Thinking of Graduate Studies in Writing

Getting an M.F.A in Creative Writing
This guide will help you prepare for and apply to graduate school in Creative Writing. Careful consideration of the topics below will make the process considerably easier. Any faculty member can answer questions you might have. 

Graduate school is not like college. It is a full-time job that pays badly. Some people find it emotionally draining. And academic jobs are scarce. The people who do best in graduate school are there because they are deeply committed to the work—writing and literary investigation. Is that you? 

Keep in mind, though, that deciding to apply isn’t the same thing as deciding to go, although applying is quite time consuming for all involved. Moreover, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking a few years off. In fact, most of us would encourage it. 

The MFA is a terminal degree, allowing the holder to apply for teaching positions at the university level, but it does not guarantee employment. MFA programs can be very difficult to get into given the limited number of slots for new students in any given year and the large applicant pool of talented writers. The only compelling reason to attend an MFA program is that you genuinely want to continue to work on your craft. It is, after all, a Fine Arts degree and thus, a studio degree. 

These sites might help you make up your mind: 
See what Poets & Writers has to say about the MFA:
(or register to access the MFA tool-kit...)

For down to earth, contemplative and honest ideas on the nature of the MFA, check out: 

UC Berkeley has a few questions you might ask yourself before deciding to become a graduate student:

The University of Washington has an excellent discussion of good and bad reasons for going to graduate school in English:

Thomas Benton thinks that, no, you shouldn’t go:

And some thoughts on the long-term value, from GoodCall:

(Note: although many of these links refer to PhDs in English, we find the advice applicable for MFAs too.)

There are, however, a number of different routes to go with regard to graduate studies in English. Yes, you can pursue a PhD in Literature or an MFA in Creative Writing (usually, these are genre specific). You can also pursue an MA in Creative Writing, a PhD in Creative Writing, or a PhD in Literature with a Creative Dissertation. Most of the Creative Writing faculty at Knox hold MFA degrees; some of us also have other advanced degrees. Talk to us, obviously, and we’ll tell you what we think.  

Exploring the distinctions and nuances between such programs is complex and, as of this writing, an issue of great discussion among writers and scholars. The following links should help you better grasp why this is such a hot topic, and there’s certainly more information on the web than we can keep up with here:


Getting Ready

There are many things you can do while at Knox to help you succeed, both in graduate school and in applying to graduate school:

•    Talk to your advisor as soon as possible. By your junior year, you should let people know that you’re considering it.

•    Take survey courses. By the time you apply to graduate school, you should have considerable exposure to both American and British literature. 

•    Take as many workshops as possible and in as many different genres as possible.

•    Try to cover as much literary ground in your time here as you can. Don’t focus entirely in one period or one genre. You need a firm knowledge of the traditions on which contemporary literature relies. 

•    Consider TA’ing for a class. Talk to your professors about whether they would be willing to work with you.

•    Think about what you can use for a writing sample. The best writing sample will probably be a revised portion of a final portfolio for workshop. Don’t assume, just because you did well in the course, that it is ready to go. Another few rounds of revision will probably be necessary.  

•    Consider an Honors Project. Successfully completing an Honors Project will give you a preview of graduate work and it will communicate to schools that you’re serious. That said, however, Honors work is not required for Graduate applications, and often times students find it difficult to do both simultaneously. 

•    Know that applying to graduate school is expensive. You will need to budget for exams, application fees, transcripts, and postage. 

And you might want to look at possible calendars for applying:

UC Berkeley has a timeline, for your Junior and Senior years, that should get you started:

And UC Santa Barbara has a timeline in case you’re beginning in your Senior year:


An Overview

If you want a quick look at what it takes to get into graduate school and to do well there, check these out: 

Poets & Writers Magazine offers an excellent toolkit for MFA applicants, but you have to register & sign in here:

Or explore their database here:

or check out their fall 2011 MFA issue here:

Or consider AWP’s advice & guides:

We really like this guy and his links:

Thomas Benton, the one who didn’t think you should go to graduate school, has some excellent advice in case you decide to go anyway:

You can find Knox’s advice on whether and where to go to graduate school here:

Peterson’s Graduate Planner walks you through all you need to know:

The Modern Language Association—the mother ship of literary studies—has this advice on choosing programs and what to do once you’re there:


Where Should You Go?
Choosing a graduate school is a complicated thing. Several factors should affect your decision:

•     You want to apply to as many schools to which you can possible afford to apply. Twelve is not too many. Begin with a list twice as long and start to narrow it down.

