Creative Writing


The MFA Exam and Thesis

MFA Exam
Graduation Application
Thesis Proposal, Advisor, and Committee
Registering for Thesis Hours
Thesis Preparation
Thesis Responsibilities (Advisor, Student, Readers)
Thesis Submission Format
Thesis Defense
Exam, Thesis, and Graduation Checklist
Departmental Policy on Early Graduation
Departmental Policy on Delayed Graduation and Leave-of-Absence
Re-enrollment after an Absence of More Than Two Semesters
Graduate School Five-Year Rule
A Note about Seeking Letters of Recommendation

MFA Exam

The MFA exam is taken during the penultimate semester of your coursework. If you plan to graduate in May, you'll take the exam in the preceding October (3rd weekend); if you plan to graduate in December, you'll take the exam in the preceding March (3rd weekend). Typically, students pick up the exam on a Friday afternoon and have the entire weekend to complete it. The exam consists of three published reading selections in the student's primary genre and a writing prompt. The student will choose one of the reading selections as the basis of their response. The craft response (1,500 to 2,000 words) requires skills in close reading and knowledge of practical criticism and aesthetics. The second part of the exam is a more philosophical response (1,500 to 2,000 words) based on the student's writing aesthetic. Sample exam responses in all three genres are available for review in the CRW office.

The faculty has developed an extensive suggested reading list to aid you in preparing for the exam (available under MFA Student Resources). We suggest that you consult this list early in your course of study. Other resources for the MFA exam (including a grading rubric) can be found on our department SharePoint site. (help)

Note: Before you can take the MFA exam, you must have established a thesis director and committee, and you must have received approval of your submitted thesis proposal (see below).

Students will submit the Intent to Take MFA Exam form and submit it to the thesis director for signature by the due date on the form. This notifies the director to submit the published writing selection for the student's analytical response, and notifies administrators to prepare an exam for the student.

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Graduation Application

The Graduate School requires all students to fill out graduation applications in SeaNet during their graduating semester. This ensures that all your course credits are being correctly counted toward your degree, and that your name is printed correctly in the commencement program. Details and instructions are available on the Graduate School's website under <Current Students> and <Graduation>.

  • For December graduates, the deadline for the graduation application is in mid October.
  • For May graduates, the deadline for the graduation application is in early March.

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Thesis Proposal, Advisor, and Committee

An MFA candidate must complete a substantial, book-length thesis manuscript of literary merit and publishable quality acceptable to the thesis committee. This ordinarily will be a novel; a novella; a collection of short stories, poems, or essays; a single long poem; a long nonfiction narrative; or, in specially approved instances, some combination of the foregoing. "Book-length" is ordinarily defined as 48-64 pages of poetry, or 120-240 pages of prose. Early in the process the student should discuss the projected length of the manuscript with the thesis director.

It is expected that the thesis will be composed of work written and revised throughout the course of the student's study. Thesis hours, then, are to be used to polish existing work and to create what new writing is deemed appropriate. It should be understood that thesis work cannot be successfully accomplished in only the six designated thesis hours, nor in one semester's time. Though the typical period of MFA study is three years, and though typically the student's thesis draft is completed in the next-to -last semester and polished during the final semester of study, it is not unusual for students to take longer than three years to complete both the necessary course work and the substantial thesis. While we strongly urge students to complete the MFA degree in three years, in the event that a delay is necessary, please review the Creative Writing Department's policy on delayed graduation, further below.

The thesis must be completed in the primary genre. Should the candidate wish to change genres, the student must reapply for admission and be accepted into the program in that genre. Note: this practice is highly discouraged.

