REQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS FOR MFA APPLICANTS
Welcome. We often receive questions about applying to the MFA program, so we've gathered the most frequently asked ones here. If you have questions, start here, and either the Program Assistant or Program Director would be happy to answer questions that aren't covered here.
The MFA program is a very competitive program: we accept only 4 students per year from each genre for a total of 12 students (out of about 450 applications). The MFA is usually a degree for people who are already writing at a high level and have specific interests in subject matter germane to the projects they want to be working on and a sense of their ambition for what they want to do during their time in the program.
QUESTIONS ABOUT THE PROGRAM
Why do most students decide to come to the UA MFA Program/Tucson? How would you describe the campus and MFA culture?
Most of the students came here because of 1: the faculty, 2: the flexibility (also w/respect to genre: students here can take classes in whatever genre they like if there is space available), 3: the fully-funded nature of the program, and 4: some of the opportunities for work in the community and with local presses and magazines and so forth. Some come because of the place (and some probably go elsewhere for that same reason).
What is an MFA degree good for / how can I tell if I’m ready for an MFA?
An MFA degree is a good one for people who have some subject-area interests and ambitions and training, who read deeply and widely, and who are serious about the craft of their work on the macro and the micro (sentence) level, and who flourish in a community of working writers. (One doesn’t need an MFA to be a writer, of course, so if workshop and community don’t appeal to you, an MFA degree probably isn’t a great bet.)
Do I need to have a background in English or Creative Writing to apply?
Typically, students’ backgrounds do not matter strongly to our admissions decision (only maybe half of our students have degrees in English or Creative Writing; a few have never even taken a creative writing class). Our primary criterion for admission is the writing you submit as part of your application. Additionally, only about a third of our students come in with a book or larger writing project in mind, but you’d want to be able to talk about what you want to do in a graduate program. We’ve historically been well-positioned to serve students who have an interest in the sciences and in writing.
Our admissions decisions are often not necessarily simply about quality of students’ work (however you want to define it), but about how well their interests fit our faculty’s ability to mentor them. So we accept the students we all are excited about working on. You would be well-advised to research the faculty and students in the program and get a sense of what they do when applying (this is the case for any program you’d want to apply to: you should have a sense of and be able to articulate why you’re applying to whatever program you apply to). You can get a sense of our recent students’ work by looking at the MFA website and clicking on the Look Book.
If none of that work resonates with you, we’re probably not a great fit for what you want to pursue. But if it does we might be a place that could be a good fit for the next couple years.
Is a journalistic background a plus or a minus?
We often get people applying from journalism backgrounds, and those backgrounds can be either an asset or a liability (usually a little of both, like any training). Journalistic training and experience tends to prepare writers in some ways very well for a program like ours: they usually come in with a strong work ethic and research chops. But MFAers from that background sometimes have a hard time shaking some of the prose habits of journalism, and sometimes have a difficult time letting themselves loose to go after what’s often more important to the essayist: thinking and interiority and voice. The kind of work that we do here overlaps partly with journalism, but is mostly distinct. Having said that, we often recommend that many of our MFA students take a journalism course while they’re here, since it develops all kinds of useful writerly practices.
What resources are offered to students, in terms of finding agents, publications, etc.?
Our MFA program isn’t a program designed to professionalize students. It is a degree focused primarily—though not exclusively—on the art of writing, and is designed to focus on you and your work. Some MFAs are much more clearly oriented to professionalization/market concerns than ours are. We offer a lot of those conversations more informally: office hours, for instance, are great for this, or via MFA colloquium, which is a weekly all-MFA conversation space partly driven by students’ interests as well as visiting readers and editors. So those opportunities are here, but they’re definitely secondary. This program isn’t a place to go to find an agent, for instance. (But many students have, often with our guidance.) Every two years we publish the MFA Look Book, featuring the best work by our recently graduate students, which is oriented toward helping get students’ work in the hands of potential publishers, editors, and agents.
