9 August 2021
5  min.

MFA in the context of American higher education stands for Master of Fine Arts. The duration of study usually varies from 2 to 3 years.

You can earn this degree in the following areas:

– visual arts;

– performing arts;

– design;

– creative writing.

There are many possibilities for a person who has a master’s degree in these areas. Becoming an author, actor, curator, graphic designer or professor are just a few examples of potential opportunities for MFA degree holders. While pursuing an MFA degree you are able to specialize in a specific creative area and immerse yourself in the learning process under the guidance of experienced teachers and practitioners. 

I am interested in obtaining a master’s degree in the field of visual arts so I can develop specialized skills within my preferred art style and to be able to conduct cross disciplinary research in areas such as history, psychology, sociology and cultural studies. Ultimately, it is my hope to one day become a university professor or lecturer.

The admissions cycle usually starts in mid-September/October and ends in January/February. Some universities may give preference to applicants who apply early which, in some cases, may play a factor in the distribution of financial aid awards. However, I suggest contacting an admissions counselor to verify whether or not an early application submission would be advantageous, and if not it may best to spend more time on improving application materials.

Basic Requirements for Applicants

A bachelor’s degree from an accredited university is required when seeking admission to any master’s program in the U.S. The bachelor degree major may differ from the intended MFA degree. In most cases when applying for a MFA program, prospective students will need to submit a creative portfolio, a Statement of Purpose (SOP), and recommendation letters.

The creative portfolio is regarded by many institutions as a determining factor for admission. It must have a central theme and a creative focus. It may be social, political, environmental or connect to other issues that concern the artist. The portfolio can also concentrate on exploring the possibilities of different mediums, for example, acrylic paints, pastels, graphite, etc. It is important for your own creativity and passion to really come through the work so the admissions committee will take notice. In some cases, the creative portfolio will need to be submitted electronically. 

The SOP is an essay that allows you to present your reasoning and purpose in pursuing graduate studies. Through this essay you should try to describe in a concise but creative way why obtaining a master’s degree is an essential and important step towards further developing your career. You should also discuss what you will bring to the program and how it will be useful for you. The SOP is just as important at the portfolio. 

Additional Requirements

Effective letters of recommendation should help characterize the applicant and provide details on their aptitude, motivation, interests or accomplishments. Letters of recommendation should come from individuals who know you best in either an academic or professional capacity. Through this third party information the admissions committee will have a better understanding of your qualifications. 

Depending on the university and program, an Artist Statement – an essay that describes the artist’s creative interests, or a Personal Statement – a description of personal reasons that influenced ones creative path, may be required. Some universities may require a brief resume or CV describing work experience related to a specific field of activity. To ensure that the students can handle writing research papers, some programs may request a writing sample. 

English Proficiency Requirements 

International students from non-english speaking countries will need to show proof of sufficient English proficiency for admission into most U.S. universities and colleges. While looking for programs suitable for me, I noticed that many schools request mostly TOEFL and IELTS scores. The minimum TOEFL iBT score for most programs is around 87 points. Some universities, such as UCLA and Cornell University, indicate the required minimum score for each skill including reading, listening, speaking and writing. During the global pandemic, some institutions began accepting the results of the Duolingo English Test, TOEFL Home Edition and other alternative tests. Nowadays, fewer schools require submission of GRE scores, however in some cases it may turn out to be an additional plus to the application package. 

Selection Criteria

Applying to an American university for a MFA program is a rather complicated process, which begins with searching for universities and programs. While many admissions committees consider the portfolio the most important criterion for selecting prospective students, one should not forget that English language proficiency and a well written SOP are still equally important factors to the application and selection process. 

Financial Aid

Studying a masters degree in the United States is undeniably expensive. Some U.S. institutions can provide financial support to international students which in some cases may amount to full if not partial financial assistance. Financial aid packages may consist of grants, scholarships, research assistantships and/or teaching assistantships.  

While many U.S. universities and colleges offer financial aid, and while it is possible to find funded MFA programs, said funding tends to be quite competitive. I recommend learning about your funding options early on in the process before you get closely involved in preparing applications. 

Helpful Tips and Resources

If you are thinking about applying to MFA programs, you should first determine what you hope to achieve otherwise any lack of motivation on your part can negatively impact the entire admission process.

If you are applying for a MFA in contemporary art, for example, then strive to be well-informed in that field. You can do this by reading up on prominent scholars, visiting art galleries or watching documentaries about art of the 20th and 21st centuries. This will help you determine your own interests and motivation for pursuing grad school.

When looking for programs be sure to learn all that you can about the work done by faculty, if possible contact them personally. Some admission committees share contact info of faculty who are willing to provide feedback on the quality of an applicant’s work. A very useful event that takes place annually in November is called «National Portfolio Day». As part of the event, faculty from different schools look at potential portfolios and give advice on how applicants can improve their technique. Thanks to the pandemic it is now possible to attend this event online. Therefore, if you want to know your approximate chances of receiving admission and understand how to best finalize your portfolio, be sure to register for National Portfolio Day.


A MFA degree opens up many opportunities for artists and educators in the arts. Despite the complicated process of admission, the result will justify the means I look forward to being immersed in the world of contemporary art in America, meeting creative and talented people, and being presented with limitless career prospects on a global scale!

Daria Tkachoff  is a contemporary figurative painter and prospective MFA student in Painting.

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