Advice for My Students
Here are the factors I believe you should weigh when considering which schools to apply to, again in descending order of importance:
1) Which programs will be most likely to nourish and encourage you as a writer, to help you grow in the direction in which you yourself wish to grow? By this I mean, you should research which programs foster a style of writing you’re interested in (some have a more realist or experimental bent than others). Find out who’s teaching where, and apply to programs where writers with whom you would sincerely like to study serve on the faculty. Consider whether you are interested in a program that focuses intently on one genre or allows you to experiment in others and encourages cross-genre work. Look at which programs consider workshop your primary focus and which place more emphasis on your education as a reader and thinker. Ask currently-enrolled or former students of the programs you’re interested in what the institutional culture is like. Consider which programs are in places in which you’d like to live. For one student, the literary scene of New York City is a great asset; another would prefer to study in a quirky small town where rent is cheap. These two students shouldn’t apply to the same places.
2) Consider your financial situation. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but writing literary fiction generally isn’t a way to make a fortune. For most writers, it isn’t a means to make much money at all. My husband has, thus far, placed thirteen stories in reputable literary journals; in total, he has earned less money from his fiction than a first-year associate, fresh out of law school, earns his first morning on the job. I learned recently that the toll collectors on the Thruway earn quite a bit more than I do in an average year. I’m sure they also get better benefits. This is okay, because I really love my twin jobs of writing and teaching; and because, like probably almost all writers, I’m not in this for the money, though I’m grateful to have a roof over my head and food on my kid’s plate. What I’m saying is, I think it’s wise to consider your finances. If you come from a working- or middle-class family, or if you have other siblings whose educations your parents will help support, I recommend not adding too much debt to your load. With that in mind, research which programs offer low tuition to start with, or tuition remission if you win a teaching fellowship, or overall good financial aid programs. It’s also worth researching cost of living in the locations of the various schools; tuition isn’t the only factor in the amount of debt you’ll accrue.
3) Consider which programs are actually worth attending. One school may have a very fancy pedigree. Another may reside at the University of East Podunk, but have a wonderful faculty and a dynamic, nurturing institutional culture. Both would be excellent kinds of programs to consider. But unlike applying to college, you don’t need to apply to any “safety schools;” I’ve never heard of anyone transferring, with grad school. So only apply to places to which you’d really like to go.
4) If you need a little initial guidance, Poets & Writers publishes an annual ranking of the MFA programs. This past year, there was a lot of concern in the writing community about how information for these listings was gathered and ranked; but I expect that, in future, the good people at the magazine will take these concerns into account, and I still believe their listings are a good place to gather very basic information for more exhaustive further research. (I also think Poets & Writers is, in a general way, a fine resource for young writers.) The Creative Writing MFA Handbook also maintains an exhaustive blog , which can serve as a resource for those considering or applying for MFAs. There is no substitute, of course, for doing good research on your own, but these listings may help you get an initial foothold.
If figuring all of this out seems like too much work is required, I would once again say that this year probably isn’t the right one for applying to graduate school.