MFA Programs: What Are They, And Can They Help Improve Your Poetry?

Often called the field’s terminal degree, a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in creative writing has become an increasingly popular option for poets, especially for those wanting to enter academia. 


The number of MFA programs has tripled since the ‘90s, and The New York Times reported that an estimated 4,000 people graduated with this degree in 2015. While these numbers continue to surge, so does the contentious debate about whether MFAs are really “worth it.” The answer varies from writer to writer (I especially like this podcast episode from Lit Hub that dives into the topic). Only you can answer that question for yourself — let Read Poetry help!


What Is It?

An MFA is a program where writers apply in a genre (poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and, less commonly, screenwriting or playwriting), then take craft classes and workshops once admitted, as well as more general literature courses. Most programs take two or three years. 


Just like the field of writing itself, MFAs have a wide array of options: Low-residency programs involve mostly online work, often requiring only monthly or even more infrequent visits to an institution’s campus, while traditional full-residency programs thrive on weekly, in-person classes. By the end of their MFA, students must turn in and defend a thesis — usually, a book-length manuscript in their desired genre.


How Do I Apply?

Different programs have different requirements. First, decide where you’d like to apply to an MFA (potential students usually submit materials to more than one school to increase their chances). I recommend doing this based on faculty. Where do your favorite writers teach? 


You can also research what schools bring great visiting writers to campus for readings and talks. Secondly, I advise looking carefully at funding. Though you might think that a graduate degree comes with a dizzying amount of dollar signs, that’s not always the case. In fact, fully-funded programs — which can be among the most competitive — cover the cost of tuition, and even pay students a small stipend to attend. In exchange, these students usually teach classes to undergrads or edit for a campus publication.


All schools will require a writing sample, though lengths vary. Usually, poetry applicants show off 10 to 15 of their best poems. It’s important to remember that no matter what components an application demands, this always stands out as the most important.


You’ll also need a personal statement: a breakdown of your writing influences, why you want to study writing at the graduate level, and more (check out this thorough personal statement guide). Track down undergrad transcripts, an updated resume, and reach out to those former professors and mentors for up to three reference letters. Lastly, some programs require the GRE (yep, if the acronym tipped you off, it’s basically the ACT’s bigger, more difficult sibling). 


What Are The Benefits? 

Though an MFA can bring job prospects, strengthen your skills as a writer, and help you make talented connections, most graduates emphasize this overarching pro: Dedicated time to write. Workshops give you a deadline and inspiration, as well as a group of other invested students to provide feedback.


Grad school can also open doors in academia and publishing. An MFA in poetry, along with several publications, makes someone a strong candidate to become a professor in the genre.


Lastly, students typically graduate with a high quality, publishable manuscript, the pay-off for all that hard work.


Happy application season!