How to Select and Apply to an MFA Program

The first condition of education is being able to put someone to wholesome and meaningful work. –John Ruskin


You’ve reached the point in your writing career where you’ve become quite serious about it. You can think of little else besides reading or writing. You yearn for the day when someone creates showers with built-in, waterproof laptops, because you always seem to have a shampoo-lathered head when the ultimate phrase arrives. (Okay, maybe that’s just me.) You’ve heard the phrase “my MFA program” repeated among people you admire so often that it cycles through your head like a Bee Gees earworm. Could it be that it’s time to seriously consider applying to an MFA program?

It’s not necessary to hold a post-graduate degree in order to become a successful, full-time writer; however, immersing yourself into a community of writers for two to three years has great benefits. In addition to showing publishers you are serious about your craft, you’ll network with successful authors, develop a cohort of like-minded writers who will support you through years to come, plus build a firm foundation from which to teach, lead workshops and conferences, promote yourself and your work, and—best of all—write with passion.

Now, how do you journey from the decision to apply to arrive at the acceptance letter? Here’s what I recommend:

  • Begin today. Researching to discover the right program for you cannot begin too soon. While still an undergrad, I began compiling lists of post-graduate writing programs, and I kept a notebook with information of what I learned about each. Some schools I could quickly cross off my personal wish list, because they required a semester abroad, were exorbitantly priced, or focused more on literary theory than creative writing (things that didn’t interest me). Others required classroom participation four days a week, which was out of the question for a working mother like me. Of course, these things may be the factors you’re seeking, so make sure the programs to which you apply fit your needs. Cost is often a concern for many, so if you are counting on student loans, scholarships, or financial aid, know that you’ll need to complete a Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form well in advance. In addition to tuition, don’t forget to factor in travel expenses to/from the program’s location, lodging, food, and textbooks. You will want to research the core faculty of each of the programs where you plan to apply, as well. Aim to read (or at least skim) one book or novel written by each of the full-time faculty members in the program.

 While I’ll quickly admit that I spent over three years doing intermittent research, I’ve since discovered an incredible source of much of this information. Lori A. May’s The Low-Residency MFA Handbook asks and answers many of the questions I had about low-res writing programs, both in the US and abroad. This text addresses the program, teaching philosophy, residency, study format and—especially encouraging—life after the MFA.  Ms. May has done much of the hard work for you, but you’ll still need to handle the application process on your own. Not seeking a low-residency program? Check out Tom Kealey’s The Creative Writing MFA Handbook for great information on traditional-study programs.

  •  Contact the programs. Chat via email or telephone with a faculty member, program director or advisor, a current student, or alumnus of the program. Jot down a list of school-specific questions, concerns about funding, or questions about the residency. The best programs will be happy to talk with you, and many will refer you to alumni or current students for candid conversations with those who have experienced the program first-hand. Face the fact that, if they won’t talk to you now, they won’t be available to help you later, either. Also, consider a site visit. Many programs will allow you to sit in on a lecture, and a few will assign a student tour guide to give the lay of the land. My alma mater, The Converse Low-Residency MFA Program, holds an on-campus information session, where you can meet face-to-face with the program director, some faculty members, current students, and alums. The next information session will be held on Thursday, January 29 from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. on the Converse campus in Spartanburg, SC.  If you can’t attend, you can participate through Google Talk (GChat). Contact program director Dr. Rick Mulkey at for more details.
  •  Acquire transcripts and letters of reference. This may seem like a no-brainer, but be sure to follow up with the programs to which you are applying to ensure your transcripts actually arrived. One of mine didn’t, and I had to re-request that the transcript be sent. Letters of reference should be written by someone who knows you and is familiar with your writing skill—other than your mother. Consider former professors and deans who read your work, but don’t limit reference letters to academia, unless required. Consider also the boss for whom you wrote a fifty-five page technical manual or employee handbook. Be sure to carefully read each program’s application instructions, as some will request that references be mailed and postmarked at the source, while others will want the letters included in the application packet.
  • The personal essay. Your personal essay should be honest and heartfelt, but not folksy or humorous. Attending an MFA program is one of the most serious decisions you’ll make in your life, so treat it as such in this essay. Describe why you want to be involved in a writing community as intense as an MFA program. What is it that led you to the decision, and what is your motivation to engage in three years of study? How will you make time for the rigorous schedule (typically 20-25 hours a week) of coursework? What obstacles might you encounter, and how do you plan to overcome them? Why does this particular program appeal to you, over others that are available? Are you able to accept critique and apply it to your work? Again, read the application instructions for clues as to what the program director and faculty are seeking in this essay.
  • The writing sample. This is, without a doubt, the most important piece of your application packet. Programs will typically require between ten and twenty-five pages of your best work. Having said that, if your story ends on page eleven or twenty-eight, be sure to send it all—don’t leave them wondering about your ability to end a story. The sample should be appropriate for the program to which you’re applying. Don’t send a children’s picture book to a literary fiction program, and don’t send a short story to a poetry concentration program. Send your very best work. Let me say that again: Send your very best work. Don’t send anything that you haven’t had someone else proofread for typos. Better still; send something that you’ve shared with your writing critique group. Make sure your manuscript is properly formatted. For stories, use one-inch margins with 12-point font and double-spaced lines. It’s important not to take the writing sample lightly. If you don’t feel you have a current writing sample that’s up to par, begin a new piece, and wait to apply until you’re sure you have a high-quality manuscript to send.
  • Other important information. Most applications will ask you to include a list of prior publications and writing awards (if you have them), of professional writing organization memberships, or of writing workshops, conferences, or non-credit writing courses you have taken. Some may also ask for any writing-community involvement, so be certain to mention if you’ve led a writing workshop at your local library or youth camp. In short, if you have a writing accomplishment of any kind, or have worked or volunteered within a writing community, be sure to mention it.
  • Final details. How many copies of the application, essay, and writing sample must you include in your packet? Did you sign the check for the application fee? Did you include both your home and cell number on the application form? Did you write a cover letter for your packet (a brief note listing your enclosures and thanking the director for reviewing your application)? Now is not the time to recycle an old manila envelope, and by all means, if you have a coffee cup stain on your title page, reprint it! It’s not necessary to overnight your application (unless you’re approaching a deadline), but consider sending it in a sturdy cardboard, U.S. Priority Mail envelope. 

Now that you’ve completed and mailed your stellar application packets, I’d love to hear from you! Feel free to post in the comments section below any feedback you receive from writing programs to which you’ve applied. Good luck!

My last day of residency at the Converse MFA Program.
My bittersweet last day of residency at the Converse MFA Program. Tired, but elated!

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