The Choice: Deciding on a Low Residency MFA in Writing Program

First of all, my apologies for the tardiness of this post, which was promised weeks ago. Choosing which low residency MFA in Writing program to attend has been an arduous and brain-freezing task–a decision that lately rivaled the one to have children. But, it’s been made (can you hear the cheering and yahooing in the distance? That’s the sound of my husband and friends, celebrating the end of the madness).

I will be attending Vermont College of Fine Arts. My first residency is this coming winter.

If you’re reading this post, chances are you’re a family member or friend of mine, or–and here’s what I’m hoping–you are, like I was, attempting to choose a low residency MFA in Writing program.

There’s quite a bit of information out there in the universe–some useful, some not–about how to go about this process. In this post I’ll describe my process, in hopes that it may aid others. I’ll address elements of the decision that I did not see covered in the many books, articles, and blogs already published on the subject, I’ll share my research materials, and I’ll talk about my interactions with each program.

Please note that deciding on a graduate program is an intensely personal process: when it comes down to it, and the research has been exhausted, you just have to “go with your gut.” Annoying as hell to hear, right? But it’s true.

Off we go:

* For a bit of background information about my thoughts on the decision to return to graduate school, see “Once More Into the Breach,” posted on April 4, 2011.

First, I decided on low residency programs, instead of traditional. This was easy: I’ve a husband, daughter, dog, and mortgage, among other things, that keep me rooted. Second, I chose seven programs to which I’d apply: (these are in no particular order)

1. Pacific University
2. University of New Orleans
3. Lesley University
4. Goddard College
5. Queens University of Charlotte
6. Vermont College of Fine Arts
7. Spalding University

The reasoning behind this initial culling (there are over 100 low residency programs in the U.S. at this time) was simple:

1. Pacific: I’d always wanted to spend time in the Pacific Northwest, I think they have the most aesthetically pleasing website and program information, and Pam Houston–a long-time favorite of mine–teaches there.

2. University of New Orleans: The study abroad aspects of the program (you must spend a month abroad each summer to complete the low residency degree) were enticing.

3. Lesley University: Reputation was a big factor; also, the idea of being in such a literary epicenter like Cambridge was appealing.

4. Goddard College: Reputation, certainly. A chance to be in Vermont.

5. Queens University: Living in N.C., I’d recently become familiar with this newer program, which had been gaining favor and hiring some authors I admire, like Elizabeth Strout.

6. Vermont College of Fine Arts: First and foremost: reputation. And, the chance to study either in Vermont (a state I’d fallen in love with during a writer’s residency a few years ago) or abroad, with top faculty and writers… many who’d earned their MFAs from Iowa. Also: alumni publishing success.

7. Spalding University: Only 6 hours from where I live, with an innovative “flexible scheduling” that allowed for mixing 6-month and 9-month long semsters, study abroad options, a chance to study cross-genre (my areas of interest: fiction and creative nonfiction). Also liked the fact that the program director, Sena Jeter Naslund, published successful historical fiction–my own genre.

**Though I know one has to take ranking with a “grain of salt,” six of the seven programs were included in Atlantic Monthly‘s “Best of the Best” and in Poet’s and Writers “Top Ten Low Residency Programs.” Most had been in the top ten in any sort of rankings taken over the past ten years, especially Vermont College (#1 or tied for first each year).

So, in the Fall of 2010 I worked on my writing samples, garnered my recommendations, ordered transcripts, and applied. By March 2011, I’d heard from most schools. I was rejected by Queens and Lesley, and accepted by Pacific, Vermont College (VCFA), Goddard, UNO (University of New Orleans), and Spalding.

I heard from UNO and Spalding first, then Pacific, VCFA, and Goddard. Queens and Lesley came in so much later than the others–I’d had to contact both to check in–that by that point I’d already culled the group, in my mind at least, to Pacific, VCFA, and Spalding. (Note: Goddard did come back onto my radar after a great conversation with the interim program director, Elena Georgiou, who took special note of my love of writing historical fiction, and steered me to the writings of a similar faculty member.)

When I’d initially started thinking about heading back to graduate school, it was the summer of 2008. Though my application process was cut short by the unexpected news that I was pregnant, I had already done quite a bit of thinking about where I’d like to go. For some reason–mainly the idea of traveling to the Pacific Northwest and studying with Pam Houston, Pacific became my #1. When, last year, I started and completed the application process, I still felt the same way.

After being accepted to programs, I did everything possible in order to narrow down my choices: talked to faculty, alumni, current students, administrators; looked at rankings and placement; studied each school’s literature (especially faculty bios and mentoring philosophies); considered all costs, including possible scholarship and assistantship options; hounded my friends and family (some of whom are professors); spent late nights with my husband just hashing it all out (“it’s your choice,” was his oft-repeated reply); looked at study abroad options and whether it’d actually be feasible for me to factor this in (what with the daughter, husband, and dog); and researched websites, blogs, and books about the MFA in Writing.

In the end, I even resorted to coin tossing.

The resources I consulted:

The Low-Residency MFA Handbook by Lori A. May
The Creative Writing MFA Handbook by Tom Kealey
Poets & Writers magazine (in addition to perusing years of articles on the MFA in Writing, I spent quite a bit of time at the Speakeasy, their forum)
The Association of Writers and Writing Programs
The Writer’s Chronicle magazine (from the AWP)
The Atlantic Monthly magazine
Assorted essays by Linda Formichelli, Erika Dreifus, Seth Abramson, etc.
Blogs “Seth Abramson” “The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog” “The Creative Writing MFA Blog” “Practicing Writing”
Any blog by any graduate of the programs I was considering.