What is faculty/student interaction like?
Compared to most MFA programs, we have a high ratio of faculty to students, which means that students are often able to work with any faculty they want during our time here, including the thesis semester. All faculty have office hours each semester and also take appointments for current students to offer mentoring and talk one on one about concerns related to their writing, teaching, artistic, or professional lives, though the primary interaction between faculty and students is in class. There are other opportunities for these kinds of conversations (like MFA colloquium or even less formally). Most classes and workshops are during work hours. You may see some faculty socially, depending on availability and inclination, but it’s not our norm that professors and students go to the same parties, for instance. The most intense and important interactions students have with faculty is during the thesis process, in which you can expect to meet with your advisor often during the final semester of intense work on the thesis project.
How free are students to explore their own style(s) of writing? / What kind of work do your students produce?, What are the artistic objectives that your program has for writers?
We’re not in the business of trying to direct how our students write. Accepted students have free rein to pursue whatever their interests are, including taking courses across genres. Though you can expect to be encouraged and pushed—by faculty and your peers—to explore new and exciting territories. Perhaps this question would be best answered by reading the work of our recently-graduated students in the Look Book and from reading the work of the professors. Unlike some MFAs, our program is not one with a restrictive brand or conception of what “poetry,” “fiction,” or “nonfiction” is or ought to be. Aesthetics differ from workshop to workshop, craft class to craft class, instructor to instructor. We only accept students whose work all of our faculty are onboard with and all of us are excited to work with.
Can you put me in touch with a current student so I can ask them questions directly?
We're happy to connect accepted applicants with current students once they are admitted, but not before. This is because our students’ time is important to us and it would require much too large of a time commitment on their part to respond to potentially hundreds of queries.
How about faculty?
Because of the time involved in answering questions about the program (imagine having to field potentially hundreds of questions), we prefer that you don't contact individual faculty members until you've been accepted. Until then, the Program Director and Program Assistant are happy to be your contacts for questions while applying. Once you've been accepted, we'll connect you to whichever faculty you like.
Can I visit campus to check things out?
It's strongly encouraged once you've been accepted. Before then, too, and the Program Director would be happy to meet with you to answer questions about the program.
How diverse are the cohorts in their identities and writing styles? Does Arizona have a preference in writing style?
We strive for as much diversity as is possible (while ensuring excellence) in our classes, but because our cohort is so small (this year we will accept 12 of 450 or so applicants) the mix of students and their aesthetic interests and backgrounds varies a lot year to year, which we like. We're not sure how to adequately describe the campus and MFA culture: that’s probably too general of a question, and it varies year to year, cohort to cohort. It's one that would best be answered by current students. If you are accepted into the program we’ll put you in touch with current students who can give you a better sense of how the program feels on the ground. Statistics: As of 2018, 62% of the MFA cohort is writers of color. Slightly more than half are women.
Does your program have specific tastes where genres of fiction are concerned? Would it benefit me to submit primarily literary fiction, or do you welcome/encourage literary forays into speculative fiction?
This program, like most MFA programs, has a bent toward literary fiction, but an expansive view of what that means in terms of subject matter. In our case anyhow, the thing that distinguishes literary fiction is more the approach and concerns of a story or novel than its content. You can have a great work of literature with a wizard or a dragon or a robot or whatever as long as it’s primarily interested in character and emotional and psychological complexity, and not in plot, as I think a lot of the work that self-identifies as genre fiction is. We probably have a realist bent more often than not, but a number of our graduates and faculty do, read, and teach fabulist work. So I would encourage you to spend some time with the faculty and student work as you think about what to submit to present yourself best. Worth also saying that a lot of our admission decisions are a function of fit in terms of faculty/student work, rather than simply “quality,” so you’d also be wise to present a sample of the sort work that you’re most interested in working on for the next three years. I hope that’s helpful.
