To MFA, or Not to MFA: When to Apply to Grad School

Posted by Katie Waring, Managing Editor of GD 3.1

As we enter June and summer vacation goes into full swing, many of you might be thinking about GRE scores and grad school (or, perhaps, trying not to think about GRE scores and grad school). If you’re about to enter your senior year (like me!), the reality of life after college might feel like it’s looming over you like a boulder tipping precariously on the edge of a cliff. Even if you can still count the amount of semesters of college you have left on two hands, you might be starting to think about MFA programs. And, subsequently, whether you should get an MFA directly after your BA, or if you should wait.

I’ve been wondering the same thing, so I did a little research. Six months ago, when I started thinking about MFA programs, I felt like every professor I knew was telling me to wait. I didn’t understand why. If I get accepted to a program, I thought, then that means I must be ready. And why wait? Getting an MFA straight out of college just means that by my mid-twenties I could be a real writer, one with a degree to prove it, and allow me to work on establishing myself as a published author as soon as possible.

You might be wondering what some of the rationale supporting the decision to apply to MFA programs in your senior year of college is. Well, for one, you’re a student. You’re well-connected to professors who can write letters of recommendation and help you revise work for your application portfolio.

It may also seem like the ‘easy’ thing to do: you’re surrounded by the resources graduate schools require in their applications (getting a copy of your transcript requires only walking to the administration building on your campus), and you’re already in the mindset of being a student, which could be hard to re-inhabit after taking a few years off. And, after nearly two decades of hopping from one level of education to the next, from elementary to high school and college, what’s more logical than simply continuing on with that education in graduate school?

Plus, who knows where you’ll be down the line when you’re finally ready to get that MFA. In ten years, you could have a family, a full-time career, and too many commitments to make graduate school a realistically obtainable goal. So why wait? The longer you put off getting your MFA, the harder it might be to put your life aside to make time for it.

So. There you have it. The rationale that explains why getting an MFA directly after college is beneficial. But what about the reasons for why waiting is better?

For one, you’ll have less life experience if you enter an MFA program directly after college. This can pertain to any genre since so much writing is inspired from life experience, but especially for those of you thinking of getting an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Basically, the longer you wait to attend graduate school, the more material you’ll have to write about.

Now, if you decide to take a break between undergrad and graduate school, you don’t have to wait until you’re 50 to get your MFA. Even a year-long break before entering an MFA program can give you time to generate enough life experience to produce material. Get an internship in NYC, move to London, take a part-time job in the suburban soccer-mom town you grew up in. Whatever it is you do in that year (or three, or five) before graduate school, be sure it’s something worth writing about. Or not. Sometimes the most ordinary events can make excellent stories with the help of an observant author.

Existential mini-tangent aside, with that generation of new material comes another benefit of waiting to enter an MFA program: time to hone your voice. You can even begin working on a manuscript to bring with you to a Master’s program as a thesis proposal. By the time you actually enter your first graduate-level workshop, you’ll have a strong idea of who you are as a writer and what your voice is, something college students and new graduates frequently struggle with.

And, perhaps the biggest (and most obvious) reason for why I’m starting to lean towards waiting to enter grad school: once you have an MFA, you can’t go back and get another one. It’s all or nothing. If you’re not emotionally/mentally/skill-level ready to enter an MFA program and you do, and you complete it, you can’t go back later and try again. That’s it.

Even if you successfully complete an MFA program, if you don’t take full advantage of the program while you’re there (or you’re not ready to), you might regret it later when you are ready to partake in graduate-level workshops.

Or maybe you won’t. Maybe you’re ready for those graduate-level workshops now, and you already have a thesis proposal in mind to obtain your MFA. That’s great. I wish you all the best of luck. Deciding when to get an MFA–or even if you should get one at all–is definitely a personal choice, and one that should not be considered lightly.

Basically, here’s the big picture: having an MFA isn’t the end all/be all in becoming a writer. You aren’t a writer once you earn an MFA, or because you have one. You are a writer because you write. And taking a ‘break’ between BA and MFA programs doesn’t mean you’re putting your life on hold, or that you can’t start your writing career because you don’t have the authority/skill/what-have-you to do so.

It just means that you’re taking a break.

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