One thing that made my decision different: I am already an adjunct instructor of English at 4-year and community colleges. A specific reason for me to earn a terminal degree in writing is to have the necessary degree to be competitive for a full-time, tenure track position at a college or university. (I know that a MFA is not a job quarantee, but the sad fact is that if you haven’t published a book or books yet, and you want a full-time position in higher ed teaching writing, this degree is necessary.)

So, my search changed. I began to consider: which programs graduated alumni who garnered full-time teaching jobs? Which program would make me the most competitive in the higher ed workforce?

What I learned, from conversations with several folks in higher ed (including, but not limited to, graduate school MA in English professors, undergraduate writing professors, administrators, and my current boss, who is head of the humanities division at a small, liberal arts college) is that “pedigree” matters. The reputation of the school from which you will have earned your MFA degree matters… a lot. After publications, of course.

While many of these people did profess that rankings are a crap-shoot, and that I should go where my “gut” tells me, several did admit that when it comes to larger state universities (the sort of places I’d like to work), English departments aren’t as hip to writing programs–so, they look at the more (dare I say) superficial qualities of a candidate, like where the degree was earned.

I had to take into consideration the fact that when I do complete my MFA in Writing and am searching for a full-time position, I will be competing (in an already saturated market) with other candidates who’ve earned their MFAs from traditional, residential programs. And though low residency programs are gaining ground and beginning to be respected by hiring committees, there are still many programs that refuse to give them as much credit as the traditional degree. (Consider the faculty member at the University of Georgia, who revealed in an email that going for a low residency MFA “just wasn’t worth it.” Ouch.)

The main bit of advice from each higher ed type: It’s your publications that get you the job. Then, your credentials. One former professor of mine said, “When it comes to getting a job teaching writing, it’s all about your publications and who you know.”

But not a single publication I’d consulted weighed, in any manner, which low residency program would most aid a writer-teacher in finding a job. Here, I was on my own. And though it’s easy to argue with rankings, the fact that VCFA had been #1 in placement for the past several years means something to me. This is not the case for everyone, of course: many, if not most, people considering or currently working towards their low residency degree in writing already have full-time jobs and don’t plan on quitting them. Most simply want to develop their craft, to become better writers.

Becoming a better writer is, of course, the ultimate goal of a MFA in Writing. It’s imperative that a potential MFA student look into which programs provide the best teacher-writers–those writers commited to his or her students’ work and progress. Like the “which program will help me get a job” category, this one, too, is mostly unquantifiable. What’s left to us here are teaching philosophies and faculty bios. Those can and should be studied as closely as possible. I searched each faculty member of the programs I was considering, researched their websites and publications, looked into the English departments at the schools where they teach, and at where they earned their own writing degrees. But again, it’s a crap-shoot.

* In addition, I looked at the faculty of several small-to-large universities in my area, in order to discover where they had earned their terminal degrees. I considered faculty at places like Clemson University, the University of South Carolina, the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Western Carolina Univeristy, the University of North Carolina (at Chapel Hill, Asheville, Wilmington), N.C. State, the College of Charleston, Winthrop University, Converse College, Presbyterian College, Charleston Southern, Coastal Carolina University, etc. Most had earned their degrees from traditional MFA in Writing programs, or earned PhDs in English.

When my husband and I began talking finances, I was forced to give up on my initial dream of attending Pacific. The cost here, mainly for travel (I live on the East Coast), would be too high. There aren’t as many options for cross-genre study there, something in which I’m interested. I’d been accepted only in Fiction (as choosing one genre is the only option) at Pacific, while at Spalding and VCFA I’d been accepted in both Fiction and Creative Nonfiction.

Now it was down to two: Spalding and VCFA.

Spalding has so many things going for it: a study abroad option, cross-genre study, flexible scheduling, very, very happy and satisfied alumni, and a great spokeperson in Associate Program Director Kathleen Driskell. Kathleen was (and is) knowledgeable, genuinely friendly, easy to talk with, and willing to go out of her way to answer questions and to try to get the potential student the help she needs. Another item in the Spalding “yes” column: a small merit scholarship, and an assistantship working as a student editor and reader for The Louisville Review for as many semesters as I’d like. (Spalding is the rare low residency program that offers financial assistance.) In addition, Kathleen made it clear that Spalding really wanted me to come there–that they were excited and happy about me being part of their program. (This enthusiasm was the exception to the rule with other programs.) Spalding was rapidly becoming a program I’d have a hard time turning down.

VCFA also has a great spokesperson in Louise Crowley, who answered all my questions, spoke honestly and often with me about the rigors of the program and the small possibilities for financial assistance (outside of student loans, of course). The program at VCFA is long and lauded, and Louise is experienced and friendly. She immediately sent me a packet of information that included a sample residency schedule and course offerings, which were varied and exciting. The study abroad option at VFCA is unique in that it is ten days, and takes place in lieu of (and at the same time as) the Vermont residency, so a student can choose which to attend. This was quite appealing to me, as I’m a travel junkie with a family–the least disruptive the travel is to my family calendar, the better. And though the Vermont website does not supply nearly the amount of information the Spalding site does, it does provide faculty teaching philosophies, and these I found enlightening and helpful.

