This section will address how to select which program you should attend.
MOTIVATIONS FOR DEGREE
Students have different motivations for choosing to do an MFA in Creative Writing. Most of them do ultimately want to become writers -- but you can also opt for an MFA if you are interested in the following career pathways: teaching, publishing, editing or other writing careers.
But you do not necessarily need to have an MFA to pursue most of the career pathways listed above (except university, and sometimes, college-level teaching). There are many great writers who do not have an MFA, and many individuals who do have an MFA but are not necessarily widely read or published authors. So an MFA is no guarantor of success. Why should you, then, even consider doing an MFA?
An MFA program gives you the opportunity to connect with writers (who are teaching the program and also those who are students) whom you would never have connected with otherwise. In this way, you get exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking, which can help your own writing.
So should you do an MFA?
If you are interested in writing literary fiction, or creative non-fiction or poetry and you feel you can thrive in a formal academic environment, then an MFA might be great for you -- as long as you can afford the degree (it is a fairly expensive degree! Read the finance section for more information on costs and scholarship/aid options). If the aforementioned hold true for you, and you have a very strong passion for writing, then an MFA may be ideal for you. You should take time to weigh your options, look at your future goals and what you need to do to meet them and then decide whether or not an MFA is right for you. You can also go through this article to help you decide if this degree is suitable for you or not.
What if you do not have a writing-specific background?
You should ideally have a couple of strong samples to submit alongside your application, but other than that, people come from all sorts of backgrounds. Students with engineering backgrounds and CS backgrounds have also managed to apply successfully to MFA programs in the past. You should consider an MFA program to be “a clean slate”. The most important thing you need is passion. As long as you are passionate about writing, you can definitely apply (Shehryar Badr Sheikh, MFA, University of Notre Dame, PhD Candidate at the University of Saskatchewan).
How demanding is the degree?
MFA degrees are very time-consuming and demanding. You need to think of your degree as a “professionalization” -- it is not one of those “I’ll work when I want to” degrees. You need to make sure you are completely invested and focused from the onset (Shehryar Badr Sheikh, MFA, University of Notre Dame, PhD Candidate at the University of Saskatchewan). So you should only apply for it if you are sure you will be able to put in the time and effort required.
TYPES OF DEGREE
In a nutshell, the following degrees are available for Creative Writing in the US:
- MFA (Master of Fine Arts)
- MA (Master of Arts)
- PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Some MFA programs may also be categorized into low-residency and full-time programs.
Note: this tip sheet is focusing on the MFA specialization only. A short overview of the MA and PhD degrees is provided below to help you decide if the MFA degree is most suitable for you.
How to select the best option for yourself (among degrees/specializations within this field)?
MFA vs. MA/PhD
An MFA is a Master of Fine Arts degree. For Creative Writing, this is largely considered to be the terminal degree, i.e. final educational qualification needed to teach. Recently, some Ph.D. programs in Creative Writing have also been introduced -- but these are more academic/research-oriented, and are typically at least 5+ years. The MFA is different from the MA in Creative Writing, because there is a greater focus on writing classes and less of an emphasis on literary academia and scholarship (in an MA degree, it is usually the other way around). MFA programs are typically longer than MA program (by one year or so) and require more credits/classes for completion.
- You should consider doing an MFA if you want to become a writer or a teacher of Creative Writing (while it is not a prerequisite for either of the pathways, it may prove to help you land a job. If nothing else, you will, at the least, get some time to focus purely on your craft).
- Make sure you will be able to fully dedicate the time required to complete an MFA because it is more than the time required to finish an MA.
Low residency programs vs full-time programs
Full-time programs are like regular programs: you are expected to attend classes on campus and complete your degree in 2-3 years. With low residency programs, you will not be required to be on campus constantly. You may need to attend classes on campus occasionally/intermittently, but you can do the rest of your study off-campus. Low residency programs are suitable for those students who are currently working or are unable to move (due to family/personal obligations). It does take longer to complete the degree, but the advantage is that you do not have to give up your current job.
Some full-time programs are fully-funded, and provide students a stipend to teach on campus/do a graduate assistantship. This is not an option for low residency programs; since low-residency students do not live on campus, it is difficult for them to work on campus. As a result, there are many low-residency programs that are not fully-funded. For more information and differences between full-time and low-res programs, please read this article written by Kendall Dunkelberg (Director of MFA Creative Writing) on low-residency and fully-funded programs.
