Ask Koreanish: On the Idea of a “MFA Safety School”

Periodically, I get readers writing in for advice. This is a semi-regular series. 

Q:  Is there any such thing as a safety school when it comes to MFAs?

A: I don’t know that safety school thinking applies.

In a general way, the graduate school experience is qualitatively different from the undergraduate school experience. When you’re an undergraduate, you’re typically looking for a liberal arts experience that will help you figure out your specific adult career goals in relationship to a broad education, conducted across a few disciplines. You may not find a match at that point but the idea is that you are at least prepared for whatever it is you do find after graduation–despite the bashing it gets, a proper undergraduate education really does prepare most people to write well across disciplines and think their way through problems of various kinds, including those not encountered in college. If successful, it endows critical thinking at a relatively high level. A safety school at this level makes sense–you’re looking for a place that will help you accomplish an undergraduate degree, a basic level of preparedness.

As a potential graduate student in the MFA, you are looking to specialize intensively, at least put yourself in the way of a mentor (mentor experiences are not guaranteed! They choose you) and meet, and this is important, a cohort–a group of individuals who will all be coming up together professionally. Your cohort in some ways is more important than a mentor, though no one thinks so at the time. Your cohort will be people you see for decades at your level or above or below, as time goes on, and they collectively can hold you to a high standard, a higher one than you might adopt for yourself. People always speak negatively about competition, but if it spurs you to your best efforts, I think there’s nothing negative about it at all—and that is really what you should let it do for you. That cohort you will have with you in class no matter who is teaching the class, and they’ll likely be the people you run into at readings and in cafes and bars and talk to, late into the evening, about literature. I learned to write a pantoum from a member of my cohort, for example. Every time I publish something I imagine what they will think before I present it, not after. Some will be suspicious of this admission, but I’m comfortable with it—I’m speaking of peers whose work I respect.

This group matters enormously because it is democratic and meritocratic both in its configuration, to a larger extent than it might be. It is more likely to have women and people of color in it than some other literary establishments, and your peers there will be writing with financial support that is neither a trust fund nor familial and spousal support–writing by virtue of a grant or fellowship they won from the school. They will often be people you would never otherwise agree to show your work to, and their experiences and readings will open up your idea of what you are saying, what is possible and how to proceed with what is possible.

For these reasons and more, I strongly advocate a “best places or no place” strategy. I.e., narrow down to what the schools are you’d want to go to and do not think in terms of safety schools. If you don’t get in, reapply the next year and work to improve until then. Or, move on and do not take the degree. And find your cohort in life—don’t think you can’t. You can. You just have to go outside as well as onto the internet.

Go big and go without a net, in other words, and see where it gets you.


  1. Reblogged this on THE LITERARY MAN and commented:
    100 percent agreed with Alexander Chee on the notion of MFA safety schools. You should set your sights on your number one pick, and keep working on your writing until they’re ready to take you. So many stories of writers getting rejected one year, revising all year long, resubmitting, and getting accepted the following year. It will happen for you, too. Be patient!

  2. Well said, Alex. I think it’s also important to note that the best school for an individual may not be the one with the greatest name cachet, or the highest rank, but the one where the staff’s body of work holds the most interest for the prospective student. I agree that it’s certainly about the cohort, but if you and your profs aren’t in accord over the kind of literature that gets your respective motors running, it could be a long, hard couple to three years. Read the faculty’s work before you realize that your love of meta-magical-realist-weird-tales, etc. isn’t what any of your new professors value. (Case in point: a friend in my MFA program whose work I greatly admire was 200 pages into his go at a “literary steampunk” novel, when he was told by one of our profs that he was wasting his talent on trash. This prof should be drawn and quartered in my opinion, but I digress.) You may find a crew of writer’s working at a place that you hadn’t previously considered whose work is steering right in line with where see yourself growing as a writer. Again, it’s certainly about the cohort, but if you’re not getting what you need from those teaching you, then they aren’t the right teachers for you, no matter how esteemed and credentialed.

    1. Thanks, Dan. It’s true. The problem is, we don’t know which way we’ll go once we get there. I was lucky Iowa was (and still is) very accepting of some very different directions, many more than people think.

      Also, as for the disrespect of teachers, well, one thing any education should do is teach you a certain independence from the teacher’s opinion at the end of the day—to remember that in the end, they are advisors. I really believe the willingness to go in the direction you are sure of, despite teacherly disapproval, should emerge out of the education process.

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