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by Writing Workshops Staff

Tips For Your 2023 MFA Application

Tips For Your 2023 MFA Application

First, let us encourage you. Applying to MFA programs isn't fun, though it often feels like the right next step. We know. We've been in your shoes. An MFA gives you time to develop and an audience of attentive first-readers for a period of time. And that is valuable and wonderful and the very reason you should apply.

But people can't tell you what they're looking for before they read it, so spend the most time with your sample and send in work you're proud of. It will show.

It sounds obvious, but your writing sample is the key .

You need references and a statement of purpose and all the other stuff, but only the sample matters.

So, rely on your voice and style in the writing. The only thing we have as writers is our point of view and our voice, and that is what makes us unique. Don't prune the elements of your writing that make it distinctly yours . Don't write toward a workshop aesthetic or what you think people want to read. Take risks. Prize the sentence and the story. And be you . The best MFA programs are looking for a spark in your work that will make them excited to add you to a chorus of distinct writers who will most benefit from time and attention.

As you're getting your work into shape, let people who understand what you're trying to do encourage you. Support is invaluable. Hopefully you have a few first readers who can help you strengthen your sample before you send in your application. If you don't already have a community, find and take a workshop in your town. You can also find a bunch of online classes where you can be part of a cohort and receive valuable feedback.

Below are a few quick links we think you might like :

IWW graduate Carmen Maria Machado's story "The Husband Stitch" in Granta. Treat yourself to a great piece of fiction.

10 Statement Of Purpose Examples

Where Great Writers are Made and a List from The Atlantic.

Advice on the Statement of Purpose

MFA Programs Database

5 Uncommon Tips on Your MFA Creative Writing Application

This lecture by Kurt Vonnegut on the shapes of stories demonstrates that everything has already been done except through your particular point of view. So work on being more you in your work.

Okay, we'll be cheering you on! If you'd like a second set of eyes on your MFA Application feel free to contact us here or click on the button below. We'd be happy to help.

And, if you're looking for a class in fiction , poetry , nonfiction , or screenwriting , we've got you covered.

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Michigan Quarterly Review

5 Uncommon Tips on Your MFA Creative Writing Application

A couple of years ago, I made the decision to apply to MFA programs in creative writing. Compared to medical school or law school, the application process for an MFA can sometimes feel like a crapshoot, with the odds of getting into a fully-funded program hovering somewhere below four or five percent (and some programs like Iowa, Michigan, Michener—gulp—even less!). Still, it seems that every year, a few applicants manage to get admitted to a handful of programs, which brings up the question of whether the process is as random as one might initially think.

As a caveat, I’ve never served as a reader for any programs’ admissions committee (for a genuine insider look, follow Elizabeth McCracken’s twitter and listen to everything she says!), but I happen to have been lucky enough to get accepted to several fully funded schools on my first try. Whenever someone asks me for advice, I get a little queasy, because I barely knew what I was doing back then. However, I’d like to think that I’ve had some time to reflect on the process and have spoken to many people, including students who’ve been accepted and faculty members. I’ve since graduated from my MFA and hold (at the time of writing) a Zell postgraduate fellowship in fiction at the University of Michigan.

I’ll skip the general consensus—polish the writing sample, apply to more than one school, get feedback on your materials, etc. Instead, I’ll offer some less common ones that I thought worked for me. I hope they help with your application, and I’m certainly indebted to many writers who came before me and similarly shed light on their own experiences.

Image: The Hopwood Room, where some workshops are held at the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, University of Michigan.

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I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. It’s exactly what I dd in my sample. Anyone who wants to see real successful samples of statements of purpose should read this post: 10 Statement Of Purpose Examples: How To Wow The Admission Committees Of Fully-Funded MFA Programs (Guide + Samples +Tips) https://www.creativewritingnews.com/statement-of-purpose-examples-2/

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You love writing fiction or poetry and want to earn an advanced degree, but how do you put together a successful application to a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program? We chatted with Sylvia Aguilar-Zéleny, MH, MFA, Director for UTEP’s Online MFA, and she helped us answer six (6) of the most frequently asked questions about getting successfully accepted into a competitive master’s in creative writing. Read on to learn more about creating a strong statement of purpose and a writing sample that demonstrates literary quality.


What is a statement of purpose for an mfa in creative writing.

The statement of purpose introduces you to the admissions committee. This is your opportunity to let them know who you are, your interests and background, and why you are pursuing an MFA.

Specifically, be sure to address why you want to be considered for that particular MFA program. Highlight what you will contribute.

