Every year at around this time I get a bunch of emails from writers back home looking for clarity on the MFA application, so I thought I’d collate some information I found useful from around the web and community.
The MFA is considered the terminal degree for creative writing in the United States. A ton has been written on whether MFAs are worth it, but I can only speak to my own experience in choosing to pursue an MFA, for reasons that are very specific to where I’m from. I’ll do that at the very end of this post, so if you don’t care you can just read the Resources bit and then skip the rest.
For your MFA application, you’ll usually need to submit a writing sample, a statement of plans, and some recommendation letters, from people who can speak to your work as a writer. For Columbia I had to do the extra step of analyzing a recently published work of fiction. Some MFAs require you to prove you can speak English. Since Singapore’s national language is Malay, I had to take the IELTS to prove I could speak English despite having a Masters in English Literature. In the IELTS they did things like make me listen to a recording of a train announcement then tick the correct multiple-choice answer as to what time the train was leaving. It was very expensive. 🙂
— Rachel Heng wrote this piece for Read The Workshop (formally known as The MFA Years) on applying for the MFA (Also: buy Rachel’s latest book here!)
— List of Fully Funded Programs
— List of mostly Funded Programs
— MFA Podcast — look for the schools you’re considering and listen to students speak to their experience. (I’m featured on episode 21, for Columbia.)
— An alternative to the full time MFA is a low-residency MFA, which can coexist with a full-time job. Read the Masters Review’s Guide to the low-residency MFAs here.
International-specific note: The low-res MFA, while a great option for those already based Stateside, is a little less viable if you’re based in Asia. Why? Because you are still required to get an F1 visa even if the bulk of your program is online. Putting aside the time difference in online classes, you need to pay for a new i20 every single time you come into the states for the residency portion of your MFA, and you must leave right after.
From the Vermont College of Fine Arts:
Each I-20 is valid only for the duration of the on-campus residency period. The I-20 Certificate of Eligibility does not allow international students in the low-residency programs to reside in the US for the remainder of the semester. International students must leave the US after the residency, and a new I-20 must be issued (and the fee paid) in advance of the following residency period
That means you’re paying for your visa + 4 x i20 fees for 4 semesters. The i20 is a piece of paper you need to carry with you at all times when entering and leaving the United States. It’s different from the visa. You need both and you cannot enter the country if you hold one but not the other. You would think it’d make sense that they consolidate this and issue one document that does both things. You would think this would be a lot simpler. However, I don’t run a country, so what do I know.
Other associated costs — air tickets. airbnbs. miscellaneous transportation fees to and fro airports. paid leave days if you’re keeping your full time job back home. etcetera.
If you want to keep your job and take classes on the side, I put out a call on Twitter for online classes and got a bunch of great recommendations here. I’ll compile this into a list later.
It’s also worth looking at options in the UK. The UK follows the Creative Writing MA, not MFA model, which is slightly different in terms of commitment and length. The University of East Anglia’s year-long MA, which birthed writers like Kazuo Ishiguro, Diana Evans, and Tash Aw, is a really reputable program. It can also be significantly cheaper than some tuition-based MFAs in the States. I just don’t know that much about it because I ended up going the US route.
Dates to take note of:
— Application deadline
— Funding application deadline
— Deadlines for Letters of Recommendation to be uploaded
— Deadline for uploading proof of English proficiency (Internationals)
— Availability and lead time for local test centers in your home country re: IELTS / GRE / TOEFL (Internationals)
These differ from school to school. The US deadlines tend to be end of year / early Jan, whereas the UK ones are much later, like in May.
Your writing sample is the singular most important thing in your application package. It’s the thing they’ll most likely read first, since the most compelling personal statement in the world won’t make up for bad writing. Pour your heart and soul into this… then polish the hell out of it.
I think the MFA was my first time encountering this personal statement business. It’s basically an artist manifesto, a statement of purpose representing who you are as an artist, and why you’re applying to this specific MFA.
