Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Before You Say Yes to That MFA Program Offer: Questions for the Campus Visit

For this application year’s MFA hopefuls fortunate enough to receive one or more offers from programs, the April 15 deadline for your yes or no is looming. To which romantically remote creative haven will you be packing yourself off in the next six months? How can you think about being discerning when you’re so dizzy from dancing around the room with your acceptance letter clutched to your breast?

Two years ago I was not so much trying to decide where or whether to go to grad school as I was reeling from the congratulatory phone calls and squealing every 15 minutes at having won this lottery, unspeakably grateful that I had been “chosen” and, moreover, that I had a reason to move out of my mother’s house. After sending off 17 applications and more than $2000, then sliding into months of extreme anxiety that necessitated medication (this was not helped by checking the MFA blogs every 30 seconds, 16 hours a day), there was no question of whether I would go if I got in. I was going.

And the choice had been made easy: I was going to the one program that had offered me funding. While I did a half-assed job of researching the program’s faculty, course offerings, student satisfaction, etc., my mind was very thoroughly filtering any doubts out of consciousness. I was banking on the wisdom of “go where the money is.” After all, what could possibly outweigh the enormous perk of funding?

So I don't blame you if you find yourself in the same position now. Believe me, I understand. Still, after two years in the MFA trenches (NB: not at Hamline), and having seen the huge disparities among the experiences of my MFA-earning friends at different programs, I’ve come up with some questions I hope you'll ask before blurting that tear-stained, sloppy-hugged YES.

The following questions are best posed to current students in the program while they’ve got a few beers in them at one of the recruitment weekend events. Failing that, however, you can email several of them and hope they’re sipping whiskey at their desks when they respond (good chance). If possible, find a way to get in touch with students who were not directly referred by the program administrators—but don’t be too creepy. Also, I’m not trying to cover basic questions about teaching loads and lit requirements that the MFA Handbook, among other standard sources, advises asking.

  • What faculty member(s) do you consider to be your mentors? (If no one has an answer to this question, take serious note.)
  • Do you get as much time and energy from your advisers and professors as you’d like?
  • Who is going on sabbatical? Who is about to retire? Who has recently left? Are there any hiring searches in the works? (You may find out that the genre you’ve been accepted in will exist only nominally while you’re a student there.)
  • How is the relationship between the students and the faculty? the students and the administration?
  • How supportive is the college/university of the MFA program? Are any budget cuts to the program possible in the coming years?
  • How varied is the course selection? How easy is it to find/enroll in courses that interest you?
  • What is the vibe like in the workshops? (Cutthroat? Too nicey-nice?)
  • How diverse is the student work? How well do students and faculty handle work unlike their own?
  • Are the courses and workshops organized and well run? How much effort do the professors make in their teaching?
  • What elements of writing do profs/students focus on in your classes? Is there sufficient coverage of craft, at the level you’d like?
  • How easy is it to design an independent study? (This may be a saving grace in a program.)
Overall Student Satisfaction
  • Do you think your writing has improved since you’ve been here? Which factors do you think have contributed the most?
  • Have any students dropped out or transferred in the past couple of years? Why?
  • How would you characterize the student community?
  • Are you getting what you came for? What’s better than you expected? What’s missing?
  • Are you happy you came here? (No one wants to seem ungrateful. Note hesitations; interrogate. )

No matter what answers you hear to these questions, there’s a good chance (for the reasons I mentioned above) that you will still say YES to whatever program is waving fistfuls of money at you (unless you are considering NYU or Columbia... which I have no opinions or knowledge about). But at least you’ll know a bit better what you can expect from your time there. As Alexander Chee has eloquently discussed, it’s useful to know whether you are constitutionally suited to the MFA in general, and, I would add, to a particular MFA program as well. Knowing whether you really have to find lifelong friends, whether you’re primarily looking for a mentor, whether you can withstand the sometimes traumatic workshop experience (or abusive encounters with administrators) with your self-possession intact—will make it easier to digest the answers to the questions above, and make a decision about what program—if any—will be right for you.

Of course, your MFA experience will never be completely predictable, no matter how many questions you ask. Two years can make all the difference between a rising star of a program and one that will collapse into obscurity, especially with unfortunate confluences of events like devastating university-wide budget cuts, hiring freezes, retirements and sabbaticals en masse. And I assume things can take a turn for the better just as unpredictably. But if you find out as much as you can, at least you’ll know you performed your due diligence.

Finally, it’s important to remember the oft-repeated suggestion that the MFA’s greatest gift is time and permission to write, along with the opportunity to feel validated among a community of people with similar values and aspirations. Maybe, on top of that, you will find good readers for your work (the bigger the program, the more likely this is to happen); maybe you will find a mentor; maybe you will make lasting friends; maybe you’ll have an epiphanic experience in a workshop or seminar. But maybe not. Don't get me wrong: no program is perfect, but that doesn't mean you can't love the hell out of your MFA experience. A few flaws or weak points can be easily overlooked when the important stuff is in place. At the very least you will get to be among writers, and if you are disciplined, you will write. And that very well may be enough for you—but only you can make that call. (And if it’s not enough, don’t blame yourself. Grad school is not a universally tolerable level of hell. See, again, Alexander Chee's piece for advice on moving forward.)

So try to squint through your champagne haze and put on your skeptigoggles for just a week or two. Ask the hard questions. Listen to the answers. Then make your choice.

Congratulations! And good luck!


  1. Jana, thanks for offering this incredibly helpful and sound advice. (Found your blog via the Poets & Writers forums.) I've been grateful to do some MFA window-shopping myself this spring, and I think visiting is a crucial part of the decision-making process, as you get a sense of the "vibe" of the program and of the students.

    I found it useful to prod students with the semi-personal questions, "How often do you write?" And, "How has your writing changed -- aesthetically, process-wise or habit-wise -- since you've been in the program?" Also, I think it's important to ask how students are assigned faculty thesis advisers, and which faculty lead workshops, how often, etc.

    I do have a question for you. You mentioned that you noticed that your colleagues across different programs reported vastly different experiences. Do you think you could describe a few of these major differences between programs -- not necessarily mentioning any names? I'm curious to hear about different program styles and practices.

    Thanks again for your post!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Sheerah! Yes, the questions you suggest are good ones to include in the interrogation, for sure.

    One of the most striking differences I've heard about between programs is the amount of time and care faculty members lavish on their students. This goes as far as, in one case, a faculty member spending his own research funds to supply his workshop students with e-readers, just because. In this same program, faculty regularly take students out to lunch one-on-one, to talk about writing and life in general--a real mentoring model. In other places, certain faculty members have been known not to show up to their own scheduled office hours for weeks at a time; others reportedly won't provide any written feedback in workshops over the course of an entire semester. I hope that gives you a sense of the range that's possible--all the more reason to make sure you ask these questions.

    Good luck to you in your decision-making!