a top-10 low residency MFA program
—Poets & Writers, year after year after year
Deciding which MFA program is right for you can be a challenge. This page presents questions to ask yourself and the programs that interest you. You will also find answers to questions that prospective students frequently ask us.
The Master of Fine Arts (MFA) is a terminal degree in an area of the arts, such as creative writing, visual arts, music, theater, or dance, requiring two to three years of study beyond the bachelor’s level. The MFA is often referred to as a studio degree, as the coursework is primarily of an applied or “practiced” nature, versus the research and academic inquiry of an MA or PhD. Usually the degree work is done in workshops or as individual projects. An MFA Program often culminates in a major work such as a creative thesis.
While the focus in the MFA program is on an individual’s writing, the study of literature is an important part of the curriculum. From reading, students learn about craft, critical analysis, and the aesthetics of writing, which can be incorporated in their own work.
While the MFA is the degree most commonly held by writers who teach creative writing at the college level, many low residency MFA students simply cherish the experience for its intrinsic value. The program is ideally suited for people who wish to become better writers and want the experience of graduate-level instruction.
Pursuing an MFA degree gives students the tools to improve their writing while studying with professional writers who are also experienced teachers. An MFA program also allows students to enter into a community of writers who share a passionate for creative writing.
The low residency MFA format is ideally suited to the future life of a writer. During independent study sessions, students establish writing habits within a natural home setting, not removed to an isolated, solely academic environment. Because students are away from home only about ten days each semester, low residency MFA programs allow students to pursue their studies regardless of where they live. Typically, low residency MFA students are settled in lives, jobs, homes, and families.
Low residency MFA programs work well for students who are self-motivated and disciplined, who can organize their own schedules and accomplish what needs to be done.
Questions you should ask before choosing a low residency MFA program
At the Spalding low residency MFA Program, our philosophy is one of support rather than competition among our students and constructive rather than destructive criticism by our faculty. Our curriculum is rigorous and our standards high, which is exactly why we insist on acknowledging the good as well as the bad in student writing. Students learn best when they hear honest assessments of their strengths as well as their weaknesses and when they receive instruction targeted to actively improve their writing.
This philosophy grows out of the experience of Program Director Sena Jeter Naslund during more than thirty years of teaching in low residency MFA programs. Drawing on that experience, Sena designed the Spalding program to include the best possible learning opportunities in the best possible environment. A hands-on director who brings intellectual leadership to the program, Sena is visible and approachable during the residency.
In addition, the Spalding low residency MFA program is one of the most dynamic programs you’ll find. Since our first residency in 2001, our program has consistently grown and changed. We believe in evolving to meet the needs of the times, and to that end, we’ve added genres of study, created a study-abroad program, and enriched our curriculum in countless ways, often based on the feedback of students and faculty.
Three semesters to choose from: Spalding low residency MFA students may begin their studies in spring, summer, or fall. The spring and fall semesters are each 6 months long and offer a quicker route through the program at a more intensive pace. The 9-month summer semester is designed to deliver the same curriculum at a less intense pace. The summer semester works well for teachers’ schedules and for those who have full-time jobs or very busy lives.
Program Book/Script in Common: All students and faculty read a book or script in common before coming to residency, where they take part in a group discussion of the text. For the spring and fall semesters, the author or scriptwriter visits the residency and gives a public presentation as well as a private Q&A session for students and faculty. The area of concentration for this work changes each semester, so most students read a book or script and meet the author in every area of concentration that we offer. Our featured guests have included novelists Tim O’Brien, Ernest J. Gaines, Ann Patchett, Susan Vreeland, and Michael Ondaatje; poets/essayists Yusef Komunyakaa and Molly Peacock; children’s writers Jaqueline Woodson, Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), Donna Jo Napoli, Patricia MacLachlan, and Nancy Willard; poets W. S. Merwin, Claudia Emerson, and Frank X Walker; essayists Terry Tempest Williams, Pico Iyer, Barry Lopez, and Scott Russell Sanders; poet and children’s writer Naomi Shihab Nye; screenwriters Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone) and Bobby Moresco (Crash); and playwrights Marsha Norman, Heather Raffo, and Rebecca Gilman.