— I found this article very useful when crafting my statement: How I wrote my Statement of Purpose
— Here’s an advice thread on Twitter from Kat Lewis, which is concise and helpful (Link to PDF in case Twitter has imploded by the time you’re reading this)
— And if you’ve ever wondered what goes on on the other side of the curtain, here’s a peek behind the scenes, from someone who reads MFA applications (Ditto. PDF.)
If you have a close friend or professor who might be willing to read a draft of your personal statement, and if you’re comfortable enough to share it with them, this would be immensely helpful — especially if they have an eye for critical essay writing language. On the other hand, I wouldn’t ask someone to share their personal statement — it’s called personal for a reason, and I feel like they’d offer if they were comfortable sharing. Besides, what each artist is working on differs so greatly that I strongly believe the best thing you can do is try to have your application package, statement included, best represent who you are as an artist. The one thing I will say is to be specific with your language… don’t make vague, abstract statements about the value of writing. Who are you, specifically? Ah, the perennial question that’s triggered many an existential crisis…
Most applications require two to three recommendation letters. More commonly three. This can be tricky if you don’t know any writers, obviously, and in recent years, the practice of requiring recommendations has come under fire as a form of gatekeeping. But until that changes… I knew two people who could speak to my writing, and for the last one, I asked my old boss to write me a recommendation testifying to my ferocious work ethic.
I initially found asking for letters of recommendation to be very awkward, because you’re essentially asking a huge favour from someone, usually without any way of reciprocating, at least not in the short term. Anyway, here are some tips for asking:
— Cathy Day’s The Letter of Recommendation
— Writing Workshop’s Getting Letters of Recommendation for your MFA
Most important takeaways:
— give your recommenders loads of lead time. Generally the more time the better. In fact, ask now. Lmao.
— please remember you’re asking for a favour, so be polite and respectful of their time
— make writing the letter as easy as possible for your recommenders by giving them all the necessary information upfront
If the program you’re applying for has a teaching component, you might want to ask someone who can speak to that. In this case, if you’ve had prior experience teaching or TA-ing, it would be good to include your student evaluations and CV in your email to your recommender, so they have all this information on hand. Basic email etiquette: don’t attach this in the initial ask — send all this information after they’ve agreed to write you a letter!
It’s important that these people actually know and can vouch for you. It is really in your best interest that your recommenders know and champion you / your work, because an unenthusiastic or impersonal letter is much worse and can really hurt your application. One of the people I initially asked for a recommendation turned me down, citing that she didn’t know my work well enough, and to this day I’m grateful she did.
These websites are great too:
— Read the Workshop
— AWP The Writer’s Notebook — linked to MFA advice, but you can search for a variety of other things related to a writer’s life.
If you have several offers and can’t decide, people will typically recommend that you visit the schools before making a decision, which again, isn’t that tenable if you’re not based Stateside and arent made of moneybags.
— Here is an article on making your MFA decision, which might be helpful.
Internationals: I recommend contacting the person who called you for your acceptance and asking if they can put you in touch with any international students who might be willing to talk to you. Or else you might just go through the good old social network. I get requests from friends or friends of friends yearly to ask if I mind talking to someone who’s thinking of applying to / accepting Columbia. The writing life is very pay-it-forward, so I’m usually happy to do it, with the understanding that they go on and extend a hand to a younger writer in the future when the time comes.
As an international, money is a bitch.
As it is, even if you’re not an international, everything costs money, and it adds up really quickly — the application fees, the cost of relocation, etc… Schools will charge you extra as an international, for, idk, processing or something. Your insurance coverage is usually mandatory to have with the school, and insurance in the USA is a NIGHTMARE. It’s extremely expensive and doesn’t cover half of what a much cheaper policy in Singapore will. I remember showing my American health plan to my insurance agent back in Singapore, and she was like… well, if you get really sick and need an operation or something, it’ll probably be cheaper for you to pay for a last minute ticket, fly back, and claim under your Singapore insurance plan, ha ha ha.