The statement of purpose is not a resume or bio, but rather the qualifications you bring to the program as well as the reasons why you want to earn your degree from this program.

Sylvia Aguilar-Zéleny, MH, MFA, Associate Professor of Instruction and Director of The University of Texas at El Paso’s fully online Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing recommends doing your homework and learning about the faculty. If there is a specific faculty member that you are looking forward to working with, highlight why you are interested in working with them.                                                  

What determines literary quality in the writing sample?

A piece with literary quality inspires the reader to keep reading. That may be through captivating storytelling. Or words that paint intriguing images. Or perhaps an engaging plot where the reader must find out how the story ends.

In short, the words are chosen carefully, capturing attention from the very first sentence.

Since you’re applying to a master’s program in creative writing, you already know that you can benefit from additional education, mentoring, and practice. Your writing sample should demonstrate knowledge of the craft and will provide clues to your potential as a poet or fiction or nonfiction writer.

Resist the temptation to submit a writing sample that crosses several genres. Instead, focus on the one genre in which you feel most comfortable writing and create a strong piece that stands on its own merits. A strong MFA program will give you the opportunity to explore a variety of genres and writing styles under the guidance of experienced writers.

What genre is best for the MFA application writing sample?

Research the application requirements for each MFA in Creative Writing program before submitting your writing sample. Make sure that you are delivering a piece that aligns with that specific program’s stated goals.

For example, UTEP’s online MFA in Creative Writing is looking for fiction, nonfiction, or poetry that brings attention to social issues and the human condition. They do not work with genre-literature such as fantasy, vampires, and sci-fi unless it’s used to address social, political, or cultural issues.

If you cannot find detailed guidelines on the program website, reach out to the program contact. The more information you have as you put your application together, the better you can position yourself for consideration.

What considerations affect the committee’s decision?

Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing programs accept a limited number of applicants. With multiple applicants for each spot, selection committees can afford to be choosy.

Formatting doesn’t necessarily matter, but whatever you submit should be well-edited and proofread. Don’t submit something that is clearly still undergoing revisions.

Make sure that your statement of purpose and writing sample speak to something that aligns with what the program offers. If you are applying to more than one program, it may be tempting to use the same writing sample and statement of purpose. This can severely impact your chance for being selected. In fact, your application will be more competitive if it is tailored to specific program requirements.

For letters of recommendation, ask people who know your writing, capabilities, and sense of responsibility. This may include your colleagues, former professors, and supervisors. Recommendation letters and other credentials may be used to determine whether the candidate will be able to find a balance between work, life, and the online program.

How can you increase the likelihood your application will be accepted?

UTEP’s Director for the Online MFA, Professor Aguilar-Zéleny, offers these top suggestions for MFA in Creative Writing candidates:

“A student who is willing to improve–that is the type of student I want in our program,” says Professor Aguilar-Zéleny. She goes on to recommend her favorite revising tool: “Share and read the statement of purpose and the writing sample out loud.”

What should you consider when choosing an MFA in Creative Writing program?

UTEP’s fully online Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing lets you earn your graduate degree from anywhere in the world. The curriculum has a strong emphasis on workshops, but there’s no residency requirement, so you can earn your master’s in creative writing from Texas without ever leaving home. And UTEP’s program is the only bilingual MFA in Creative Writing in the U.S. Classes and discussions are held in English, but creative assignments may be submitted in Spanish, allowing you to write in your native language or expand your ability.

Students come from a variety of fields, but they all share a common passion – an interest in improving their writing ability. Whether you are interested in establishing yourself as a writer or advancing your teaching career, UTEP’s online creative writing program lets you gain essential credentials without uprooting your life.

What’s Next

We invite you to explore our online program and see what it will take to make that next step into your profession. If you are interested in learning more, reach out and an enrollment counselor will contact you directly.



Connect With Us

The University of Texas at El Paso Extended University UTEP Connect Online Programs 500 W University Ave. El Paso, Texas 79968

E: [email protected] P: 1-800-684-UTEP



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Inspiring readers since 1863.

Some Advice on Applying to MFA Programs

mfa application tips

First, let’s dispel some of the myths.

If you say “Candyman” five times in front of a mirror, you will not get into Iowa.

No matter what you read on Twitter or The GradCafe, almost no one — no one! — with actual affiliations to creative writing programs believes you attend an MFA program to “get an agent.”

Even getting into an MFA program might not make you particularly happy or productive: grad school is hard, sometimes disorienting, sometimes despairing. It’s sometimes great, sure, sometimes.  

