How to Apply to MFA Programs in Creative Writing
Many writers interested in continuing their study of Creative Writing beyond their bachelor's degree pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree (MFA) in Creative Writing. MFA programs are designed to provide writers with theoretical framework, practical skills, and critical community support to help them further hone their craft and develop the expertise needed to become published writers.
MFA programs, however, are very competitive, with only a small percentage of applicants getting into the programs of their choice each year. As such, putting together a successful application takes considerable planning, research, focus, and time. From conducting research on which program is right for you, to preparing the materials you need, to perfecting your creative writing sample and statement of purpose, to obtaining letters of recommendation from your favorite professors, to actually sending in your applications: all this can take from six months to a year from start to finish.
If gaining a Master of Fine Arts degree is of interest to you, then this guide is a great place to start. Below are some tips on how to succeed in that process.
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In total, you can expect to do the following as part of the process of applying to MFA programs:
- Plan the overall process and create a timeline
- Research MFA programs / Decide where to apply
- Assemble your application materials, including:
- Creative Writing sample (10-20 pages of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, etc.)
- Statement of Purpose
- Letters of Recommendation from current or past professors (3 total)
- Undergraduate transcripts
- Curriculum Vitae or Resumé
- GRE test scores (if required by any of the programs to which you plan to apply)
- Application fees
- Submit your applications and required materials by the appropriate deadlines (see above)
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Your Application Timeline. The very first thing you'll want to do is create a timeline for your application process. (See "Creating Your Timeline" below for some more specific info.) Knowing that most application deadlines are between December 1st and February 1st (for students who want to begin in the fall semester), you will want to get started on everything AT LEAST six months prior to the earliest deadlines: i.e. you'll want to start the process in the spring of your Junior year (assuming you plan to start an MFA in the fall after graduating. If you think you might take a year off after graduation then you can begin in the spring of your Senior year.)
As part of your timeline, figure out when you need to start the various pieces of your completed application packet, and when you want to have them completed. For instance, knowing that it will take time to revise the stories or poems you want to include as your Creative Writing Sample, and that as part of this process you'll want to get feedback toward revision from a trusted friend and/or a willing (and generous) professor, you should plan to complete your first drafts of these no later than September, and possibly earlier. (Your friend or professor will need time to read and provide feedback for you. And then you will need time to revise, etc.) Similarly, knowing that your professors will need time to write your letters of recommendation, and that there's no guarantee that every professor you ask will agree to do this, you should start asking your favorite professors for letters early in your process, perhaps in the spring semester of your Junior year.
All this is to say: make yourself a timeline, give yourself deadlines, and do your best to stick to these deadlines!
Research. After completing your timeline, your next step in some ways is the most difficult: doing research to decide where you want to apply. Maybe you already have a program or two in mind. If so, that's great. If not, our best advice is to start with a resource right here at UTEP: Your Creative Writing professors.
Who are your favorite current or past Creative Writing professors? Send each an email, or drop by their office hours. Simply let them know that you're interested in applying to MFA programs, and that you would like their advice. All of your professors here will have great advice, and can point you to programs that they admire, and/or in which they think you would be a good fit.
Of course there are other factors you should think about aside from your professors' recommendations. Here are a few things to consider as you're looking at various MFA programs:
- Genres. Does the program offer courses in all genres, or specialize in a limited number of genres (poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, children's lit, screenwriting, gaming, etc)? Does it offer a variety of courses in the genre you're interested in? Does the program have faculty who specialize in and/or publish in the genre(s) you want to study?
- Faculty. Are you interested in writing by one or more members of the faculty in the program? (You may need to do some research to find and read some work by the program's faculty. Each Faculty member's bio or Faculty page will list their most prominent or most recent work.) If you're really intrigued, ask to be connected with faculty, if possible, to sit in on a class or for a one-on-one conversation about the program. Conversely, are there writers (perhaps that you've encountered through your Creative Writing classes, or by reading contemporary poetry/fiction journals) that you really admire? Look them up and find out where they teach!