Additional Books in Common: In addition to reading the program book in common, every student reads a book or script by a faculty member or guest in his or her area of concentration before coming to the residency. At residency, the author discusses issues of conception, writing, craft, and publication. For the summer residency abroad, students also read a book or script relevant to the residency locale.
Acceleration: Students who have published a book or produced a play or movie may qualify for completing the program in three independent study sessions and four residencies.
Book-length Manuscript Workshop: The Spalding low residency MFA Program offers a workshop for entire book-length manuscripts during the spring residency (and sometimes during summer residency, as well). We believe we are the only program that offers this feature. Five upper-level students in fiction, creative nonfiction, or writing for children participate in the faculty-led workshop, spending two hours on each full-length manuscript.
Publishing/Editing Component: Spalding is the home of the literary journal The Louisville Review (established in 1976) and Fleur-de-Lis Press. All students gain editorial experience by reading submissions for The Louisville Review and offering editorial input on which pieces to accept. Graduate assistantships are available to returning students who wish to serve as student editors for the magazine.
During each residency, an agent, editor, publisher, or other expert speaks to the students about the publishing scene and takes questions. Faculty members also offer publishing and revision panels by area of concentration.
Interrelatedness of the Arts: At each residency, students attend at least one arts event, such as a play, symphony, ballet, opera, or jazz performance. We might visit an art museum or bring in visual artists to discuss their creative process. At most residencies, Program Director Sena Jeter Naslund leads a discussion about the ways writers can enrich their own art through investigation of the creative process in other art forms.
Preparation for Teaching: Because the MFA degree is the one most commonly held by teachers of creative writing, the Spalding low residency MFA Program helps prepare students to become teachers. During their fourth residency, students lead a small-group discussion of a published work to gain experience in intellectual leadership. In their graduation residency, students deliver a lecture, gaining direct teaching experience. Faculty lectures and other discussions explore teaching techniques. Workshops provide an excellent model for how to teach. We also offer two course opportunities for aspiring teachers: a teaching seminar during residency and an independent study in pedagogy and other topics related to teaching.
Creative Thesis Discussion: One faculty member and two other students participate in a discussion of each graduating student’s completed creative thesis. In this way we celebrate, support, and encourage our students.
Cross-Genre Exploration: At Spalding, we believe all writers can benefit from writing outside their major area of concentration. All students participate in cross-genre exercises at each residency. And because our program book in common rotates through the genres, most students read at least one work from each area of concentration by the time they complete the program.
During their five residencies, students may workshop once outside their genre or may participate in a cross-genre workshop. In addition, all students are given the opportunity to take an entire independent study outside their area. So a fiction writer might spend a semester learning how to adapt a novel into a screenplay, or a playwright might study poetry. Any combination is allowed.
Enrichment Semester: We offer an optional enrichment semester for students who wish to study beyond the four core semesters. Students can use this semester to continue their work in their major area or study another area. The enrichment semester, which is not required for graduation, focuses on creative writing and does not require a reading list or critical writing.
Assistantships and Scholarships: In 2013, the program awarded 26 assistantships for the fall, spring, and summer semesters. Assistantships are available to students no matter where they live. Most involve reading for our literary magazine, The Louisville Review. Also in 2013, the program awarded 59 scholarships, mostly to new students. The combined awards totaled more than $80,000.
Spalding’s low residency MFA program offers six areas of concentration: fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, writing for children and young adults, screenwriting, and playwriting. Students may study in more than one area in their four semesters of study.
While we focus firmly on creative writing, we acknowledge that critical writing occupies an important place in a writer’s education. While all mentors help their students develop their critical writing, an expository writing consultant is made available—at no extra expense—to students who need extra help in that area. In addition, every student participates during the second semester in an hour-long expository writing class, which is designed to help develop their critical writing.
Not every gifted (or successful) writer is an excellent teacher, but at Spalding, we hire only faculty members who’ve proven themselves to be both. We are justly proud of our stellar faculty, both individually and as a whole. They are active, publishing writers and experienced teachers, dedicated to our principles of intellectual rigor and emotional support. Our faculty members meet students at their current level and help them attain new levels of accomplishment in their writing.
