My senior year of college I applied to graduate writing programs in creative writing and screenwriting. I was going to become a writer, a full-time wordsmith, who traveled and met new people all over the world. After a slew of applications, compiling writing samples, and interviewing in local hotel conference rooms I was accepted into film school, a screenwriting program in Los Angeles. I’d spent years dreaming of being in LA, basking in the sun and writing stories that were more than just about a majority that excluded me or my people.
And then I made the biggest mistake of my life.
I turned it down.
Out of fear I turned it down. Out of fear I questioned taking a loan… could I pay it off after graduation? Out of fear I questioned moving to LA. Could I make it on my own, halfway across the country from my parents? Out of fear I questioned making my dream a reality. Could I actually get a job as a writer? Was I… good enough? Worthy?
Have I spent the past decade kicking myself for that decision? Undoubtedly, yes. Even now as I write this I feel the pangs of regret, the wonder at what could have been, if I’d turned away from fear toward courage the way Martha Graham did, and not let my dreams evaporate into smoke.
Giving Into the Writing Bug
The desire to be a writer has pursued me for as long as I can remember – even through high school, when I thought I’d be a lawyer, ultimately deciding against it after nodding off (multiple times!) in Government. Still, everything in me resisted this desire, too afraid to give in or pursue something that might interest me. But, it’s the love that has always come back time and time again. The love that has pursued me the way I wish lovers would – quietly returning, reminding me of its desire for me, never letting me go or fully quit, standing strong and holding on so that I won’t give up on it.
The resistance I created to writing haunted me every step of the way. One of my favorite jobs as an undergrad was being a Writing Center Consultant for my college’s library. I loved this gig so much I wish I’d found it sooner so I could’ve done it longer! It satisfied the social, chatty part of me, while also letting me work independently. While on the job, I’d read and edit pieces for clarity, consistency of theme, and small grammar or spelling errors. Then, I’d meet with students to suggest edits and provide feedback.
But this wasn’t a one-way conversation, where they’d sit and listen while I just blabbed away. Instead, it was a two-way conversation where we talked about their vision and how to align their writing with what they truly wanted to say. AND I got to be part of a really cool team of creatives who I collaborated with to develop a weekly writing workshop at a local women’s jail and edit a journal of student and faculty writing.
A recent opportunity as a Copy Coach brought this memory back to me. I started to remember what it felt like to talk to people about their process, their ideas, their writing. And I started to remember how much joy it brought me.
5 Keys to Consider When Researching Graduate Writing Programs
I originally intended to document my journey to Journalism school. I realized though that in revisiting this piece, my journey to writing and screenwriting programs would be a lot more valuable for you. One because I actually did it and two because I hope you’ll learn from my mistake and lean toward courage instead of fear in this process.
Deciding on graduate school or more specifically, a writing program, is a BIG decision. There are so many programs out there and it can be a challenge to narrow it down to a top 5 or even top 3. While you may love a certain school because of the prestige, it’s vital you not attach yourself to any of them. Be open to choosing the one that will make you the best writer, the one that will provide you with the tools and experience you need to succeed.
Your success could look different based on the school’s location, program offerings (such as internships and residencies), or network. While all of these are important in their own right, you’ll weigh each of these pieces differently based on what you need.
For example, a screenwriter will likely gravitate toward LA or New York because both of these locations are ripe for making industry connections. But graduate writing programs in nonfiction or poetry, like the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, aren’t as dependent on location. Instead, these programs provide a tight-knit community where writers can truly learn the ins and outs of the craft. That’s why I’ve created this guide. With so many things to think about it can be a challenge to figure out where to even begin!
In this article, I’ll go through the most important things to consider in the hopes of simplifying your decision and helping you choose what’s best for your future and dreams.
So, when researching graduate writing programs, what should you look for? Here are 5 keys to think about:
1. Location. Is there a state or city you feel most drawn to? Is there a publication or media company that you’d really like to work for? What major markets are important to the type of writing you’d like to do?