By the end of your second year, you will request and be assigned a committee of three faculty members to oversee your thesis (a thesis director and two readers) through the following process:

  • Graduate Coordinator holds meeting in January for second-year MFA students and interested faculty. At the meeting, the Coordinator discusses the thesis committee preference form and the thesis process, and responds to student questions.
  • Preference forms are due February 15. The purpose of this deadline is to ensure that MFA students have their thesis committees, and thus their new advisors, in place in advance of pre-registration (allowing students to register for thesis hours). Students who do not submit the committee preference form in a timely manner may forfeit the courtesies extended to other students in the committee designation process described below.
  • Coordinator drafts thesis committees. Ideally, each student should receive their first or second choice as thesis director, and the first reader in the primary genre from the student's list. The second reader is appointed by the Coordinator, considering faculty availability, faculty course load, and other factors.
  • Coordinator emails draft of committees to faculty members for feedback/comments by a specific deadline (approximately one week, during which an optional faculty meeting for the purpose of discussion, if necessary, will be scheduled).
  • Coordinator informs students of the membership of their committees via email. If, for any reason (such as delay of graduation), there is a change in committee membership, Coordinator notifies the student and the committee via email, and has revised thesis committee chart posted on Sharepoint.

Your thesis director and readers will be in charge of approving the quality of the final project. The MFA coordinator and faculty will do our best to assign you the thesis director you request, but in order to distribute thesis duties equitably, you may be assigned a director and/or readers who are not your first choices on your list of preferences.

You should meet with your thesis director early in the thesis-writing process to ensure that the thesis is completed successfully and on time. (Note: your thesis director will also serve as your academic advisor in your third year.) Students planning to graduate early should consult with the MFA coordinator as soon as possible.

After your thesis committee is established, the deadline and instructions for thesis proposals will be announced via e-mail, and are detailed below. (You can download a copy of the thesis proposal form at any time from our website.) The thesis proposal is developed by you the student, and forwarded to your thesis committee for approval and signature. Along with your thesis proposal narrative, you must submit a sample of creative work in your primary genre for your committee's review; this is to ensure that all committee members have a sense of your course of study and endorse the quality of your writing. Acceptable writing samples are 10 poems or, for prose writers, a book chapter or complete story. Note: All students should submit a thesis proposal in the antepenultimate semester of study. (due dates)

The format of the thesis proposal:

One to three pages (double-spaced) of text explaining the focus and intentions of the thesis, to include genre, form, table of contents (if applicable), and anticipated length of the manuscript. Large and complicated projects, especially those requiring planning and research, should be outlined according to the expectations of the thesis committee. The objectives and scope of the project should be manageable and clear to all concerned.

Note: It is normal, even desirable, for the thesis to evolve into a project very different than that originally described in the proposal. The student should consult with the thesis director as work progresses, but in general students are not required to submit a new thesis proposal, unless graduation is delayed by two or more years and a new thesis director and committee are assigned.

Again, your thesis proposal should be submitted and approved one year prior to your expected graduation date, and one semester before you take the MFA exam.

The student will:

  • Forward the proposal (by email, paper copy, etc.) to the thesis committee by April 15 (November 15 for Fall graduates). (It is the student's responsibility to contact the committee members.)
  • Email to Lisa Bertini in a combined pdf document the abstract and the writing sample by April 15 (November 15 for Fall graduates).
  • Submit the mandatory thesis proposal cover sheet to the committee members for signature approving the proposal, then ensure the completed cover sheet is submitted to Lisa for Department filing.
  • Deadline to submit the signed thesis proposal cover sheet to Lisa is May 15 (December 15 for Fall graduates).

Helpful hint:
Most students email—by April 15th—their three committee members (and copy Lisa) the thesis proposal abstract & writing sample, and include the note that the student will leave the thesis proposal cover sheet in the director's mailbox to have the director, upon review, sign approval and then forward on to the other committee members for their signatures, returning it to Lisa by May 15th.

