Tuesday, June 5, 2012

20 The M.F.A. Cheat Sheet

If you're serious about getting published as a children's writer, you may have considered enrolling in a Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) creative writing program. I first heard about low-residency M.F.A. programs at an SCBWI conference. At the time, it sounded like a huge commitment of both time and money and it wasn't something I was quite ready to entertain. After looking into M.F.A. programs nearly two years later, I found that these impressions weren't entirely wrong. But they weren't entirely correct, either.

A few months ago, I was ready to explore M.F.A. programs more seriously. A couple of things became clear: There's no quick way to find out which programs specialize solely in writing for children and young adults. Nearly all the programs that focus on writing for children are a low-residency format, meaning you don't have to be away from home most of the time. All those conferences you've been attending and manuscripts you've been polishing will come in handy when applying. Above all, applying to these programs isn't as scary as it may seem.

So here's the nitty gritty cheat sheet for M.F.A. programs that specialize in writing for children and young adults.

Hollins University: Roanoke, Virginia

Hollins offers a summer M.F.A. program exclusively in the study and writing of children's literature. The program is a low-residency format, which requires students to live on campus for a 6-week summer term.
Degree completion requirements: 48 credits, or ten 4-credit courses and an 8-credit thesis. Four courses must be focused on the study of children’s literature.
Independent study: A student may complete up to eight Hollins credits in independent study and/or eight online credits outside the summer terms. At least 16 credits must be completed on campus.
Tuition: $705/credit hour, housing $975/summer term
Course listings can be viewed here.
The deadline to apply is February 15th to begin the summer term. More information on applying to these programs can be found here.

Vermont College of Fine Arts: Montpellier, Vermont
The Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Program was the nation's first fully developed MFA program focusing on writing for young readers. Students travel to campus twice a year (10 days in July and 10 days in January) for what is akin to a writers’ retreat. After these brief on-campus stays, you return to your home to complete a semester of self-designed study in your own surroundings.
Degree completion requirements: The program is completed over the course of two years and a total of five low-residency visits to campus.
Independent study: From the VCFA website: “During your independent study project, you are closely supervised every step of the way and maintain a continual correspondence with faculty and peers, making the study quite collaborative. Throughout the four semesters, you will take an active role in shaping your own curricula and advancing your writing according to your personal vision and passion, while participating in a sustained dialogue with experienced writers of national reputation.”
Tuition: $8,783/6-month semester, $680 fee per residency
Course listings can be viewed here.
The deadline for the Winter 2013 term is September 1, 2012. More application information can be found here.

Hamline University: St. Paul, Minnesota
Students complete this program over two years in a low-residency format. There are five on-campus stays throughout the program (twice a year for 11 days each). Categories of study include picture book, early reader, middle-grade and young-adult fiction, poetry, nonfiction, graphic novel, and comics.

Degree completion requirements: 52 credits are required to complete this program.

Curriculum: From Hamline’s website: “The curriculum is developed over the course of five residencies and four semesters. Each residency focuses on one of the five elements of the craft of writing; the residencies build students’ understanding of the craft, literature, and business of writing. This work is continued and deepened over the ensuing semester as students work closely with their faculty advisors on their creative and critical writing.”

Tuition: Total cost of $32,084, which includes $617/credit and fees for residency terms.

Course listings can be viewed here.
The application deadline is May 15 to begin during the summer term, or November 15 for the winter term.

Simmons College: Boston, MA

Simmons's Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children, like the Master of Arts in Children's Literature, has a strong theoretical focus and engages students in a rigorous and disciplined study of children's literature. This program requires full-time residency.
Curriculum: Students complete four academic courses and four writing courses to earn an M.F.A. in Writing for Children.
Tuition: $965/credit hour, room and board $7,360/semester
Course listings can be viewed here.
The application can be submitted any time due to the school’s rolling admission policy. The school advises for early application for maximum consideration for admission and financial aid. To meet priority application deadlines, completed application files should be submitted by May 1 for summer session, August 1 for the fall semester, and December 15 for the spring semester.

Spalding University: Louisville, Kentucky
The four-semester Spalding program stands alone in giving equal weight to audience considerations and serious study of craft. One or two semesters are spent on craft instruction in one of five focal areas: playwriting, fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, or screenwriting. This approach ensures that students learn to engage their young audiences with work of literary merit.
Independent study: Each semester begins with an intensive, invigorating residency, in which students and faculty work together for ten days of group instruction. After the residency, students return home for personalized instruction through one-on-one correspondence with a faculty mentor for the rest of the semester.
Tuition: $7,900 for a fall 2012 and spring/summer 2013, $250-900 for optional Louisville residency
Course listings can be viewed here.
Application deadlines are January 15 for the spring semester, February 1 for the summer semester, and July 1 for fall semester.

Additional programs to explore:
Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts offers an M.F.A. program with a concentration in Writing for Children and Young Adults.
Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts also offers an M.F.A. program with a concentration in Writing for Young People.
Did we miss any programs? Have you completed or enrolled in an M.F.A. program? We'd love to hear about your thoughts and experiences. Please post to comments.

