School Selection: Questions to Ask

In my experience with applicants, the question of how to choose schools often arises. The most important question to ask is really what is important to you. You may be open to any city in the United States, or you may be unwilling to live in a big city or a remote area. You may value school prestige over location or class size, and so on. For most writers, funding, faculty, and location are the primary criteria. I would also suggest investigating what styles of writing a school supports though it isn’t always evident.

Questions to Ask When You Select Schools

Where will you have the best funding?

  • A school that offers $12K a year vs. a school that offers $20K a year makes a big difference. Select schools with great funding so you won’t feel pinched all year long. The location will matter, too, since $12K in Idaho will take you much farther than $12K in New York City.
  • Consider additional funding through the department’s scholarship and summer or intersession teaching opportunities, too. These may be very helpful down the road.

How intimate do you want your experience to be?

  • Cornell admits 8 students per year while Iowa’s Writers Workshop admits 25. Consider how much attention you want in workshops, and from faculty and other classmates.

How many classes do you want to take, or how much time do you want to write?

  • Some schools require rigorous literature coursework in addition to workshops while other programs require very little coursework. Determine how academic you want your MFA career to be, and how much time you’ll want to spend writing. Some writers work well with a lot of structure, while others need lots of what I like to call “loafing” time. Figure out what you really need, and not what will be easiest.

What kind of writing is the school putting out?

  • Take a look at faculty publications, and spend some time researching their interests. For instance, some schools lean more towards formalist poetry. You can find this out by Googling the writers and sampling their work, or by doing the same with alumni work. The school may be somewhat narrow in their style or they may be quite diverse, but knowing a little about the school’s aesthetic leanings can help not only in school selection but narrowing down who you want to work with when you write the personal statement.

How much does school prestige matter to you?

  • A reputable school name looks good on a resume. In the outside world, if you decide to teach after the MFA, Cornell may speak louder than the University of Iowa. A department chair who has spent the last two decades immersed in medieval studies may not know much about MFA programs.

Where are you willing to live?

  • Consider whether you’re willing to move to a rural area, a big city, a coast town, or the middle of the country. If you’re open to any location, then this won’t be a factor. Some writers are unwilling to relocate too far, or to opposite types of living environments. But in any case, it’s only for 1-3 years, and you’ll have holidays, winter breaks, and summers off to return home or travel, so you could also look at it as a short-term adventure.

What are your chances of getting in?

  • Admission rates can range from .05% to about 10%. Apply to as many of your dream schools as you can afford, and apply to a couple with higher admission rates that you would be happy to accept if given the opportunity.
  • You can find admission rates on Affording the MFA at the bottom of each school page. Sometimes schools also report their figures on their websites.


(Art by Carol Bove)


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