It’s risky to choose an MFA program based on a desire to study with one particular faculty mentor. Faculty members sometimes take leaves of absence, and no program can guarantee that a student will have the opportunity to study with the one mentor they desire. Instead, students should consider the entire faculty in their area of concentration and get to know their writing.
Before the residency, students submit writing to be workshopped. Students receive workshop materials about three weeks before the residency. Each student is expected to read the entire workshop booklet more than once and make margin notes and a summary comment before arriving at the residency, so everyone is fully prepared for a rich, thoughtful workshop discussion of each piece.
Workshop formats vary, from smaller workshops with five or six students and one faculty leader to larger workshops of up to twelve students with two faculty leaders. Smaller workshops meet for the same amount of time as larger workshops but take advantage of extra time to discuss issues of craft, the writing of a particular author, or matters of editing and publishing.
Whenever possible, we attempt to place students with different workshop leaders from one residency to another. A given workshop will include students at different levels in their writing and in different semesters of study. Students learn from each other under the guidance of faculty leaders.
The residency’s first workshop session is spent discussing published work, which is introduced by the faculty leaders. This exercise helps new students learn the language of critiquing and gives the workshop a chance to develop its personality before student work is discussed.
Each student’s work receives an hour of discussion. Students learn from the discussion of others’ work, as well. Specific questions of craft may be discussed in the course of the workshop. Workshop leaders create a positive atmosphere conducive to creative thinking and learning. While students are encouraged to say something positive about a work first, workshop members are also asked to identify areas needing improvement.
At the end of the week, every student submits a one-page revision based on comments from the workshop. These sessions are gratifying, as students see immediate improvement from the week’s discussions and comments.
Workshops are sometimes informally arranged among students during the independent study session, but not as part of the curriculum. The independent study is reserved as a special time for intensely focused one-on-one work with a faculty mentor who is a professional, publishing writer and experienced teacher. This model leaves students free to focus fully on their own writing and ensures that the critique they receive is of the highest quality. It also allows for the indefinable energy that arises when a student and mentor devote themselves to the student’s development. Over and over, we’ve seen students attain great leaps in their writing under the careful guidance of a faculty mentor.
At residency, most days include curriculum sessions from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Students have access to nearly 100 hours of class time during the ten-day residency. Workshops form the backbone of residency and meet nearly every day; other sessions include lectures, panel discussions, readings, and a rich variety of special sessions.
During the residency, each student, with his or her mentor, creates an independent-study plan. The study plan outlines the student’s writing goals for the independent study session. It also includes a list of eight to ten books that the student chooses with the help of the mentor.
During the independent study session, students write voluminously and read the books or scripts on their reading list. Five times during the independent study session, students send a packet of original creative writing to the mentor for feedback. Students in their first and second semesters include in their packets a short critical essay about each of the books they read. The study plan may be adjusted as the student’s goals and needs evolve.
Like other low residency MFA programs, our curriculum includes a longer critical essay of 20 to 30 pages in the third independent study session. The goal of this essay is to require each student to think deeply about a topic that has something to teach him or her as a writer.
In the fourth semester, the student completes the creative thesis. At the capstone graduation residency, the student receives a thesis discussion, delivers a 30-minute lecture, and gives a graduation reading.
In traditional, residential MFA programs, students typically receive critique on two or three sets of work in one workshop class. For example, a prose writer might turn three stories (perhaps 50 to 70 pages) for the entire semester. Most of the time in that class will be spent discussing other students’ work. In the Spalding low residency MFA program, a student sends five packets of original writing to his or her mentor during the independent study session. These packets (except for poetry and picture book) may include up to 50 pages of new and revised original writing—or 250 pages per semester. The Spalding model allows students to have four to five times as much work critiqued each semester than in a traditional program.
Different low residency programs have different page counts for packets, and in some cases individual faculty members are allowed to decide just how much they’re willing to read during the independent study. When considering low residency MFA programs, the question of packet length is an important point to research.
