Everything You Need to Think about Before You Apply to an MFA Program
Elizabeth McCracken | October 2014
First of all: remember that you don’t need an MFA to write. Most of world literature was created by people without MFAs. The excellent thing about writing is that it is still an unlicensed profession.
Nearly as important: don’t get into debt for an MFA. Writing is a long game. An MFA gives you time to write, but if you are going to have to get a terrible job upon graduation to pay off loans, you’ve made a bad bargain.
Honestly, that’s the most important thing: writing is a long game. You need to figure out how to write for the rest of your life, not just the next two or three years.
Apply to programs with your best work. Not the work you’re most excited about because you’ve just started it: your best, finished work. Most readers are terrible at reading for potential. Proofread it. Follow every single rule for formatting and length.
Do your best not to sound like an arrogant jerk in your personal statement. You’re applying to be a member of a community. You don’t need to sell us on your writing: we’ve read your writing. Tell us what our program can give you, not vice-versa.
Apply to programs with faculty you admire. Don’t assume you’ll become best friends. Don’t even assume the writer you admire will end up being your favorite teacher.
Don’t talk yourself out of applying to a school you think you won’t get into.
Don’t apply to safety schools. Don’t apply to any school you know you don’t want to go to. You shouldn’t settle for something you think is just okay in any aspect of your writing life.
Uncertainty is awful, I know, I’m sympathetic, but if you can’t tolerate uncertainty you’ve chosen the wrong endeavor. No good writing ever came out of certainty.
Rankings don’t matter if you feel the school’s a good fit. Rankings matter even less if you feel it’s a bad one.
Don’t move to a place that you know will depress you. Years ago a friend of mine who’d grown up in Salt Lake City confessed that Provincetown, Massachusetts, made him claustrophobic: ocean, bay, thin spit of land, closely set houses. I loved Provincetown, so this struck me as demented. Then I visited Missoula, Montana, a town many people love, and found that it made me claustrophobic: low sky, tall mountains, no ocean. If you will feel lost in a big city, don’t move to the big city. If you will feel isolated in a Midwestern college town, ditto. There are lots of negative emotions that you can write through, but geographic depression is boring and you shouldn’t seek it out.
Visit programs if you can. Talk to current students. They know more than faculty, every single time.
It’s not wrong to negotiate aid if you get into more than one program—some programs can find extra money. But some programs, on principle, won’t: they fund all students equally and want to keep it that way. Being courted feels delightful, no doubt, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to the happiest long-term relationship.
There’s nothing scientific about the entire process. That’s the good news and the bad news.
Be prepared to learn a lot, but remember, too, that your work is your own. You’ll hear a lot of voices in workshop. On a good day, twenty percent of the advice you get will be directly applicable to your work, and that’s a generous estimate. The other advice may be well reasoned, kindly, beautifully delivered—but it’s the critic talking about the critic’s own work, not yours. (This is possibly true of all criticism, even the fantastically useful sort.) The twenty percent may come from people whom you love or people you don’t, or a confounding cocktail of both. One of the things you’re in graduate school to develop is your own gut. Listen to everything. Learn to reject what isn’t for you.
On my first day of graduate school, the director of the program announced that real writers write every day. If this is true, twenty-five years later I am still not a real writer. He was talking to himself: he wrote every day. Your job in graduate school is to learn how you work best: morning, late at night, by hand, on a computer. If you don’t develop good habits now, you’ll never do it.
Don’t worry about being efficient or perfect. You’ll have to make a lot of mistakes. Mistakes are what distinguish your writing from everybody else’s. You can think about what The Reader will make of your work, but don’t think about Ted in workshop who’s full of theories about neural networks and video games and what you can and cannot do with language. Ted is talking to himself, too. Don’t think about Samantha, who loves what you do and thinks you shouldn’t change a thing. She is talking to herself. Don’t listen to the workshop leader who tells you that certain kinds of work don’t get published. Some people do nothing but talk to themselves.
Don’t write to the workshop. Some days this will be the hardest thing to manage.
Did I mention that writing is a long game? In the end, the success stories are not those whose work went over big in workshop, or those who got a great job when they graduated, or even sold that first book. Success is writing and writing well and writing on, no matter what. Be full of hubris. Be full of humility. The most important thing to learn is how to work.
Elizabeth McCracken is the author of five books: Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry (stories), the novels The Giant’s House and Niagara Falls All Over Again, the memoir An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, and Thunderstruck & Other Stories. She’s received grants and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Liguria Study Center, the American Academy in Berlin, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She holds the James A. Michener Chair in Fiction at the University of Texas, Austin.