Read before applying to an MFA program in creative writing

Read before applying to an MFA program in creative writing

Earning an MFA in creative writing can be a singularly impacting experience in a writer’s life, but art degrees of any kind take a special dedication to leverage into a later career. Before considering what school to attend to get that MFA, a writer should sit down and really consider if the degree is worth the time, energy and expense. Many times, the answer will be yes, but would-be writers should be willing to take a realistic look at all factors, aside from just raw talent. Career ambitions, dedication as a writer, ability to take criticism, the plan for afterward and the reasons you want an MFA are all elements that a writer should weight before sending off that magical writing sample. test


Do have a plan to support yourself afterwards

An MFA is a fine arts degree. It can be very beneficial in many professions, such as public relations, publishing, journalism, and in some teaching professions. However, it does not afford the kind of immediate career opportunities that an MBA or a JD might offer.  Know what you want to accomplish with the degree in hand before you decide to get one.

Do have an idea of what you want to write

MFA programs are designed to bring out your creative side. Many are focused on helping you complete a final portfolio or book-length project. An MFA is also one of the few opportunities in a young writer’s life where he or she can really focus on a big project within a supportive community, so have some idea of what you want to create before you apply.

Do have some previous writing ability

The application process of most (and all the good) MFA programs requires a writing sample to show that you are ready to write at a certain level. MFA programs are not designed to take people off the street and turn them into writers, but rather they take existing writers and make them better and more professional creative writers.  

Do be prepared to take tough criticism

If you already consider yourself Hemingway, then you should reconsider getting an MFA. Even good, experienced writers benefit from constructive feedback. Writers should be ready to reevaluate their writing, consider new practices, and take feedback to heart.  To pursue an MFA without any intent to change or improve is to throw your money away.

Do pick a program that fits your circumstances

Many people can stop whatever they are doing to take another degree, but many writers cannot. There are many options for MFA programs out there, and more are added every day. There are traditional programs with work study options, but there are also well respected low residency MFA programs that allow a writer to continue to earn a living while working on writing. Whatever unique circumstances a writer may have, it’s always best to research the program and talk to recent graduates before making a decision.


Do not expect a teaching job without more qualifications

Many students enter an MFA program with the hope of becoming a teacher of creative writing. There are literally hundreds of newly minted MFAs every year with the same aspirations. It takes a great deal of work and professional success before a writer can get one of these types of jobs, especially the coveted and competitive tenure track jobs in other MFA programs.  

Do not expect an automatic book deal

Many people pursue the MFA hoping to find an agent or another route to publication. An MFA is a good starting point for writing and publishing, but it takes a great deal of work, persistence, and drive. The most competitive programs in the country can send you in the right direction, but many MFA programs will only introduce you to the community. You have to do the heavy lifting.

Do not take on loads of debt with no plan

Many writers are tempted to throw caution out the window, take on tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and write the great American novel. While every great writer has taken chances, realize that an MFA or even a completed novel is not a living. Student loans come due much sooner than you think, so make sure you have a plan to capitalize on your knowledge, skills and your MFA degree in a way that pays off after school.

Do not expect a living as a writer overnight

Few people make a living only writing; even successful authors with multiple books often have day jobs. Building a post-MFA writing career takes a great deal of time, patience, and luck. Pursue your passion and writer dreams, but be prepared to toil in obscurity for a while.

Do not let any of the challenges stop you

The world is filled with people who let themselves be talked out of their dreams. An MFA is a singular opportunity to pursue a passion, and for what is to many, a calling. If you have the desire, have weighed the risks, and are ready to do what it takes, find the right MFA program and get writing. Only you know how much it really means to you.

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There are pitfalls and dangers to getting an MFA however, if you want to spend time focused on a writing passion, or if you think you have what it takes to pursue a writing or fine art career, it’s a great starting point. If you have other expertise, such as teaching or journalism, an MFA can catapult you to the next level. The key to success before starting any degree program is to know what you want to do with a degree once you’ve earned it, and be prepared for the hidden costs and the time it takes to achieve your goals. 

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Edwin LyngarWriter, Blogger and Author

Edwin Lyngar is a writer and author living in Reno, Nevada. He graduated from Antioch University in 2010 with his MFA in creative writing and also holds an MA in Writing from the University of Nevada Reno. His essays have appeared or are forthco...

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