Spalding packets consist of new creative writing, revision, short critical essays, and a cover letter that discusses the student’s goals and questions. The mentor gives feedback in a permanent form, such as a letter, email, or audio recording, and also makes margin notes on the packet material. While online workshops or discussions may enhance a student’s education, they cannot take the place of individual feedback from experienced faculty mentors.
Students call mentors for a phone conference during the independent study session at midsession and at the end of the session.
When looking at cost, be sure to add in all the extras. At Spalding, beginning with the fall 2014 semester, our tuition is $550 per credit hour, which includes all fees. (The program is a 65-hour degree; each semester is 15 hours, and the Graduation Residency is 5 hours.) The cost of postage, books, and phone calls is the student’s responsibility.
For Louisville residencies, students are responsible for travel and housing, while lunches and several dinners are included. The cost for housing ranges from $450 to $900 for nine nights at the Brown Hotel, a four-star, historic hotel near campus. Students may make their own housing arrangements if they prefer. Students who bring a car to the residency may have parking fees.
For summer residencies, which take place internationally, students are responsible for travel, housing, and most meals; the estimated cost is $3,900-4,900, depending on the location.
The Spalding low residency MFA Program offers scholarships, usually ranging from $500 to $750, to new students based on merit, then need. For students in their second semester or later, we offer assistantships each semester that result in tuition remission of $600 to $1,800. Assistantships are available to students no matter where they live. In 2013, the program awarded nearly $80,000 in assistantships and scholarships.
Most graduate students who are U.S. citizens are eligible for federal student loans of up to $20,500 per year. Students should discuss details of federal student loans with a financial aid counselor.
The Spalding low residency MFA program is diverse in many ways: heritage, race, geographical location, age, gender, sexual orientation, religion. Few venues in life offer such a range of diversity. It is our permanent goal to increase diversity and encourage acceptance of each person and of his or her individual creative expression.
Our students and faculty come from 45 states and Washington, D.C. We have students and alumni from Canada, Mexico, Liberia, Israel, Great Britain, Singapore, South Africa, and Germany. The average age of our students is 42, though our students have ranged in age from 22 to 82. About 40 percent of our students study fiction, about 15 percent poetry, 15 percent creative nonfiction, 10 percent writing for children and young adults, and 20 percent dramatic writing.
In addition, we’re proud of the diversity of our students’ voices. Our emphasis is on the quality of the writing, not the subject matter, genre, or particular style.
The Spalding low residency MFA Program has graduated more than 500 students since our first graduating class in 2003. Our alums have published hundreds of books with large and small presses and have had plays and movies produced. Alums have gone on to win the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, serve as Poet Laureate for the state of Kentucky, have work honored in Best American Essays, win the E.B. White Honor Book Award for books for young readers, have plays produced Off-Broadway, and sell screenplays to Disney and other major studios. Click here for a longer, but still limited(!), list of their achievements.
That said, being a Spalding MFA alum is about much more than publications and awards. We are first and foremost a community of writers who share a lifelong connection. The Spalding MFA alumni association is unmatched in its support for all alums, whether publishing or not. See the About Us page to read more about the ways we keep our alums part of the family.
Alumni give back to the MFA Program through the establishment of endowed scholarships for current students and also through the fund that provides for the Diana M. Raab Distinguished Writer in Residence.
What prospective students ask us
The fall and spring semesters are about six months long. Packets are exchanged about every three-and-a-half weeks. Students should expect to spend about 25 hours each week on their writing and reading for the program. The summer semester is about nine months long, and packets are exchanged about every six weeks. Summer students spend about 12 to 15 hours a week on their writing and reading.
Students who prefer the longer packet submission schedule (a packet every six weeks as opposed to a packet every three-and-a-half weeks) but don’t wish to travel abroad may enroll in the summer independent study session but attend the spring residency in Louisville instead of going abroad. Student loans may be affected by this arrangement, so students should check with the Financial Aid office to be sure they understand the implications of choosing this route.