You can also check out the following tip-sheets if you are interested in Writing:
- Master’s in English Literature
- PhD in English
How to select the best option for yourself (among allied fields)
- MA and PhD degrees, as mentioned above, will be more academic and scholarship-oriented and less vocational. If you are more interested in criticism and analysis than you are in writing/developing your own craft, one of these degrees may be more suitable for you. It is advised that you look at the requirements of each degree, your financial situation plus other obligations/responsibilities, and prospective programs before finalizing what you want to apply for.
- No. of Universities to apply to: you should apply to at least 10 places (try not to go under that). MFA programs are very subjective: “it is almost like sending a novel you have written to someone, and they might skip the start and go to the middle. They will only respond to you if they are compelled by your text”. There is no guarantee that admissions committees will like a particular application, so to increase your chances of acceptance, you should try to apply to a high number of places, recommends Sheheryar Badr Sheikh (MFA, University of Notre Dame, PhD Candidate at the University of Saskatchewan).
Here are some links that could help you with:
- MFA Database by Poets and Writers (this contains information on low residency and full-time programs in USA. Note: this may not be an exhaustive list. You are also advised to use this as a general guide; for more programs-specific information, please visit your prospective university/program website.
- Make sure you check the ranking of MFA programs based on their specialty/sub-field in Creative Writing
Complement the above field-specific tips with general tips on program selection (under the tab of ‘selection’).
A lot of our tips talk about how you can strengthen your application, but you can build a stronger application when you’ve done the things this program values in the years prior to the application. The application itself is the communication part (in which you communicate what you've done to the admission committee); but this section gives guidance on the substance part (what you can actually do before you apply). In this section we talk about what you can do in the years leading up to applying that can make you an ideal candidate. Supplement the following tips with general tips (under the tab of ‘Pre-Application’) to become a competitive applicant.
Students interested in applying for an MFA in Creative Writing in the US do not need to have a particular undergraduate degree. Even if you have not majored in Humanities, you can still apply and have a good chance of getting in (as long as you are an avid reader and have some experience in writing). Do check your prospective university website to find out more information about degree and subject prerequisites (if there are any).
GPA does not matter too much, as long as your writing sample is stellar. A CGPA of 3.3 can even get you into a top-quality program if you have a good writing sample. Some programs may not even look at your CGPA, and will concentrate on your writing sample (which is what matters most). Other programs might take your CGPA into consideration, but the writing sample will always have much greater significance. Basically you should try to aim for the best possible CGPA but if your grades are a little low, you do not need to fret over it.
If your grades are very mediocre, you should try to submit a strong personal statement and writing sample to compensate for them.
Any publications or writing (publishing of articles, stories etc.) that can be attributed to you will be beneficial to your overall application.
You should also try to familiarize yourself with the writing market, i.e. the novel writing market (what are contemporary writers writing on these days, how are their stories being written, what is the publishing scene etc.). Try to learn how to “professionalize” yourself in your field. Not only could this add positively to your application, but will also help you be much more prepared for an MFA degree (Sheheryar Badr Sheikh, MFA, University of Notre Dame, PhD Candidate at the University of Saskatchewan)
Any sort of experience with a publishing house or a literary magazine or any writer or any other writing/editorial work will help your application. If it has been a few years since your undergraduate studies, a concentration on writing and/or writing-based accomplishments will definitely act as a feather in your cap.
Any sort of volunteer work that is within the field of writing is very relevant. It can also help you find good recommenders for your application.
You can consider participating in writing competitions (those are fairly frequent in Pakistan); if your submission wins, you may even get a chance to be published in XYZ publication which will help your overall application.
Additionally, the tips below have been graciously shared by Sheheryar Badar Sheikh (MFA, University of Notre Dame, PhD Candidate at the University of Saskatchewan):
- Find venues for publication, and work on learning everything you can about the publishing industry (local level, small magazines, bigger literary journals, and the publishing houses)
- Buy / Loan from the library a couple of Writer’s Market volumes (published after 2015 preferably)
- Read author interviews, attend author readings on campus, talk to authors; be available to be mentored.
- Read Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer
- Build a habit of writing daily. Start with writing exercise books like What If by Anne Bernays
- Read extensively from selections of:
- Short story collections
- Poetry collections
- Writing advice / guidance manuals
- Self-Help Books (optional, but highly recommended)
- Discipline your doubts to serve you well by writing and reading much more than watching TV and wasting time.
- Do waste a little time here and there, but not discipline time.
- Build relationships with writers—professional ones.