Both programs–Spalding’s and VCFA’s–provided information on alumni successes (i.e. books published). Both are impressive, but VCFA, being around for longer, seemed to have a great number of alumni publishing books.

I tortured myself (and my husband) with the decision. In an unethical move I’m not proud of, I resorted to telling both schools “yes” so I’d have longer to make my decision… a decision I quite literally could not make. One week, I’d be sure of one school, and the next I’d change my mind to the other. I went on long hikes with my dog, prayed about it, meditated about it, and drove my friends and family crazy asking the same questions over and over again.

I’d applied to the two schools for different reasons: Spalding, because it was new and innovative and I’d heard good things, and VCFA, because I knew its stellar reputation and was sure I wouldn’t have a chance of getting in. When Spalding rose to the top for a variety of reasons, and I was actually accepted to VCFA, I was stumped. Hornswoggled. Flummoxed, discombobulated and foxed.

In the end, I just couldn’t let the idea of VCFA go. I tried, but I couldn’t. And I was utterly exhausted by the process. It doesn’t hurt to add that my husband really wanted me to go to VCFA. And so the choice was made.

I’m thrilled about the decision, anxious about the affects on my family, but excited to begin. I’m ready to move ahead with my craft and my career.

Note: This is just my process, and everyone does it differently. If you are considering a MFA in Writing, or are trying to decide between programs, I wish you the best of luck. Because I’ve been in the trenches, so to speak, I’m more than happy to answer any questions.

This entry was posted in graduate school, low residency MFA in Writing programs, MFA in Writing, Spalding, Vermont College of Fine Arts. Bookmark the permalink.

54 Responses to The Choice: Deciding on a Low Residency MFA in Writing Program

  1. Wow! Thank you. This is so helpful! I’ve applied to many of the ones you did and just received my first acceptance to VCFA. I’m going to wait to see where else I get in (I applied to Pacific and I live in OR), but I’m excited to have the option to go to VCFA. Did you like the program?

    • scout2011 says:

      I’m so glad the post helped, Melissa! And congrats on being accepted to VCFA! It really is a great program; the stellar faculty, especially, make it so. I’m just beginning my third semester, which is the “critical” semester (where you produce a critical thesis in addition to creative work). I’ll have one more semester after this. Feel free to shoot me an email (my address is provided in the “Contact Katherine” section) with any specific questions you might have, and I’ll be happy to answer them. I talked to several graduates of low residency programs, including VCFA’s, when I was trying to make my decision, but I think it would’ve been helpful to speak with students still in the program, too.

  2. Penne says:

    Katherine, this is an extremely late reply, but I came across just today. Thank you for your post. I found it extremenly helpful and insightful. I am in the early stages of researching low res programs and feel completely exhausted with the process. I am currently creating a short list to work from, but even that process has been taxing. I am in awe of your information. You brought up questions I didn’t realize needs to be considered. Spalding has made it on the short list, mainly, I have become aquainted with three alumni. I respect their writing and input…So my journey continues as I carve down my options. Again, thank you for posting your journey.

    • scout2011 says:

      @ Penne:

      So glad I could help! It’s such an exhausting process, I know. But you’ll get through it and find a great program for you. One of the best things I learned is that you really can’t go wrong with any of these top tier programs. And how helpful that you’ve gotten to know some alumni, too. I think that says a lot. Good luck with your search, and let me know if I can be of any more help.

  3. Rose says:

    Katherine, thank you for sharing your decision process in such detail. I know you posted a while ago, but I’ve applied to many of the same programs and just got accepted to VCFA. I’ll wait to see what the rest of my schools say, but I anticipate a grueling decision. I am interested in teaching, however, and found that section of your post particularly helpful.

    • scout2011 says:

      Rose, glad to be of help in any way. Congratulations for being accepted to VCFA! I’m a fan, obviously, so if you have any more questions or do decided to go there, please seek me out. I only have my own experiences to go on, but I’m more than willing to share. Glad, too, that you found the “teaching section” of the post helpful. It was one of those undefinable qualities of a low-res program that I definitely needed met. We’ll see what really happens when I finally graduate (I have one semester left) and begin looking for full-time teaching jobs in higher ed, but I feel good about the reputation of VCFA’s program in the academic community. Did you just see the Poets & Writers Mag results for ratings for the top low-res schools? VCFA is at #2 behind Warren Wilson, but we’re #1 in job placement and plenty of other categories….

  4. Ok, Katherine, here is the ONE thing I’d like to know. HOW MUCH feedback did you get on your specific writing packets? Track changes with commentary and line by line edits?One page commentary? A back and forth written or verbal “conversation about re-writes? I am looking at Pacific, Vermont, Spaulding, Queens, Fairfield( maybe Bennington, altho I heard its tough on CNF, better with fiction and poetry; and Lesley for the teaching component). any help would be huge. Most likely will not get into Vermont, but hey, you never know! Thanks-and thanks, too for that great post.

