How to Choose an MFA Writing Program

Doretta Lau’s six hacks for selecting the right MFA writing program for you

There are so many universities that offer an MFA writing program that it can be hard to decide where to apply. As a graduate of Columbia University’s Writing Division and a former administrator for three admissions programs, I have a lot of advice to give to prospective applicants. I know what it is like to apply and I know how an admissions team evaluates applications.

I studied fiction before working as an editor and publishing the short story collection How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? (Nightwood Editions, 2014). I’ve been through the academic and business side of the industry.

For this post, I will guide you through your decision to choose the schools that are the best for you to grow as a writer. In a later instalment of this series, I will take you behind the scenes and explain how to apply for an MFA writing program. I want to share what I’ve learned so you don’t make the same mistakes that I made along the way. (I lucked out–Columbia was the perfect fit for me.)

1. Be clear on who you are as a writer

You may find this self reflection difficult, but if you do this work now you will choose the right MFA writing program for your needs. Be honest about who you are as a writer. Suffer now rather than suffer later.

Ask yourself:

  • What genre of work do you want to pursue?
  • How would you describe your writing style?
  • Which writers have influenced your work?
  • Do you want the freedom to experiment during grad school?
  • What kind of learning environment are you seeking? (High contact, low contact, self directed.)
  • What does success look like for you as a writer?
  • What does failure look like for you as a writer?

Write down your answers. This is your story about who you are as a writer; it may change as you write more or learn more about the craft or become better acquainted with yourself. You will need this information to construct the narrative for the personal essays required for your MFA writing program applications.

When you research your schools, you can see if their philosophy for writing matches with yours.

2. Define your personal goals

Once you know who you are as a writer, write down your goals for writing and life. If you are clear about what you want, it makes it easier to narrow down which MFA writing program is the best fit for you.

  • Is writing your main pursuit?
  • Do you want to teach?
  • Do you want to work in publishing?

Some writing programs provide teaching opportunities while others (especially those situated in New York) offer internships to publications and publishing houses.

3. Make a budget

You must be real about your finances so that you understand how much money you can spend on tuition, living expenses, moving, and travel.

I do not recommend anyone go into debt for a grad degree. If possible, it is best to start your career without the burden of student loans. This may mean making sacrifices whether it be the school of your choice or working long hours during your studies.

Writing is difficult enough without the crushing debt. Remember that it is possible to be a writer without attending an MFA program.

Make an income list, asking yourself these questions:

  • What do you have in savings?
  • How many hours are you willing to work during school?
  • What kinds of freelance jobs can you do and how much can you charge per hour?
  • Will anyone in your family give you a personal loan or a gift?
  • How much can you get in student loans?

Once you see how much money you have to fund your schooling you may decide to narrow your search to schools with full funding for tuition and living expenses.

4. Check out who is on faculty at the MFA writing program

Each MFA writing program lists its professors on its website. Take note of who the tenure and tenure-track faculty are because these are the people available to act as your thesis or dissertation supervisor. There is a chance that an adjunct professor whose work you adore will not be on staff when you start the program so do not base your choice of school on these writers.

5. Read books by recent alumni of the MFA writing program

Remember my first point? “Be clear on who you are as a writer.” With this in mind, go to the library and look at books by alumni of the MFA programs that you’re interested in. You don’t have to read every single volume if you’re short on time. Have a look at the first page. Do the sentences thrill you? Is this how you would like to approach a story?

If you like the first page, check the book out, take it home, and spend time with the work. You may discover that many of the writers whose work you like went to the same MFA program. If this is the case, you know that the school is likely a good fit for you.

6. Research the location of the MFA writing program

When I decided to go to grad school, I applied to the university I attended as an undergraduate (meant to be my safety school, but ironically I did not get in) and four schools in and around New York City. Why? I wanted to live in New York and I wanted to work in publishing. Plus so many of the writers I admired had lived in New York at some point in their lives.

I did not apply to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop because I didn’t want to move to a place that did not have a large Asian population. For me it was important to eliminate culture shock from the grad school experience. If I was feeling down I wanted to be able to take a train ride to eat proper Chinese food and feel like myself.

For these reasons, I think it’s very important to research the location of the schools you wish to attend. Environment matters–it plays a huge part in shaping who we are as people and has an impact on our health.

Some questions you may wish to ask:

  • Where is the MFA writing program located?
  • Is it a city or town? Which do I prefer?
  • Is housing affordable in the area?
  • What is the cost of living for this city or town?
  • What is the weather like? Can I survive difficult winters?
  • What kind of jobs are available?
  • Is there a writing community there beyond what the school provides?
  • Will I feel welcome in this location?

I hope my advice helps you narrow down your search. Don’t be afraid to e-mail graduate programs directly with questions about student life before you apply.

If you have further questions about how to choose an MFA writing program, you can ask me (@dorettalau) on Twitter or leave a comment.

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