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Pursing Careers in Creative Writing

LLCEnglish DegreeCareers for English Majors
Graduate SchoolFinding a Program / Timeline for Preparing / The Application Portfolio / Some Full-Time Programs / Some Low-Residency Programs 

Students who wish pursue careers in creative writing may begin during college by participating in writing courses, on-campus and off-campus creative publications, and community-based writing groups.

What you can do with a B.A.

After graduation, becoming a creative writer takes determination to keep submitting your work until you find a publisher and inspiration to keep writing original projects. National organizations like the national Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) and local groups, such as the Hub City Writers Project and the South Carolina Commission Literary Arts Program can connect you with other writers through conferences, publications, readings, writing groups, workshops, and other programs.

What you can do with an M.F.A. (Master's of Fine Arts) or creative Ph.D.

Students who wish to build their skills through intensive study or who wish to teach creative writing in addition to being a creative writer should consider M.F.A. or creative Ph.D. programs.

Goals of Creative Writing Graduate Programs

Based upon the courses and philosophy statements of universities such as Antioch University and Iowa State University:

  • They focus on not only writing intensively, but also creating a network of writers with which to work.
  • Most schools require students to focus in a single genre--fiction (novels and shorts stories), creative nonfiction, poetry or playwriting. Some programs also focus on more specialized genres, such as children's or young adult literature or digital/hypertext literary forms.
  • Students learn how to work with editors and to submit manuscripts for publishing with the goal of producing a book-length work at the end of the graduate program.
  • In programs at larger universities, students may also have an opportunity to learn about teaching creative writing at a college level.
  • The M.F.A. is usually a two-year program, taught by a small group of permanent writers along with writers-in-residence.
  • The creative Ph.D. is offered at a handful of schools, including the University of DenverFlorida State University, and the University of Utah. These programs combine research-focused literature courses with creative writing workshops and a creative dissertation. The five- to seven-year programs prepare students for careers in active creative publishing and college-level teaching.
  • To apply, most schools require a writing sample or portfolio of samples in the genre students wish to pursue.

Finding the Right Creative Writing Graduate Program for You

Graduate programs are much more personalized and specialized than undergraduate degrees. Students must consider several factors in selecting a graduate program that will fit your particular needs:

  • What is your primary goal--publication, self-improvement, or college-level teaching along with publication?
    • Some programs combine preparation for and experience in college-level teaching with writing workshops and literature courses. Consider teaching job placement rates to see which programs successfully prepare their students for college-level teaching.
    • Some programs focus almost exclusively on workshopping and instruction in learning to work with editors, publishers, and agents. Read through the program mission statements and program descriptions on-line and call program directors to be sure that your goals match the primary goals of the programs to which you apply.
  • With whom should you study? What genre will you develop for publication? Which authors within that genre do you admire? Even the most highly-ranked school might be wrong for you if none of the writers can serve as positive role models. Research the faculty in creative writing graduate programs, and select only those programs where you can make a connection with the writers who will serve as your mentors as well as instructors.
  • Where would you like to study? There are over 200 M.F.A. programs in the United States, and students can find programs in every state. Do you want to study intensively on a campus for two years (best for building networks and preparing for a teaching/writing career)? Do you want primarily to build your skills? Consider a low-residency program in which students live at home and complete work at a distance for most of the year then travel to campus for brief, intensive workshopping on campus once each semester.
  • How will you pay for graduate school? Programs that include a teaching focus often offer teaching assistantships or editorial assistantships that provide a stipend and/or tuition waiver. In more publication-focused programs, students rely on fellowships, grants, loans, and other financial aid for support.
  • Will you be accepted? Most creative writing programs only accept between 5 and 25 students each year. In the most competitive programs, 750 applicants are competing for 5 spaces. Accepted students have often been published in national literary journals and have won national prizes and grants even before they applied. Consider the acceptance ratios of creative writing programs and ask questions of program directors to find programs that fit your level of experience and preparation.