    • scout2011 says:


      It really depends on the advisor. I’ve had 3 so far, and will have my final advisor (and semester) coming up … and I’ll probably request an awesome advisor I’ve already had, if that tells you anything. Each advisor has been different. Two of them made more line notes and notes within the text of my manuscripts than the other, but the advisor who didn’t concentrate as much on line notes wrote me a several page letter with each packet, focusing more on major issues within the chapter (I’m working on a novel) itself, concentrating on details pertinent to the time period I was writing in, offering suggestions for language, etc. Each advisor wrote long letters when they returned each packet, but his were very long. Subsequently, he was an advisor who used snail mail instead of email submissions, and so didn’t do “track changes.” One other advisor also used snail mail, and she would send a long letter plus comments within the text of my manuscript, and also send me little tidbits of articles from newspapers and magazines, etc, that she thought pertained to my story.

      I’ve had one advisor so far use email submissions, and instead of using “track changes” she used different font colors and bold, comments and suggestions in parenthesis, etc within the text of my manuscript. I found that a lot more helpful than “track changes,” but that’s just me.

      So, when I’d send my manuscript each month I’d also include a cover letter, and in it I’d address any critical work I’d also submitted, what I was reading and researching, and talk about the creative submission, any questions or concerns, where I’d like to see it go, if I had anything specific I knew I wanted help with, etc. All my advisors always addressed each of these issues posed in my letter in their return letter, which was great. And every advisor told me I was more than welcome to email them during the semester, too, if I had any questions or concerns. I usually emailed them a few times over the course of the semester, but didn’t inundate them with questions because I really didn’t have too many after they’d return my packets. One advisor told me I was welcome to call him whenever, and I took him up on it once.

      Usually they offer a mid-semester phone call (you get to meet up with them at residency, so you’ll have a sort of post-semester meeting if you want), which I always took them up on (it’s usually optional). Those were always wonderful, and with each advisor we usually ended up talking for well over an hour, even though it was supposed to be only 30 minutes or so. One thing I learned quickly at VCFA is how accessible and welcoming the advisors I’ve chosen have been–they want to hear from you, and to help you. I think that’s priceless.

      Again, these are experiences with my specific advisors … things may be different with others. I know there’s one faculty who sends recordings of him talking about a student’s submission, and I know there are plenty of students who email pretty frequently with their advisors. I just didn’t feel the need to–though I imagine that will change coming up in my final semester!

      Really hope this helps! All the best to you, and if you choose VCFA I hope you’ll find me to say “hi.”

  5. Was accepted this afternoon. Thrilled. Thank you for the helpful notes, even more pertinent today!

    • scout2011 says:

      Woohoo! Congrats, Ryder! A great day. I hope you celebrate. And if you’re at the summer residency, I hope you’ll track me down and say “hi.” All the best to you!

  6. Rachel Walker says:

    I’m curious why you didn’t apply to Bennington? I’m interested inboth Bennington and VCFA for creative nonfiction. Would love your insight!

    • scout2011 says:

      Hi, Rachel,

      To be honest, it’s been a while. Bennington just hadn’t been on my radar, I guess. I’d heard a little bit about it from writers I’d met at residencies (if you email me at thewritingscott at gmail dot com I’m happy to talk about it). I think that swayed me more than anything else, though having been in a program for a while now, I can definitely see how subjective those opinions can be. There are writers who have wonderful experiences at each program–I just happen to really love the one where I landed (VCFA)!

      Thanks for writing–hope I can help out a little more over email.


  7. beverly says:

    Hi I have a question,

    I found your post incredibly helpful. I too, want to use a writing degree for teaching at a college level. Maybe one day I’ll publish a children’s book!:) I recently applied to VCFA, and was wondering about their acceptance rate and time it usually takes to hear back from them? Its been 16 days, and counting! I’m anxious and immensely nervous about the process. Any information would be so helpful.

    I can’t see my screen, as I am typing this out on my cell phone. Sorry for any missing words, or misspelled words. :)


    • scout2011 says:


      Oh, my word–this is an incredibly late reply! I’m just now seeing your message on my web site. It has (edit) at the top, so maybe that’s why. So very sorry!

      I honestly can’t tell you much about VCFA’s acceptance rate, and I don’t remember how long it took for me to hear back from them with an acceptance, initially? This is all probably for naught, seeing as how you wrote me over the summer (yikes!), but don’t hesitate to contact Louise Crowley or Jericho Parms if you have questions. They’re very nice and very helpful.

      I hope you found a program you love, otherwise!


  8. tucker says:

    Thank you for taking the time to post this. I’ve begun looking, but am at that ‘what the heck am I thinking?’, stage. So many variables, nuances and hidden boxes to be shoved in to. And I really hate boxes. This was very helpful.

    • scout2011 says:

      I remember that stage well, Tucker. Glad it was helpful! Please feel free to ask anything else; I know every person’s MFA experience is different, but I’m happy to share what worked for me.

  9. Erin says:

    Lovely and helpful post – thank you! I am a creative non-fiction writer and have been accepted to both Pacific University and Antioch. Similar to yourself, I hate to entertain the idea that reputation matters, and yet am coming to terms with this reality. From what you know, does Pacific University have a better reputation than Antioch? Thus far, my “gut” is telling me to enroll in Pacific, but welcome any wisdom you can offer.