2. Graduate Writing Programs Opportunities + Specialties. Does the program offer an internship or a specialization track in a field you’re interested in? Will you have access to professionals in the field or others in the industry? Does the program have a magazine, journal, or site for students to build their portfolios?
3. Cost of Attending. Is there funding like scholarships or grants through the school? What’s the cost of living? Does the program offer an optional 5th quarter or summer program that piques your interest?
4. Facilities. Does the school provide access to equipment, a writing community, or digital studio? Do classes provide hands-on learning? Is there an opportunity to produce other types of content (audio, video, etc.) in addition to your written work?
5. Curriculum + Career Development: Do students publish their work while still in school? How quickly do students start publishing? How involved is the career development office in helping students build their career plans?
Location, location, location – it’s probably one of the biggest elements that will affect where you go to school. Major markets like NYC, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles can provide access to big news publications, hot companies, and networking opportunities. But you don’t have to be in a major city to succeed in writing or as a writer. Choosing a school in a smaller town is a good way to explore your writing style and build a community. When thinking about location, consider where your favorite outlets or media companies are headquartered, if the type of writing you’re interested in is popular in a certain city (such as poetry in a city with poetry nights) and the level of access you’ll have to industry contacts.
2. Graduate Writing Programs Opportunities + Specialties
While some schools, like Iowa Writers’ Workshop, are two years others can range from two to three years. Since the time you spend in graduate school will be precious it’s smart to start thinking now how you can best leverage your experience. Programs with internships, faculty-led travel, or a school verified publication provide students with a chance to find their voice, create portfolio samples, and build a network. Select schools also offer workshops, events, and visits to local companies where students connect with professionals and other writers in the field. Award-winning and experienced faculty can also be an added perk of a graduate writing program, though this could be a deciding factor on its own too.
3. Cost of Attending
Another big element of choosing a graduate school – tuition, student fees, and the area’s cost of living. Financial aid, scholarships, and grants tend to vary from school to school. Schools such as Cornell University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing fully fund students whereas Screenwriting at UCLA offers work-study, awards, and scholarships. Most of these will cover the cost of tuition, though you should also keep in mind how much you’ll need for living expenses: room and board, books, health insurance, food, transportation, and any additional courses, like optional quarters, internships, or summer programs that would boost your education.
Writing in the 21st century is all about multimedia. Writers today need to be able to write, research, produce web content, promote stories on social – all of which require knowledge of digital tools. This is where school facilities play a huge role in the decision process. Think about if the school offers access to social media or marketing for writers, multimedia workshops on video or audio, or even hands-on learning where you can put your skills to work while studying.
5. Curriculum + Career Development
Of course, the classes you take and the support you get in career development will make a huge impact on where you go. Some schools will highly involve themselves with supporting their students during and beyond the program with a dedicated advisor and career expo. While writing will be a major focus, your school might also offer industry internships either in the summer or as a third-year option, or it might offer the opportunity to teach writing alongside your classes.
What Else to Consider?
While researching school you may also consider the faculty, class sizes, type of student the program draws, and campus activities. I’ve found these factors to be more flexible though. It’s harder, for example, to transfer because the location isn’t a fit versus switching professors in a given semester. If these considerations are on your mind, first narrow down your list with the 5 keys listed above and then use secondary factors like faculty, class size, etc. to compare your top choices.
How Many Graduate Programs Is Too Many?
So how many graduate writing programs should you ultimately apply to? I’d suggest applying to your top 3 to top 5 schools. You can certainly apply to more if you feel really strongly about the programs you selected though applying to graduate programs can get expensive, especially if you’re applying for scholarships and grants too. Choosing from a smaller list might also seem counterintuitive but the more you can narrow down your list the more focused you can make your application’s personal statement.
I hope these tips are helpful for you! Are you currently or will you in the future apply to graduate writing programs? What’s most important to you when choosing a school or program? Let me know in the comments below.