Low-residency MFA programs used to be difficult to come by, but now there are dozens of programs scattered around the country. The sheer number of choices can be mind boggling, leading the prospective student baffled by trying to decide which option is best for their individual circumstances. This guide offers a few items of consideration that will hopefully help narrow down the choices.
1. Location, location, location
Unless you choose a program in your own city, an MFA program will likely involve travel. If money isn’t an issue you may want to go as far away from home as possible, but if you have a restrictive travel budget you’ll want to consider a school that’s either within a reasonable driving distance or at least a moderately priced flight away.
Also, schools located in highly populated urban centers such as San Francisco or Pittsburgh will likely have a very different feel than schools in more rural settings. Remember that setting influences style, so choose a place that fits your style.
MFA programs vary in cost. State funded universities will likely cost less than private universities. Low-residency programs intrinsically allow students to work while they pursue their degrees, which may help with covering the costs of a higher priced program. It all depends on your own comfort levels and your own finances, but if you’re looking to find an affordable school, cost is one way to eliminate some of the options.
If you’ve got your heart set on a private, more expensive school, it’s worth asking the program director about financial assistance. Some schools have money to give away or student teaching opportunities.
Take a close look at the faculty members of the low-residency programs that are most interesting to you. You may find that a certain school stands out and that you identify with the teaching statements and the published works of their faculty. If that’s the case you will likely appreciate what they can offer their students. However, it’s important that you don’t base your decision solely on one or two faculty members. They may leave the program or you may not have the opportunity to work with them as closely as you’d like.
If reputation is important to you, and it should be at least to some degree, you’ll want to do some research. Talk to students in the program. Look at the rankings in Poets & Writers. Find out how long the program has been established. Check to see if there is a high turnover among faculty. Ask about the attrition rate of students. Over the course of your asking you will probably get feedback that will aid you in your decision.
5. Publishing success of alumni
Most MFA programs that have been around a while love to brag about their successful alumni. This could be a sign that they only admit very talented writers or it could mean that they teach well. Either way, an MFA program that turns out good writers is worth considering.
While most low-residency MFA programs offer study in three genres: fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction, it is not true in every case. This is probably the easiest way to eliminate a few schools from the list. On the subject of genre, another consideration has to do with the idea of crossing over into more than one area of interest. Some programs clearly want their students to choose only one genre while others are more flexible.
It’s alright to have high expectations for quality information when researching which program is right for you. Does the school have a website that is helpful? When you contact the school are they thoughtful in their replies? Is the program director willing to take the time to answer your questions? If you are given good attention as a prospective student you will likely get it if and when you are enrolled in the program. On the other hand, if the people behind the program can’t be bothered to assist you, then you should move on.
A low-residency MFA program is a huge commitment, both in time and in money. Take the time to make a decision you can live with for the next few years and beyond. Remember that in certain schools the competition can be steep. I suggest you pick at least a few favorites and apply to each one. Most certainly you will find a school that works for you. Good Luck!