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What is an MFA Program?

If you’re new to the writing and publishing spaces, you might have seen people talking about MFA programs. What are they? Who can go? Are they worth it? Managing Editor Moriah Richard answers these questions and more.

I want to get this out of the way first: Having an MFA degree does not automatically make you a successful writer. Sure, it’s great to have on your résumé, but there are plenty of bestselling authors out there who didn’t get the degree.

I say that as someone who got their MFA very early on in my writing career—when my bachelor’s education was coming to an end, I knew I wasn’t ready to leave the academic space, that I wanted more time and space to write. I was fortunate enough to be accepted to a program right out of my undergrad degree, and I spent two (very hard) years working to receive my degree. It was during this time that I really solidified my dream of being an editor!

I wouldn’t trade those two years for anything, but I also realize the value of not receiving the degree.

So, what’s the point of the MFA? How do you know if it’s right for you? I’ll answer as many of these questions as I can so that you can make an informed and confident decision about whether an MFA program is right for you.

MFA vs. MA

MFA stands for master of fine arts. This is different from a master’s of arts (MA) because it’s more craft-focused. MA’s are more focused on reading and analyzing the works of others; MFA’s will have at least one workshop class per semester where your professors and peers can critique your original creative work. Where the goal of an MA is generally a thesis where the focus is critical, theoretical, and/or historical, generally, the goal of an MFA program is to have a creative manuscript-length work completed at the end.

The MFA is a terminal degree, meaning that there’s no way to receive a PhD in fine art; this means that getting the degree shows that you’ve become an expert in the field and can apply to grants and some scholarships. Because of this, the MFA also opens more possibilities for teaching at the higher academic levels—many professorial positions these days require either an MFA or PhD.

(Writer's Digest Presents: Beginnings (Podcast, Episode 1))

Structure

There are usually about five parts of an MFA program:

  • 1 workshop/semester
    • Workshop is where you will do the bulk of your writing; you’ll have a set number of times a semester where you’ll need to present work to the class and then everyone will critique you
    • Traditional workshop structure is that the author will sit silently while the class discusses what worked or not in their piece, and then the author will have a set limit of time at the end of the discussion to ask questions
    • Some workshops are now reversing that so that the class is quiet and the author asks specific questions about things they think are working or aren’t
    • Ask about workshop structure if you’re someone who is anxious about others reviewing their work—sometimes workshops can be brutal!
  • Certain number of craft, manuscript, or special topics courses
    • For example, my program had a flash fiction craft course and a journal editing class for special topics
    • Certain number of elective courses
    • During my program, we could only take electives from the English literature department, and I took classes like Early American Literature and Black Writers Write About Writing—since I graduated, the department now allows students to take classes from other departments
    • Ask about elective options during your application process
  • Comprehensive exam
    • Some programs have an actual test you take to show what you’ve learned during your program while others have essays
    • Mine was a 10-page essay where we had to discuss our thesis project without actually talking about our thesis project; we did this by interrogating craft components of different published works
    • The exam is generally due before your final semester
  • Thesis
    • A culmination of your learning, this should be a manuscript-length project of your best work
    • Could be a novel, collection of short stories, chapbook, or script
    • Some programs don’t require a completed manuscript, just a certain number of words or pages

Who can go to an MFA program?

Many people are surprised to learn that you don’t need to have earned a bachelor’s to attend an MFA program. You typically do need a college degree, though it’s not limited to degrees in English literature or a related field. Anyone with a strong writing portfolio and a passion for the craft of writing can apply and get accepted to an MFA program.

What is an MFA Program?

Is an MFA right for you?

Only you can answer this! But, if it helps, I’ve drawn up a list of pros and cons for you to consider:

Cons

  • Does not lead to a job or to literary success
  • Genre can be frowned upon while in your MFA degree—many programs don’t like to see romance, sci-fi, or YA in workshop spaces
  • Workshops can be brutal
    • This is a big one—many writers have talked about the dangers of being “workshopped to death” and workshop spaces have historically been hostile toward the “other” (read: queer and/or non-white)
  • Electives can be frustrating and pull focus
  • Funding is extremely competitive and sometimes more limited than advertised
    • Along these lines, the degree is usually incredibly expensive to obtain, even with funding

Pros

  • Makes you a better writer
  • Gives you contacts and a support system
    • Some of your favorite writers could be professors!
  • Forces you to have a deadline to write new pieces
  • Allows you to experiment
    • First time I wrote flash fiction was for class!
  • Access to lit journals, magazines, and literary conferences
    • I became the editor-in-chief of TINGE literary magazine while at my MFA, which gave me a lot of experience I use here at WD!
    • I also went to AWP’s conference one year because my school had a membership, and it was significantly cheaper for me to attend

(Writer's Digest Presents: Flash Writing (Podcast, Episode 2))

What kind of MFA programs are out there?