•    How well does a specific program match your interests? Are there people there you want to work with (although they may be on sabbatical the whole time you are there...)? Is the program geared toward your strengths? 

•    Where are you willing to live? Only on the coasts? Anywhere north of the Mason-Dixon line? Near your family? You’re going to be there for a while time, so think about it. What do you need to write well? 

•    How much funding is available? Taking on massive amounts of debt is risky business, especially given that jobs are scarce. 

•    How long does it take students to finish, and how well do they do on the job market, if at all? When you’ve narrowed it to a few schools, consider asking what their normative time is, what their average time to completion is, what their placement rates are, and how many of their graduates, if any, end up in tenure track jobs. 

•    What publishing or editorial experiences are available to you while enrolled? Is the program affiliated with a journal or press? Can you get an assistantship to work there? 

•    Do they offer teaching assistantships? The first year? Other kinds of assistantships?

•    Is it a two-year program? Three years? Four? Are there options for additional years and/or funding? Most students long for a third year, sometimes a fourth. The time passes quickly. Can you stay on to teach (and/or finish your manuscript) after your coursework is complete? 

•    Can you work in multiple genres? Can you take courses outside the Department? Can you continue to throw pots or hone your Latin or study neuroscience? These questions, if relevant, will help you find a better fit. 

•    Are you only interested in the program because of its prestige? Take a hard look at it. We love the University of Iowa, but so does everyone else. They receive many times more applications than almost any other schools because they are Iowa. Make sure you are applying for the right reason. Some of the best MFA programs might not be on your radar because they aren’t Ivy League, Big Ten, or near the Ocean. 

You can find directories of MFA programs, here:

And of course you should look at schools’ own sites to see what they have to say for themselves. 


The Application

A graduate school application typically consists of five things: 

•    The application itself, including your transcripts. You should request applications from the schools you’re interested in. Follow directions to the letter

•    A statement of purpose

•    A writing sample

•    Letters of recommendation. (Your letters of recommendation are sometimes referred to as your dossier) 

•    Some schools require GRE scores. Some do not. 


Advice on specific parts of the application is below. But here are some general suggestions to get you started: 

The University of Washington breaks down the nuts and bolts of an application:


GRE Scores
If you need to submit GRE scores, take advantage of whatever test-prep is available to you. Knox usually offers a GRE preparatory program in the fall. Take it. Do your homework. You will probably need to take the test in October to ensure that your scores arrive on time. 

Register for the GRE’s, and get some basic information, here: 

You can find lots of advice about doing well on the general exam here:


A Statement of Purpose
Your statement of purpose is, perhaps, the second most important part of your application. Please do not write about your profound love of writing, which is not only universal among applicants, but irrelevant to your success as a graduate student. Be sure to get help—the best statements go through many revisions. 

In your statement, you want to communicate that you’re an excellent writer and that you can follow directions (by which we mean that you stick to the word count and answer the questions, somehow). Above all else, the statement is a writing sample. Make it a good one. This statement is a chance for you to show off your skills in a different genre than the one in which you are applying. They’re looking for how well you understand metaphor, the relationship of the writer to what is written and what is read. Take a risk with this statement—you’ve got nothing to lose. The best statements are surprising, gutsy, and honest. They answer the requisite questions through image, experience, allusion. They are often indirect, implicit, and gorgeously crafted. 

Look for more suggestions here:

UC Berkeley has some general advice about statements of purpose:

You can find a good overview of what to do, and what not to do, in a statement from the University of Washington’s site:

Look here for lots and lots of thoughts about what goes into a successful statement:

Read about one student who writes a statement from the heart, and then revises like crazy:


A Writing Sample
Your writing sample shows what you can do. It should be the very best you can offer. 

