First, let’s dispel some of the myths.
If you say “Candyman” five times in front of a mirror, you will not get into Iowa.
No matter what you read on Twitter or The GradCafe, almost no one — no one! — with actual affiliations to creative writing programs believes you attend an MFA program to “get an agent.”
Even getting into an MFA program might not make you particularly happy or productive: grad school is hard, sometimes disorienting, sometimes despairing. It’s sometimes great, sure, sometimes.
Nine years ago, on the now defunct K-State Creative Writing Blog, we posted a list of tips on applying to MFA programs. Since then, so much has changed. (Remember when we didn’t wear masks all the time?) So much has stayed the same. Here’s an updated and revised version of that advice:
1. The most well-known MFA programs — those that receive lots of attention and applicants; I hesitate here to say the “top” programs — accept about 3 percent or less (often less) of applicants. The overall MFA applicant pool is well into the thousands. Don’t take decisions personally. Have a real, interesting, and excellent Plan B.
2. Last year, because of all kinds of pandemic-related reason, many programs had fewer funded spots to offer. Anecdotally, it seemed that the pandemic also increased the size of the applicant pool. We are still in a pandemic. Get serious about that Plan B.
3. Applying to MFA programs requires investments of time and money: we’re talking hundreds of dollars and dozens of hours of application work.
4. Take the GRE early. Study for it but keep this in mind: unless your scores are stupendously high or low, they are unlikely to make or break your application.
5. Write because you love to write, because you have to write, because you wake up with metaphors and go to bed with similes. Going to an MFA program doesn’t make you a writer. It’s very unlikely to get you a tenure-track teaching gig. It’s very unlikely to get you an agent. It’s very unlikely to get you a book deal. It’s very unlikely to make you rich. It’s very unlikely to make you famous. It might, however, be two or three of the best years of your life. It should provide two or three years (four in the case of Alabama) to write and study and read and write some more as part of a community dedicated to all of these things. You don’t have to get an MFA to commit to the craft — you can read and write a ton on your own — but being part of any creative writing program can help you find a focus, hone your work with a ready-made audience, finish projects (thanks to academic-year deadlines), and build both a support system and a lifelong network of colleagues and friends.
6. If you are applying to MFA programs on a whim or because you just don’t know what to do next, it might be better to hold off for a few years before deciding to apply. Oops, here’s an update from 2021: it would definitely be better to wait.
7. Apply to programs that offer financial support: teaching assistantships, tuition waivers, fellowships. Please do not take out loans to pursue an MFA or Ph.D. Lots of applicants talk about “fully funded” programs, but this term is not used the same way by every program or applicant. Ideally, every accepted student will be fully funded — to receive enough funding to make it through a degree with a fee waiver and a stipend to live on. Many places, however, do not fund everyone, but some students in those programs still receive such a fee waiver and such a stipend.
8. Many people with MFAs have interesting stories to tell. Listen to them. Keep in mind that it’s not unusual for a writer to receive eight rejections and no acceptances one year and to get into a “dream” school the next. The system is human.
On writing samples
1. This is the most important part of your application.
2. Your writing sample needs to be strong and smart, well edited and interesting, and it should be polished work — your best work — poems or prose that you’ve revised and discussed with professors or other publishing mentors.
3. If you don’t have enough polished work to fit the writing-sample guidelines, it’s probably a sign that you aren’t ready to apply right now.
4. Your writing sample should represent the kind of work you want to continue to write.
On picking programs to apply to
1. If you write science fiction and are committed to writing science fiction, you should apply to programs that welcome this type of work. The internet makes it much easier to research programs and see if a school offers genre classes or has a professor with expertise in that particular field.
2. We recommend applying to eight to 10 programs.
3. Apply to a variety of programs. Don’t apply to eight programs with huge reputations and expect to get in. There are all kinds of smaller, less-well-known programs that will give you a chance to write in a supportive community.
4. Don’t pick a program because you want to work with one specific writer. Writers sometimes move on. Sometimes a great writer isn’t a great teacher. Sometimes a famous writer spends more time being famous (say giving readings at places far afield) than teaching students close to home.