    • scout2011 says:

      Hi, Erin! So glad the post was helpful, even if it was written several years ago! I just graduated from VCFA in July 2014, and have been pretty much out of the MFA application loop since before then. I know rankings are completely subjective, but I’d definitely take a look at those. Poets & Writers usually posts them each year–usually via The Atlantic. I think it also depends on where you live and write, and/or want to teach. Because of where I live, I knew I’d be potentially looking for teaching jobs at larger universities, some of them without MFA programs, who might not be as savvy about the MFA world–and so, possibly, would consider “pedigree” more important. Being an East Coaster, I’m not familiar with Antioch and didn’t apply there, but I’ve heard good things. I didn’t think that Pacific had a creative nonfiction program? Does it now? When I was applying, they only offered fiction and poetry.

      I honestly say, do your best research and then go with your gut. Your publications will matter more than where you got your MFA, when it comes to teaching jobs. But again, it’s all subjective!

  10. Scout, any idea how many writers they accept for the Vermont College Low res Children’s book MFA? And another question (I love honest people, so please don’t overthink your answer) . . . do you find that your fellow writers in your VC program had an undergraduate degree in English? As I’m preparing to apply, I’m feeling a little out of my league with a BA in Marketing.

    • scout2011 says:


      I don’t have any idea. But they’re very friendly at VCFA, so if you called the office and ask, I’m sure they’d tell you!

      Honestly, no one talked about their undergraduate degrees when I was in the MFA program there! But I will tell you that VCFA students come from a variety of backgrounds, most in jobs you’d never find typical of a writer. Of course there are plenty of teachers (of all levels), but I met several business people, doctors, lawyers, marketing folks, etc. You do not need to feel out of your league. And the best place to start is to chat with the MFA Director, Louise Crowley, about any of your concerns before applying. She’s wonderful and will happily discuss any of it with you–and is a better resource, esp about the Childrens’/YA MFA, than I am. She could direct to the best person to talk to next, too.

      Hope this helps! Best of luck to you!

  11. cvroome says:

    Hi there!

    Thank you for writing this very informative post! I am considering applying to many of the same Low-Residency programs as you, but I am hung up on the cost. I am still in debt from earning another graduate degree and am having a hard time rationalizing the cost of the low-res MFA, even with a scholarship. Did you find or do you now know of any programs that offer greater funding for students?


    • scout2011 says:


      It’s been quite some time since I researched low-res MFA programs (it was 2010 when I applied), but back then Spalding offered the best funding. Maybe some of the other low-res programs have stepped it up by now? I sure hope so!

      Good luck with your search,


  12. Thanks so much for this detailed explanation of your MFA decision making process! I’ve been tossing this idea around for years…eight to be exact. It’s always comforting to know I’m not alone in wondering what to do and where to go, or if to go, etc.!

    I literally googled “lesley university versus vermont college of fine arts.” And I found your post. Still lots of thoughts to consider, but your helpful post will definitely make a difference as I weigh options.

    • scout2011 says:

      I’m so glad to hear it! I keep thinking that if I can get my life together, I need to do a series of posts about the experience, what life has been like after, etc. Some day. I really do wish you the best on your search–if it’s what you want, there’s a great program out there waiting!

  13. Susan Berardi says:

    Hi, Katherine!
    Thank you for this insightful story of your journey! I’d love to hear about what you’ve been doing since you graduated from VCFA. I am a first-semester student there, and while the learning is wonderful, I need to consider what happens after the degree. It’s hard because most people don’t talk about that–it’s all about the journey. As you know, the cost is significant, so I’d like to have an idea if there are jobs afterward or if we should be prepared for the “starving artist” type of lifestyle.

    Thank you again for your thoroughness and candid observations. They have been extremely helpful and encouraging!

    • scout2011 says:

      Hi, Susan!

      Congrats on VCFA! I hope you’re having an inspiring and productive first semester! Yes, not many people talk about what happens after. Maybe because, for most of us, what happens after is hard. The degree is certainly not a guarantee of anything–not a finished product, not publication, not a job. Yikes, right?

      Since graduating (Summer 2014), I’ve done what I did before: I still teach as an adjunct prof, and I’m still working on the novel I worked on in the program. I’ve not applied too heavily to teaching positions (mostly because of family stuff, uncertainties about moving, etc), but the few I’ve applied to I’ve not gotten. I’m still a mama: my older daughter was two years-old when I started the program, and I had my younger daughter (now 3) during it. I fully recognize that caring for these two in the way I’ve chosen to has seriously detrimented the output of my writing, and for that matter, my job search. It’s a choice, for sure.

      However, I am a reader for a literary journal I love and respect, and that connection came through my time at VCFA. I’m now considered a more fully-rounded candidate for jobs with an MFA (I wouldn’t even have been able to apply before, even with a novel out). I’m hoping that if I continue to do the work, to teach and to write, that when I’m ready for other things–when my kids are a bit older, perhaps–that those doors will open just a bit wider.

      You’re right: the cost is significant. I, in my heart of hearts, feel that the connections I made at VCFA (friends and faculty), the things I learned and the ways in which the mentorships I enjoyed opened up my writing, are priceless. But, so far, that “pricelessness” isn’t helping my bank account one bit.

      I plan to work hard, and have hope.

      I’m sure there are other grads who feel differently, and who are finding MUCH more traditional success than I have so far! Being a mom has truly taken over the focus of my life since graduating.

      Feel free to email me any time at thewritingscott at gmail dot com. The very best of luck to you! I’m jealous of the winter residency: I love it up there in the snow!