All that to say that financial stress is very real. You can request for application fee waivers from most schools if you can prove financial need, but there’s no getting around the visa fees, which consist the visa application fee, the SEVIS i901 fee, and the passport mailing fee. I think it comes up to about 500 USD. And don’t even get me started on the IELTS test, which is almost 400SGD.
The upfront move is also expensive. You’ll need to put down minimally a security deposit with your first month’s rent to secure the place — some places require first, last, and security, which is basically 3 months rent upfront. And most places will require a guarantor if you’re signing a lease, and if you’re not American and dont have someone who can financially vouch for you, you might have to pay a middleman service to be your guarantor. To avoid this, you can try just subleasing so your name isn’t on the lease, but please do your due diligence on how to protect your rights as an international subleasee. I got really lucky and signed a lease with this super lax building where the management somehow didn’t require documentation… very sus. New York, baby!
Then having to buy furniture… getting used to tipping… making mental conversations to your home currency all the time… you don’t even qualify for an American credit card, so you can’t get cash back on any of this. Very painful. No shame to anyone who has family support, financially. More power to you. But if you are paying out of pocket, like I did, please, please, budget a buffer in for unexpected costs, because it is extremely stressful to be hemorrhaging money. In USD.
Being stressed about money is also very lonely. If you can find people to talk to about it, please do. Otherwise you can feel like you’re going crazy. I definitely went a bit loopy in my first month there. I think I stopped eating completely at some point and wouldn’t pay to get on the train either. I’d basically walk 30 blocks to avoid paying $2.75 for a metro ride.
Retroactive aside — what I wouldn’t give to pay $2.75 per ride now… *laughs in Bay Area*
Don’t go into debt for your MFA. Just don’t. You aint making that tuition money back.
If you’re applying for a fully funded program, great.
If you’re not, negotiate for more money. This is bloody uncomfortable for us Asians who are taught never to ask about money, idk. I wanted to die while writing my initial email asking after funding, I found it so awkward and humiliating. But my fear of being broke is worse. So I asked, and Columbia came back to me with a scholarship. Whaddayaknow! Now I have an incredibly thick skin and ask for money all the time. If you don’t ask, you won’t know.
— An internationals specific tip: your visa status cuts you off from many funding opportunities, loans, and grants which are American specific. It also prevents you from working off campus for extra cash. Mention all this when you’re asking for additional funding. You have less opportunities to work to cover your tuition elsewhere, and are very much more dependent on what the school can offer you.
— Here are some other tips on asking for funding (grad school, not MFA specific)
— Here is an article on overcoming shame and asking for money if you’re from an underrepresented community
— And the forums like Gradcafe and MFA Draft also have plenty of discussion threads on funding negotiation tips.
— Look into scholarships from your home country. For eg. I got a National Arts Council Arts Scholarship from Singapore which covered almost half of my tuition.
Don’t stop looking for funding options when you start the MFA! A lot of the funding opportunities dont open up until you actually start the program, which unfortunately does mean that you can’t count on any of it. But you should try, nonetheless. There are also independently funded grants available to artists living in New York, and I assume it’s worth looking into independent arts grants and scholarships for the state you end up in. I got additional scholarships and was awarded a fellowship at Columbia midway through my MFA, and by the end of it, I paid nearly nothing for the MFA save for my cost of living in New York City.
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At twenty seven, I was really desperate for time and space to write. Plenty of friends back home asked why I couldn’t just write on the side, and for sure, many novelists have done it. But I was writing and writing and it was all crap. I had no idea how to get better, and I was craving mentorship and literary community.
