Thursday, August 24, 2006

Introduction to the Database of American MFA Programs in Creative Writing

This website contains a database of Creative Writing MFA programs across the country that includes the following information for each program:

-name of institution
-the genres of specialization
-faculty roster
-length of the program
-materials required of applicants and departments to which they should be sent
-deadline for fall admission (and spring admission, if applicable)
-financial aid options offered by the program
-program website

What is an MFA in Creative Writing?

The MFA in Creative Writing is called the terminal degree because it is the highest degree that one can possess in the field. Coupled with a good publications record, it can land you a job teaching creative writing at a college/university.

What’s the difference between Traditional and Low-Residency MFA’s?

In a Traditional MFA program, you would spend two or three years at a college or university, taking creative writing courses that culminate in a thesis. In a Low-Residency program, which usually lasts 4 semesters, you spend 7 to 14 days on campus (depending on the program) at the beginning of each semester, participating in intensive workshops; then you go back to your regular work life for the rest of the semester and correspond online with a faculty advisor (and sometimes your peers as well, depending on the program). Low-Residency MFA’s are usually for working adults who can’t interrupt their careers to earn the degree.

What are the subject areas defined below?

1) Genres of focus: Usually a program only lets you concentrate in one genre. Poetry and Fiction are in virtually all the programs; genres such as Playwriting, Screenwriting and Creative Nonfiction are rarer, and are sometimes the focus of MFA programs that concentrate exclusively on one of those genres.

2) Faculty roster: When you apply to an MFA program, it is essential to find out whether it involves individuals that you want to be mentored by. In other words, read their stuff. There’s nothing worse than entering a program for its reputation only to find that you don’t care much for the work of anyone who teaches there—chances are, they won’t be your biggest fan either. Faculty rosters range from a couple of permanent instructors to a long list; I only include permanent faculty, as visiting faculty lists can deceive and disappoint, but it is always interesting to examine them, as it can give one an idea of the connections that can be established by participating in a certain program.

3) Program length and # of credits: Some websites will state that the program lasts for 2 or 3 years, while others will simply indicate a number of credits (usually ranging from 40 to 70). You then have a choice between taking 9, 12, or 15 credits per semester—at least 9 to be considered a full-time student, and 15 as the maximum number of credits without Dean’s approval. If you have a teaching assistantship position, you may do as little as 6 credits per semester to be considered full-time. In any event, it should still take 2 to 3 years. Note: the more credits you take per semester, the more you’re charged, but taking less credits per semester increases the number of semesters you have to pay for. Having an assistantship eases the financial burden, but also decreases the course load and increases the number of semesters. It’s all about calculating the best package.

4) Tuition costs: There really is no way one can generalize tuition costs--not when a school in Alaska or Alabama charges less than two or three thousand per semester, while Columbia, Brown, and Cornell charge $35K, $34K, and $33K per annum. Keep in mind that the fourth field is labeled “tuition costs” and not “cost of attendance.” This is how much it will cost to get educated. It does not cover room and board, transportation, course expenses, health insurance, miscellaneous university fees, or personal expenses.

Low-Residency programs are an exception; I include the cost of both tuition and accommodation because you’re pretty much expected to board with your fellow writers—like a summer camp, only sometimes it’ll be winter and in Vermont!—and certain Low-Residency programs don’t even separate the cost of tuition from room and board.

5) Application materials and application deadline. It is unusual for all materials to be sent to either the graduate school admissions office or the department itself. For most programs, some (such as the application form and fee) must be sent to the admissions office, whereas others (usually the personal statement and writing portfolio) must be sent directly to the department for faculty evaluation. GRE scores, transcripts, and recommendations (of which 3 are often required, sometimes 2) can swing either way.

Certain programs may require additional materials apart from these usual seven, such as a resume or vitae, a critical writing sample, or a list of works that the applicant has read; you may also encounter things such as an idiot’s checklist of materials (that you must mail in as verification that they’re all there!), an application for reducing out-of-state tuition to resident tuition, a declaration that one has been immunized against a particular disease, a form that has something to do with a military draft, etc.—which you will no doubt run across for certain programs, though I’ve left them out so as not to sound ridiculously anal.

For your convenience, I have specified not only what is required for each program but what goes where; however, please do double-check, as some schools provide information that is either hard to dredge up or contradictory. The same goes for application deadlines: when in doubt, I always went for the earliest deadline. Most programs will not accept applicants in the spring.

6) For the moment, we’ll skip over the second-to-last field, financial aid, and on to the last: the department website. The links that I have provided will take you directly to the main page of each program, and you can either fiddle with the URL or use Google to get the home page of the institution.

7) Now let’s get to financial aid: the last and most important issue. I challenge you to find a database that states, in such detail, what financial aid packages are offered by each program and how much they are worth in terms of stipend value and tuition remission. This does not include financial aid options that are available to all students at all institutions—such as the FAFSA, Pell Grants and Stafford Loans from the government, independent scholarships, and any awards that the school in question might offer to graduate students. The financial aid section is dedicated solely to what financial aid packages are offered by each particular MFA.

Some will bluntly state that they offer fellowships (not tied to employment) or assistantships (in which one teaches undergraduate courses or helps a professor with research) in exchange for tuition waivers and stipends of a specified value to all accepted students: these are the best packages, but the institutions that offer them tend to accept only 8 to 14 applicants per year. Others will be vaguer about the percentage of students who get financial aid, and the amount of financial aid itself. Some will offer nothing but the defaults applicable in every case; most Low-Residencies are like this (though it’s perfectly understandable, since people only spend a week to two on campus at the beginning of each semester, then go back to their full-time jobs). In what other database would you find such straightforward answers to the all-important question: “Which programs are generous and which aren’t?”

If you are interested in financial aid, you must do your own research on the application procedures and materials for the options that apply to you. In the case of financial aid offered by the program itself, you might need to submit your admissions application earlier, include additional materials, or file a separate fellowship and/or assistantship application under a separate deadline.

Best of luck to everyone. Questions and comments regarding this blog can be addressed to And of course, the dedication: Publius Kirchwey, Jane-Circe, Libby, E. + C., Meg, Eileen, Kemp, Maggie, and the rest of the Mawrtyr muses.

AVM ’08