      • Susan Berardi says:

        Thank you so much for your thoughtful feedback! I know what it’s like to be a mother with young children, and you are absolutely doing the right thing by keeping them your top priority. My boys are now 20, 18 and 15, and I’m fortunate to have more time now that they’re older, but still want and love their mother around!

        I can tell that my writing is getting better and better with the instruction at VCFA. I hope that I can have some success with publishing, but right now, it feels like a completely foreign world to me!

        Thanks again for taking the time to respond! I wish you all the luck in your own writing endeavors.!


        • scout2011 says:


          I bet your boys do love having you around! I hope my girls will, too, when they’re teenagers!

          The publishing world does seem like a strange place. It still does to me in many ways, even after having a novel published. One of the things I found really helpful was finding those faculty members who are traditionally published and willing to talk about the business aspects of that world. There are many, but I adore Clint McCown and Connie May Fowler, if you’re looking for insight.

          Also: some of the agents, publishers and book reviewers, and other published novelist, who come up during residencies for panels, etc, are such awesome resources. Listening to them was one of my favorite parts of residency.

          Lots of good luck to you,


  14. Carley says:

    Hi Katherine! I’m currently considering applying to low res programs, and two of my professors have recommended Warren Wilson College. Might I ask why you chose not to apply to that program? Thanks so much!

    • scout2011 says:

      Hi, Carley!

      Thanks for writing. Warren Wilson has a wonderful reputation, and I know people seem to love their program. The only reason I didn’t apply was because there was no creative nonfiction option, and at that point my plan had been to study both fiction and CNF. Also, WW is fairly close to my house, and I had the itch to get out of town.

      I hope this helps! The very best of luck to you on your applications! I know it can be a stressful but exciting time.

      My best,


  15. I’m a second year MFA candidate at UGA-Grady MFA screenwriting low-residency program. I’m not sure who you talked to at UGA and when but this program has saved my life and renewed my faith in my writing career. I am incredibly grateful this graduate program exists. My mentor is so supportive and honors my writing voice. I know that can be said about all of the other mentors. All of the students and faculty are family and we look forward to our residency week, not only for the access to incredible and powerful people in both industries (narrative non-fiction and screenwriting) but to also build an unbreakable community of writers who look out for each other. I thank the Universe Valerie Boyd and Nate Kohn made sure this program exists. I know I would be lost without it. So, please be mindful of quoting people from a university. There’s always other voices that will muffle that one negative sound. I’m sure that can be said about your program as well. I would never demean your program without getting multiple perspectives. All is well.

    • scout2011 says:

      Hi, Ms. Jackson-Artis.

      Thanks for taking the time to write. I appreciate your insights and opinions. As I referenced in the post, I spoke with a professor in the English department at UGA. I will not offer his name because I wanted to protect his privacy, and I don’t think his name is relevant. I’m glad you’ve had such a good experience in the screenwriting program–I know firsthand how life-changing a great program can be.

      That being said, I did not “demean” any program there. I simply reported what the source had said when I’d asked about the value of a low-residency MFA in writing. The purpose of my post was to address how I weighed the choice in earning a low-res MFA. I appreciate your defense of your program but it’s unnecessary, at least in my case. I’m not familiar with the MFA in screenwriting program at UGA-Grady and so did not, and certainly would not, comment on it because of this lack of familiarity.

      The very best of luck to you with your program and creative pursuits!


      • Rebecca Jackson-Artis says:

        I’m happy you clarified. I just hope no one is discouraged to look further into our wonderful program because your blog is the first to appear when one searches for UGA MFA program in a search engine and some of us in the program were concerned. Again, all is well!

        • scout2011 says:

          Me, too! I wouldn’t want that to ever be the case.

          Thanks for letting me know what’s popping up in the search engine: I’m surprised by it. I completely understand yours and others’ concern. All best!

    • Pete says:

      Thank You, Rebecca! Indeed – #WeareGrady

  16. Pete says:

    I appreciate your article but as someone who attends the University of Georgia’s low-res MFA program in screenwriting, I must say that UGA offers an excellent program. The Screenwriting and Narrative Non-Fiction programs are both housed in the Grady College of Journalism, which has a top-notch reputation. Likewise, at the time you were researching for a program, these UGA programs had not even been created yet. They started in 2015. Therefore, I understand this was the information you were given, but it’s confusing as to what exactly that professor was even referencing if the UGA low-res programs weren’t even around at the time. It’s great you spent time sharing your decisions, but please consider clarifying or updating that reference to more accurately reflect the actual UGA low-res MFA programs. As you mention in your article, low-res programs have distinct advantages over full-time programs, especially in the creative field of screenwriting for two reasons. One reason is that having a real life outside of school allows more authentic writing from a diverse group of students with broader perspectives other than being professional students. Another reason is it allows students who might not be able to have afforded a masters program a way to work while attending. Hence, these programs broaden the perspective even more by allowing students who aren’t already independently wealthy to attend. UGA offers a diverse group of working professionals as mentors who are very attentive during the residencies and throughout the semester. The state of Georgia being a magnet for film production has allowed great networking with professionals through the program as well as preparation for graduation. The narrative non-fiction MFA pulls in an impressive lineup of contacts and mentors for students to train under as well as opportunities to get published. As Lavar Burton says, “you don’t have to take my word for it,” so I encourage you or others to research the low-res MFA programs at UGA for more details in regards to what they offer and the many industry experts the programs both pull in to guide students and form meaningful relationships. I’n any event, I just wanted to point this out to folks reading your blog so they don’t get the wrong idea about the UGA program before doing the research for the new programs themselves, especially since the reference in the article is not even to the actual low-res MFA programs at Georgia. Thanks for sharing, and I do hope you’ve had a great experience with your program!

