Guest contributor: Lee Martin

Bad Advice Wednesday: Applying for an MFA Program? Whoa! Not So Fast

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


Lee Martin

‘Tis the season when undergraduates’ thoughts turn toward applying for admission to an MFA program, which has me thinking of how different the culture is these days than it was when I got my B.A. in 1978. Although I knew I wanted to write, I also knew I needed a bit more seasoning. In those days, it was assumed that some much necessary time would pass between that undergraduate degree and the attempt to enter an MFA program. It was also very clear that the competition was fierce and admission wasn’t guaranteed. When I finally thought I was ready to try four years after that B.A., I wrote to the Associated Writing Programs and asked them for a list of MFA programs. When it arrived, it was a single sheet of 8 1/2” by 11” paper. The list from the front side continued on the back and stopped about half-way down the page.

Now, thanks in part to the proliferation of MFA programs, many undergraduate students believe not only that they’re ready to apply, they’re also convinced that they’re entitled to admission. Entering an MFA program seems to them as logical of a progression as it was from high school to college.

As a teacher of creative writing, I have to take some of the responsibility for creating this new culture. I find some degree of talent in all of my students and I commend them for it while also trying to make clear that they still need to work on their craft. I try to build their esteem because I happen to think that students do better work when they know that you have confidence in them. They also work harder to improve their weaknesses if you make them want to please you. It’s a tough balancing act between nurture and criticism, but it’s one that I’m convinced pays off for the student in the long run. It’s true, however, that in the process one might become unrealistic about the level of one’s skills.

Last week, one of my talented undergraduates asked me if I thought she was ready to apply for MFA programs. I admire her for asking that question and being willing to listen to my answer and to take it for what it was, an honest assessment of where she is at this point in her career. I told her she had talent and potential, but I thought her talent was young. I thought she needed to work on creating more textured pieces, more resonant with significance, the sort of pieces that come from a wiser, more experienced perspective. I listed three things she’d gain by not rushing to apply for an MFA program. Here they are, along with my thoughts and advice:

1.         More life experience.  Let’s face it, four years in college doesn’t exactly open the world to you. Why not take some time after graduation to work and to travel? You’ll expose yourself to a variety of people, and it’s a good thing for a writer to have to imagine the world from the point of view of someone very different. You’ll also probably find yourself in some uncomfortable situations, and that’s a good thing, too. A writer needs to feel the pressure that comes down on him or her in those moments of discomfort, contradiction, choice, and consequence. It all comes down to this: Live a little longer and make your art a little deeper.

2.         More time. I know that after my undergraduate degree, I needed more time to hone my craft. To read the writers I needed to know, to read craft books, to write and write and write and write. I needed time to identify my weaknesses and to start working to correct them. Most of all, I needed time to create the best writing sample that I could to accompany my MFA application. I was twenty-six when I entered my MFA program, and I was glad I gave myself that additional time.

3.         More challenge.  It’s easy to convince yourself that you’ve accurately charted your life’s course—Oh, to be a writer!—when you’re still an undergrad caught up in the excitement and esprit de corps of the creative writing workshop. You need time to test your commitment. How will you fare once you’re out there on your own, probably working a job that drains your energy, and trying to find time to do the things a writer does? I worked a lot of jobs after graduation and before my MFA application; some of them were mind-numbing, some of them were physically demanding and wearying. I kept writing. I kept reading. I started to see that this wasn’t just a fling I was having with the writer’s life. It had something to do with the way I chose to interact with the world and the way I chose to see myself. It wasn’t just something I did. It was who I was.

Writing is a life-long apprenticeship. Make sure it’s the apprenticeship that you want. Make sure it matters enough to you to go through all the challenges and disappointments that are sure to come your way. Before you apply for an MFA program, make sure you’re in this writer thing all the way and for the duration, come what may. Work steadily to improve your knowledge, your vision, and your craft. Be patient with yourself the way your teachers have been. Give yourself all the time you need.


[Lee Martin is the Pulitzer Prize Finalist author of The Bright Forever, and three other novels, including Break the Skin. His other books are the novels, River of Heaven and Quakertown; the memoirs, Such a Life, From Our House, and Turning Bones; and the short story collection, The Least You Need to Know. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in such places as Harper’s, Ms., Creative Nonfiction, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, and Glimmer Train. He is the winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council. He teaches in the MFA Program at The Ohio State University, where he was the winner of the 2006 Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching.]

  1. monica wood writes:

    Excellent advice. I never got one, though I do have an M.S. in counseling, which is probably more helpful to a writer than anything else, unless you count a degree in the sciences.

  2. Benjamin Vogt writes:

    Double down on all of the advice for a PhD. Or maybe good Mr. Lee can talk about the creative writing PhD a little here in the comments? 🙂

    • Lee Martin writes:

      Ben, as you know, I did my Ph.D. at the U of Nebraska-Lincoln. I finished that degree ten years after I received my MFA. I decided to go for the doctorate as a way of diversifying my teaching preparation. I also wanted some additional time to publish a first book. The five years I spent in Lincoln were golden. I left with a Ph.D. and a book contract and a better shot at a tenure-track job. The Ph.D. program was my chance to do the MFA the way I would have had I had the benefit of the wisdom I gained in my two years at the U of Arkansas. Like many folks, I felt I was ready to start an MFA just when I was finishing my degree. The Ph.D. program was like a do-over! My advice to anyone considering a similar route is to make sure that you’re really interested in a life in academia. Don’t go into a doctoral program resenting the academic work you’ll do. If you see your writing, teaching, and scholarship forming a perfect whole, then go for it, particularly if you’re like I was–too far from the tenure-track and needing a bit more time to close the gap.

  3. Bill writes:

    I was 33 when I started my MFA–Columbia in NYC, where I already lived. I’m even older now, but I bet I’d get even more out of the program. As it was, work experience, life experience, and a lot of writing helped me vastly navigating everything, not to mention getting in!

  4. Kerry Headley writes:

    If I still taught undergrad writing students, I would ask them all to read this. I was so grateful to do an MFA program with significant life experience. Great bad advice!