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Applying to (and Choosing) MFA Programs

I see a lot of posts on various sites/blogs about MFA programs. Frequently, people want to know how to evaluate programs, how to select programs to apply to and, ultimately, how to choose a program to attend.

As anyone who has read my Primer on Low-Residency MFA Programs already knows, I’m a big fan of figuring out one’s own goals, strengths, weaknesses, etc. and matching one’s individual experience and ambitions with a given program and its offerings. That’s a first step, anyway. And I’m also in favor of really getting to know the nuts-and-bolts of how a program is organized and run and matching that up with your own aforementioned goals, strengths, weaknesses, etc. Only you can really figure out what’s a “good match” for you.

So maybe it’s not such a big surprise that unlike some others, I’m far less enthusiastic about relying on what current/past students have to say about a program. First, what seems wonderful (or terrible) to one person is likely to look very different to someone else (again) depending on the past academic, professional, and personal experiences each person brings to the table and what his or her goals or expectations may be.

And again, particularly in larger programs with lots of faculty and students, each person’s experience is going to be quite different. Among past/current students you may very well find those who entered the program at the same time who never encountered each other in workshop, never worked with the same set of faculty, never worked with faculty outside their own genre (which may not be yours), and so forth. So depending on whom you happen to talk to (and you can pretty much count on any program administrator referring you to only the most satisfied students if you ask for references), you are going to get highly, highly tailored comments.

So how can you go about evaluating how a program is organized and run? How can you figure out if it’s a good match for you? Again, readers of the primer know that I recommend a range of things to think about. But there are other helpful guides, too.

One is the set of Hallmarks of a Successful Graduate Program in Creative Writing compiled by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). After you’ve read and digested this guide you can approach the information, advertising, and references offered by individual programs with a sense of some things to look for and analyze on your own. Or you can use the guide to develop questions more specific to your own situation/concerns when you communicate with any of the program’s representatives.

And another, which I’ve only discovered this week, may be particularly helpful to those considering the low-residency option. The Spalding University MFA program now offers a set of Questions to Ask When Seeking an MFA Program that I’m frankly happy to see in many respects complements my own advice in the primer. (You can click on each of the questions to read answers relating to the Spalding program’s own policies.)

So don’t just depend on what others have to say–especially people you’ve never met and may simply talk to on the phone or via e-mail because a program sent you to them. Take the time to do more (guided) reflection and research on your own.

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