1) Ask yourself why you want to go to grad school—and be honest when you answer. The best thing about graduate study in the arts is that it offers a student a place in a community of likeminded artists. Your teachers and your fellow students won’t think making art is your “hobby”; they won’t consider it weird if you’d rather read a book than watch TV; they won’t think you’re wasting your time when you spend a month working on a story or a poem or an essay that earns you no more two free copies of the magazine in which it is published—if you’re fortunate enough to get it published. If your answer to this question is I love to write and I want the time and the instruction to help me become a better writer, then grad school might be good for you. On the other hand, if you answer is Because I want to be a college professor, then you need to know that the odds of a degree in creative writing leading to full-time employment as a permanent faculty member are very, very slim. If you want a graduate degree that will guarantee a job in academia, do not get a creative writing degree. If you want a degree that will help you make money, do not get a creative writing degree. If you want to write, to be a part of a community of artists for a few years, and, sure, to earn the minimum qualification for employment as a college professor, then a creative writing degree might be a good way for you to spend two to six years.
2) Consider whether or not you’re willing (or able) to pay for or to take out loans to afford graduate school. You’ll be a better writer when you finish a creative writing degree—MFA, PhD—but better writers don’t necessarily get paid on a regular or even semi-regular basis. My advice is never to pay for a graduate degree in the arts or humanities, and never to go into debt of any amount to pay for a graduate degree in the arts or humanities. That said, I have known several students who could afford to pay the tuition and fees, or couldn’t afford to do the things they would’ve had to do to attend a program for free: relocate their families, quit their jobs, etc. Many programs offer assistantships (you teach undergraduates and/or assist faculty) or fellowships, but the number of assistantships and/or fellowships is often limited. Many programs provide information regarding of the cost of living in their respective towns or cities. If they don’t, look at local apartment ads online and/or ask the program to put you in touch with a current student who can tell you about grocery stores and neighborhoods. Remember that a $10,000 yearly stipend goes a lot farther in Tallahassee, Florida or Moscow, Idaho than it does in New York City or Boston.
3) Think about where you’d like to live. Like the South? The frozen North? San Francisco? Miami? Small college town? Big city? This can be important because if the graduate program for any reason does not provide you with all you’ll need, a good town can make things better. Don’t make this your only consideration when picking a school, however. You might not get to choose between a school in Chicago and one in a small university town, but you’ll only be there for a few years, and chances that you’ll attend a university in a place where there’s nothing interesting are slim: even tiny college towns have a way of attracting bookstores, coffeeshops, and gourmet pizza—and interesting people.
4) Get online. Once you’ve thought about why you want to attend a creative writing program, if you can afford to attend a creative writing program, and where you might like to live while enrolled in a creative writing program, visit the Association of Writers and Writing Program Guide to Creative Writing Programs website: http://awpwriter.org/programsearch/ Check out a few programs and see if any interest you. Keep in mind that these websites are advertisements for the programs as well as sources of information, so most of them are impressive and alluring.
5) Read the faculty’s work so you have some idea who will be teaching you. Once you have identified a handful of creative writing programs that look interesting, go to their websites or consult their application materials to find the titles of the faculty’s publications, make a list, and head to the library or your local bookstore. While most good teachers are open to all kinds of work, it makes sense that a program staffed solely with experimental fiction writers or formalist poets will be interested in admitting and working with experimental fiction writers or formalist poets. Look for programs that seem to have varied faculty interests—or interests that are similar to yours. Publications are a good way to judge the repute of a program: every faculty member should have published at least one book-length work, and should be publishing stories or poems or essays often. Beware programs staffed with writers who have not published well or lately: you want to work with successful working artists if you go to grad school for a creative writing degree.
6) Check out the requirements for earning the degree. Be aware of what classes, exams, and other requirements the program requires its students to complete in order to graduate. There are sometimes vast differences between programs. Some take two years, some four. Some ask students to take more literature classes, some fewer; some will require comprehensive exams, some will not; some require students to prove competence in one or more foreign languages, some do not. Before you even apply, be sure that you know what you’re going to have to do to get the degree, and how long it will take you. These are not surprises you want to encounter after enrolling.
7) See who comes to visit. A good creative writing program will have an events series that brings writers (and sometime editors and agents) to campus to give readings, workshops, and craft talks for students.
8) Note student successes. Pride makes successful programs brag about their successful students and alumni. Take a look at who has graduated and what they have done and/or are doing—publications, employment, etc. Many programs have newsletters on their websites and/or use Facebook and Twitter to share information about the achievements of current students and alumni.
9) Get good letters of recommendation. Most schools require three letters of recommendation as part of an application. These letters should be from professors who know you and your work and whom you think will speak highly of you. A good rule of thumb is to have as many letters as you can from full professors (the most advanced academic rank) or associate professors (the second-most advanced rank), and for all or most of the letters to be from full-time faculty (i.e. not graduate students or temporary faculty). It is best to have as many letters from writers as you can get—you’re applying to a writing program after all. If you know a professor who thinks highly of you but has had little contact with your creative writing—a painting professor, a chemist, a philosopher—you can ask her or him to write a letter that speaks to your skills and interests in other areas as proof that you are an interesting and thoughtful person. (NB: Students who have not had the opportunity to take classes with numerous creative writing professors and are therefore unable to get two or three letters from writers should not worry that this will automatically disqualify them. As long as the letters are good, and attest to your creative talents, they will be more than acceptable—even if none of them are from writers.)
10) Make sure your application is complete, clean, and appropriate. Nothing’s more annoying to an admissions committee than an application that is missing an important piece: statement, transcripts, letters, writing sample, etc. Make sure to read carefully the application materials and then to send or have sent every single item the application asks for—nothing more, nothing less. When I say “clean,” I’m not talking about four-letter words. (Though gratuitous obscenity should be avoided.) You’d be surprised to learn that many applicants send poorly formatted writing samples and incompletely filled-out forms. Remember that the committees will sometimes be reading hundreds of applications, so make it as easy as you can for them to recognize your strengths. If you’re applying to a program to study fiction writing, and the application asks for twenty pages of fiction, it is not appropriate to send a lot less or a lot more (a little less or a little more is okay), or to send instead of (or in addition to) fiction, poems, essays, or critical prose. Make sure that your statement is also appropriate. It is never a good idea to announce to a committee that you feel you do not need any more instruction, but that you want a degree so that you can get a pay raise at your current job, or that you have not written very much fiction, but you like it a lot as a hobby and think that it might be fun to fool around for a few years in a workshop, or something similar—you’d be shocked to see the kinds of silliness that people think will convince a committee to admit them. Consider instead a simple, straightforward, honest explanation of why you want to go to graduate school in creative writing. Some version of “I want time to write, learn new techniques, and be a member of a creative community” is what committees like to hear—and they want to hear that because that’s what creative writing programs are good for. If you’re looking to get rich or famous, you’re looking in the wrong place. Finally, meet deadlines. Some programs have two deadlines, one for students who want financial aid, one for those who do not. Make sure you know which deadlines you need to meet, and send your materials in before those deadlines.