Thinking of Getting an MFA in Fiction? Read This First

A Breakdown of Things to Consider

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Recently I was asked to be on a panel for the Columbia MFA Program called “Life After the MFA” with a number of other writers who had graduated from the Program. Each panelist had a different experience, but we all seemed to be happy with the choice we made to attend.

Having had a good experience myself, I have encouraged my most talented students to apply to MFA Programs. For the most part, I believe they have had a positive experience as well.

The most valuable source when deciding what MFA program to attend is the list made up by Poets and Writers Magazine. It sorts the various programs by size, faculty, and gives you deadlines for admissions.

Here are some of my own thoughts about the process.

Cost

Obviously, this is a biggie. If you don’t have a rich uncle, you might have a lot to consider...

Money is a very personal thing, and people have many emotions and practical reasons to avoid debt. That said, if you are able to take on a monthly sum that will be manageable for you (and that you will be paying off for a very long time) it could benefit you in the long run.

The good thing is that you don’t have to pay off your student loans until after you graduate, giving you the time to concentrate on your writing and the program while you are attending. The bad thing is that when you graduate, you will not necessarily have a high paying job waiting for you to pay off your debt.

So there is a risk. But there are also other ways to avoid this.

Many programs give scholarships; some even pay full tuition. Many give work-study and teaching scholarships, which will also give you experience as a teacher, which will help you to get an academic job (if you wish to) after you graduate.

Faculty

Is there a writer who has influenced you more than any other? Find out where they are teaching. Sometimes it will be at a small school, but because you will be able to study with someone whose writing you truly admire, it could be an amazing experience. Of course you also want to make sure that the rest of the program suits you, but it is definitely a way to narrow down your options. Also remember: not all great writers are great teachers, so do your research!

Location

If you are willing to go on an adventure, and you are able to do so at the point in your life that you are applying to a program, it might be a great opportunity. By not limiting your options to big cities, you can find yourself in a place you wouldn’t necessarily have lived otherwise. This might be inspiring and eye-opening.

Length of Time

There are both full-time programs and low-residency programs. Low-residency means that you attend the school in the summer and sometimes a week or two during the winter, but work online with a professor during the rest of the year. For many, the summer programs make much more sense in terms of schedule and other life responsibilities.

Reputation

There is certainly an advantage to having gone to a more prestigious school.

First off, agents are very interested in you simply because of your credentials, which can be very helpful. However, good writing is good writing, and many of the bigger schools give less money, so even if you get into a larger school, it might not be the best choice.

Size

Some writing programs accept as little as 5 students per year; others accept up to 40. As this is - most likely - the only time in your life you will have this unique experience, getting to focus solely on your writing and being part of a community of writers who have similar aspirations, think about what kind of environment suits you. Would you rather be in a city or a small town? Do you like the intimacy of a small group, or do want to be surrounded by many others with similar goals?

These days it seems harder than ever to get into writing programs.

There are many talented writers, and I am often surprised when some of my students - who I have complete faith in - do not get into certain programs. The good news is that you can always apply again.

You do not have to go to an MFA program to be a writer by any means, but you do have to either have an MFA, or have published at least one book (or have many publications) to teach at the college level.

Getting an MFA does not automatically get you published or make you a writer, so weigh the pros and cons, and make the choice that’s right for you.

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