Happy writing,


  1. I have an MA in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of Winchester in England. I studied part time and I would say it was definitely the best investment in time I have done to improve my writing. Prior to this I went to weekend writing schools and seminars but after the first few I found I was not learning much more each time. Eventually I counted myself lucky if I learnt one thing from an entire weekend of classes. Most attendees at creative writing weekends seem to be looking for a magic formula that guarantees bestsellership or that means they can write a 120,000 word novel without doing the hard work. To be fair quite a lot of presenters told us this but we ignored it. Once I understood this (I'm a slow learner I need to be told something many times to learn it...) I enrolled on the MA.

    I don't want to bore you with details but I learnt a lot. The best thing I learnt was that if you want to write for a living then treat it as if it was work. In other words sit down every day and get some writing done and if you want to succeed you need to work hard. The second best thing I learnt was that there is no magic formula and no right way to write. It's like art, there are many mediums, many styles and many ways of putting paint on paper.

    But the real joy of doing the MA was the networking. For two years I had a ready and willing network of expert writers able to answer my every question and I had access to agents and publishers and now after I have finished I have friends who are serious about writing with whom I still communicate about writing. As I say it was the best investment in time I could have made.

    1. Christopher, thanks so much for weighing in. I particularly love your lesson of treating our writing like we would treat work. Additionally, the value of networking is HUGE when you enter into a structured community of writers. A formal program in writing affords that great opportunity.

  2. Thanks for sharing all these resources Marissa. If I didn't have a daughter going to college in a few years, I might consider it.

    1. Natalie, I completely understand. The variety of stressors associated with starting an MFA program has been huge in my household. I'm going to share some of the key points I'm picking up in my program along the way, so hopefully those will be beneficial for you without having to actually enroll :)

  3. Thanks for sharing this list. Tweeted for you. ;D

  4. Thank you! I've been looking for a program.


  5. Great resources and information! I'm in the process right now of deciding on an MFA program. I think I have the school narrowed down; now it's just deciding do I go straight out of my BA program or wait a bit?


    1. Thanks, Jen! We're happy to help. When I started hunting down information for kid lit programs, it was much harder than I thought to narrow down schools that really focused on children's writing. Curious to know where you're thinking of going. I graduated with my B.S. in Childhood Ed. in 2002, completed another M.S. in Reading & Literacy in 2007, and am finally taking the plunge into an M.F.A.

      I've been thankful for the work experiences I've had as a classroom teacher over that 9 year gap because they've really fed into my writing in so many ways. I am planning on substitute teaching to stay connected with the kids, earn some cash, and keep a foot in the door in terms of long-term work. But I think we each have to figure out what makes sense for us as individuals. I'm sure you'll make a great choice but you must promise to let us know what you decide :)

  6. Hollins has a fantastic program. I'm in my third year. It is a great environment for writing, so nurturing, and very knowledgeable staff. The fact that it's 6 weeks in the summer makes it more doable than some other full time programs. I blog about classes and guest speakers in the summer, if anyone would like to follow and get a feel for the program:


    1. LHughes, I'm heading there this summer! Hope to meet you at some point :) Thanks for the feedback on their program.

    2. Yay! I hope you love it as much as I do! I consider it my own little paradise. We'll definitely meet-it's a small campus :)

    3. LHughes I have a stupid question for you.... How do most people handle this MFA program while working? Are most of them teachers so they have the summers off?

  7. One program you should absolutely include on your list is The New School in New York City. I got an MFA from there in Writing for Children. It's a great program. Many kidlit authors graduated from there, including Siobhan Vivian, Jenny Han, Coe Booth, Morgan Matson and others. David Levithan teaches there. It is NOT a low-residency program, however.

    1. Ghenet, thanks so much for offering this one up. I hadn't caught it in my "search net." It's funny how the low-residency factor plays out from program to program.

  8. I attend VCFA, about to head into my fourth semester. It's the best decision I've ever made. One of my critique partners recently told me that she can tell how much I've grown as a writer in the last year and a half; I owe that completely to VCFA. The low-residency format, with two residencies twice a year, makes it possible for me to attend while still working full-time. The faculty is seriously impressive, and we get incredible guest speakers each residency (often, we get multiple speakers). The amount of feedback I get on each submission of work is almost overwhelming; every faculty member puts as much thought into my work as I do. They're all working writers and they care about seeing you grow. It's hard work and you definitely sacrifice a lot of time and money, but it's absolutely worth it. There's also a focus on the critical aspect, so in addition to improving my creative writing, I've become a much more critical reader and learned how to better analyze what does and doesn't work in a piece of literature.

    Going to VCFA has also connected me with an incredible community of fellow children's writers. They're my closest friends, my best source of writing advice. We have workshops every residency which are the best workshops I've ever participated in. And we have fun! I love everything about VCFA and recommend it to anyone.

  9. Heather, wow, thank you for such a thorough and enthusiastic comment. I'm motivated just reading it! That's wonderful that the time and money committed to your program has yielded such valuable results. I'm starting at Hollins in a week, but may try and apply to VCFA even still. It's got such a fabulous reputation. Best of luck in your fourth semester and have fun at the July residency!

  10. Just wanted to add, Antioch University in Los Angeles just recently added Writing for Young People to their Low Residency MFA Creative Writing Program.

  11. This is great information. I've thought about doing this more than once. It's nice to see all of the options together.


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