Nine years ago, on the now defunct K-State Creative Writing Blog, we posted a list of tips on applying to MFA programs. Since then, so much has changed. (Remember when we didn’t wear masks all the time?) So much has stayed the same. Here’s an updated and revised version of that advice:

The realities 1. The most well-known MFA programs — those that receive lots of attention and applicants; I hesitate here to say the “top” programs — accept about 3 percent or less (often less) of applicants. The overall MFA applicant pool is well into the thousands. Don’t take decisions personally. Have a real, interesting, and excellent Plan B.

2. Last year, because of all kinds of pandemic-related reason, many programs had fewer funded spots to offer. Anecdotally, it seemed that the pandemic also increased the size of the applicant pool. We are still in a pandemic. Get serious about that Plan B.

3. Applying to MFA programs requires investments of time and money: we’re talking hundreds of dollars and dozens of hours of application work.

4. Take the GRE early. Study for it but keep this in mind: unless your scores are stupendously high or low, they are unlikely to make or break your application.

5. Write because you love to write, because you have to write, because you wake up with metaphors and go to bed with similes. Going to an MFA program doesn’t make you a writer. It’s very unlikely to get you a tenure-track teaching gig. It’s very unlikely to get you an agent. It’s very unlikely to get you a book deal. It’s very unlikely to make you rich. It’s very unlikely to make you famous. It might, however, be two or three of the best years of your life. It should provide two or three years (four in the case of Alabama) to write and study and read and write some more as part of a community dedicated to all of these things. You don’t have to get an MFA to commit to the craft — you can read and write a ton on your own — but being part of any creative writing program can help you find a focus, hone your work with a ready-made audience, finish projects (thanks to academic-year deadlines), and build both a support system and a lifelong network of colleagues and friends. 

6. If you are applying to MFA programs on a whim or because you just don’t know what to do next, it might be better to hold off for a few years before deciding to apply. Oops, here’s an update from 2021: it would  definitely  be better to wait.

7. Apply to programs that offer financial support: teaching assistantships, tuition waivers, fellowships. Please do not take out loans to pursue an MFA or Ph.D. Lots of applicants talk about “fully funded” programs, but this term is not used the same way by every program or applicant. Ideally, every accepted student will be fully funded — to receive enough funding to make it through a degree with a fee waiver and a stipend to live on. Many places, however, do not fund everyone, but some students in those programs still receive such a fee waiver and such a stipend.

8. Many people with MFAs have interesting stories to tell. Listen to them. Keep in mind that it’s not unusual for a writer to receive eight rejections and no acceptances one year and to get into a “dream” school the next. The system is human.

On writing samples

1. This is the most important part of your application.

2. Your writing sample needs to be strong and smart, well edited and interesting, and it should be polished work — your best work — poems or prose that you’ve revised and discussed with professors or other publishing mentors.

3. If you don’t have enough polished work to fit the writing-sample guidelines, it’s probably a sign that you aren’t ready to apply right now. 

4. Your writing sample should represent the kind of work you want to continue to write. 

On picking programs to apply to

1. If you write science fiction and are committed to writing science fiction, you should apply to programs that welcome this type of work. The internet makes it much easier to research programs and see if a school offers genre classes or has a professor with expertise in that particular field.

2. We recommend applying to eight to 10 programs. 

3. Apply to a variety of programs. Don’t apply to eight programs with huge reputations and expect to get in. There are all kinds of smaller, less-well-known programs that will give you a chance to write in a supportive community. 

4. Don’t pick a program because you want to work with one specific writer. Writers sometimes move on. Sometimes a great writer isn’t a great teacher. Sometimes a famous writer spends more time being famous (say giving readings at places far afield) than teaching students close to home. 

5. Some programs will waive the application fee for students in need. It never hurts to Google—or to ask.  On letters of recommendation

1. Make sure you have strong and real relationships with the people you ask to recommend you. Their letters need to be detailed and persuasive.

2. Ask your potential letter writers for support in person. If that’s impossible (say you’ve been out of school for a year and live far away from your alma mater), write a personal e-mail, not a generic plea.

3. Most professors are truly happy to write letters for good students. Don’t feel guilty for asking. It’s part of our job.