I think it’s safe to describe the program as primarily interested in literary fiction, though people define and come at that in different ways. Kate Bernheimer, for instance, focuses on fabulism and the fairy tale. About half our students are writing nonrealist stuff, though we don’t offer specific training in genre fiction (very few MFA programs do: mostly these are degrees and programs designed for writers whose work aspires to art). You can get a better sense of the work our students do by looking at the work of the fiction faculty and the students’ work in the Look Book (on the CW program website). That should give you a sense of the range of students’ interests and the work they produce while they’re here.
Are students allowed to do cross-genre work?
Yes, we encourage students to do this if they are interested. Students may take whatever classes they like if there is space available. All students must take at least one out-of-genre craft class. We often have students working while they're here in multiple genres.
How do students survive? As in, how do they make enough money to pay rent, eat, etc.?
All accepted students are offered a GTA position teaching (primarily composition, though there are quite a few opportunities to teach CW also), though not all choose to take those positions. The GTA position comes with a stipend (around $16k), health insurance, and tuition paid for. Students have to pay about $1,300 in fees each year, but most people get by okay on that package. A few people do also do other things, working outside the university or doing freelance work.
Tucson is a comparatively cheap city, and for most students the GTA salary, while not high, is livable. We don’t expect students to take on student loans or other work. All students are offered GTAships, and those teaching on GTAships are contractually forbidden from taking on other work at the University (the GTA position can be a lot of work, and with classes, you’ll be busy). Occasionally students do of course choose to find other sorts of work (freelance, bartending, etc) while they’re here instead of the GTA, since teaching is not for everyone. And I’m sure some people do some work on the side that they don’t tell the university about.
Are all the faculty you list going to be teaching next year?
We don’t employ faculty who don’t teach in the program, mentor students, and direct MFA theses. That is, all of us are here and we expect everyone on the faculty list will be here next year, but actual availability each year varies, since our faculty often receive prestigious fellowships or are sometimes on research or personal leave. Leaves for this reason or for personal reasons are difficult to predict, and we often won’t know about those a year in advance (they’re often internal personnel matters that we’re not always privy to). But we don’t have research-only faculty in this program. If you have questions about particular faculty, drop us a line.
If I come to Arizona to work with Faculty X or Y, will they be available to direct my thesis?
We don’t accept specific students to work with specific faculty. We only accept students who all of us in the genre are excited to work with. In their fourth semester, students propose their thesis project and at that point submit a ranked list of preferred thesis advisers. The program director makes the pairing of adviser and advisee based on a number of factors, including, in part, trying to balance workload among faculty. Because we have a very low faculty-to-student ratio, almost always students get their first or second choice of thesis advisor.
Can I work full time and still be in the program?
Classes are in the daytime, and other activities keep you busy. This is a full-time full-residency program. If you're teaching as a GTA, you cannot do that and have another job. We do sometimes have students working full time somewhere else, but scheduling can be complicated (and if you're not employed by the university, you're responsible for your own tuition).
Where do students go after they complete the program?
Students go on from the MFA to some combination of: publishing, teaching, arts administration, editorial work, occasionally PhD programs, or sometimes apparently unrelated careers or lives (though we often find they continue to write and publish and read). It varies a lot. An MFA degree, while it is a terminal degree and is the typical qualification for teaching at the college level, is not necessarily a teaching degree. We have lots of opportunities for teaching and development in that direction if that’s an interest, but be aware that the market for teaching CW at universities is extremely competitive, and is based largely on your quality and prestige of your publications. That is, the MFA isn’t a degree that necessarily prepares you for a teaching job (though it can). It’s designed to focus on growing your writing and your work as an artist. And as such it leads to all kinds of work and lives after graduation.
I don't have a specific book idea. I'm not sure if this is something I need figured out by the time I apply.