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You will need to complete 6 thesis hours, which are most commonly divided equally between your final two full semesters. After consulting with your thesis director, you may choose to divide those hours in any increments that work best with your writing schedule (for example, 4 hours in the fall, 2 hours in the spring). You must submit your thesis proposal, and receive approval, in the semester before thesis hours commence.
You do not register for thesis hours through SEANET in the manner that you register for your other courses. Instead, you will fill out the electronic registration form found on the Graduate School's website:
(Note: if the link to 599 is broken, contact the Graduate School ( and let them know they need to update the 'survey' for the coming semester.)

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Thesis Preparation

Faculty thesis directors and student writers work together in different ways; as you write your thesis, your thesis director may be involved in your manuscript's evolution from its earliest drafts, or may only want to see the "first finished draft." But for all, the following guidelines are in effect: If you plan to graduate in the spring, a draft of your thesis must be submitted to your director no later than November 15 (for fall graduates, May 15). Students will receive feedback from the director by December 15 (for fall graduates, June 15), the director will respond to the student. When the director determines that the draft is acceptable, the thesis defense will be scheduled. The student will then provide copies of the thesis for the remaining committee members, no later than three weeks prior to the defense. All thesis defenses for spring graduates must be completed between March 1 and April 15 (for fall graduates, between October 1 and November 15).

Remember: The thesis is not meant to be the masterpiece of your career, the best and last book you will ever write. We expect it to be the first book you will write, with plenty more to follow. So while it is important to write the best thesis you can, do not put artificial pressure on yourself to make it perfect. If we have done our job right, you are still evolving as a writer, expanding your vision and ambitions. Typically before seeking publication, an MFA graduate spends the next year or two polishing the thesis into a book, even doing extensive revisions that didn't occur to the writer during the thesis semester.

Questions about thesis length? See the section above: Thesis Proposal, Advisor, and Committee.

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Thesis Responsibilities (Advisor, Student, Readers)

The Student's Thesis Responsibilities

  • Hand in thesis proposal and writing sample as directed.
  • Meet with director as appropriate to formulate project and discuss progress.
  • Hand in a completed draft of the thesis to your director and readers no later than November 15 (for fall graduates, May 15).
  • Make the appropriate revisions.
  • Follow through on the two-part thesis defense:
  • A private discussion (the actual oral defense) with your thesis committee. The committee will discuss your work, pose questions, engage you in a conversation about your craft, and will possibly review your MFA exam with you. In any case in which the student receives conflicting advice for revision from different committee members, the judgment of the thesis director should prevail.
  • Participate in a public reading of thesis work with other graduating MFA students.
  • Bring a printed thesis cover page to your defense for your committee members' signatures.
  • Finish all revisions and submit the correctly-formatted pdf of the thesis to the Graduate School by the final deadline.
  • Follow all guidelines (further below) for deadlines, thesis draft formatting, and the final PDF electronic copy.

The Thesis Director's Responsibilities

  • Review thesis proposal and approve it when appropriate.
  • Meet with the student to plan thesis semesters.
  • Meet with student as appropriate to discuss progress of manuscript.
  • Provide substantive individualized practical commentary (due by December 15).
  • Schedule Part 1 of the thesis defense.
  • Chair Part 1 of the thesis defense.
  • If the thesis defense passes, supervise signing of student's final pages by all members of the committee. If the defense does not pass, meet with student and MFA coordinator to discuss options.

The Thesis Committee Readers' Responsibilities

  • Read the thesis draft and make appropriate suggestions for revision, either written or orally, at the defense. You need not read subsequent drafts of the thesis.
  • If you have a serious problem with the overall quality of the manuscript, or any other substantial reservations, contact the thesis director immediately.
  • Be present for both parts of the thesis defense, and ask questions during Part 1.
  • At your discretion, you may discuss the thesis manuscript with the student.
  • In any case in which the student receives conflicting advice for revision from different committee members, the judgment of the thesis director should prevail.

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Thesis Submission Format

The Graduate School provides a Thesis Guide online for all graduate students. The guide is available at (blue column at right). This thesis information page also includes thesis requirements, forms, and deadlines. You will need to consult this guide in order to format your thesis so that is approved by the Graduate School.

