You’ve heard about it. All of your friends are doing it. Maybe you’ve even dreamed about getting one yourself.

The elusive MFA.

Why do students get an MFA? Will an MFA will get your novel published? Will an MFA will help you find an agent? Once you have an MFA, will you officially become… a writer?

There are many reasons why people enter MFA programs; some of them are realistic and others are not. How do you navigate through the challenge of deciding whether an MFA is the next best step for you and your writing?


Before deciding whether to spend the time and money applying to an MFA program, there are details to consider—there’s the program and application fees, the student lifestyle (low-residency vs. full-residency), and most importantly, your writing goals.

This fall, the Writers’ Program is offering two courses—one onsite and one online—both designed to help students answer these questions, or at least get the information and resources needed to help them make informed decisions about applying to an MFA program.

Both courses help to demystify the process of receiving a higher degree in creative writing. They offer the perspective of guest MFA student speakers and explore such topics as full-residency vs. low-residency programs, the pros and cons of considering a graduate creative writing degree in today’s climate, and the differences between an MA, MFA and a PhD in creative writing. They also look at aspects of financial aid, guidance on how to research programs, and tips in applying.


Former Writers’ Program student Jacqueline Jaffe is currently attending the low-residency program at Antioch College here in Los Angeles. She chose a low-residency format for its flexibility.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do since I left college—but marriage, motherhood, work, always seemed to take precedence. I’ve also decided I’d like to teach creative writing and Antioch offers an additional semester just for that,” Jacqueline says.

Some students decide to pursue an MFA in order to teach at a university level and some only have the goal of becoming published. While an MFA doesn’t guarantee your spot in the published world, it can offer the time and guidance needed to devote to your writing, in a way that taking the occasional writing workshop may not.

Emily McLaughlin has taken a variety of Writers’ Program courses in creative writing, and decided that an MFA would next help her achieve her writing goals. She applied to ten MFA programs and will soon enter the full-time program at the University of Michigan for fiction.

“I decided I could keep on working and taking writing classes at night, or I could completely change my life and see where I could get my writing if I really invested in it for two years. I knew I wanted to get my MFA since I was a creative writing major undergrad, but I was advised to take some time off. Last year, when I was taking workshops at UCLA, the feeling hit me that enough time had passed,” she says.


It’s no secret that MFA programs are highly competitive, with some receiving hundreds of applications for only a few coveted spots. Writers’ Program students have discovered that taking courses to consistently practice and hone their craft is one key element to getting accepted into the program of their choice.

Application committees are looking for potential and for writing skills—not necessarily your GRE scores—so above all, make sure to send in your strongest writing as your submission piece.

“The writing classes I took at UCLA gave me confidence in my writing. I love the way the workshop process work; it’s like osmosis,” Jacqueline says. “You learn from your successes and mistakes, as well as from others’. Your writing gets stronger by sharing your work and listening to other students’ work. It’s a great place to hone your writing skills. Oh, and a wonderful way to get a manuscript in shape for submission.”

Emily adds, “It’s a lot of time and paperwork and things like the GRE that take away from focusing on your actual writing sample, which is what matters most. I would make sure if you are going to do it, you have your writing sample where you want it and also the time to apply to a lot of schools.”


Writers’ Program creative writing instructor Paul Mandelbaum is leading this fall’s onsite seminar called Graduate Creative Writing Programs: An Inside Look.

Many students wonder if an MFA is their key to getting published. Paul has this answer:

“Sure, since the main point of the program is to become a better writer. The teaching credential should be a secondary consideration, since there are so many more people with MFA degrees than there are creative-writing teaching jobs.”

He adds, “If the question is, would someone who mainly aspires to write commercial fiction benefit from an MFA program, again I’d say sure. Just know that the emphasis at most of these programs is literary work of the highest caliber, so they’re going to expect your best effort. And really, wouldn’t you prefer to learn how to write a bestseller that also earns rave reviews?”


Of course, part of the application process is doing your research. Meet with program representatives when you can—some programs offer local “meet and greets” where the student can speak with a program representative within their area. Ask around your Writers’ Program courses and see if any of your peers or their colleagues have applied to or participated in MFA programs, and ask them about their experiences. Take the time to research which writers have been published out of which programs, and who teaches in the programs that you’re interested in applying to.

Finally, make sure your expectations are realistic. When asked if there are any common mistakes that students make when applying to MFA programs, Paul mentions one common student misconception:

“Imagining that their instructors will become mentors. It’s natural to want that of course (though not always desirable), and it might even happen. But the thing about mentors is, we don’t find them, they find us.”


You’ve taken some time to think about your writing goals, what you want out of an MFA program, and you’ve signed up for your latest Writers’ Program course where you can work on polishing your submission piece. The next step is up to you.

Jacqueline sums it up:

“If you’re thinking about applying then do it. It’s not as daunting as you might think.”

This fall, check out the Writers’ Program two MFA preparation courses:

Graduate Creative Writing Programs: An Inside Look

Preparing for MFA Programs (Online)


Mae Respicio is the Program Representative in Creative Writing.

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