I was also extremely, extremely burnt out. I’d been working full time since 2011, while simultaneously and consecutively pursuing my university degree, my masters degree, and TA-ing in the university. After being a salaried advertising employee for close to three years, switching to purely freelance work in 2014 was incredibly freeing — but also dangerous. Because my time literally equated to money, I was working nonstop like a woman possessed. When you go from having no money your whole life to having it just within reach, it’s really easy to justify taking on every additional job at the cost of your sleep, rest, social life, creative life, etcetera… and really hard to say no. I would be writing in the middle of the night, then realize upon re-reading it the next day that my sleep-deprived brain was basically inventing nonsense. I knew the best case scenario was if I got to take a chunk of time off to write, so I applied to a couple of residencies in the East Asia region but I was rejected from all of them because I sucked.
Enter the MFA. I had never even heard of it until 2018. At the time, I was desperately applying for all kinds of internships at publishing houses, trying to get as close as I could to the writing/publishing industry. I’d been working for awhile at that point, and sinking a lot of money into trying to make this happen. Mid-2018, I flew down to London on the throwaway promise of a PRH editorial assistant who rejected my internship application due to visa issues but was impressed by my passion and promised to show me around the office if I were ever in town. I flew down specifically for this reason a few months later… only to be completely ghosted by her. I had not yet understood how to discern between sincere and polite invitations and probably gave her a shock when I took her up on her offer. I’m better at this now but I still think people should say what they mean. Anyway.
Already in town, I met the writer Tash Aw for lunch. We’d met a couple of years prior when he was a visiting writer at NTU — I took a masterclass with him that was, for me, transformative in clarifying my artistic aims and conceptualizing the possibility of a life as a working writer — and we stayed in touch ever since. After hearing my entire sob story, he asked why I didn’t just apply for an MFA.
A degree specifically for writing?!
I wish I could say the rest was history but it really wasn’t. I already had money saved up over the years — I’d assumed I would move to do a PhD in UK or the US and try to swing it as a writer once I’d made it across the North Pacific Ocean or whatever — but it was far from enough. I took on even more work, became slightly maniac tbh, and at the end of 2018 finally did an editorial attachment with a literary agency and a publishing house in the UK while simultaneously applying to Columbia.
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So I didn’t apply for a single fully funded program. None of that hedging, 12-15 applications strategy for me. I applied for Columbia. I told myself that if I didn’t get in then I’d give up on the MFA and continue plodding along.
I suppose I’ve always been quite stupid about these things. But anyway, Columbia accepted me, and there was really no question that I wouldn’t go. Getting that acceptance phone call was an actual visceral experience, the sense of a dream coming true so overwhelming that I felt the swooning disassociation of a woman wine-drunk. It was a decision that made no financial sense whatsoever (I said yes even before getting the scholarships and fellowships that would later significantly reduce my cost of attendance), but that I felt in my heart was the right thing to do.
If I were to back this decision up with practical considerations though, here’s what they would be:
1. As an international, the MFA would give me the legal right to stay in America, visa-wise . And I was certain that I wanted to be in the States, where I would have access not only to Columbia’s classes, but literary events, communities, and opportunities that existed there.
2. And if I were going to relocate my entire life across the globe, I wanted it to be to New York. To me, these 2 years would be the singular biggest investment in myself I’d ever make, and I didn’t see the point of spending all this money on a dream and then not actually doing the thing my dream entailed.
3. I went into the MFA hungry. More than once, faculty would remark upon how hardcore I was — as did the other students. I was frequently asked why I took even the simplest class assignment so seriously. But I have been like this my whole life. I have zero chill. Even before accepting Columbia’s offer, I knew that I would make the most of it. I would never allow myself to waste a single minute, which I had calculated to the dollar. And it worked. I could feel myself improving, almost muscularly. Within the first semester I had two offers from faculty to connect me with their agents. I didn’t take them up on it because I knew I wasn’t ready, but it made a world of difference in how it encouraged me to keep working on my craft.
