MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults

Writing the Critical Essay

The Critical Essay for the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults (WCYA) application is an integral part of the Admissions selection process. These guidelines are designed to help applicants tackle the form of the critical essay. 

What the Essay Is

  • an exploration of a craft-related topic pertinent to the applicant's writing
  • an analysis (that's the "critical" part) of some aspect of a selected published work or works, most likely written for children or young adults
  • an expression of the writer's thoughts and reflections in a form intended for a professional audience, and therefore using the standard citation format (MLA) that VCFA uses in the discourse community
  • a mode of writing that will allow the student to think more deeply and critically about their own work.

What the Essay Is Not

  • a book report
  • an unsubstantiated opinion or set of opinions
  • a summary of opinions culled from secondary sources
  • a survey.

Advisors will differ on what constitutes the perfect essay opening, or even the perfect essay. Some will expect a traditionally constructed essay with a clear statement of purpose. Others will want you to experiment with the form of the essay as you do with other forms in your creative work. All advisors, however, will expect you to articulate a point of view, and to express, support, and defend it in terms that are clear and logical. Applicants should not let opinions read like a tract, or an attack. The nature of the essay is to argue, persuade, consider, and reason. This often includes thoughtful discussion of obvious counterarguments.

The MFA in WCYA expects applicants to have the ability to summarize the book(s) under discussion in their essay in such a way that a reader will have a clear enough idea of the story to understand the essayist's point. This requires concise writing and an understanding of the modest goal of the essay. Applicants should be able to illustrate that they grasp the author's intentions, at least with regard to the craft issue under consideration.

Occasionally an essay might lead the applicant to discuss thematic concerns or changing attitudes within the field or even in the wider culture. The applicant may decide to weigh in with cultural or ideological concerns. Both these are fine, for context.

Primarily, however, the hope is that the critical writing will help the applicant to look more closely at the craft of writing and to articulate, incisively, what makes a poem or a story tick. It is of particular relevance that the applicant look at issues of craft that they may be struggling with. The essays written should complement, not compete with, the applicant's creative efforts. Examination of craft is emphasized over pure criticism.

The MFA in WCYA is not a program dedicated purely to literary analysis. The program wants to produce creative writers. This means the program expects applicants, in their essays, to demonstrate the ability to read creatively. Applicants should not approach texts seeking to either praise or condemn them, but rather to understand—understand what's happening under the skin of the words, and think about why they respond as they do.

For all these reasons, the program encourages the use of primary sources as applicants' major background reading for their essays. Secondary sources to bolster arguments or viewpoints can be used, too, of course, but they can’t take the place of wide, deep reading in the chosen field of literature for children and young adults. Put another way, "expert" quotations should not take the place of applicants' own expressed analysis.

Applicants should keep in mind that their audience is knowledgeable about youth literature but not necessarily the specific area being explored. The tone should be engaging and conversational, but not too casual.

Essay Expectations

The MFA in WCYA require 10 short (2-5 page) essays or the equivalent in first semester. Advisors will assign longer essays and revisions as needed. In second semester eight short and one longer (8-10 page) essays (or the equivalent) are required.  This is a general outline of what is expected. Students should keep in mind that each advisor may vary the specific requirements as they see fit.

An acceptable essay at the graduate level will demonstrate

  • close, nuanced reading
  • clear and original analysis
  • strong organization
  • competent writing and grammatical expository prose
  • the ability to raise, sustain, and support a focused argument 
  • relevance to student's own writing
  • MLA format


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Ann Cardinal

Director of Student Recruitment
866-934-8232, ext. 8589
[email protected]


Writing a Critical Essay

Exemplary Essays: MFA in WCYA Students & Alumni 

Reference Books

  • The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present, edited by Philip Lopate, Anchor, 1997.
  • The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, edited by Robert L. Root, Jr. and Michael Steinberg, Allyn & Bacon, 1998.
  • Rules for Writers by Diana Hacker and Nancy Sommers, 7th edition. Bedford St. Martin's, 2011.
  • Writing Creative Non-fiction: Instruction and Insights from the Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs, edited by Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard. Story Press, 2001.

 These books can be purchased at the VCFA bookstore or borrowed from the Library.

Internet Resources