Start Your M.F.A. Program on the Right Foot: 12 Tips to Making The Most Out of Your Experience
Updated: Jan 20
Since the pandemic, more people are seeking careers and education in creative arts. I've seen it firsthand through my work with teen and young adult writers. Several times a week, I'm asked about pursuing a Master of Fine Arts: Is it worth the money? Will it help me sell my books? Will it help my career in the long run? Does it actually make you a better writer?
Although I could list off a simple pros and cons list, my answer is much simpler: it’s up to the individual.
Most M.F.A. programs have dozens of opportunities for their students, but taking full advantage of these opportunities is where students seem to struggle. Attending my M.F.A. program, I could have easily wasted my time and money if I hadn’t learned what benefits my program had and, more importantly, how to reap the benefits presented to me.
To answer a better question, “How do you make the most out of an M.F.A. program,” I offer these 12 tips to help you mine the resources you might not realize your program has in store for you.
1. Meet every faculty member you have the chance to
Introducing yourself to faculty can prosper your career and lead to some of the most valuable connections. The writing world is tight-knit. Everyone knows someone who knows someone. Your program’s faculty will probably know some of the most prestigious individuals in the industry. For example, my professors ran in the same circles as authors, poets, and publishers I’d only ever dreamt of meeting.
There are also many insights that come with experience in the industry. From submission etiquette, working with editors, and formatting manuscripts, my faculty taught me the ins and outs (and do’s and don’t’s) of the writing world that would have taken me years to know on my own.
It will reward you later to develop professional relationships with your program's faculty. Just remember to be respectful, kind, and intentional in your conversations.
2. Make the most of every lecture
Although I was enrolled as a poet in my program, I attended many lectures from fiction and nonfiction writers. I heard professionals talk about the most unique topics, from participating in clown school to writing about their personal traumatic experiences. Never once did I stick my nose up at a lecture that seemed insignificant to my studies. I understood that, no matter the topic, there was something valuable for me to learn from these experts.
If you neglect the presentations that feel less relevant to your interests, you will miss out on some amazing realizations. After all, creativity is best explored through new scopes. Don’t shy away from strange, new topics. Embrace them!
3. Go to readings & other program events
As a student (and often an alum as well), you have the opportunity to sign up for and attend readings and other events your school puts on. In my program, readings during the residency were mandatory—although sadly not everyone attended—but readings during other times of the year were complimentary. I still receive emails from my former program directors about upcoming events with famous authors and poets.
If you have the opportunity the attend, you meet some amazing writers. And even if your program does not host these events, many other organizations and institutions hold virtual and in-person events for cheap prices, and even sometimes for free.
4. Introduce yourself to guest speakers
As a writer, you want to get your name out there. One simple way to do this is to approach a guest speaker after their presentation (as long as they are accepting conversations) and introduce yourself. If you have a question prepared, by all means ask it. And if you don’t, telling them that you enjoyed their presentation will mean a lot to them.
If you're worried about walking up to a guest writer and introducing yourself, don't fret. Writers are some of the kindest people you'll meet. An experience I’ll always hold dear to my heart was when I met poet Nicole Sealey after her amazing reading of her collection, Ordinary Beast. I waited in a line of people to talk to her, told her I loved her reading, and thanked her for speaking. She treated me warmly with a big smile. After that, I was rarely afraid to introduce myself to another writer.
5. Buy everyone’s books
It's a critical process to look over the names of your program's faculty members and add their novels and collections to your Barnes & Noble shopping cart. Reading the writers you're learning from can have a powerful impact on your own work. However, we often forget to consider our classmates as writers as well. Many of the students in my program were published authors, some of which I was rather close to. Their published work was some of the most inspiring I had read.
Similar to reading your faculty's work, engaging with work from students learning the same lessons as you can help you make connections with your cohort and learn what you want to mimic from others.
6. Go to workshops
Your program will require you to attend workshops, but I have seen students skip out on these classes. Sometimes it's due to nervousness. No matter how experienced you are, workshops will always be scary. Maybe you hadn’t had the best experiences in the past, but know that there are many writers putting in the work to deconstruct and reconstruct standard workshop procedures that have been harmful to writers' confidence and creative processes. In the right atmosphere, your work can thrive.
