The country’s first real writing program started in 1936 at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. At the time, it was the only program of its kind catering to the needs of budding writers and poets across the nation.
In the decades following, it became well-known as the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and similar programs sprang up in California, New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.
Such writing workshops – which offer both undergraduate B.A. degrees in English and more intensive postgraduate work where a novel or set of short stories substitutes as a thesis – are still emerging today, with New York University, Boston University, and Georgia State University being some of the top colleges in the country that have established a writing program in the past 10 to 15 years.
Graduates from these programs are not restricted to novels or to fiction. Many of the graduates and instructors at Iowa City (Robert Frost, John Cheever, Ray Carver, Michael Cunningham, Marilynn Robinson and many others) have gone on to publish chapbooks, novels, memoirs, screenplays, and stage plays, all of which are available in paperback, hardback, and on any eReader.
Applying is straightforward and normally includes:
- Recommendation letters (2-4)
- Personal Statement or Essay (1-4 pages)
- SAT, GRE or TEFL Scores
- Writing Sample (5-40 pages)
The particular demands at your university of choice will have additional or slightly different demands. Traditionally, the more selective the program then the more they will demand from you. However, this is not a consistent metric with which to measure all programs. New York University, for instance, only asks for 20 pages of your writing as a sample, but is in actuality much more selective than City College New York, which asks for 40 pages or more.
Deadlines differ, but the basic tenant is this: apply early. Start in early November at the latest. Although certain universities in the Northeast have pushed their deadlines as far back as May (for a term beginning three months later in August), most programs, including the famous Iowa Writer’s Workshop, have an early to mid-December deadline.
What is the best method of learning these details? Most people visit the websites. They are easy to review and explore (mostly) and usually have good, qualified information which you will want to include in your application form and application essay (such as names of staff and professors). They will also guide you on funding and fellowships. Most consultants and professors will advise you: don’t get into debt for your writing degree. Make sure you have access to a teaching fellowship (which covers tuition and stipend). Famously, the New School in New York City provides no funding for writing students and should, for that reason, be a last resort for applicants. All other writing programs do offer funding usually in the form of fellowships.
A better way to go if you want information, however, is to call the school. Advisors and graduate program directors are always very happy to speak to prospective students and answer specific questions about funding and deadlines. Plus, it’s a great way to get on relevant university listserves that can give up up-to-the-minute information on programs, events, speakers, jobs, and more.
Don’t let the application process drag you down. An MFA in creative writing means you can be employed as a teacher in just about any college, university, or high school in the country. Meanwhile, you will be working on your groundbreaking novel with greater ease.