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How Getting Your MFA Works

Becoming a professional painter requires talent and skill. And an MFA doesn't hurt, either.
Becoming a professional painter requires talent and skill. And an MFA doesn't hurt, either.
Andy Ryan/Getty Images

Have you ever been moved by a poem, marveled at a theatrical performance or admired a stunning piece of jewelry and wondered -- how did they do that?

Innovative artists and designers of all kinds -- from metalsmiths to dancers and painters to computer animators -- have been able to elevate their technical and creative abilities and achieve remarkable success within their fields with the help of a Master of Fine Arts degree, or MFA.

An MFA is a specialized graduate degree in design or fine arts. The degree program is typically 60 credits and takes two years to complete in the United States (some are three- or four-year stints). Almost every state considers it a terminal degree, even though some competing Ph.D. programs exist. This means an MFA is the highest academic degree typically awarded for particular fine arts specializations in visual arts, creative writing, filmmaking, theater or performing arts.

The focus of an MFA program is on the actual practice of art or design, unlike undergraduate or masters degree programs that focus on scholarly study. This concentrated professional degree is intended to provide the student with an advanced education prior to becoming a practicing professional.

To earn this advanced degree, be ready to spend about two years plugging away at a full course load. If you are thinking about starting an MFA program, there are many things to consider. Besides the quality and reputation of a particular program, also pay attention to the school's location, faculty, program coursework, concentration options and even the percentage of graduates who found meaningful work within a year of getting their diploma. When all of these factors are in alignment with your personality and preferences, you'll enjoy your graduate experience much more.

But before you can begin any MFA program, you have to get accepted first. On the next page, discover what the application process is like and what admissions boards are impressed by most.