    • Rebecca Jackson-Artis says:

      Thank you, Pete! #WeareGrady

    • scout2011 says:

      Hi, Pete.

      I’m glad to hear that UGA has an excellent MFA in Screenwriting program. I completely agree with your points about the benefits of a low-res writing program–they’re exactly why I chose to attend one.

      However, I didn’t at all comment on the UGA MFA in screenwriting program (which, as you point out, didn’t exist at the time). I referenced a conversation with a UGA prof in the English department, which was relevant to my post because it addressed my expressed concerns about the value of a low-res MFA degree, especially when it comes to credentials and finding a teaching position in higher ed. I don’t believe anyone reading this post will get the wrong idea about the UGA program because the post was not referencing a UGA program: it referenced a professor in the English department, and his opinion. If anything, perhaps readers will form an opinion about that professor. (And perhaps roll their eyes him.) Anyone researching MFA in writing programs should do a good bit of homework, including paying attention to the date stamp on a post. That being said, I’m not going to change the post for three reasons: 1) I’ve got two kids, three jobs and am exhausted. 2) It’s a personal blog, and it addresses steps I took at a specific time in my life. 3) It’s not about UGA.

      Thanks, truly, for all the great info about the UGA programs and film in Georgia. It sounds like a wonderful place to work and write. I appreciate you taking the time to respond, and wish you all the best.


      • Pete says:

        Appreciate you taking the the time to respond and again share your experience in the first place. As Rebecca pointed out, this blog pops up when people search for the UGA program so wanted to clarify and encourage folks to do further research.

        Again, I understand the comment from the professor is directed to low-res programs in general and not specifically UGA. Likewise, if it’s not intended in the blog to be about Georgia’s program then perhaps like not mentioning the professor by name you could not mention the school by name as that does seem to then suggest it’s in reference to a low-res program at Georgia rather than low-res programs in general.

        However, thanks again for taking the time to clarify what was meant/intended by the comment.

        Best Wishes,

  17. Robert Lages says:

    Hi–I just got accepted to Fairleigh Dickinson’s program. I still have pending applications with VCFA and Goddard. My first inclination is to be grateful that FDU accepted me–still shocked–and go for it. Others-however told me I should wait to hear from the other schools. In the end, at 55 years old, my choice needs to be a practical (cost and logistics) one. I would be grateful for any input. Thanks.

    • scout2011 says:

      Hi, Robert,

      If you’re not in a rush, I’d wait to find out what the other schools have to offer! I will say that the MFA is not a practical degree, by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a heart decision, for sure. My feeling is that most of us invest a whole lot of money, and a lot of mental and emotional energy, into the degree. What we get back has its own worth, but it may not ever show up as financial worth–instead, it’s something else. That something else, though, is different for each person. I gained artistic knowledge and inspiration, industry and friendship connections, real tools for my craft toolbox, and more. The degree itself, though, has yet to pay me back in dollars.

      I know this doesn’t help at all, and I’m sorry. I guess you just have decide exactly what you want out of the MFA … and be willing for that NOT to be financial gain.

      Good luck!

      ~ Katherine

  18. Janet Clement says:

    Hi Katherine,
    Thank you for the detailed report of your selection process for an MFA program. I am currently a student at Stonecoast in Maine in my first semester.
    I am giving serious consideration to transferring to VCFA for the upcoming summer term. My genre is poetry.
    I am also interested in Translation. VCFA has that option for a fifth semester
    I know it has been sometime since you graduated, but would you be able to comment on their poetry program?
    Also, I am 73 and wondered how older students are received by the rest of the student body and just how rigorous you found the program.
    I’ve been retired for quite some time now and my background is in advertising copy writing, public relations and newspaper reporting. I have come late to poetry and have found that instead of being influenced by specific poets, I am discovering, now, poets I resonate work. Do you think any of these things would be a detriment to being accepted?
    I will be speaking with the Director of Recruitment in two days and may have more questions for you later.

    • scout2011 says:

      Hi, Janet,

      Thanks for reaching out!

      I can’t comment on the poetry program, only because I have no experience in it: I was a fiction student, and spent some time in CNF. The folks I spent the most time with are all fiction writers, too. I wish I could help! That being said, I have heard fabulous things about the translation program at VCFA but nothing specific. I know that Jericho Parms could point you in the direction of some helpful translation and poetry alums.

      One of my favorite things about VCFA was the mix of ages of students! When I happened to be there, it seemed like most of the poets I met were older. I’m not sure what the demographics are now, but as a preeminent low-res program, many students are older. I met several retirees. And I don’t think any of the things you mentioned would be a detriment to acceptance: I think the quality of the work you submit will matter most.

      I’m a bit swamped this month with personal stuff, but would love to chat more. Email me any time at thewritingscott at gmail dot com.

      Good luck!


  19. Susan Tombrello says:

    Hi Katherine,

    Thank you so much for sharing about your experience at VCFA!