If you’re seriously considering getting an MFA, the first thing you should consider is what kind of MFA you’d like to get. I got my MFA in fiction, but my program didn’t have specialties like romance or YA. So, the first thing you’ll need to decide is what category you’d like to study (screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, or poetry) and whether you’d like to attend a program that allows you to narrow your focus even further (like YA or romance).

Something else you need to consider is whether you’re interested in studying across categories. I went into my program thinking I could take some poetry craft courses as electives; I was wrong. My program didn’t allow that. If this is something you’d like to do during your studies, be sure to ask about that during your application process.

The next thing you’ll need to consider is the physical learning space you’d like to have while in your program:

  • Full-residency
    • A traditional college experience, this kind of program requires that all your classes be in-person and, obviously, live nearby the campus
    • Most full-residency programs have an option for you to be full-time or part-time; part-time students have fewer classes a semester and their degree takes longer to achieve, but they still must take a required number of classes a semester to be considered an active MFA candidate
  • Low-residency
    • This kind of program is mostly done online, though many will require students to be on campus for anywhere between 7–10 days a year for an in-person workshopping experience (generally in the summer)
    • In all my research on MFAs, I admit that I’m still unsure if you can be part-time while attending a low residency program, so I would ask the program’s contact if this is a concern of yours

The last aspect you might want to take into consideration is whether you’d like to obtain a dual degree. Some schools will allow you to obtain two degrees simultaneously, like an MFA and English MA or an MFA and MBA. Doing this could save you money in the long run if you’re looking to obtain more degrees.

How can you apply?

If you’re seriously considering applying to a program, there are several components you’ll want to make sure you have prepared:

  • GRE (though not all programs require this)
    • Stands for Graduate Record Examinations (though I like to call it the Standardized Test from Hell)
    • Most schools would like a score range of 130–170
    • Takes about 3 hours and 45 min to complete
    • At the time of writing this article, it costs $205 to take the test; there’s an additional cost every time you need to send your results to a school
    • Your score lasts 5 years after taking the test
    • You can take the test as many times as you want to get the score that satisfies you; your previous scores won’t affect your newest score
  • Transcripts
    • Formal transcripts are sent from your undergraduate university to the new program; you’ll most likely need to pay for a formal transcript for every school you apply to
    • When I applied to schools in 2014, the costs for transcripts were about $5/each
  • A resume or CV
    • Because anyone with a university degree can apply, it’s more important to show a timeline on your resume rather than “proving” that you’re a writer 
    • You’ll want to show your education and work experience, of course, but be sure to include extracurriculars to show them the things that interest you and are related to the program—are you a member of a long-standing book club? Tutored or taught anything (think everything from swimming lessons to 3rd-grade math)? Do you have a blog? Published anything local or national?
  • Letters of recommendation
    • If you’re coming out of your undergraduate degree or still have ties to your professors, it’s always a good idea to have at least one of your letters come from someone who can vouch for your academic career—after all, an MFA is an academic pursuit
    • Your boss, supervisor, or colleagues are another great avenue if your job requires you to show off your writing skills
    • Most schools advise against having family or friends write your letters; it probably wouldn’t get your application discounted, but it wouldn’t be taken as seriously as other applications
  • Letter of intent
    • Also called the statement of purpose or personal statement
    • The purpose of this letter is to let the admissions team get to know who you are and what your goals are for the future
    • You might be tempted to be flashy or cutesy to stand out, but this is a mistake (unless you’re a naturally flashy or cutesy writer)
    • Should be straightforward and include details like:
      • What kind of writer are you?
      • Where are you coming from?
      • How has your life experience shaped your writing?
      • What motivates you?
      • What (or who) inspires you?
      • What are your goals for your MFA experience?
      • What do you intend to do with what you’ve learned in their program
    • There are no hard-and-fast rules for the letter of intent; just be honest and be yourself
  • Writing sample
    • Make sure that your sample adheres to program guidelines; if they don’t accept genre fiction and you only write fantasy, they’ll throw your sample out as soon as they see it
    • Select material that you feel embodies what you’re interested in pursuing; if you wrote an awesome detective novel but you’re no longer compelled to write detective fiction, I wouldn’t recommend submitting an excerpt for consideration
    • Formatting matters! Look at the school’s formatting guidelines for every single application and ensure that your sample is formatted to their specifications
    • Don’t exceed the requested number of pages (or poems)!
    • Have someone you trust review your sample for typos and grammatical mistakes, or, if you’re really worried, hire a freelance editor
  • Money, money, money
    • Each school will generally have a submission fee, so be sure to include that in your budget when you’re looking to apply

I hope that this article has given you an introduction to the world of the MFA! If I can give you advice, it’s to ensure that if you do get your MFA, you want the program to fit your life and not the other way around. Education doesn’t define success and an MFA doesn’t make you a writer. Your passion and determination do that!

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