2011 Poets & Writers Magazine Ranking of MFA Programs: A Guide to the Methodology

Seth Abramson
From the September/October 2010 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine



The 2011 Poets & Writers Magazine MFA rankings are comprised of individual rankings for both full-residency and low-residency programs. The full-residency programs are assessed on the basis of sixteen measures, half of which are in the nature of ordered rankings and half of which are unranked recitations of important program features. All eight of the full-residency rankings-based measures are unscientific, though all eight are predicated upon sufficient hard data to be substantially probative. A scientific ranking of MFA programs is not presently possible, as more than half of the nation's full- and low-residency programs have thus far declined to make public the necessary data (see below).

Four of the eight full-residency rankings are based upon unscientific polling of a large sample of current MFA applicants. These rankings are discussed in significant detail throughout this article. The most important of the four rankings is the ranking upon which the ordering of the programs in the chart is based, a ranking predicated upon individual fiction and poetry applicants' varying esteem for the nation's 148 full-residency MFA programs. The remaining three poll-based "genre" rankings are essentially subsets of this first ranking to the extent they offer data relating to various elements of the overall cohort polled: fiction applicants, poetry applicants, and nonfiction applicants. Programs are ordered, as with the "overall" rankings, on the basis of the number of votes received by each MFA program in that category. Polled respondents cast a "vote" by stating a present or future intent to apply to the program in question. The top fifty "overall" vote-getters are listed in the rankings chart, also published in the September/October 2010 print edition of Poets & Writers Magazine (with two programs tied for fiftieth), with the remaining 97 MFA programs listed in "The Additional Rankings of Full-Residency MFA Programs."

As to the genre rankings, programs ranking in the top fifty in poetry and fiction are noted in both the print and online rankings charts, as are programs ranking in the top twenty in nonfiction.

The four hard data-based rankings are as follows: total funding, annual funding, selectivity, and placement. These rankings are scientific to the extent that they rank programs on the basis of quantitative data publicly released by the programs themselves, though they are unscientific to the extent that not every program has released data for every category of assessment. The rankings therefore constitute an ordering of all publicly known data rather than an ordering of all extant data. A full complement of funding and admissions data is available for approximately half of the nation's full-residency MFA programs; the remaining programs are primarily smaller, newer, lightly advertised, or nondomestic programs, or else programs with a primarily regional applicant base. As all of these programs have Web sites, however, and as all of these programs exert exclusive dominion over their online presence, the absence of any specific funding or selectivity data in these programs' online promotional materials is taken, by the rankings, as an indication that these programs fully fund less than 33% of their students and do not have an acceptance rate low enough for inclusion in the top 50 in this category (currently, a program's yield-exclusive acceptance rate would need to be less than 11.7% for it to be included in the selectivity ranking). The rankings are based in part on the presumption that it would be counterintuitive for a program providing full funding to a substantial percentage of its student body to not indicate as much in its promotional materials. Program Web sites are regularly reviewed to determine whether a program has added information to its online profile; program administrators can also e-mail the author of this methodology article to draw attention to any substantive Web site changes.

Based on the data presently available, it is not anticipated that any of those programs without a full complement of funding and admissions data available in some form online would have ranked in the top 50 in either of the two funding categories. These programs, given the incompleteness of their promotional materials, are also much less likely to attract sufficient applications to be eligible for the selectivity rankings; a program must receive at least 100 applications annually to be considered eligible for the ranking in this category. As to the placement rankings, these do not rely on programs' promotional materials or their willingness to release internal data to individual applicants or groups of applicants, so all programs nationally, both full- and low-residency, were equally eligible for a top 50 ranking.

The overlap between those programs ranked in the top 50 overall and those programs ranked in the top 50 in the other seven categories subject to ranking is significant. Ninety-eight percent of the overall top 50 programs ranked in the top 50 in one or both of the fiction and poetry genresand the one top 50 program that failed to achieve this status missed the cut by one vote. Forty-four of the overall top 50 (86%) ranked in the top 50 in both poetry and fiction. In nonfiction, 20 of the top 30 nonfiction programs (67%) also ranked in the overall top 50.