- Location. Consider where the school is located. Is it somewhere you'd like to live? Is it affordable to live there? Is there a literary arts scene (or music scene, or performance scene, or visual arts scene)? Do you have connections to anyone in this location, or will you need to form new community upon joining the program? (Keep in mind that an MFA program is a great and easy place to form a new community!) Is the program online or in person? Do you want to move to a new city and start over, or would you like to be close to family and friends?
- Finances. Does the program offer Teaching Assistantships or Fellowships (or some other kind of yearly stipend) to its MFA students? (It should.) Does the program (and/or the University) offer grants/scholarships/tuition wavers to help defer the costs of graduate school? How much is not covered by all the above, and what is the remaining amount, considering tuition, fees, and cost of living, that you would have to cover out of pocket? Are you willing to take out loans to cover the rest? How much aid will you receive from FAFSA? Contact the school’s Financial Aid office for more information and to learn about additional resources.
- Program Specifics. Every student will have their own unique wants and needs from an MFA program, so consider what you value and are looking for. Some of the things you might consider: the reputation of the university and/or the program; the size of the program; the culture of the program and the competitiveness among classmates; what the graduates of the program do after completing the program; access to faculty; class size; opportunities to take part in reading series or in the production of a literary magazine; etc.
- Get in Touch. Talk to MFA students currently in that program to get a sense of what their experience has been, the strengths and weaknesses of the program, what they like and don't like about the program and/or the location, about the camaraderie among fellow students, why they chose that program, etc. (To get in touch with current students, you can usually e-mail the program, tell them you're considering applying, and that you'd like to be put in touch with current students.)
- Visit. If you have the time and resources, visit the programs you're most interested in (in person or virtually) to get a feel for the campus, the people, the program, and the town/city where it's located. If visiting in person, let the program know ahead of time that you're coming, make sure it's a good time to visit (you don't want to visit while they're on break!), and ask if you can sit in on a class and/or meet with current students etc. This is a great way to get a sense of whether or not you would fit in and feel comfortable there.
In the end you'll want to apply to at least three, and up to eight programs, depending on your resources. (The more MFA programs you apply to, the greater chance you have of being admitted to one. At the same time, the more MFA programs you apply to, the more you'll be paying in application fees, which can be quite expensive.)
Recent alumni from UTEP's Creative Writing Department have had success getting into a number of MFA programs that you might want to consider as well: University of Arizona, University of New Mexico, the New School, the Art Institute of Chicago, University of Pittsburgh, Emerson College, Simmons University, NMSU.
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Once you've made your selections and you know where you want to apply, you'll need to start assembling your application materials. The following is a list of materials commonly requested as part of an application to an MFA program in Creative Wriitng.
- Three Letters of Recommendation.
It is best to ask for letters of recommendation from current/previous professors who can speak to your writing abilities, your growth as a student, your participation and contributions to the classroom, and why they believe you are the right candidate for an MFA program. It is important to ask professors whom you know and in whose classes you did well. Also, consider your audience. Since you're applying to Creative Writing programs, you'll want letters primarily from Creative Writing professors. (One letter from a professor in a related field, such as Literature, would be okay, as long as the others are in the field you're applying to.) If you've done a special project with a professor, like an Honors Thesis, or If you've taken multiple classes with a particular professor you like and admire, and whose classes have been important to you, then she or he or they should be on the top of your list.
Think ahead. Connecting with professors during your experience as an undergraduate Creative Writing major--through class participation, attending office hours, and staying in touch even after your class with them ends--will help you build relationships with them and thus provide your recommenders with a deeper understanding of you and your writing as they prepare their letters.
Always ask for letters at least two to three months prior to your earliest application deadline. (It never hurts to ask earlier rather than later.) Your professors are very busy, and while they always want to help if they can, good letters of recommendation require a lot of time and effort to prepare. You do not want to rush them. Make sure you provide for them the names of each school/program you're applying to and the deadlines for each.
