Advice for Creative Writing MFA students in 2020 and beyond.
First, a comment about me and why you should care what I have to say about the MFA:
In late 2019, I applied to around 15 of the best Creative Writing MFA's in the United States. The least exclusive programs I applied to had something like a 3% acceptance rate. The majority of them had around 1% (yes, they received 1000 applicants and accepted 10 or less). That makes the CW MFA the most exclusive graduate program to get into in the country--yes, harder to get into than any law school or medical program.
I know, Jen. It doesn't sound great when you put it like that.
SO WHY DID YOU DO IT?
Relatives asked why I was applying to programs that I had such a slim chance of getting into, especially when they learned the application process ended up costing over $1000. The truth is, I applied to these programs because I felt I'd reached a point in undergrad where I couldn't continue improving with my own peer group. I'd submitted stories to hundreds of magazines and been rejected from the overwhelming majority; I'd been reading voraciously on my own--but perhaps I wasn't reading the right things? I'd been writing endlessly, every day, and even had luck landing a literary agent for a YA novel. At more than one point, I was deep into deals with respected publishing houses. I did get short stories published, multiple times. But still. I felt strongly that I could get better. And that with proper focus and tutelage, with the support of like minded peers who were taking the pursuit as seriously as me, that I would get better.
I want to stress this point. I applied to the MFA--to the most exclusive programs in the world specifically--because I had done a lot of work on my own. Perhaps 100 short stories, 3 (and a half) novels (not just rough drafts, but polished manuscripts) and more than 1 published piece of fiction. I even had a few essays and poems published, too. The point here is: I'd been working hard on my own. It's my recommendation, offered from a place of love and support, that if you haven't done some of those things, that you take a step back and consider whether you're ready to get the most out of an MFA before you continue.
Browsing Indeed.com and LinkedIn job postings in my field (writing, editing, teaching, marketing) also encouraged me to pursue a graduate degree. The majority of jobs requiring only an undergrad in late 2019 (and now well into 2020) receive 100's of applications in a matter of hours. The positions that require a Graduate degree, however, were both highly more attractive and had significantly lower application numbers.
A graduate degree will not get you an amazing job in your field. However, it can help you stand out. And the truth is, there are a lot of great jobs that you literally cannot apply for unless you have a graduate degree. It also gives you the otherwise nearly impossible opportunity to get actual experience teaching college courses in the classroom, something that's deeply valuable if you ever want to get into the world of teaching at above the high school level.
ALL RIGHT, SO YOU DID IT. WHAT HAPPENED?
When the dust settled, I had 5 acceptances, 3 waitlists, and 7 rejections. It took me a few weeks to choose the program that would be best for me (Emerson College). How I came to that conclusion would probably be another blog post entirely. It was a little weird that I finished reading The Institute by Stephen King, a book about a boy genius who, among other things, was going to go to Emerson to study writing, the same week Emerson actually got back to me and offered me a spot in their cohort. I'd like to think that unusual circumstance didn't influence my decision, though.
THINGS I WISH I'D KNOWN / THINGS I WANT YOU TO KNOW.
If you're interested in pursing the Creative Writing MFA, the first thing you're going to want to do is consider what your strongest pieces of writing are and how you'd put them together in a portfolio. I'm listing this as #1 because if you don't have a highly polished and competitive piece of writing (at least a couple), RIGHT NOW, you aren't going to magically acquire them in a few short months. This is the most important thing, bar none. More important than your GPA by far, more important than the GRE by far, more important than your letter of intent, more important than your resume or previous publishing experience.
Most programs ask for between 20 and 30 pages of content. That's between 1 and 2 short stories (or novel excerpts, although I don't recommend doing that). If you don't have strong writing that you're proud of, and absolutely certain is high quality, you need to get it first. Frankly, if you don't have trouble deciding which of your great pieces you're going to put forward, you should probably take a step back and consider whether or not there's a lot more work you can do on your own before taking this big step. How do you get it if you don't have it? Write and read every day and invest a ton of time and effort. There's no short cut. Also, peer groups and workshops.