- If given the option, go through training to teach, and teach a workshop.
- Send good material out to literary journals for publication. Rejection is part of the process; build a thick skin for it by aiming to collect 50 rejections (at least) in the two years of MFA.
- The two years of the MFA will fly by—keep a journal if you can, to chart your progress.
This section provides an overview of general guidelines pertaining to the application process. It also delineates the key components of the application process.
The writing sample will undoubtedly be the most important part of your application, no matter which university you choose to apply to. Other extremely important components include your letters of reference and your personal statement. Some universities may have interviews, others may not. When they do take place, they are also a vital part of your application. Other components that may be required include standardized tests and transcripts. As mentioned earlier, if you have unimpressive transcripts, you should try to compensate for those by submitting strong personal statements and writing samples.
Refer to the Program Selection Section for further information.
Is this component required?
How important is this component (in the overall review of the application for admission)?
Standardized tests or entry exams
Some places may require it
Important when required
Transcripts (past academic records)
Letters of recommendation
Resume or CV
May be required
Very important when required
Complement the above field-specific tips with general tips on overview (under the tab of ‘overview’).
Pakistani applicants suffer most because of inadequate information -- or wrong information -- about essays and personal statements. This section will address those inadequacies specifically in relation to applying for this program. Supplement the following field-specific tips with general tips (under the tab of ‘essay’) to craft a stellar personal statement.
Your statement of purpose is a very important part of your overall application. The sort of writing it requires is different than the fiction writing you may be used to. You need to talk about your reasons for wanting to apply for/do an MFA in Creative Writing. The most important thing for you to do is to sell yourself in a creative and innovative manner (without showing off unnecessarily and while staying true to yourself).
Note: if you have low grades, you should give more time to ensuring your essay is top-notch. A strong essay might be able to compensate for weak grades in some places.
Which resources should I make use of?
- Read the following links before you start planning your personal statement:
- This is a great source that gives advice on things you should keep in mind when writing your statement of purpose.
- This is a very useful resource that gives advice on what you should not do when writing your statement of purpose.
- This is another great resource you should read to get an idea of how to write your statement.
TIPS ON GOOD AND BAD STATEMENTS
What is essential in the statement:
- Excellent grammar is essential.
- Talk about your past, but keep it brief and short. The main purpose of this is to convince the admissions committee that you are ready to do a graduate program in creative writing.
- Talk about how you have prepared yourself as a “writer”: this could entail a discussion on your undergraduate degree, the kind of literature background you have, the sort of reading you enjoy (both within and outside classes).
- While a major in English or Literature is not a prerequisite for the MFA Creative Writing program, you will be expected to: a) an avid reader and b) have good writing skills. So you should try to provide evidence that supports this. You can also talk about your major and why it compelled you to apply for an MFA.
- Your personal statement should be somewhat formal -- it should not be as formal as an academic writing paper, but it should be more formal than an email. It is okay if you display your excitement for the program but you should also show your analytical writing skills.
- Your personal statement should be clear and concise. “Don’t say in 10 words what can be said in 5” (Kendall Dunkelberg, professor of English + Director of Creative Writing, Mississippi University for Women).
- If you’re applying immediately after university, then you should be talking about your recent educational experience. If you have been out of university for a while, then the admissions committee will be interested in what you have been doing now. Do share any recent accomplishments/activities you have pursued. If you are planning to go for a low-residency program, you will be working or doing something else while you are in graduate school. Share with the committee what that is.
- One of the most important things is to talk about your writing. Be clear, concise and honest here. You could talk about which writers/works have influenced your style or which genre(s) interest you (cross-genre work is also encouraged at some places) or what you have written so far/plan on writing in the future. While your writing sample does give the committee a comprehensive understanding of the kind of writing you do, chances are it is only based on one genre. Your personal statement can describe the rest of your writing interests.
- If you have any experience working in writing or editorial or other relevant capacities, you can mention those here as well. Talk about the skills you gained or what you learned through those experiences and why they were important in convincing you to apply for an MFA.
What are some elements of exceptional statements:
- Talk about the program you are applying to: what is it about that particular program that interests you? Why do you want to spend X amount of time here? How does it meet your requirements and how does it help you grow as a writer? It might also be helpful to talk about what specific goals you have and how this particular program helps you meet them.
- Other details that can add value to your include your family background (especially if it relates to your writing or writing goals), any publications or writing-related work experiences/volunteer work.
What are bad statements/ what things to avoid:
- Avoid cliches and lengthy sentences about how you love writing. Find a more original way to show your passion and motivation for the program.