- Statement of Purpose (or Statement of Intent).
Precisely what any particular program asks for here can vary, but most programs request a writer’s statement and/or a statement of purpose (of approximately 500-1000 words) that speaks about your writing influences and goals; what makes you distinctive as a writer; your academic and literary interests; why you think their program is right for you; and your further professional goals beyond the MFA program.
While the Creative Writing Sample (see below) is often the most important document you submit as part of your MFA application, the Statement of Purpose is still crucial, as it can often sway an admissions committee (who are weighing your application against many others), who may realize from your statement that you are truly interested in their program and what their program has to offer, and that you will therefore be a good fit there.
What this means, however, is that you shouldn't simply send the exact same Statement of Purpose to each program you're applying to. Rather, you should tailor each Statement of Purpose to the program you're sending it to. Make sure you address the topics the program asks you to address, of course, but also make sure you talk about the specific aspects of their program that excite you: particular courses that are offered; faculty members you're excited to work with and why; specialty tracks or sub-programs within the program (such as screenwriting, literary translation, children's literature, etc.). All this is to say that you want to let the admissions committee know that you know something about their program, and that you know why you want to be there.
- Creative Writing Sample.
A Creative Writing Sample will be 10-20 pages of your best poems, short stories, excerpts from novels, etc. In an MFA application, this is often the most important document you submit, and an admissions committee will often start by looking at this sample of your work. If they like it, they'll move you forward and look at the rest of your application. If they don't, that'll be the end. As such: do not simply dust off the work that got you an "A" in your recent Creative Writing classes and send it in. You'll want to work on these, revise, and work on them some more. Get feedback from a trusted friend or CRW classmate, or from a professor (who has agreed ahead of time to give you feedback). Take their constructive criticism seriously (they're trying to help! They want you to succeed!) and revise, revise, revise. Make your creative writing sample the absolute best you can.
Once you've decided on the stories or poems you want to submit, have revised it all to the point where you (and your trusted readers) think it's ready, and you're ready to put the sample together, you'll want to think about how to order the work you've chosen for your writing sample. It's often best to lead with the strongest works first, the next strongest samples last, and the least strong samples in the middle. Finally, keep in mind that quality is more important than quantity (as long as you provide the minimum number of pages they request).
Official Transcripts are official legal documents listing among other things the courses you took at the University and the grades you received, and these are issued by the university or college where you completed your undergraduate coursework, usually by the University Registrar's office. Unofficial transcripts show the same information, but do not have official legal standing. Most programs you're applying to will require official transcripts. To request your official transcripts from UTEP, contact the Division of Student Affairs Office of Registration and Records.
- Application Fees.
Most programs charge an application fee to apply to their program. These fees cover the time and effort needed to process and review applications. These are typically between $50-$100 per application, and sometimes more. So, the more programs you apply to, the more you'll be spending on application fees. You'll need to think about this ahead of time, and start saving if necessary.
Some less commonly requested materials:
- Curriculum Vitae or Resume.
A curriculum Vitae (CV) is a complete list of education, jobs, volunteer work, professional experiences, publications, public performances, awards, etc. Whereas a resume is usually a brief, one-page snapshot of all the above, highlighting your skills and past job responsibilities. You can find examples of both online.
- Critical Writing Samples.
A 10-20 page sample of critical/analytical/research writing. Such a writing sample would be more commonly requested for applications to MA or PhD programs in more traditionally academic programs, like Literature, History, Communications, or Sociology. But, you never know. If you happen to be applying to a PhD program in Creative Writing, however, you will likely be asked for both a creative writing sample AND a critical writing sample.
- GRE Test Scores.
The Graduate Record Exam (GRE) is similar to the SAT test (which you may have taken in preparation to apply to college), but is for those who want to study at the masters level or beyond after finishing their bachelor's degree. The "general" GRE test is supposed to measure your aptitude for graduate-level study, while specific GRE tests for specific disciplines (such as Literature or History) measure your preparation for advanced study in that discipline. In either case, though, one can dramatically improve their performance on these tests by studying for them with a test-prep book or app.