4. Ask your potential letter writers if they want to see copies of your work, a current resume, etc. 

5. Give letter writers at least a month’s notice before your first deadline, ideally more.

6. Provide a list of the programs and a list of requirements for each letter, including the deadline and the submission mode. If you can, please use Interfolio, or a similar service, which cuts down on the busy work for your letter writers. Provide all of the necessary material in a timely manner: If you need to fill out a paper form to accompany the letter, fill it out fully. If you need to sign a form, sign it. If you need to start an online application so that a school will send a web link for letter writers, start that application. Get on top of these requirements. Each school is different. It’s a bit maddening sometimes. Figure this stuff out now, not on November 30 as your first deadline creeps up on you.

7. If a potential recommender has reservations, listen to them. Perhaps it’s not the right time for you to pursue a degree. Perhaps you need to approach a different potential letter writer. Perhaps there are aspects of your writing you need to work harder on.

8. Some letter writers like to receive a friendly heads-up when the deadline approaches. When in doubt, ask if you should send a polite e-mail reminder. Resources

1. The internet makes it easier to try and connect with students currently studying at programs. This is a hugely valuable resource to get real-world intel about programs.

2. AWP  and newpages.com are excellent starting places for finding and researching programs. 

3. Facebook groups such as the MFA Draft and sites like The GradCafe sometimes offer great support; sometimes they create overwhelming ennui. Proceed with caution. 

On personal statements 1. Your personal statement is also a writing sample.

2. Follow the statement guidelines carefully. If a school wants a page, deliver a page. Answer the right questions for each school and follow each school’s specific prompt. You will need to tailor statements a little — or a lot — for each program.

3. Don’t personalize a statement for a program unless you can do it convincingly and honestly. There’s a huge and noticeable difference between name-dropping and actually having read and appreciated an MFA faculty member’s work.

4. Edit your statement anew after any and all tailoring. Every program receives personal statements that mention the wrong school. Mistakes happen, but they will not help your application.

5. Get creative: Your statement shouldn’t explain that you’ve always wanted to write or that you’ve always been a reader. We hope those declarations would be accurate for 97 percent of the applicant pool. 

6. Get real: Try to give a true sense of who you are. If you disguise yourself in some way, a program might accept your disguise, but your real self might end up feeling strangely unhappy there. That mirror isn’t to summon Candyman; it’s so you can look at yourself. Final thoughts I’m actually a cautionary tale: When I was an undergraduate, I applied to five top MFA programs and was quickly rejected by all five. (In my hazy memory, my snail-mail rejection from Iowa came back the very next day.) I ended up studying at an M.A. program instead, and it was the right place for me at the time.

If you’re an undergraduate, it might not hurt to apply to one or two good M.A. programs that offer a specialty in creative writing along with a large handful of MFA programs. Kansas State , for examples, sends M.A. students on to excellent MFA programs every year. All writers need time, time to write and read, time to grow, and attending an M.A. program can make you a much stronger applicant: a better writer, an experienced GTA, a broader, deeper reader. After my M.A., I worked at newspapers for more than half of the 1990s, and I went back to school for my Ph.D. in creative writing when I was 30. I was ready then. Even if I had gotten into one of those top MFAs, it’s doubtful that I would have made the most of the experience back when I was 22.

Your time in a creative writing program should matter. A lot.

So much of the process is beyond your control. Control what you can: get organized, revise and edit your manuscript early and often, don’t panic, and remember that writing lives take shape over decades. All writers face rejection and failure, failure and rejection, and then more of the same: Get used to it. Keep writing anyway.

— Dan Hoyt, Professor

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Jan 31, 2019


How to Make Your Writing Stand Out

I’ve been reviewing mfa applications for a quarter century. here’s my advice to any aspiring writer..

T his January, I am doing what I have been doing every January for nearly a quarter of a century: reading applications for the MFA program in creative writing here at the University of Michigan. With hundreds of manuscripts to read and…

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Eileen Pollack

Eileen is the author, most recently, of The Professor of Immortality, A Perfect Life, and The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club.

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mfa application tips

mfa application tips

The Education of Oronte Churm

Oronte churm is the pen name of john griswold, who teaches in the mfa program at mcneese state university, proudly nestled in cajun country on the louisiana gulf., a guy who may have read your mfa application speaks.

Shedding some light.