4. I never saw myself as a student. I approached the MFA believing that it was an implement to my writing, not its container. I viewed it as a very expensive way to help me work on my existing projects, both on the craft level, and in further clarifying my artistic vision. When I introduced myself in any kind of social setting, I called myself a writer.
Unless I was going somewhere that had. student discount. Then I was absolutely a student.
5. I had cultivated relentless optimism as a way of being, which I knew I could lean into when recalibrating to being in a foreign country alone. Until the pandemic broke me (lol), I truly lived in a state of constant euphoria and terror (for financial and safety reasons), and really fucking loved every single second I was on campus, in class, reading and talking writing with other writers. Resisting jadedness and skepticism went a long way in keeping me focused on my work, and constantly learning even from people I didn’t agree with.
Well, the pandemic hit, blah blah blah, and it took three, not two years, plus a lot more tears and pain, but this month, I finally graduated:
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And you know. It was a really difficult and often disillusioning journey, but I don’t regret it.
The MFA was both a way to buy time and to legally allow me to stay in NYC, but more than that, it was the biggest signal to myself that I believed I had a shot at being a writer.
Although I loved and benefited greatly from my time at Columbia, the truth is that lot of my writing life in NYC happened outside the program. A lot of the opportunities I had were purely based on being in the right place at the right time. It’s not like it’s impossible to do this from back home but it would be disingenuous to pretend that it wouldn’t be much harder. There are other MFA programs in the greater New York area, both within the city and state, and if you zoom out a bit and look across America, there are so many fantastic MFA programs, few of which are as ruinously expensive as Columbia is. If I could go back in time, I’d do more research, possibly cast my net wider. Been a bit more pragmatic about the financial realities around it all. But in the end, Columbia was the right decision for me, because it was the one that I made. A little bit like a chicken and egg situation. What worked for me may not have worked for someone else, and mine is just one experience. But it’s the one I have.
And I know, for a fact, that I would not have the writing life I have now if I hadn’t moved to New York. I met my current writing friends at readings and parties around the city. I started as a weekly columnist for a literary magazine that was founded by writers I met in Columbia. I learned about opportunities by listening to writers talk about them. Friendly acquaintances I made online bloomed into real life friendships when those writers passed through New York, as writers do. Writers introduced me to other writers. Those other writers commissioned work from me. I learned a lot from being in workshop with emerging writers, from being in the company of writers who had similar aspirations, dreams. I found myself improving by watching my peers revise their work. I started publishing stories. This encouraged me. I submitted stories to places aggregated in the Columbia mailing list and won prizes for them. For every acceptance I was rejected maybe 20 times. No matter. I kept going. I got personalised rejections from Granta and A Public Space and held them close to my heart. I treasured them immensely. I understood how little I knew, but I no longer felt like I was struggling to stay afloat alone. I felt comforted and inspired by seeing writers near me achieve things that I didn’t know were possibilities, it galvanized my work, gave me the confidence to take risks artistically. I wanted to cry with the sheer joy of being able to sit in a dirty bar booth and intensely discuss strategies for varying narrative distance with dialogue tags and sensory verbs. I actually did cry, a lot. Publicly. I was never embarrassed about it. I met younger asian writers passing through the city who wanted to talk about building a writing practice and was frequently moved by the passion in their voice, the hunger. I applied for the Stegner because a fellow writer mentioned it offhand and, realizing I’d never heard of writing fellowships, encouraged me to try for it. And now here I am, in the Bay Area, as a full time working writer.
Every single time I think about it I want to cry again. And, you know, it sounds so silly and childish, but I really am so happy that this is my life, and that every day, I wake up with no obligations to anything but my writing. I don’t take it for granted, I know all of this could fall apart, I could never publish a single other thing again, though not for lack of trying, I could toil and toil at my art and never be satisfied, I could have my imposter syndrome confirmed by any number of factors outside my control, I could lose my mind. But at least I had this complete and perfect fulfillment, if only for a precious moment. At least I have today.