MFA Programs: 5 things I Learned About Applying


Applying to MFA programs has always been part of my plan since graduating in 2011. Even though the last year has been genuinely strange and oftentimes discouraging, I still planned to get around to applying.

After college I was sure I’d be showered with hundred dollar bills, and be working the dream job I always wanted. I figured getting a job while I waited to apply to a few MFA programs would be a great plan. As always, things were just not that simple.

As I looked for a more permanent job, one that would pay more and help me find more fulfillment, I began to realize: This just isn’t going to work.

First of all, I learned some things about myself. One, I don’t want to be confined to a desk in a cubicle farm somewhere in a corporate office. Two, I’m going to do what I really want from now on. This meant writing more often, and using my writing to earn a supplemental income.

I’ve been blogging as a freelancer now for over 9 months. Of course, I still have a “real” job, even though that job forced me out on a picket line for 9 days last year. But ultimately, I enjoy the writing that I do for the web much more than stocking shelves at the grocery store.

I also decided that I might as well apply to a few MFA programs. Applying for an MFA seems to some people an act of genuine career suicide given the shrinking of humanities departments these days, but to me, everything feels like a gamble. So it’s time to throw down my cards and see if I come up lucky this time. But I didn’t arrive at this conclusion without first taking a procession of job interviews, questioning my abilities as a writer, and wondering if I was going to starve to death sometime soon.

Luckily, things seem to not be so bad after all. So what might you want to think about when applying to MFA programs?

A couple of pointers:

  1. Plan ahead– I started my application months in advance, and let me tell you, there’s just not enough time. I work 40 hours a week and blog on my off-time, so working on applications was an additional time constraint I had to account for. Get your materials together early.
  2. Give your recommenders plenty of time to write a letter, and understand that some programs allow for these letters to show up after the deadline. Clarify this with the program administrators. Also, pick the people who you’ve worked most closely with and that can validate that you are in fact good at what you do: writing.
  3. Get your manuscript together early– You’ll need to have everything together and edited well. I had trouble tracking down a lot of my poems, because I got a new computer. Some of my writing pieces were in storage, and I couldn’t get to them. Do yourself a favor early on and just keep one file on a flash drive you can always come back to.
  4. Save money for application fees– Applying to MFA programs can be expensive. I spent over $150 just for the application fees. That was only for three programs. Consider that you also have to pay for transcripts, and postage to mail your manuscript. You may have to shell out gas money to visit your prospective college as well. Everyone knows writers are almost perpetually broke, so save your money ahead of time.
  5. Research the faculty of your prospective campus– Ask friends who’ve attended these colleges what it was like in their MFA department. Check for student insight into the classroom environment. Read the faculties work for crying out loud! Do you like what they’re doing? If you do, good. Maybe you should go there. Try emailing or calling to talk to the professors, but be respectful of their time. Make sure you have worthwhile questions when you call.

A few parting words. The Statement of Purpose is the most perplexing document I’ve ever written. I’m sure I still don’t understand the proper way to approach it, but I think they really want to know who you are and what that means for your writing. They also want to know what your intentions are, hence the “purpose” part.

The following are links that helped me out:

The Creative Writing MFA Blog

How to Write a Great Statement of Purpose

Honey, I Shrunk the MFA Pile: Crafting Your Statement of Purpose

There are plenty more to choose from on the web, but those are a few you should be aware of. Just search and you’ll find plenty to read, maybe too much.

P.S. Don’t freak out. I say that even though I did. Don’t procrastinate. I say that even though I did that, too. If you encounter a problem with your apps, if things end up disappearing, just call or email the Program Directors. People are a lot more understanding than you’d think.Odds are they’ve seen the same problem a thousand times.

For example, when I uploaded my statement of purpose to one online application, it seemed to be vaporized by the internet gods. I found out after applying that it was a blank document on my computer with the same title, “statement of purpose.” Luckily, the program director understood, and she kindly allowed me to resubmit my statement of purpose.

Most deadlines are long past, but for those of you who encounter this post-perhaps next year-it will be useful then. Feel free to Email Me, or post a question in the comments section below. I’d be glad to help you out. Write on.

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