5. Some programs will waive the application fee for students in need. It never hurts to Google—or to ask.
On letters of recommendation
1. Make sure you have strong and real relationships with the people you ask to recommend you. Their letters need to be detailed and persuasive.
2. Ask your potential letter writers for support in person. If that’s impossible (say you’ve been out of school for a year and live far away from your alma mater), write a personal e-mail, not a generic plea.
3. Most professors are truly happy to write letters for good students. Don’t feel guilty for asking. It’s part of our job.
4. Ask your potential letter writers if they want to see copies of your work, a current resume, etc.
5. Give letter writers at least a month’s notice before your first deadline, ideally more.
6. Provide a list of the programs and a list of requirements for each letter, including the deadline and the submission mode. If you can, please use Interfolio, or a similar service, which cuts down on the busy work for your letter writers. Provide all of the necessary material in a timely manner: If you need to fill out a paper form to accompany the letter, fill it out fully. If you need to sign a form, sign it. If you need to start an online application so that a school will send a web link for letter writers, start that application. Get on top of these requirements. Each school is different. It’s a bit maddening sometimes. Figure this stuff out now, not on November 30 as your first deadline creeps up on you.
7. If a potential recommender has reservations, listen to them. Perhaps it’s not the right time for you to pursue a degree. Perhaps you need to approach a different potential letter writer. Perhaps there are aspects of your writing you need to work harder on.
8. Some letter writers like to receive a friendly heads-up when the deadline approaches. When in doubt, ask if you should send a polite e-mail reminder.
1. The internet makes it easier to try and connect with students currently studying at programs. This is a hugely valuable resource to get real-world intel about programs.
3. Facebook groups such as the MFA Draft and sites like The GradCafe sometimes offer great support; sometimes they create overwhelming ennui. Proceed with caution.
On personal statements
1. Your personal statement is also a writing sample.
2. Follow the statement guidelines carefully. If a school wants a page, deliver a page. Answer the right questions for each school and follow each school’s specific prompt. You will need to tailor statements a little — or a lot — for each program.
3. Don’t personalize a statement for a program unless you can do it convincingly and honestly. There’s a huge and noticeable difference between name-dropping and actually having read and appreciated an MFA faculty member’s work.
4. Edit your statement anew after any and all tailoring. Every program receives personal statements that mention the wrong school. Mistakes happen, but they will not help your application.
5. Get creative: Your statement shouldn’t explain that you’ve always wanted to write or that you’ve always been a reader. We hope those declarations would be accurate for 97 percent of the applicant pool.
6. Get real: Try to give a true sense of who you are. If you disguise yourself in some way, a program might accept your disguise, but your real self might end up feeling strangely unhappy there. That mirror isn’t to summon Candyman; it’s so you can look at yourself.
I’m actually a cautionary tale: When I was an undergraduate, I applied to five top MFA programs and was quickly rejected by all five. (In my hazy memory, my snail-mail rejection from Iowa came back the very next day.) I ended up studying at an M.A. program instead, and it was the right place for me at the time.
If you’re an undergraduate, it might not hurt to apply to one or two good M.A. programs that offer a specialty in creative writing along with a large handful of MFA programs. Kansas State, for examples, sends M.A. students on to excellent MFA programs every year. All writers need time, time to write and read, time to grow, and attending an M.A. program can make you a much stronger applicant: a better writer, an experienced GTA, a broader, deeper reader. After my M.A., I worked at newspapers for more than half of the 1990s, and I went back to school for my Ph.D. in creative writing when I was 30. I was ready then. Even if I had gotten into one of those top MFAs, it’s doubtful that I would have made the most of the experience back when I was 22.
Your time in a creative writing program should matter. A lot.
So much of the process is beyond your control. Control what you can: get organized, revise and edit your manuscript early and often, don’t panic, and remember that writing lives take shape over decades. All writers face rejection and failure, failure and rejection, and then more of the same: Get used to it. Keep writing anyway.
— Dan Hoyt, Professor