- Don’t pretend to have read books (especially those written by a professor of the program you are applying to) that you have not read as a way of impressing the admissions committee. It will not work -- and will put your application at a disadvantage.
How can applicants manage the process of writing?
- It is quite possible that your first draft might require some changes, or you may not think it is great. You may have to write several versions of your statement before you arrive at the final one. So make sure you give yourself enough time to write. It might even be helpful to get a professor/friend/family member (someone you have a good relationship with) to review it.
- Make sure you revise it several times before submission.
- Let someone else (who knows you and is well-acquainted with the application procedure) check it and give you feedback.
- It would also be helpful to share this with your recommenders so they can pen your LoRs in such a way that they complement your personal statement.
- Important: if you already have an advanced degree (i.e. in a postgraduate degree in something else), you will have to convincingly explain to the admissions committee why they should give this opportunity to you rather than to someone else. You need to show that this program is the right fit for you. (People with advanced degrees do get selected, but at some places it is the exception rather than the rule).
This section will cover the basics about recommendation letters, which are one of the most important parts of the application process. Supplement the following field-specific tips with general tips (under the tab of ‘recommendations’) to ensure you have strong letters of recommendation.
While they are secondary to your personal statement and writing sample, your letters of recommendation are super important. And you should make sure you give this component the time it requires.
You will usually have to submit 2-3 letters of recommendation. Please visit your website to check how many you will be required to submit. Some universities may also give preferences for the type of recommender (for instance, university XYZ might want 2 academic references and 1 professional reference). If this is specified on your university website, please follow whatever is stated.
Who to select as your recommender:
- Your letters of recommendation should ideally be written by individuals who are familiar/well-acquainted with your recent writing. If you have been out of college/university for a while, you should try to connect with your undergraduate professors now. Don’t hesitate to ask -- most of them will be willing to write you a letter. It will be helpful if you send them your statement of purpose and get them acquainted with all that you have done since graduation. If you feel like your professors cannot comment on your creative writing skills effectively, send them your written work. At least one of your recommenders should be from an educational background because they will be able to attest to your abilities/potential as a student and scholar.
- It will be helpful if your recommender has written similar letters in the past for similar programs, or has read similar letters for the program they teach in. They will be able to write the most effective LoR, since they will be well-aware of what to say and how to say it.
- It will also be helpful to request someone who has strong academic credentials/a writing background (an individual who has credentials like publications or teaching to their name is a good option). If you can get an academic (who is also a creative writer) with some publications to your name, it will be very beneficial. But you should only do this if the individual is well-aware of your writing style and abilities!
- If you have ever had your work published in a literary magazine, the editor (IF you have a good relationship with him/her) may be able to write you a good recommendation letter too.
TIPS ON GOOD AND BAD LETTERS
What is essential in the LoRs:
- The letter of recommendation should speak, in detail, about your ability/potential to succeed in an MFA Creative Writing Program. While it should speak about your character, the former remains the more significant part of the LoR.
What are bad LoRs/ what things to avoid
- Avoid getting family members or friends to write your letter for you.
- Your employer/boss is not always a good option, because it largely depends on the type of job you have. For example, working as a teacher or for a newspaper/magazine/publishing house is usually considered more relevant and so a LOR from your boss in these professions is likely to be a good idea. However, if you work in an unrelated field, such as banking, then a LOR from your boss is likely to be less useful.
This section will cover everything else related to the application process; including transcripts, interviews, resumes, and standardized tests.
The writing sample is the most important component in your application packet. You have little control over your transcripts and your letters of recommendation when you are applying, so by default, the most important things become those that you do have control over your statement and your sample. Everything else confirms what the admissions committee has already learned about you through your writing sample.
One of the very important questions you will ask yourself when working on this part of your application is: which sample do you send? Should you send in my best work? The answer is yes, send in your best work -- but only if it is the one you care the most about, i.e. the one where your primary interest lies. Your work ultimately has to represent the kind of writer you want to be. If you send something that does not do a good job of representing you, you may not end up in the right program for yourself. Don’t be impulsive in your selection either: don’t submit a piece you are very attached to just because you wrote it very recently -- especially if it is not refined or edited, and does not adequately represent your abilities.
After reading your sample, most committees will judge the potential your sample has to be published. It is important to show the committee that you have written your sample with care, and have a sense of the kind of things that are being published today.