Questions about thesis length? See the section above: Thesis Proposal, Advisor, and Committee.

Students may find sample thesis templates on the Graduate School's 'Front Matter' webpage. We strongly recommend you use these templates to build your thesis front matter, which refers to the UNCW-required uniformity of the pre-content of your thesis manuscript.


Here is the abbreviated list:

Thesis Requirements—Email to Graduate School:

  1. signed format approval sheet

  2. formatted thesis first draft, with cover page that has typed names above line (no signatures)

  3. ETD form

  4. final pdf of thesis (after Grad School approved the formatting);
    also email to Lisa—

  5. separate pdf of thesis cover page, with signatures

Forms & Deadlines <click here>.

Here are the details:

The Graduate School requires students to submit theses in electronic PDF format. See the Thesis Guide housed in the blue right-column of
The formatting/submission process is as follows: 

More about the thesis cover page:

1. Your thesis (draft & final copy) needs a cover page for titling formality. This cover page will not have signatures, but will instead have your committee members' names typed above the line in place of the signature. (sample no-signature version)
2. The Grad School requires a separate, signed version of your thesis cover page. (This indicates your committee members' approval of your thesis.) You may print out a paper copy, collect ink signatures, scan the paper copy, and email it as a pdf to (**see note below). Or, you can use this downloadable pdf to collect electronic signatures. IMPORTANT: You must first download the pdf, then open the file from the FOLDER LOCATION on your computer—not within the tab/window on your screen. Yes, this means opening the actual Downloads folder on your computer. If you shortcut this, the formatting won't be correct and your committee members won't be able to sign. You should see red lines around the text boxes (not just light blue text boxes). Don't see red lines? Email Lisa and ask her to email you the "pdf of the signatures-version of the thesis cover page."

**If you are opting to print out a thesis cover page to collect signatures manually, your committee members' names should be typed in below the signature line. Make sure you are using the Grad School's required thesis format, like this version.

The Graduate School will take care of submitting your electronic thesis to the Library for posting to the electronic-archival server. Want to see other theses submitted? You can access past theses [Creative Writing, only from 2008-2018] online—you have to be on campus though. Here is the link to access theses; you can choose Creative Writing as the Department:

Randall Library thesis requirements give more information about permissions, as well as information about getting a personal copy of your thesis.

For more information regarding the ETD submission form, please see (Generally speaking, CRW recommends, on the ETD form, selecting <Option 2> and <indefinitely>. This designation will release your electronic thesis, for an unlimited time, for UNCW-wide access only.)

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Thesis Defense

All MFA students must defend their thesis in two sessions. Part 1 consists of a one-on-three discussion, or "defense," with your thesis committee. Part 2 is a public reading of your work given with several other graduating MFA students, to be followed by a reception, sponsored and publicized by the Creative Writing department.

Your thesis director will work with you to schedule Part 1 of your defense. Your director will not allow you to schedule this part of your defense, however, if your thesis is not considered to be of passable quality.

The Department of Creative Writing has set that thesis defenses for spring graduates must be completed between March 1 and April 15 (for fall graduates, between October 1 and November 15).

Part 2 of the defense—your public thesis reading and reception—will be scheduled by the department, typically in the final semester.

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Exam, Thesis, and Graduation Checklist

Here is an abbreviated checklist for your final semesters. See the sections above for more details.

  • After you have a thesis committee, submit the thesis proposal by the deadline one year prior to graduation and one semester prior to taking the MFA exam. (Even if you are considering delaying graduation, you should submit a thesis proposal at the end of your second year of study.)
  • Submit the Intent to take MFA Examination Form, and take the MFA exam in the semester before you graduate.
  • If you plan to graduate in the spring, a draft of your thesis must be submitted to your director no later than November 15 (for fall graduates, May 15)
  • Follow the procedures and file all necessary forms for graduation in your final semester by the due date.
  • Work with the Graduate School to assure appropriate thesis format. Use the Graduate School's thesis guide.
  • Submit your formatted thesis draft and thesis abstract to the Graduate School for approval by the deadline.
  • Follow the Department of Creative Writing process for the two-part thesis defense.
  • Bring a printed copy of your thesis cover page to your defense for your committee members' signatures.
  • Finish all revisions and submit the correctly formatted copy of the thesis via email to the Graduate School (—and copy Lisa—) by the final deadline.

