mfa, writing

How many MFA programs should I apply to? Which MFA programs should I apply to?

Although I’ve had a consistent curiosity about MFA Creative Writing programs for years, it wasn’t until October of 2013 that I, filled with inspiration and energy from a Lighthouse Writers Workshop course, decided an MFA was something I wanted to undertake  whole-heartedly and as soon as possible. My educational background is not in English or Creative Writing so I felt like an outsider unsure of how (or where) to make my way in. I had many questions, namely, How many MFA programs should I apply to? Which MFA programs should I apply to?

At first I figured I’d apply to 5-10 schools (not for any reason–I just thought this range sounded right) that were higher up on the MFA Creative Writing rankings list I’d found via Google and located in places I figured would be “cool” to live. As I did more research online, I realized that strategy was not the best and would most likely set me up for failure. There are many MFA fiction applicants who do not get into programs until their second, third, or even fourth year applying. I didn’t want to wait like that, so I created a new strategy.

Here are the factors I took into consideration while developing my MFA program application list:

Residency. The first decision I made was to go all in, meaning to a full residency program. There are many reasons to get a Creative Writing MFA, and one of mine is to begin a new career path. While I don’t know exactly what that career path will be, I want the experience of teaching in case I end up going the academic route. Most low residency programs do not involve teaching assistantships. I purchased the Poets & Writers MFA Guide, which indexes 78 full residency MFA programs. I printed out this list, grabbed a highlighter, and began the process of elimination.

(Note: Later, when I read other parts of the P&W guide more closely, I realized there are about 50 more full residency programs than those listed in that index. Because I hadn’t yet realized that, I only considered the 78 schools on the P&W full residency list. The full list of MFA programs can be found in the free P&W MFA database.)

Selectivity. The Poets & Writers MFA Guide contains selectivity rankings within it, with “1” being the most selective. Unlike many applicants, I do not view high selectivity as a particularly desirable trait. I am after a useful experience, not bragging rights about getting into one of the most selective schools. Also, the selectivity rankings do not explain why a school’s selectivity is high, and I do not believe high selectivity necessarily equals a better program. Selectivity could be high simply because it’s a small program and although they get an average number of applicants, they can only afford to accept two of them (or selectivity could be low for the opposite reason, as is true with Columbia). A great program could also rank low in selectivity because it’s in a location that not many people desire to live, so it doesn’t get as many applicants.

Because I wanted to get in somewhere this year and I know lower selectivity means a better chance of me getting in, I eliminated most schools on the list with a selectivity ranking of less than 50. (I did not eliminate those with no data, and I left UNLV in the mix although it ranked 37 because I really liked the sound of their program. Incidentally, I was waitlisted there and rejected from many more selective programs, which caused me to question my strategy a bit.) This helped narrow my list down a lot, cutting it to around 30 schools. After researching online and finding two past MFA applicants’ blog posts (one by Katie McGinnis and one by “That Kind of Girl“) and the Creative Writing MFA handbook blog, I decided to apply to 15 programs instead of 5-10. Later I upped it to 18 by adding 3 schools that do not charge application fees.

At this point I should remind you that I applied in fiction, which is the most selective of the genres due to the sheer number of applicants. It appears that fiction is at least twice as selective as poetry and creative non-fiction at any given school. If I had been applying in another genre, I wouldn’t have allowed selectivity to weigh in so heavily and I also wouldn’t have applied to as many schools.

Funding. Because I still have student loan debt from a previous Master degree, and because I want experience as a teaching assistant, I went through my list of ~30 schools and eliminated most of those that had ranked 70 or lower on funding. I think this brought my list down to around 20 schools. (I let UNO slide in because I thought their program sounded pretty cool and it was close with a rank of 81. I was accepted there but not offered a TAship, which I suppose shouldn’t have surprised me given the worse funding ranking.)

At this point, I inputted all of my potential schools into a spreadsheet. I made columns for the name of the school, the MFA URL, the length of the program, if they had a lit mag or not, if they required the GRE or not, their due date, their application fee, and more. The spreadsheet was indispensable and I don’t think I could’ve properly managed applying to so many schools without it.

Due date. Because I started late, I couldn’t apply to any schools with a December 15th due date. My GRE scores wouldn’t be available then, plus I needed the extra two weeks to get everything together. I think this eliminated a school or two. If I had to do it again, I’d begin earlier so such a meaningless factor wouldn’t have any effect.

Location (Sorta). Location wasn’t a huge factor, as my list was already pretty whittled down, but it helped me make some final decisions. I dropped one school because it was in a place I know I don’t want to live, and dropped another because of the high cost of living where it is located.

In retrospect, I wish I had allowed location to factor in even more. When I began receiving responses from schools in February, there were four schools that I found myself hoping would reject me. They aren’t bad schools, but they’re all in places that have harsh, snowy winters. If I’d been honest with myself about how much climate matters to me, I could’ve saved myself those application fees, or used them toward schools that might not have been less selective, but were in locations I prefer.

Program Info. My process was a bit different than that of applicants who spend months researching programs. I didn’t make program or faculty information a huge factor. As long as the school had a diverse, published faculty, a lit mag, a variety of interesting-sounding classes, and teaching assistantships, I figured I could learn a whole lot from it.

I didn’t do extensive research partly because I didn’t have the time, and partly because I wasn’t sure how useful it would be. Initially I contacted two schools asking for more info, but when what they responded with was essentially useless, I just stuck with visiting schools’ websites. There was no way I could read the writing of faculty at 15 different schools. Also, I don’t know that my enjoyment of a particular faculty member’s writing in any way predicts how helpful or supporting that faculty member would be to me as a professor.

One factor that did win points with me was the ability for students to take courses in other genres. I’m grateful I’m ending up at a school that offers this, and I look forward to taking both poetry and creative non-fiction workshops in addition to fiction.

You can see the full list of programs to which I applied in my post on how much it cost me to apply to MFA Creative Writing programs.

What else? 

After I had finalized my list of schools and started the application process I found more information that would’ve been useful earlier on: the Neurotic Writer’s Guide to Apply for an MFA, the MFA Research Project blogTheGradCafe Literature forums, and the Facebook MFA Draft group.

If you are a prospective MFA Creative Writing student, I hope this post helps you. I’m not suggesting my method is the best; I just want to share it. If I did it all over, I would’ve started sooner, made funding my top criteria, and only applied to places in locations with warmer climates. I would not have eliminated the most selective schools and would’ve applied to schools across the spectrum in selectivity. Although my approach was imperfect, it lead to success. I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be attending the University of South Florida in Tampa this fall. I can’t wait.

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2 thoughts on “How many MFA programs should I apply to? Which MFA programs should I apply to?

  1. G says:

    Hello! This is such a helpful post, especially for someone who has been bawling her eyes out trying to figure out which schools to apply to. Thank you so much, Jessica. I hope you’re having a wonderful time with your MFA.

    • Jessica Thompson says:

      Thank you! It’s going very well so far and I’m really glad to be here. I hope you are able to figure out where to apply without feeling too much stress over it!

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