about your writing and 2) why you want to attend their MFA program. (This is easier said than done and was, in my experience, the most challenging part of the application process.)
  • The Creative Sample: Should be your strongest example of work and should (ideally) reflect the style of writing you hope to include in your thesis.

Okay, so that’s great and all. But how do you DO it?

Write multiple versions of your personal statement.

I cannot overstate this. You will undoubtedly change your mind many, many times as you go through the drafts. Why? Because it’s 100% impossible to completely describe your interests, your background, your professionalism, your plans for creative work, your authorial inspirations etc. all in about 800 words. The word limit means you need to pick an angle for your personal statement. For me, this was tricky. I wrote one version of my personal statement about sociology (my undergraduate minor) and how my study of gender/marriage/family shaped my writing. In another version, I talked about travel writing; in another, I framed the essay around great or famous people I’d met who had shaped my work. Finally, I settled on a personal statement that discussed how working as a reporter shaped my editorial vision as a fiction writer. This allowed me to 1) explain why I had way more publications in journalism than fiction, 2) discuss an angle to my application which made me unique. I also directly tied it into fiction writing by discussing the transferable techniques I learned from journalism, and using that to describe my fiction style of lyrical realism.

Also, make sure you tailor the personal statement to the particular university. Describe what aspects of their MFA program/school/community/city interest you. (And make sure you submit the right statement to the right school – mistakes happen.)

Emphasize how you want to grow.

It’s true that universities are looking for students to foster. So tell them how you want to grow as a writer. This doesn’t mean you need to list all of your flaws with craft and style, but it does mean you can talk about what you hope to learn in your MFA program and how you can learn these things at this particular institution.

Don’t tell the program what you can offer them. Explain what they can offer you.

The admissions committee wants to know why you are interested in their program. (And no, your answer should not simply be: FUNDING!) Are you excited about studying with any particular faculty member? Are you interested in the literary community in this city? Do you have connections to the university? Are there specifics opportunities that interest you?

I was particularly interested in MFA programs with strong literary journals, which is part of what first interested me in UCF since they publish The Florida Review. Now I have an internship as an editorial reader for the Review. 🙂

EDIT, EDIT, EDIT your creative sample. 

You do not want to find a typo later on your second page. Most of all, make sure your creative sample fits within the parameters of the application: every institution has different page limits, so make sure you triple check that you abide by their guidelines.

Generally speaking, if you’re a fiction writer you do have a better chance with a strong short story than with a novel excerpt. This is not a universal rule. But because most MFA students in fiction are writing short stories or novellas and not novels, this is often the preferred format for admissions. (Again, not always true.)

Also—it can be wise to present the admissions committee with a range of work instead of one long story. If you have strong pieces of flash fiction that display a variety of style, form or voice, this demonstrates dynamic strengths and flexibility. Your creative sample does not need to be a collection of unified pieces that go together.

Do talk about your literary inspirations.

If you’re not reading and reading widely, then why are you pursuing an MFA in the first place? One of the best ways you can flex your literary muscles to the admissions committee is by describing the books that have influenced you as a writer. In my letter, I talked about Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, a series of interconnected short stories which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. Like Strout, I am interested in short stories about ordinary people, everyday losses and joys.

Do not add “fluff” to your CV.

It’s gratuitous and an admissions committee can see right through it. If you don’t have publications/readings on your CV, that’s okay. Be honest, not excessive.

Note: some applications will ask for a resume and some will ask for a CV. In my experience, a CV is often preferred, as it showcases and prioritizes academic work/publications/readings/editorial work etc.

Be realistic in your job goals.

DO NOT WRITE THIS IN YOUR STATEMENT: “I plan to publish my MFA thesis with Simon and Schuster and, upon graduation, become a tenure-track professor at NYU.”

Yeah, no. The job market is oversaturated and this makes you sound unknowledgeable about the literary community. This doesn’t mean you can’t aim for tenure-track jobs, just recognize that it probably won’t be your immediate after-graduation job. So, would you teach high school? Adjunct? Take an editing job? Work as a journalist? Try to get a literary fellowship? Apply to PhD programs? Whatever your answer, be realistic. I recommend researching the job market and the AWP job listing.

A few things to avoid in your personal statement:

  • Convincing the reader why writing/literature is important. They already know.
  • Recounting a “literary conversion” moment like: “I used to hate books but now, ever since ___ happened, I have discovered writing.” (Unless you have a really great story for the ___.)
  • Recounting how you’ve been writing since, like, kindergarten. Join the club.
  • Listing off obscure literary journals no one has heard of (which are really just blogs) to show your “extensive publishing experience.”
  • Comparing yourself to Zadie Smith, Colson Whitehead, George Saunders—really anyone who’s too excellent. (You’re just not there, pal.)

Resource:

Poets and Writers (http://www.pw.org) was very helpful to me as I was searching for an MFA program. They list all of the programs, full-residency and low-residency.

Overall, do not be overwhelmed!

If you are thinking about applying to an MFA program, comment below — I’d love to hear from you! Pursuing your graduate education is a great opportunity to devote time and energy to your craft.

Best of luck, writers.

-Ciera

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