The second thing you'll want to do is research programs. I recommend fully funded or partially funded programs exclusively. You might have reasons to look at smaller colleges, though, and perhaps some of them might be more valuable to you depending on the staff / location / other details. For example, Emerson College is only partially funded but has one of the few programs in the world that is openly accepting of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, while also EMPLOYING professors that actively write and publish in the genre fiction field. If you are exclusively interested in science fiction, I imagine you'd get more out of a workshop with Katie Williams (who wrote Tell the Machine Goodnight), than a workshop with a 69 year old professor that's strictly published literary and historical fiction since he began publishing in the 1970s.
The third thing I'd recommend is to make sure you can feasibly accept offers if you do get into the program. Do you have a few thousand dollars (or could you in 6, 9, or 12 months from now) to move across the country? Will you have any support or help if not? This is important. The last thing you want to do is waste money applying to a program in New York if you live in Florida and can't feasibly get there if you actually manage to get accepted. I'm a father and husband: this aspect was amplified for me, because moving my family across the country and finding a great place for us was more like a $15,000 commitment upfront. Don't sleep on the financial aspect of this. It's damn important.
The fourth thing, one that intimidates many people, is the necessity for "letters of reference." Mainly, programs are looking from commentary from professors or at the very least other writers that can specifically speak to how you are in class, how you are as a writer, and how you are as an individual. If you've been out of school for a long time, or if you don't have good relationships with your professors (I'd wonder why that is and interrogate it, if I were you, btw) you'll want to take some community college courses or library workshops and make great impressions on the instructors so that you can get a couple LoR's prepared. I have a few friends who took online courses and got recommendations that way, too. There's quite a few ways to to do this. But like the portfolio, there's no short cut. It has to be done.
The fifth thing is the hardest, but it's honest advice. Prepare yourself for rejection. The first 4 programs I heard back from were all rejections, and it hurt. Bad. I was arrogantly not expecting it, and it sobered me deeply to realize many high quality programs did not want me. In hindsight, perhaps it was good that this happened. My head was too big. I'm glad they rejected me, of course, because that means I didn't deserve to study with them. My portfolio could have been stronger. It should have been. The fact that I can look back now, less than a year after I originally applied, and SEE how my stories could have been stronger means the process was worth the $1000 to me. It's also a mark that I've continued to work in the interim, reading, writing, and editing the entire time. The only result of that is to be better.
At the bottom of this is my realization that there are many aspiring writers who desperately want to improve and aren't sure how to get better. This is ONE WAY to get better. There's some real advice along the path to pursuing the MFA, even if you don't get in, that will genuinely improve your craft / transform the way you look at writing. If you're in the group of people that can feasibly be accepted into one of these programs (even just receiving 1 acceptance is an accomplishment you should be fiercely proud of) then it means you've done a lot of work to get there.
A FINAL NOTE OF ADVICE FOR THOSE THAT ARE ON THE FENCE.
If you've done any amount of reading around on the web about an advanced writing degree, you'll have seen endless criticisms (primarily from people who never went through the process) about why it's a bad idea. I think a large part of this has to do with fear of debt, a very real and good concern. Another part, however, is rooted in pure ignorance. Because a lot of people don't recognize there are dozens of programs that not only waive your tuition, but pay you $20,000-$30,000 dollars to teach while you're getting your degree (giving you both valuable experience for your resume, making you a better writer, and paying you to do it).
And even programs which don't waive tuition can be deeply beneficial depending on your position in life, your aspirations, and your abilities. Only you can decide if taking on debt is worth it. Only you know what you're capable of with more education and training. So beware. Listen to the criticism. But don't swallow it wholesale if you have your heart set on the MFA. There are a large sum of professors at great universities who love their job, and their life, who are paying on MFA/beyond debt as we speak. I've never heard from one of them that they regret it.
There will always be a part of you that doubts yourself. Like I've said earlier, read and write voraciously. If you aren't doing that, you might not be ready for the MFA. If you are, then perhaps you're moving in exactly the right direction.
Engage with me on this post if you're curious to know more about the MFA world or if you have questions for me. I'm always interested to hear from other writers. I also do offer editing services; running a couple of your stories through a rigorous edit and engaging a 2nd perspective can dramatically increase your chances of getting accepted. Even just catching a single error in that first paragraph can be the difference between an irritated and rushed professor putting your story down before they have a chance to get halfway down the page and getting an offer to attend the program.
Oh, and good luck, no matter what you end up deciding.