The next thing the admissions committee will look into is: are you the right fit for the program? Is your sample appropriate for their program? Granted this is not something you have a hundred percent control over -- but you can do some initial research on your prospective program. Most faculty is just trying to create the right kind of balance and mix of writers for their classes.
The committee will also check to see how sophisticated and refined your writing sample is. Make sure there are no grammatical errors -- because that can put you at a severe disadvantage. Also, if you show little or incorrect understanding of the genre you are writing in, you might not move on to the next stage of the application process.
- This is an excellent resource containing advice for an MFA admissions officer (she talks about the whole application evaluation process, and focuses particularly on the writing sample).
- This is another great resource that can give you insight into how you should be writing your sample.
- Follow the rules. If the application asks for a 20-page writing sample, don’t exceed it.
- Quality is much more important than quantity. Don’t “pad” your sample either. If your best sample only has 18 pages, don’t add an extra 2 pages of mediocre work to reach the limit. That will work as a disadvantage.
- If you’re sending poems, send only your best poems. If you want to send more, they should be well-written -- and should show your range as a poet.
- Your voice and your style are very important parts of the writing sample: the admissions committee wants to become acquainted with you as a writer and your unique worldview.
- While the writing is the most fundamental part of your sample, aesthetic is important too. Make sure your application looks formal -- do not use fancy or odd fonts. Select a standard font, the appropriate font size and layout, and maintain consistency.
- Do note: applications are being looked at by people working in the American context, and they are looking for writing that will speak to them. But do not try to write something just to please them -- as long as your work is compelling and unique, you will be okay.
- Make sure you do plenty of revisions (and have editors go through your sample!)
- Try to find out what sort of writing the faculty members at different universities prefer. Some faculty might not like unconventional writing, and will only be in favour of traditional realist writing. (Note: don’t just write in a particular way to impress the faculty member, if you feel like you are doing that, the program is most probably not the right fit for you.)
Some programs might have interviews. Some might not. Some may have optional interviews. Please visit your prospective program to see if they conduct them or not.
- If there is an option of an interview, go for it. Try to research all the authors and the faculty that are working in the department. If you know what your style of writing, apply to a place that has authors/faculty that can help with that style -- and then talk about how you are the right fit in your interview.
- You can also try to read excerpts of faculty member’s books online. It is important to be fairly acquainted with their style.
You may be required to submit a resume. Please visit your prospective program website to find out what the requirements are. Make sure you follow the stated instructions.
Some places may require you to take the GRE, but others may not. It usually varies from university to university (sometimes program to program) -- so do research on your prospective program to find more information. But your GRE score is not super important. Just make sure you meet the minimum university score, if there is one.
Complement the above field-specific tips with general tips on preparing for standardized tests (under the tab of ‘tests’).
FINAL COMMENTS ON APPLICATIONS
Sheheryar Badar Sheikh also provided the following tips:
This section will cover approximate costs of the program and provide information of resources that may help with funding. Complement the following field-specific tips with general tips on finances (under the tab of ‘finances’).
Which resources can I find useful?
Many MFA programs fully or partially fund their students. For a general overview, visit this page which contains some MA and MFA programs that provide both tuition remission and a stipend to every student that is admitted.
Many programs also provide teaching assistantship opportunities to their students. Some provide teaching-based and non-teaching fellowships. Students can also be eligible for travel and research grants, at some universities.
It is very important that you check what sort of funding is available for international students. For specifics, look at your prospective program’s webpage. Some places do not fund international students -- if you require funding, it might be best to avoid applying to these programs altogether (unless you can get an external scholarship).
TIPS ON FUNDING OPTIONS
According to Bilal Tanweer (MFA Columbia, LUMS faculty):
- A lot of MFA students are funded. For instance MFA students at UMass, Amherst, Syracuse etc. get funding through Graduate TAships
- UT Austin has 2 specific funded MFA programs
These tips were compiled with the valuable help of SHAHEEN volunteers. The contributors to this tip-sheet include the following people:
- Bilal Tanweer, MFA Columbia, Professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences
- Sheheryar Badr Sheikh, MFA, University of Notre Dame, PhD Candidate at the University of Saskatchewan
We thank our volunteers for their contribution, and hope their tips and advice help you in your application.
In addition, the following sources were consulted in developing this tip-sheet and we encourage you to consult these sources for additional information and guidance on your application.
Furthermore, the following sources were also consulted in developing this tip-sheet: Jane Friedman - 3 myths about the MFA application, The MFA Years, Creative Writing MFA Handbook, Medium