4 Factors for Choosing an MFA Program

Many struggle with the decision to pursue an MFA. Here are some insider opinions from a guy who teaches in both a traditional and low-residency program.


Guest column by Benjamin Percy, author of
The Wilding (Sept. 2010, Graywolf), a story about
a father and son hunting trip that goes awry. The
book received a starred review from Publishers Weekly
and was named “Best of the Northwest” for fall/winter
2010 by the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association.
See Benjamin’s website here. He is also the author of
short story collections, a national article freelancer,
award-winning fiction writer, and teaches in
the MFA program at Iowa State University.



Many mistakenly believe that writing is an indulgence. Writing is not an indulgence: You give up other indulgences to write. And the low-residency program trains you for the long run as you learn to balance writing with your career and family life. I can’t tell you how many classmates—and now students—I know who have graduated and let their imaginations rust out, their fingers go arthritic from lack of use. For a few years, post-MFA, they fiddle around with a novel—and then they give up.

Maybe they didn’t have the stubbornness it takes to make it in this trade. But maybe they were also spoiled by the freedom of their traditional MFA program, immersed in their work, surrounded by people who cared deeply about writing. Which is a wonderful thing. A kind of Shan-gri-La. But re-entry to the real world can be disheartening. Because the sad truth is, the world doesn’t care if you write or not. As Harry Crews said, the world wants you to go to the zoo and eat cotton candy, preferably seven days a week. A low-res program better prepares you to fight the zoo.


I used to tell students not to apply to traditional programs where they didn’t receive assistance. I received a full tuition waiver and a healthy stipend when I was in grad school—the program I teach in right now does the same, full support for all of its students—and I have a hard time wrapping my mind around people taking on 70 grand in debt to get an MFA. There are no guarantees: we’re not talking about med school or law school here. But in these lean times, more and more programs are losing funding, so it’s becoming a reality many students can’t avoid. If a potential applicant is going to be markedly happier and more productive in a program than out of one, I tell them to go for it.

At low-res programs, there are some scholarships and fellowships available, but in general, students are expected to pay for their education. Because most of these students have other careers—I’ve taught a reporter, a doctor, and a factory worker in one semester—they budget accordingly and the tuition isn’t a loss, but a wisely chosen expense.


Traditional: If you’re single—or if your spouse is willing to pack up and go—if you’re free, in other words, to live wherever you want, good for you. I’d advise a location that’s cheap over expensive, boring over exciting. Because you’re going to be poor and because a quiet, rural setting is just the place to get an epic amount of writing done.

Low-res: Twice a year, you’re traveling to the campus for two weeks of workshops, readings, lectures, social gatherings. Consider it a working vacation. Choose someplace fun—Oregon, Vermont, North Carolina—because you will have free time and outings.


We all know how tough workshops can be—listening to all of that conflicting advice, trying to filter out the wisdom from the noise, negotiating the politics. By the end of a four-month semester, people are exhausted and generally sick of each other. The third year of a traditional program is always such a relief, because the students are now working with their thesis advisor exclusively.

At a low-res program, you workshop for two weeks every semester. Otherwise, you’re trading manuscripts back and forth by mail with a faculty advisor who provides you with exhaustive marginal and general notes.
I think great things can come out of a workshop. Community is one of them. Editorial savvy is another (I’ve always felt students benefit less from the advice they receive and more from close reading, figuring out what others are doing well and poorly). But in general, I find shorter workshops—and one-on-one mentor relationships—more effective.

One last thing: of course you can become a writer without an MFA. But the deadlines and the infectious company of writers and the critical feedback received help you accomplish in three years what might otherwise take you ten.

The Portable MFA In Creative Writing offers
results-oriented instruction that, until now,
could only be found in a formal MFA program.
Learn how to write fiction, personal narratives,
poetry, and stage plays.



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2 thoughts on “4 Factors for Choosing an MFA Program

  1. Tom Bentley

    Benjamin, I hear a lot of good things about low-res programs, and you make strong points. But don’t forget that in traditional programs you get to know fellow writers in enough depth to find them categorically loathsome or enviable or utterly baffling, and you have more chances to drink with them and have messy affairs that make subsequent class sessions sharply uncomfortable—and then you can write about all this with more texture later.

    I went to the traditional program at San Francisco State years ago, but of course I only know these things mentioned above by hearsay.


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