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Departmental Policy on Early Graduation

Though the MFA program is designed to allow students to complete the MFA degree in three years, occasionally a student will work toward an early graduation. Should this be your choice (for financial or personal reasons), understand that while we will all work toward helping you achieve this goal, it may mean that you will need to be more flexible than other students when it comes to course selection and thesis committee assignments.

While our main concern in offering Graduate Teaching Assistantships is to help support our graduate student recipients, we also have a responsibility to the undergraduate students who are served by courses assigned to our GTAs. Since our department invests a great amount of energy in training our GTAs, it is imperative that a teaching assistant fulfill the duties of the position for three entire academic years. Thus, as a matter of both necessity and professional courtesy, should a GTA wish to graduate in the fall of the third year, that GTA must notify the MFA Coordinator of his/her intent as soon as the decision to graduate early has been made, and must surrender his/her assistantship no later than the end of the second year.

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Departmental Policy on Delayed Graduation and Leave-of-Absence

The MFA program is designed to allow students to complete the MFA degree in three years. However, a student will occasionally find it necessary to delay the thesis defense and graduation. UNCW's Graduate School requires that you complete the degree by the end of five years, maximum. Any decision to delay defense and graduation should be made in conjunction with your thesis director. If you postpone your thesis defense by more than two semesters, your thesis committee is subject to change. In addition, even if you postpone your defense by only one or two semesters, it is possible that your thesis director or readers may be unavailable to serve, and substitutions on your committee will be necessary.

If you are considering postponing your defense and graduation, please thoroughly review the departmental policies concerning the timeframe for exit requirements —the MFA thesis proposal, the MFA exam, and the MFA thesis reading and thesis defense— and consult your thesis director and the MFA coordinator, to ensure you understand how these policies apply to your situation.

You must be enrolled in the semester in which you graduate. See information about GRC 600.
Please also review the 'Hot List' information in the right-column of the MFA Handbook landing page for exit requirements at

If you decide to delay graduation, there is a 'request to delay' form you will need to submit to report your intended timeline.

If you decide to take a Leave of Absence, there is a different form you will need to submit to report your intended return date. If your leave will delay your graduation date, you will also need to submit the 'request to delay' form.

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Re-enrollment after an Absence of More Than Two Semesters

An MFA student who has been absent (not enrolled) for more than two semesters, who has completed all coursework and needs only to defend the thesis in order to graduate, must do the following: Resubmit to the MFA coordinator an updated thesis proposal (including writing sample) by a date no later than one month before the end of the semester prior to the semester in which the student seeks to defend and graduate. The proposal should indicate how close the manuscript is to completion.

The thesis proposal will be reviewed by MFA coordinator and graduate faculty. If proposal is of defendable quality, the MFA coordinator will assign the student a new thesis committee, which may or may not include faculty previously assigned to this student. If proposal is rejected, a student who is still within the five-year graduation limit may re-enroll, but may not graduate in the upcoming semester. The student will receive notification of the thesis proposal's acceptance or rejection prior to the start of the semester in which he or she seeks to re-enroll.

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Graduate School Five-Year Rule

If an MFA student (1) has exceeded the Graduate School's five-year limit for completing the degree; (2) has not been enrolled in either thesis hours or CRW coursework for at least two semesters; and (3) has not been granted a leave-of-absence by the MFA coordinator prior to becoming inactive; the student will not be re-admitted to the program except by re-applying (submitting full application) to the Graduate School. In order to receive a leave of absence, the student must complete the appropriate paperwork and submit to the Graduate Coordinator (provide link here).