Other writers have ditched out on workshops because they don't value workshop attendance. They think, it's not my work being workshopped today so I don't have to go. You can’t expect your classmates to put the energy into your work if you are not putting the energy into theirs. Make sure you are also reading the work prior to class and preparing notes. I have been in settings where students had not read my work prior. It feels frustrating and unfair to the writer being workshopped.
7. Develop a writing group outside of the classroom
The way my program worked was every six months we attended classes abroad for two weeks, and then we returned home to complete remote work one-on-one with a faculty advisor. This means that the majority of the time I was not around my classmates. This proved to be difficult for the first semester, but eventually we developed a writing group that met once a month over Zoom. This made a huge impact on my writing. I felt much more motivated. Whether your program is remote, low residency, or in person, a writing group with classmates can provide a safe atmosphere to ask questions, share interests, and receive a creative outlook on your work.
8. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there
Yes, it can be scary. M.F.A. programs can feel like such a different environment, especially if you are not involved in the writing industry prior. It can feel fast-paced and daunting. But remember, you are a key factor in how your M.F.A. experience will unfold. I discovered that it isn’t just enough to go to class, do the work, and go home. Speaking to professors, creating relationships with classmates, asking questions, and promoting my own writing gave me the tools and confidence to succeed after graduating.
9. Be confident
Many times during my residencies, I felt inferior to my classmates. How did I get into this program when everyone is better than me? My acceptance must have been a mistake. It was your classic imposter syndrome. I didn’t realize that the majority of my classmates were feeling the same thing.
A student I didn’t know particularly well stopped by the water cooler while I was filling my water bottle and we began talking. She informed me that students for our program were not accepted based on our statements of purpose or our CVs, but majorly on our writing sample. I felt my imposter syndrome melt away. I was chosen because of my work, because of my potential, just like every other student in the program. It’s important you, too, know that you deserve to be in the program you are accepted into. Be confident in your work and in yourself, and it will take you far.
10. Make a list of book recommendations
During presentations, workshops, and amble conversations, faculty and guest speakers will drop the names of books and authors constantly. Even students will do this! I soon realized that having a sheet of paper on hand was the best method to starting my book recommendation list. Every time someone recommended a book, I wrote it down. Eventually, this list expanded across pages. It felt like a lot at first, but since graduating it has grown my reading and writing abilities tremendously.
11. Find a group of friends to motivate you
Because my program was different—we were all studying abroad and away from our homes—and we were a small group of poets, we all bonded quickly. We set up poetry meetings (where fiction and nonfiction writers were invited), brunches, and get-togethers throughout the span of our residency. The workload of each residency was demanding, but it felt bearable when I had friends to lean on and talk about experiences with.
It may feel lonely when you first join an M.F.A. program, but keep in mind that there is a group of writers out there for you. They will motivate you, ask for your advice, and strengthen your writing.
12. Ask questions (and ask them well)
I cannot stress enough the importance of asking relevant questions in the classroom. Most likely, you will have the chance to pick the brains of some amazing writers in your M.F.A. program. Don’t be afraid to stick your hand up in the air and go for it. The caveat is to make sure you ask questions shortly, precisely, and, therefore, respectfully. This same piece of advice applies to letters and emails. Your professors have a limited amount of time to answer your questions, so be direct and brief. They will appreciate this.
Whether you're in an M.F.A. program, applying to one, or simply considering it, these 12 tips are helpful in any stage of your creative education. Working toward a Master of Fine Arts can be a valuable, life-changing experience, but only if you partake in the opportunities at your disposal and know where to find them.
Desirée Brown is a writer, poet, and content writer. She received her B.A. in English from University of North Carolina-Charlotte and her M.F.A. from New York University. Her work has been featured in Hedge Apple Magazine, Woven Tale Press, Sanskrit Literary-Arts Magazine, and more. She has worked with poets Ishion Hutchinson, Nick Laird, Catherine Barnett, and Matthew Rohrer. She is the founder and executive director of the Young Eager Writers Association. Today, Desirée lives in Atlanta, Georgia.