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When people ask me about what to look for in MFA (Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing) programs, I often draw a blank. Many programs like to flaunt their "celebrity" staff writers and the success of their graduates, but I don't believe these are reliable indicators of a quality program. What should prospective enrollees look for when examining a program's offerings?

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I know that someone who would know the answer to this would know what MFA stands for, but perhaps you could expand it for the sake of those of us who would like to learn. – StrixVaria Nov 19 '10 at 1:38
Ah.. Master of Fine Arts.. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Master_of_Fine_Arts I didn't know that either. – jilles de wit Nov 19 '10 at 12:48
Good call. I've added that to the question. – Jim Nelson Nov 19 '10 at 19:26
up vote 2 down vote accepted

A good reputation amongst actual recent alumni is the most telling factor, I've found. Most universities' published ratings can be a bit outdated and/or based on criteria that looks more impressive on paper than in the actual classroom.

That said, a program's worth is often subjective, relative to what the student is looking to gain. Some programs have a heavy academic bent, while others focus on industry connections etc etc. So I suppose one way to begin to answer your question is to decide what you're looking for yourself...(Do you primarily want to learn a lot about the theories of writing? Or do you mainly want tips and tricks towards becoming published? etc.) Start with that, and you'll help yourself narrow the field a fair amount. (And then you can go about researching what recent alumni have to say...)

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Perhaps the two most important criteria are

  1. faculty whose writing you like and who get good recommendations as teachers
  2. guaranteed funding for students (through teaching or otherwise)

If you're already wealthy, you can skip #2.

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You can start by searching universities, rankings for MFA programs, and in general, advice from experienced people on how to choose programs (Google is your best friend here). In the end, I think you will have to settle on your own criteria after considering what the others have to say.

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The Creative Writing MFA Handbook has a lot of useful tips for students interested in a creative writing MFA, including what to look for in, and how to pick, MFA programs.

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If they require that you have a book that is published they have some faith in the competence of the staff AND the students they select. If they have a list of the students who have graduated and their published works and where they are currently employed even better.

If they can't point at a majority of students who have been successful then I suggest you keep looking. The object is to improve your skill set and have a career- not to make the school richer.

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I'm not sure I agree. "Being successful" in literature is a tall order, and is a lot more dependent on the writer than his teachers. I don't think any department can offer any kind of guarantee; there are a lot of great writers, but I'm familiar with very few teachers who could be described as pivotal mentors to large groups of fledgeling writers. – Standback Aug 22 '11 at 9:11
Perhaps that is why there are very few MFA programs that are "pivotal" for "large groups of fledgeling writers." <g> Success itself is subjective- I doubt that James Joyce would get published as an unknown today. Success today means selling millions with movie rights. – Joshin Aug 22 '11 at 16:58

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