Fewer than half of our students come in with a book idea, and probably half of those who do come in with a strong book idea change it substantially during their time in the program. That is, the program isn’t often a place where people just come to grind out a book they've already started. It offers way too many stimuli and inputs from too many different people for that. Publication isn’t an outcome we’re focused on (artistic achievement is what we’re after, primarily), but obviously the two often do go together. All to say there’s no expectation that you come in with a developed project, but it can be helpful if you have a sense of your subject matter. Most students here find one or more while they’re here, even if that means abandoning what they thought they came in to do. (For some, that original idea becomes the second book, etc., now that their chops are sharper.)
Do MFA candidates work on their thesis project in the final year of study? Or is it typically a project they work on throughout the program?
It varies. The thesis advising process is primarily focused around the final semester, though the expectation is certainly that students are working on this project for at least the last year, and many students are working on it longer than that, particularly if they come into the program with a clear sense of this project (not required but it’s a bonus).
How much are Student Fees and who pays for them?
$664.13 per semester for a student taking 7 units or higher. The fees are paid by the student.
Is the program typically made up of younger writers or more mature writers?
It’s a mix, and it varies year to year. The average age of our grad students is about 27 most years, but we have several students in their 30s and 40s too. Compared to a 30 year old, a 22 year old is much less likely to be competitive in terms of life experience and where they are in their writing, but a 35 year old is less likely to have the freedom given where they are in their life to attend a residential MFA program.
QUESTIONS ABOUT THE APPLICATION
Apart from the site's tips for the Statement of Purpose do you have any suggestions for applicants when writing this document?
Not particularly, except to say this is where you want to contextualize your application for grad school and perhaps your writing sample, what you’re up to as a writer, and how you want to grow, where you want to go. Key questions to address: Why are you applying to this program now? Having said that, the manuscript sample is by far the most important part of the application. Everything else is secondary. You may want to check out a Best Practices for Applying to Graduate Study in CW document we produced for our undergrads in 2018.
What are some of the qualities you're looking for in a manuscript/writer?
That’s a big question but: abilities in your genre, research chops, aesthetic and/or intellectual and/or writerly ambitions and talents. Probably the best way to get a sense of what we do is by looking at the Look Book, which features some of our recent MFAs’ best work. That or reading faculty’s work. If you’re not excited about at least one (and ideally most) of the faculty’s writing and aesthetic we’re probably not a good place to spend three years.
Does the University of Arizona automatically reject any applicants if their GPA is below 3.0?
The primary criterion for acceptance is accomplishment and promise of the writing sample. Everything else is secondary. The final decision is up to the Graduate College and the program would have to make a strong argument for that particular student. You would be wise to address that in your personal statement.
The website says to submit 6-10 poems. Is there a page limit on this?
No, but it would typically be unwise to send more than 20 pages. Your 21st page of poetry probably isn't going to be the one that gets you in.
Can I send you a sample of my work to give you a sense of what I'm working on / to get some feedback / to see if my work might be a good fit for your program?
No. This is partly on account of logistics: we receive over 400 applications to the MFA program each year. It takes a great deal of time to read these manuscripts closely. Our graduate college also prohibits any application prescreening. Plus, it's a question of fairness: it would be unfair to offer this opportunity to only some applicants, giving them an advantage in applying, and not to offer it to others.
QUESTIONS ABOUT FUNDING AND OTHER FINANCIAL OPPORTUNITIES
Students receive full funding for three years. The funding package covers full tuition costs, health insurance, and a small stipend (around $16,100 for the Academic Year). You don’t have to apply separately for the funding. You automatically receive it if you are admitted. The funding package was worth $30,452 in 2018-2019.
We offer small research travel grants for grad students doing research or creative practice, and there are some funds available for trips for grad students to go to conferences, typically when they’re presenting their work or have institutional or pedagogical reasons to go. They’re never going to cover all your expenses, but getting some money to go to AWP, for instance, if you have strong arguments to go, is not unusual. There are a couple of summer writing fellowships, competitively awarded. Lots of this information is elsewhere on the website.
If you've got other questions not addressed in this document, be in touch. We'll answer them the best we can (and maybe they'll show up here in a future edition of the application FAQ page).