Important Elements of a Solid Creative Writing Program

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A few people have asked me lately about the different MFA in
Creative Writing programs that are out there and what to look for in a program. MFA in CW expert Tom
Kealey, author of The Creative Writing
MFA Handbook
has a comprehensive list of things to consider when applying
to a program. You should definitely check out this book if you’re thinking of
applying for an MFA. I found it very helpful. Kealey says, “The best creative
writing programs have good support—financial and otherwise—for their graduate
programs, and they provide a variety of opportunities in the classroom, in
teaching experience, and in publishing.” Here’s his list of what he considers the
most important elements of a solid creative writing program (I’ve edited the
explanations of each element—the book contains more information). I’ve also added
my two cents here and there…

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1.
Financial
Support
—Kealey says “a solid program provides full funding for
most, if not all, its graduate students in the form of fellowships, teaching assistantships,
editing and research assistantships, and scholarships.”

2.
Teaching
Experience
—Are there teaching opportunities available while in the
program?

3.
Faculty—Such an
important aspect, in my opinion. Do you recognize the faculty? Are they
current, working writers?Do you like
their work? Respect it? What’s their reputation? You also want to ask former
students this important question: How available is the faculty?

4.
Class
Size
—“The
best workshop size is 10-12 graduate students,” Kealey says. I agree. Anything
larger and you don’t have enough time to get through everyone’s work. And
smaller may mean less diversity in students and writing.

5.
Literary
Magazines and Presses

6.
Visiting
Writers
—The New School had an awesome visiting writer series—an added
bonus of three readers per week on top of the regular class schedule. This adds
fullness to the whole MFA experience and creates the feel of being an authentic part
of a writing community. It’s also exciting and beneficial to see professional writers
at work.

7.
Community
Outreach

8.
Graduate
Student Readings
—Another great aspect that adds to the
community vibe of a program. Kealey says, “To me this is the real key for judging
how serious the program takes its graduate students.” This is very important, yes—when
you enter a program you want the teachers and administrators to take you and
your writing seriously.

9.
Contact
with Editors and Agents
—This is a good thing to ask former
students. Sometimes professors provide contacts, other times there are readings
and panels where invited agents and editors give advice and feedback—both are invaluable.

10.Student Publications

11.Courses Within the Department—Check
schools’ websites for this—many programs vary on how many classes are required.
It’s a personal choice on how heavy a load you want to take on. Also important
to remember to check to see when the
classes are offered—does the schedule fit into your already busy life?

12.Courses Outside the Department

13.Graduating Students—Kealey
says “An 85% graduation rate is acceptable.”

14.The Library—What’s
it like? How are the resources? What other communal areas are available to you
as a student?

15.Graduate Student Representation on Committees— Here
Kealey is talking about “graduate student representation on committees that set
long-term goals for the program.”

16.Thesis—A thesis is often
required for graduation… “A solid program always requires a thesis,” Kealey
believes. Check into how the thesis process works—does the program offer an
advisor? Do you take classes while you write it or do you have a specific time period
where you are free just to focus on this task? Some students even go on to
publish their thesis or some version of it.

Any other questions about what you should
look for in a program? Drop me a note in the comments section!

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