•    The writing sample will vary in length from program to program. Less is more. If the program requires “no more than 25 page of fiction” and your story is 22 pages, that’s fine. Someone will like you more for not squeezing in an additional three pager. 

•    Ideally, your writing sample will show range, ability, depth, knowledge of craft, and innovation. That is, it will be an example of what you’re working.

•    Plan to revise your writing sample during the application process. It must be shiny and solid. 

•    Again, take a look at Poets & WritersThe Writer’s Chronicle, and several of the aforementioned sites, all of whom update this kind of advice annually. 


Letters of Recommendation
Be sure to review the department’s guidelines for requesting letters before you need them. Many of us spend the month of December writing letters of recommendation. Your organization and care is crucial to our success in this process.  

Keep the following in mind, too, when applying to graduate schools: 

•    The best letters of recommendation come from professors who know you well. Develop relationships early, as you may need to request letters long before you graduate. 

•    You want your statement of purpose, your writing sample, and your letters of recommendation to tell a coherent story. Thus, when you submit your requests for letters, you will need to have drafts of your personal statement and writing sample ready. 


Your best bet is to pay attention to the following: 

•    Absolutely follow the department’s guidelines, but do ask individual professors if they prefer other things (or do not prefer certain things).


In general, most of us want the following:

1) Your resume, and an EDR or unofficial transcript or list of courses taken at Knox (with faculty listed, that would be great—especially in the English Department), We need to be reminded of the work we did together and what you did while here that we might highlight specifically. 

2) A copy of your statement of purpose. 

3) A copy of whatever writing sample they ask you for (if this is different for different schools, note so in a list or letter somewhere so we don't refer to a story that half of the places don't have).

4) Any forms required by the graduate programs, if any. Please waive your right to the confidential letter. Schools look down upon non-confidential recommendations. 

5) A list of addresses and deadlines. If you are feeling really ambitious, mailing labels would be great too! (We write a lot of envelopes and our poor hands get tired.) Increasingly, many programs require online letters, which is fine by most of us, but we still need everything in order. As well, if you are applying to different programs or different degrees, you should let us know here—for instance, if one is an MA, another an MFA in Fiction, another an PhD in Literature with Creative Dissertation—and also clarify what genre you are applying in, if the writing sample doesn't make that clear.

6) Your contact information (should we have a question or need to send something back to you). If you are traveling during the holidays, we’ll also need alternate information as many of are at work on these letters while you all are celebrating the festive months. 

7) Enough stamps for the envelopes. Even if online, some of us still send a hardcopy. If you send envelopes, do not attach the stamp; most of us will use Knox stationary and it kills us to have to waste the postage. 

8) Unless physically impossible, all of this should be received in hardcopy no later than six weeks prior to your first deadline. We can't get these things piecemeal. Make a folder with everything in order for all the schools. Most of us spend most of December doing this, even if you have later deadlines.

Don’t forget, too, to keep us updated as news comes in. We worry so. And, gosh, a thank you note might be nice. Or a donation to Knox College’s Department of English, in our honor. A small token. We’ll remember. 

UC Berkeley has some general guidelines for requesting letters:

If you plan to apply to more than a handful of schools, or if you’re requesting letters before you actually apply, consider setting up a credential file at Knox’s Center for Career and Pre-Professional Development.


Books We (kind of) Recommend
The Creative Writing MFA Handbook: A Guide for Prospective Graduate Students, Tom Kealey

The AWP Official Guide to Writing Programs (11th Edition) [although this is all on-line now and the 11th edition, which is in print, is sorely out of date]

An Insider’s Guide to Creative Writing Programs: Choosing the Right MFA or MA Program, Colony, Residency, Grant or Fellowship, Amy Holman

[All of these books are fine, but the web gets you as much (if not more) information, and it is more up-to-date.]


And Again
The earlier you start preparing for graduate school, the more options you’ll have. Your professors are here to help you. Just ask.