Thirty-two (63%) of the overall top 50 ranked in the top 50 in funding, with another seven (14%) receiving an Honorable Mention (see below for definitions). In all, 77% of the top 50 full-residency programs ranked in the top 50 for funding or received an Honorable Mention in this measure of program quality. Forty-six (90%) of the top 50 programs ranked in the top 50 in selectivity, with 36 (71%) ranking in the top 50 in placement. Of the 29% of the top 50 MFA programs that did not rank in the top 50 for placement, nearly two-thirds were hampered by the fact that they were founded in the midst of the twelve-year assessment period for this measure. Programs disadvantaged in this way include the programs at University of Wyoming in Laramie, University of Mississippi in Oxford, University of Illinois in Urbana-Campaign, University of Nevada in Las Vegas, Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, The New School in New York City, Virginia Polytechnic Institute [Virginia Tech] in Blacksburg, and Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

In view of the above, ordering programs on the basis of their overall vote totals also had the effect of placing a special emphasis, in the rankings, on those programs that placed highest in the four hard data rankings.

In reading the rankings and this methodology article, several principles should be kept in mind: (1) MFA programs are not for everyone, and many poets and writers will find their energies better spent elsewhere as they attempt to explore and augment their existing talents; (2) no poet or writer should feel that they must attend an MFA program, whether such a concern is related to employment, networking, or personal artistic improvement and achievement; (3) MFA students must remain on guard against sacrificing their unique aesthetic, political, and cultural perspectives on the altar of consensus, as MFA programs are ideally for an exchange of diverse opinions, not hothouses for groupthink or aesthetic dogmatism; (4) an MFA in no way guarantees one postgraduate employment, as the MFA is a nonprofessional, largely unmarketable degree whose value lies in the time it gives one to write, not any perceived (and illusory) advantage it may offer in the networking, publishing, or employment arenas; (5) in view of the preceding, it is unwise to go into any debt for an MFA degree; (6) holding an MFA degree does not, in itself, make one more or less likely to be a successful poet or writer, nor should those with MFA degrees consider themselves in any respect better equipped, purely on the basis of their degree, for the myriad challenges of a writing life; (7) the MFA, as an art-school degree, is not time-sensitive, and many poets and writers will find the experience of an MFA more rewarding if they have first pursued, for several years, other avenues of self-discovery and civic engagement; (8) the MFA rankings are not intended to increase applicant anxiety, reduce applicants' application and matriculation decisions to a numbers game, or define prestige as a function of pedigree rather than program factors that genuinely enrich the lives of real poets and writers (e.g., funding, a strong cohort, strong teaching, a vibrant and welcoming location and community)instead, their aim is to maximize the information at applicants' fingertips.

The hope is that these rankings will better position applicants to make an important life choice, one which (necessarily) will finally be made, and must be made, using the rankings as only a secondary resource. Specifically, the goals of these rankings and their methodology are the following: Less overall student debt among MFA graduates, more transparency in the promotional materials and public disclosures of existing MFA programs, and greater access, for applicants, to the wealth of conventional wisdom in the MFA applicant community about which programs and which program features are most conducive to a memorable and valuable MFA experience. Ideally, the MFA offers aspiring poets and writers several years of funded time to write in a mutually-inspiring community; to the extent some may see in the MFA unresolved dangers for the future of American poetry and fiction, these rankings are as committedin their own wayto the avoidance of these dangers as are those who have argued passionately for the abolition of the MFA degree altogether. A better-funded and more transparent national MFA system will be of greater benefit to artists in the long run than the wholesale termination and dismantling of the system.

In the nine months between July 15, 2009, and April 15, 2010, 527 full-residency MFA applicants were polled on the highest-trafficked MFA-related Web site on the Internet, The MFA Blog. Founded on August 21, 2005, this Web site received 410,000 unique visitors during the polling period, including 706,000 page-loads, 276,000 first-time visitors, and 134,000 returning visitors. (The site's StatCounter.com stat-counter was operational as of August 17, 2009; consequently, the actual Web-traffic during the polling period was higher than is listed here.)

The MFA Blog is a free, public, moderated discussion blog whose only requirement for viewing is access to a computer; active participation on the board requires a Google account. The site is run by American novelist Tom Kealey and a team of more than twenty designated moderators, approximately five of whom are active at any one time. The author of this article was a moderator at The MFA Blog for a portion of the polling period. Kealey himself was not an active moderator during this period. The Web site has no stated agenda other than to provide accurate and timely information about MFA programs to current and prospective applicants.

Online polling conducted in 2009 using a Google-sponsored polling application suggests that the online MFA applicant community, including the community at The MFA Blog, subscribes to the current conventional wisdom (as first laid out in the 2005 edition of Kealey's Creative Writing MFA Handbook) regarding the most important considerations in applying to and matriculating at an MFA program. Specifically, polling of more than 250 current applicants to MFA programs revealed the following:

· Asked, "Which of these is most important to your decision about where to apply?", and given the options "Location," "Funding," "Faculty," "Reputation," "Selectivity," "Curriculum," or "None of the Above," with the option to select more than one answer, the top four answers were as follows: Funding, 56%; Reputation, 45%; Location, 32%; Faculty, 18%; and

· Asked, "Why do you want to get a graduate creative writing degree?", and given the options "Credential," "Employability," "Time to Write," "Mentoring," "Networking," "Community," "Validation," "Avoid Work," and "None of the Above," with the option to select more than one answer, the top three answers were as follows: Time to Write, 55%; Employability, 43%; and Mentoring, 36%.