    I am hoping to hear from VCFA soon and was recently accepted by Pacific University and Antioch, both in fiction. Hoping for the best. Also applied to Bennington and Warren Wilson.

    I live near Los Angeles and have a bicoastal marriage. My husband works in upstate New York. I love the Northeast and went to college and grad school there. Like you, I’ve taught at universities in English, mainly in copywriting (for a master’s in applied communication program) and composition (undergraduates) — as an adjunct.

    My main concern is that I’m 55 and coming at this rather late. Family commitments have kept me from my dream and now finally can commit to it with all of my energy.

    As it has now been some time since you’ve graduated, I’m curious how you are now feeling now about your experiences at VCFA and what you have heard about other low-residency programs. Has your degree been as transformational as you had hoped?

    Your feedback is welcome and encouraging. Best wishes.

    Susan T.

    • scout2011 says:

      Hi, Susan!

      Thanks for writing, and congrats at your Pacific and Antioch acceptances!

      I would love to share my thoughts with you and answer anything I can. And I know I should do it here so others can read it, too. But I’m completely swamped and headed to a writing retreat soon. Will you email me at thewritingscott at gmail dot com? That way I can respond when I’m able? (And won’t forget!)

      And someday I’ll write about these things on this blog–when life slows down (ha).

      Many thanks,


  20. Janet Clement says:

    Hi Katherine,
    I just wanted to send a quick thank you for your reply and suggestions. All the best at the writing retreat. Janet

  21. John says:

    Thanks for this write-up Katherine! I just graduated (well, in a month) with a BA in English and a Tesol Certificate fir a second career. Was a software engineer for 25 yrs and quit to return to college. I applied to VCFA with a GPA of 3.92. Have been accepted to two grad pgms already: MAT and an MA in English. I was told I would get the answer from VCFA next week, which is my dream school. I took 5 creative writing courses, literature and linguistics for my BA and fell in love with writing and have had 3 short stories published. Am praying to get in!


    • scout2011 says:

      Oh, best of luck, John! Rest assured (although yours is great) that GPA doesn’t matter at VCFA: it’s the quality, and promise, of your writing that will get you in. Again, good luck!!

      • John Goodie says:

        Well I have not heard back yet from my application for Summer. I sent them 40-50 pages of short fiction I wrote. They told me 14 days ago I would hear in 7-10 days. Still nothing. Except, the FA dept contacted me and said I needed to fill out their forms since they were notified I would be enrolling in summer. I see that as a good sign but still have not heard anything else. I registered at a University for MA classes in English with a concentration in CW for summer and fall. I think I can withdraw if VCFA accepts me. It is more teaching and less writing there at the University. So I wait. I expect to hear from them this week or next. Do they snail mail a letter or will they call ir email me??? When they decide?

        • scout2011 says:

          Your best course of action, I think, is to contact Jericho Parms or the other admin folks. Contact info online, of course.
          Best of luck!

  22. John says:

    Thanks Katherine! I was dealing with Lucy Bourgeault but she is not returning my calls. I think they are part of that big AWP conference in Oregon this week.

  23. Hillary says:

    Your post struck a chord with me, not just because I’m down to the same two schools (Spalding and VCFA), but because your decision-making process and the amount of agonizing you did reminds me so much of me. I am having such a difficult time making this decision. My analysis of the strengths of each program, the pros and the cons, mirrors yours. I’m leaning toward VCFA mainly because of reputation and also because they have made it so clear that they really want me whereas Spalding has not done anything special to make me feel particularly wanted. But the extremely happy alumni at Spalding along with the wealth of opportunities for alumni through the Spalding alumni is a strong pull. Can you tell me if you have remained in contact with folks from VCFA? Any words of advice would be GREATLY appreciated. Just treat me the way you wanted people to treat you when you were making the decision because we’re basically the same person lol. Thanks!

    • scout2011 says:

      Hi, Hillary,

      Thanks for writing! I apologize for the tardiness: my world, like everyone’s, basically went haywire with Covid-19. I’ve become full-time homeschool parent to a 10 and 7 year-old, chef, and household CEO. I barely looked at my website lately, much less had a chance to complete any of my own writing. Excuses, excuses, right?

      I graduated the MFA program at VCFA in Summer 2014, so it’s been a little while. The small children and limited finances kept me from meeting up physically with friends from VCFA, but I did meet up (and room with) two friends at AWP the year it was in L.A., and it was like we’d never been apart. I keep up with several folks via social media, and one of my dearest friends from the program, a writer in California, and I try to talk on the phone every few months and keep up online. I had a baby during the program, and took one semester off because of her, so I ended up graduated with a different class. But so many folks from that class welcomed me with open arms, and we keep up online for sure–celebrate each other’s successes, mourn the losses, etc. I also keep in touch with many of the faculty from my time there. One of my other dearest friends was one of the graduate assistants during my last residency: she and I keep up as much as we’re able! These are folks I’d open my house to any day of the week.

      I don’t know if this helps? I absolutely feel your pain: it’s a tough decision. I think you can have an amazing, fulfilling experience at either Spalding or VCFA. Obviously, I’m biased towards VCFA.

      I hope this helps! If you want to talk about anything else, shoot me an email at thewritingscott at gmail dot com.

      Wishing you all good luck in your choice,