So. Many. Applications. So many good apps. Hundreds. Our MFA program asks only for a writing sample and a cover letter to apply. There are no fees, no transcripts, no recommendation letters, no GRE scores required until we see if the writing is a fit. Of course applicants love this, and we like getting many packets to choose from. Still, hard decisions: only four open slots in fiction for the new cohort this fall; much anxiety for applicants; the stakes high on both sides. There were 14,000 students, faculty, and publishing professionals at the big annual conference for writers last month. More are applying to go to programs all the time. Minutes after I began to send decline notices, I started getting emails: Would you make comments on my portfolio? What could I have done differently? I can’t speak for my colleagues, let alone other programs, but what I was looking for is both instantly recognizable to me and impossible to describe without long explication: Good writing in the fiction sample, and a cover letter that shows some combination of ability, work ethic, ambition, and the desire to be a contributing member of a writing community. Humility but also courage at the daunting scale of the task. Since it’s impossible to comment individually, I thought I’d make some notes here. Things to do with the writing sample  

Things that matter in the cover letter Keep it brief, good-naturedly professional, and applicable. Our “how to apply” info says to describe what you want out of an MFA program, why this program sounds appealing, and your interest in teaching freshman-level English. This could be accomplished in a single page, one brief paragraph per topic. What you’re showing is whether you can follow directions, can be concise but detailed, as well as meaningful, personable, genuine, and informed. Applicants still fret on the message boards if it’s meant to be a business letter, a personal narrative, or some kind of statement of purpose or aesthetics. Whatever mode you use it might be better if you didn ’t:  

It might be better if you did :  

Things that just don’t matter much

Things you simply can’t control, so time spent being anxious about them would be better spent writing  

What else to do and not do

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Creative Writing

Home / For Students / Applying to MFA Programs

Want to learn more about applying to MFA programs in Creative Writing? Trying to decide if it's right for you? Check out our FAQ below with advice from faculty members and Creative Writing Ph.D. students to help you decide and learn more. 

You can also watch a Zoom recording of our MFA in Creative Writing Information Session. 

Click on a Question to Get Started: 

What is an MFA?

Do I need to be published?

How much does it cost? What kind of resources will I need?

What do you wish you would’ve known about MFA programs before you applied?

How do I apply? What materials do I need to apply?

What are other resources I can look into? 

Which MFA programs have graduates from our undergraduate creative writing concentration gone to? 

Should I get one? What should I consider in determining whether or not to pursue an MFA?

Where should I go? How can I decide? 

"I think applying only to what pops up when you Google “Top Ten 10 Best Creative Writing MFA programs” is not the kind of research you need to do. Find out the success rate of the graduates at programs you are interested in. Read the books of the teaching faculty. Research deeply before you apply. If you can, go visit and arrange to observe a class. Pay attention to the culture of the place to see if it suits you and ask other students in the program what has worked for them."

How many programs should I apply to? 

—Jennifer Tseng

  What is a low-residency program? 

What is a fully-funded program? (What are some fully-funded programs?)

What sort of teacher training will be provided at a program in which teaching assistantships make up a large portion of the funding?

When should I start thinking about whether or not to apply for an MFA? What is the typical timeline for applying, hearing back from programs, etc?

Who should I ask for recommendation letters? 

How do I ask for recommendations? How far in advance should I ask?

"You should ask AT LEAST two months in advance. Make sure to remind the faculty member what classes you took with them, why you’re applying, what you’ve been up to since graduation, and ask them what you can do to make it easier for them. You should sign up for Interfolio so that the faculty member has to do fewer letters. It’s good to politely remind faculty as the deadlines get near." 

Here’s a list of universities with MFA programs in poetry, fiction, and/or creative nonfiction that graduates from our creative writing concentration have gone to:

Last modified: February 17, 2021

Kendall Dunkelberg

A Few Don’ts for the MFA Applicant

It’s getting to be that time of year again, when college seniors and graduates planning to go to grad school start thinking about their applications in earnest. I’ve written a fair amount about the process and even compiled some of my best advice in a Guide for Applicants for my MFA program in Creative Writing that I hope is helpful for anyone. I even compiled a list of things I think you ought to do before applying for an MFA program. Recently, as I was going through some old emails and cleaning up my office, I decided it might be good to add a list of things to avoid when applying. These may not get you into the program you most want to go to, but they might help you avoid giving the wrong first impression. So here they are, in no particular order.

I’m sure there is more advice I could give, but for now, this is a pretty good list of things to avoid and a few things to do when you you are applying for MFA programs in creative writing.

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Published by kendall dunkelberg.

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida. View more posts

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  1. Tips For Your 2023 MFA Application

    The only thing we have as writers is our point of view and our voice, and that is what makes us unique. Don't prune the elements of your writing that make it

  2. 5 Uncommon Tips on Your MFA Creative Writing Application

    5 Uncommon Tips on Your MFA Creative Writing Application · Presenting yourself. Most of us writers tend to dislike being pigeonholed, or to accept the idea that

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