The Poets & Writers Magazine rankings have not, to date, used the above polling data to create a weighting system for the overall rankings. There is a presumption that applicants' own application lists best reflect the extent to which they take into account funding, location, reputation, selectivity, faculty, curriculum, and other applicant-specific factors in choosing which programs to apply to and attend.

Were the above polling used to create a weighting system for the rankings, many of the nation's most prominent and popular programs would drop from the top 50 rankings altogether. The result would be a series of rankings that poorly reflected the present national consensus on program quality. For instance, under the rankings' current methodology a popular but largely-unfunded MFA program in a major urban center might yet appear in the top 50 rankings because even a low standing in the funding, selectivity, and placement categories can be counterbalanced by a program's popularity due to location. The popularity of a program's location is best reflected by privileging applicants' application lists rather than a confluence of these lists and scientifically-gathered, publicly-accessible hard data. To redesign the overall rankings as something other than a direct reflection of current applicant mores would be to ensure that no nonfully funded and/or big-city program (with only one or two exceptions) would appear in the overall top 50 rankings.

While current trends suggest that program popularity going forward will be directly affected by a high or low standing in the funding, placement, and selectivity categories, the pace of this trend is arrested, rather than hastened, by the current ranking methodology. Whereas a weighted ranking system focusing on hard funding, selectivity, and placement data would remove most large-cohort urban programs from the national rankings immediately, the present methodology both registers the relative decline or stagnation in the popularity of such programs while ensuring that these programs have sufficient time to improve their funding, selectivity, and placement statistics before they are removed, by applicant consensus, from the top 50 altogether.

Polling Locus
Spring 2010 Google Web searches for the individual terms "creative + writing + MFA," "CW + MFA," "poetry + MFA," "fiction + MFA," "MFA + questions," "creative + writing + MFA + blog," and "MFA + blog" returned The MFA Blog as the top worldwide hit in each instance. Several other contemporaneous searches resulted in "top five" worldwide hits: "MFA + program"; "MFA + applicant"; "MFA + application"; "nonfiction + MFA"; "MFA + resource"; and "MFA + response + times." Given the visibility of the site for online-researching MFA applicants, the extended duration of the polling period, and the regularity with which the polling question regarding applicants' application lists was posed, a correlation is presumed between that group of MFA applicants who used online research tools during the 2009–10 application cycle, and that group of applicants at least casually conversant with The MFA Blog. Tom Kealey, the proprietor of The MFA Blog, is also the author of the top-selling MFA-related book in the United States, per Amazon sales statistics recorded during the polling period. This book, The Creative Writing MFA Handbook, prominently features the Web address for The MFA Blog. Consequently even those who conducted their MFA research via print publications were arguably likely to come across the Web address for The MFA Blog during the course of their reading. Indeed, as Kealey's book is the only print publication on the American or international market that profiles individual full-residency MFA programs in detail, it has become nearly ubiquitous in the MFA applicant community.

Individual users on The MFA Blog were distinguished by their user accounts, and substantial additional measures were taken to prevent duplicate submissions. During the polling period the number of individual accounts active on The MFA Blog was between 1,000 and 1,500, which suggests that the present polling's 527-person cohort represents between one-half and one-third of all active patrons on the site during the nine-month period in question. The presence of an unknown number of nonposting members on the site helps explain the high unique visitor count cited above, as well as the fact that even the most respected stat-counter services will sometimes read returning users as first-time users, depending upon an individual user's privacy settings with respect to IP-recognition cookies.

Polled applicants were asked to list the programs to which they had applied or intended to apply, and were permitted to adjust these lists during the polling period. Fewer than 10% of poll respondents elected to do so.


Stop Publishing These Rankings

Dear Poets & Writers,

I can't believe Poets & Writers is going to keep publishing these ridiculous rankings. First of all, doesn't it occur to anyone that the values of a group of people who frequent an MFA blog might not be the same values of the general MFA community? There’s no way to tell how good a program is going to be by staring at a hundred program websites and comparing their funding packages, which is what a group of people answering polls on a blog are doing. You shouldn’t apply to an MFA program in order to become a person funded by an MFA program; you should apply to an MFA program to become a better writer. And this emphasis on “time to write” is flawed. I’m from Hartford, CT. You want time to write, move to Hartford. You can rent a one bedroom for $250 dollars a month, and write all the time. Good teachers. A good community. These are what a person should look for in a MFA program, and Seth Abramson is never going to point you toward that. Please stop legitimizing his preposterous internet fetish. Let’s go back to when we admitted that this was something you couldn’t rank.