Important to note is that few MFA programs require GRE scores, but some do. Best to do your research ahead of time here and figure out if any of the programs you're interested in require the GRE. If they do, and if you still want to apply to them, you'll need to schedule a GRE test time far in advance of those application deadlines. You can get more info on taking the GRE at the GRE website: https://www.ets.org/gre
On the other hand, you may decide that you don't want to apply to any programs requiring the GRE, and therefore eliminate programs that require it from your list.
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Below is a general guideline for putting together your own application timeline. Make sure you check with the programs you're applying to for specific dates for everything below.
- 12 months before applying (winter of Junior year) – Begin researching MFA programs
- 2 months before applying – Ask for Letters of Recommendation
- September 1st - May 15th – Applications Due (see MFA programs for exact deadlinees)
- Many programs have deadlines the first few weeks of January (for students intending to begin in the fall of that year). However, some of the most competitive programs have deadlines as early as September, and others have deadlines as late as May. Start researching early so that you don’t miss these crucial deadlines.
- October 1st – June 30th – FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid–see schools for exact deadlines)
FASFA opens for applications October 1st and closes June 30th. Submit your FAFSA as soon as possible – some schools have priority deadlines or hard deadlines before June 30th, or give awards until funds are depleted. Check with your school to see when their deadlines are. Apply for FAFSA HERE.
- Rolling – Applying for scholarships
Scholarships have deadlines throughout the year. It is recommended to start researching and applying for scholarships in the fall prior to the year you are seeking funding. Check with the programs you are applying to to learn of additional scholarships and funding they may have. Contact the UTEP Office of Fellowships and Awards for assistance.
- March – July – Accept Offer (see schools for exact deadlines)
You will get letters of acceptance or rejection anytime between March and July. Hopefully you'll have received an acceptance or two (or more). Review offer letters and notify programs of decisions. Some programs require a non-refundable deposit upon acceptance, while others do not.
(If you are not successful in getting into the programs you applied to, it is okay to call and ask to speak to (or email) the chair of the admissions committee simply to thank them for their time and consideration, and to (politely) ask what was lacking in your application. This can help should you decide to try again next year.)
- Remember to say "Thank You"
Send a follow up “thank you” card to the professors who wrote you letters of recommendation. And, don't forget to keep your recommenders in the loop as you make decisions – share with them when you are accepted into programs, and what your ultimate decisions are so that they can celebrate with you or provide support if you decide to apply to additional programs in the future.
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- Build time into your application timeline to have all of your materials reviewed by trusted classmates, fellow writers, and/or UTEP's University Writing Center. Receiving feedback on (and then revising!) your creative/ critical writing samples and statement of purpose is crucial to the process of assembling quality application materials.
- Carefully proofread everything you submit. You are applying to a writing program, after all. You don't want to send writing that is riddled with typos and grammatical errors.
- Apply to multiple programs. While you may have an ideal program in mind, it is good to have several options available in case you are not admitted into your first choice; circumstances change your priorities; or so that you can compare the various offers in the event you are accepted to multiple programs.
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- MFA Programs Database (Poets & Writers): https://www.pw.org/mfa
- Guide to Writing Programs (AWP): https://www.awpwriter.org/guide/guide_writing_programs
- UTEP University Writing Center: https://www.utep.edu/uwc/
- 6 Tips for Getting Successfully Accepted into an MFA Program (UTEP): https://www.utep.edu/extendeduniversity/utepconnect/blog/march-2019/6-tips-for-getting-successfully-accepted-into-an-mfa-program.html
- "So You're Thinking About Applying to Grad School in Creative Writing" -- from the University of Arizona MFA in Creative Writing Program.
- For information about UTEP's Bilingual MFA program in Creative Writing, or for help applying to our program, e-mail us here:
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Thanks to UTEP Creative Writing MFA candidate Sarah Hobin for assembling, organizing, and writing most of the material on this page!