Applying for Creative Writing Graduate Programs

  • In your first two years of college, learn to be a good student, get involved in the school and community, and establish good academic relationships with your professors.
  • In your junior year of college...
    • Begin to identify your area of interest and your goals.
    • Talk with your advisors about selecting courses that will prepare you for the graduate programs you wish to pursue.
    • Participate in on-campus or community-based creative writing publications, readings, or events. Get involved in the field to help you determine whether or not this career is right for you.
    • Establish good academic relationships with your professors, discussing how to improve your academic performance and to achieve your academic goals. These relationships will be necessary when you request letters of recommendation for your applications.
    • Get involved with the literary arts magazine by submitting your work or working as an editor.
    • Begin to research graduate admission tests, such as the GRE, scholarships, and financial aid.
  • In the summer after your junior year...
    • Research the GRE, take the GRE sample test available online, and enroll in GRE preparation workshops if you are concerned about your performance. You may wish to take the GRE general test over the summer if you have taken all of your general education courses, particularly in math. The mean GRE scores from 2003-2006 for Creative Writing were Verbal 553, Quantitative 547, and Writing 4.8.
    • Research graduate programs (See the Peterson's GuideGraduate School Guide to identify M.F.A. programs), obtain applications materials, and start organizing application deadlines and requirements.
    • Prepare a draft of your statement of purpose or application essay. See the University of California-Berkeley tips for preparing graduate school statements. Drew and Karen Appleby list several tips for avoiding application mistakes in "Kisses of Death in the Graduate School Application Process," published in Teaching of Psychology 33.1 (2006): 19-24. Several online communities also offer advice and serve as a sounding board for students applying to graduate school.
    • Compile a portfolio of creative writing for your writing sample. Include enough work to meet requirements for 10-page and 30-page samples, depending on school requirements.
  • In fall of your senior year...
    • Request letters of recommendation from your advisor and professors. Most schools require three letters. Plan to discuss your goals and accomplishments with your professors when you make these requests. Bring a resume/vita, the recommendation form, a stamped, addressed envelope, a copy of your statement of purpose, and copies of excellent work you produced in their courses (if not recent). Make these requests early to give your professors time to review your academic performance and write thoughtful letters. If your applications are due in December, try to make your requests in October.
    • Take the GRE general test by mid-October to ensure your scores will be available by application deadlines.
    • Review and revise your graduate school application essays with the aid of your advisor, professors, and/or the Career Center.
    • Review and revise your writing portfolio with the aid of your advisor and/or professors.
    • Contact graduate programs with questions about application or program details.
    • Order your transcripts from the University.
    • Complete and submit applications for graduate programs by the deadlines. Also submit any relevant financial aid forms by the APPLICATION DEADLINES (most in early December or early January).
  • In spring of your senior year...
    • Wait for offers.
    • Consider a back-up plan for additional financial support.
    • If you have multiple acceptances, discuss your options with your advisor/professors and consider visiting campuses to help you make your decision.
    • Notify schools of your decisions BY THE DECISION DEADLINE (often early April).
    • Start to build a good relationship with your program's department assistant to get connected with graduate student email lists, contact lists for apartments and other housing, and orientation/registration deadlines.
  • After graduation....
    Many students may wish to take a semester or two off after graduation to prepare for graduate school, and graduate schools do not generally have any objections to students making this choice. While you are out of school, however, take this opportunity to get involved in your community, in local writing groups, or in other growth or travel experiences that will give you plenty to write about in your applications and your later creative writing.

The Application Portfolio

  • The application form for your chosen schools. 
  • Three letters of recommendation from professors who can discuss your potential for academic excellence. 
  • Writing samples of the genre(s) you plan to pursue in graduate school. 
  • statement of purpose that describes why you want a graduate degree and what you plan to study. See Tips for writing the personal essay above. 
  • A copy of transcripts from every undergraduate institution you have attended.

Some M.F.A. Creative Writing Programs

  • The closest option for students who wish to stay in South Carolina is the M.F.A. program at The University of South Carolina in Columbia. Applications are due January 30, and they require the online application, transcripts, GRE general test scores, at least two letters of recommendation, a sample of academic writing (10 page), a creative writing portfolio, and a statement of purpose.
  • The University of Georgia in Athens also offers an M.F.A. in creative writing.
  • Top-ranked M.F.A. programs, according to US News and World Report Graduate School Rankings 2002:
    • University of Iowa
    • Johns Hopkins University (Maryland)
    • University of Houston
    • Columbia University (New York)
    • University of Virginia
    • New York University
    • University of California-Irvine
    • University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
    • University of Arizona
    • Boston University
    • Cornell University (New York)
    • University of Massachusetts-Amherst
    • University of Montana
    • University of Washington
    • Washington University in St. Louis
    • Brown University (Rhode Island)
    • Indiana University-Bloomington
    • University of Arkansas
    • University of Utah
    • Arizona State University
    • Emerson College (Massachusetts)
    • George Mason University (Virginia)
    • Hollins College (Virginia)
    • Sarah Lawrence College (New York)
    • Syracuse University (New York)

Some Low-Residency M.F.A. Programs

Compiled by Dr. Celena E. Kusch, with contributions by Caroline Sullivan and Candice McCuen

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