Ordinarily it will be the policy of the Creative Writing department not to endorse or grant extensions on the above five-year limit except (1) in cases where medical leave-of-absence has been granted in advance by the MFA coordinator; and (2) in cases where the student has finished all coursework but has been continuously enrolled in thesis hours or in GRC 600, Continuous Enrollment (

In the event that an extension is granted to the five-year rule and a student is readmitted to the program, any previous UNCW coursework taken outside the five-year limit will be reviewed by the MFA coordinator in order to determine whether and how it will count toward the degree.

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A Note about Seeking Letters of Recommendation

In your final year of the MFA program, you will be asking your professors for letters of recommendation. As a rule, faculty are happy to do this. We want you to succeed at the next level of your ambition. But there is a protocol about how to get letters from your faculty without abusing their time and goodwill. The protocol also makes it more likely that the letters will get written and reach the people they need to reach in a timely fashion.

  • If you have not already done so, set up a dossier-either with UNCW Career Services or independent portfolio services such as Interfolio. In some cases, this will cost you a fee up front and a nominal fee each time you request that your dossier be sent to a university, employer, etc. The dossier itself consists typically of college and/or grad school transcripts, letters of recommendation, and anything else that has to be handled "blind"- that is, by a third party to ensure its integrity and authenticity.
  • Once you have set up your dossier, select which professors, employers, or colleagues (if you are already functioning as a professional) to ask for letters. To ensure the best possible references:
  • Be sure the letters come from people whose credentials are relevant to the purpose of the letter; in other words, a letter from your minister or a family friend most likely won't help convince a potential employer to hire you—but strong letters from writing professors or visiting writers might.
  • Make sure the person you ask to write the letter will write a strong letter—it's no good having a Pulitzer Prize winner write a letter in which he or she just says, "So-and-so was in my class." That can be worse than no letter at all. And a professor with reservations about your work or attitude has the obligation to express those to his or her colleagues at another university. So ask the recommender honestly if he or she can write you a favorable letter. If not, then thank him or her and try someone else. You're better off knowing this up front (much as it may disappoint you or hurt your feelings) instead of having a letter floating around in your file that will torpedo your chances.
  • Once you have chosen your recommenders and they have agreed to write positive letters on your behalf, do the following:
  • Fill out all forms completely before you forward them to recommenders.
  • Provide each with a readable resume or short list of things you have accomplished-including the class which you completed with that professor. Your recommenders may have taught hundreds of other students in the intervening years, and you want specifics in the letter which may have faded from the instructor's memory over time.
  • Provide a stamped and addressed envelope, along with any necessary forms to attach. The letter will go directly to the university where you are applying, not to you, except in rare cases. If the letter is sent to you to enclose in your application packet, it will have the recommender's signature across the back of the envelope. Do not open! This is meant as a confidentiality measure; the letter is not meant for your eyes. Though many recommenders routinely show their letters to the candidates they concern, this is the recommender's choice. He or she has done a professional service for you-written a candid assessment of your abilities and performance. You should already know you can trust it, or you shouldn't have asked for it.
  • Given a choice between "Waive right to see letter" and "Do not waive right to see letter," always waive the right. Otherwise, your recommender and the person who gets the letter might feel you don't trust your recommender and wonder why.
  • Give your recommenders enough time to write their letters. Remember, dozens of other graduates, former students, and colleagues ask for letters each semester. Allow at least a month. A week before the letter is due, give the recommender a gentle reminder and a way to contact you if he or she has misplaced the original form. Do not wait to ask until after the deadline has passed (unless the university or employer has requested you to trace the letters and you are still under consideration). Normally, by then, it is too late.

Our department routinely offers panel discussions and informal Q & A sessions conducted by faculty on how to apply for academic jobs and other post-graduate career-related matters. If you are graduating, you should not consider these sessions optional.

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