At Spalding, we believe strongly that writing outside the primary area deepens and enriches students’ writing and teaches them the connecting points across genres. To encourage this form of serious cross-genre exploration, we offer second-semester students the option to take an entire independent study session in another area. In addition, all students are allowed to workshop outside their area once during their five residencies.
Students may also take an optional enrichment semester, beyond the four core semesters, as an opportunity to study a second or even third area.
We highly value having a diverse community of writers in the program, including writers of all ages. If you’ve been out of school for some time, you might first consider attending a summer writing conference in your area. Consider whether it is difficult to hear your work discussed objectively. Do you enjoy group discussions? Are you open to new ideas? Workshop sessions are intended to be intellectually stimulating and emotionally supportive, not sessions where your work is trashed.
Students are asked to use discretion in pacing themselves to take full advantage of the offerings at residency. Workshop sessions may not be missed. Students are required to attend a number of lecture sessions and other events.
Publication is not required for admission. Our main consideration for acceptance is the writing sample, which should demonstrate that the applicant is ready to write at a graduate level. Other factors considered include the essays and letters of recommendation, which demonstrate the applicant’s level of interest in literature, motivation to work independently and to meet deadlines, ability to receive criticism, and willingness to learn how to critique others’ work. We ask applicants to list any prizes and publications, but having none does not reduce an applicant’s chances of acceptance to the program.
Yes. Students come to low residency MFA programs from a variety of professions and careers. Many of our students have full- or part-time jobs. The program requires a commitment of about 25 hours a week (for spring and fall semesters) or 12 to 15 hours a week (for summer semester) and may involve juggling schedules and making other sacrifices, but many are willing to take on the extra work for the sake of their writing.
No. Once a student begins the program, he or she has ten years to complete the course of study. For example, a student may decide to enroll in fall semesters only. Others may need to stay out a semester for personal or financial reasons. There’s no pressure to go through the program quickly.
Students learn about faculty members by reading or viewing their work and by reading the faculty teaching philosophy statements, a document made available to students before each residency. During the first few days of residency, students have a chance to hear readings or lectures by faculty members in their area of concentration. Students complete a preference form listing their top several choices. Every effort is made to give each student one of his or her choices.
We believe students completing their creative thesis should have their choice of mentor whenever possible, so we assign mentors to upper-level students first, then to students with less seniority. Students who have not worked with a particular mentor have priority over students who wish to repeat working with that mentor. Students must work with at least three different mentors during the program. In the end, the program directors look at the overall picture of the entire body of students and faculty and make the best possible assignments for everyone.
Included in the Independent Study Plan is a reading list of 8-10 books. The reading list is largely determined by the student with input from the faculty mentor; however, the Program requires a few (usually two to three) books in common to be included each semester. The student and mentor may agree to modify the reading list during the independent study session. The list consists of books about the craft of writing as well as books or scripts written in the student’s area of concentration. Students may use their reading lists to fill in gaps in their education, to learn more about authors with whom they are already familiar, or to emphasize contemporary writers. First- and second-semester students write short critical essays about the books on their reading list. Each essay is a two- to four-page analysis of a few aspects of the text. In composing their essays, students should address the question “How does reading this material contribute to my education as a writer?”
Over the course of an independent study session, students send five packets to their mentors at regularly scheduled intervals. Mentors return their critique within seven days of receiving the packet. The total packet, including cover letter, original writing, and critical essays, should not exceed 50 pages (the total is less for poetry and picture books), unless the student has received permission from the instructor to send more work. Students’ packets consist of
- a cover letter discussing the enclosed material and asking questions about specific parts of the material.
- original creative writing consisting of some new material and/or some revisions: 35-45 pages of prose, screenwriting or playwriting, middle-grade or young-adult writing; 5-7 poems; or text for 5-7 picture books. Third-, fourth- and enrichment-semester students have somewhat different requirements.
- short essays in MLA format, each based on a book from the reading list. Third-, fourth- and enrichment-semester students have somewhat different requirements.
- the student’s bibliography for the independent study.
- a cumulative list of titles of original creative writing included in the current independent study session’s packets.
- a self-addressed, stamped envelope with sufficient postage to cover the weight of the packet material and mentor’s response (unless an electronic exchange has been arranged).