Samuel Amadon

Hi Samuel, You're absolutely

Hi Samuel,
You're absolutely right in thinking that the values of the (total) annual national applicant pool are not those of the nation's largest (or, really, any) online community of MFA applicants; the article above (pp. 1-2) emphasizes this point several times and in several different ways. The goal of the polling, which is only one portion of the ranking system as you know, is to measure only the attitudes of those who pool their resources and knowledge when applying to MFA programs by participating in a community of fellow applicants -- those less likely to do so are also less likely to enjoy positive outcomes with respect to the first of the primary goals of the rankings (pg. 1, above: "Specifically, the goals of these rankings and their methodology are the following: Less overall student debt among MFA graduates, more transparency in the promotional materials and public disclosures of existing MFA programs, and greater access, for applicants, to the wealth of conventional wisdom in the MFA applicant community about which programs and which program features are most conducive to a memorable and valuable MFA experience"). You're also absolutely right to say that polling can never offer a complete picture of program quality--that's why the article above says (pg. 1) that the matriculation decision "will finally be made, and must be made, using the rankings as only a secondary resource," why it does not attempt to measure "faculty and community" (two unmeasurables both you and the article agree are not quantifiable) directly but uses applicants' application decisions as an indirect reflection of word-of-mouth about both, and why a good portion of the rankings are assessments of publicly-announced, hard-data program features like funding, selectivity, and postgraduate placement. The first measure is aimed at helping applicants avoid unnecessary, crippling debt, which was rampant among applicants before programs' funding information received national release via a single ranking methodology, and the second two hard-data measures aim at helping applicants gauge prospective cohort quality (an imperfect science, one reason the rankings are often cited as "unscientific" in the article above; still, "cohort quality" being one vital element of "community," this does strike at the heart of what you've termed the key to the MFA application/matriculation decision). I know you went to Columbia, as I'm familiar with and enjoy your work, and I think the key for you, as for anyone, is to simply ask whether you enjoyed your experience there and found it, on balance, worthwhile--if so, and I've no reason to think or guess otherwise, the rankings are admittedly of no relevance, as they're not aimed at/toward current students or graduates but only future applicants whose MFA years may still lie ahead. The hope is that future applicants to Columbia (or anywhere else) will be able to use the rankings to get hard data on funding, selectivity, and postgraduate placement, even if they decide the polling portion of the rankings is not helpful to them--though as the article above details (pg. 1) the correlation between what the hard data tells us about program features that affect real lives, and what applicants are saying about where they want to apply, is intimately linked. This suggests that applicants are now able and inclined to use information to make application and matriculation decisions, rather than rumor and guesswork. I can't imagine willingly going back to a time when such an important decision was made without the benefit of even the "secondary resource" of information. If you (I mean the generic "you" here) didn't decide where to attend college without the benefit of information, why apply to an MFA that way, especially when it's an unmarketable degree that it's financially dangerous to go into debt for, unlike the B.A.? The response to the rankings among applicants has been overwhelming--more than 98% positive. Those who are not applicants may tend to misunderstand the rankings because, at base, the rankings are not geared toward meeting the needs or interests of those who are not applicants (i.e., whose futures in no way depend on or involve an MFA-related decision). It is much easier to dismiss all the research and information contained in the rankings when one does not need that research or information; those who do need it are saying, en masse, that it is enormously profitable for them to have it, and that's why it keeps getting national release. Again, read pg. 1 above if you have any additional questions about the underlying principles behind, and/or the aim of, the rankings. It's spelled out fairly explicitly there. In any case, I'm glad you wrote in, because these are important questions and concerns. And (side note) congratulations on your recent book! Best wishes, Seth

Samuel, If you believe that

If you believe that the best writers always make the best teachers; that the aesthetics of a writer determine his or her in-class pedagogy; that an artist of one aesthetic inclination is temperamentally incapable of working productively with an aspiring artist of an entirely different bent; that applicants can conclusively determine, through sheer force of will, which poets and writers (all of whom are individuals they've never met) will be most helpful to their future development as artists... in that case, yes, David's argument might have some purchase. But we'd have to assume that you also cared little about accruing crippling student debt or attending a program with a strong cohort of artists, weren't at all interested in how large, how long, how student-teaching-intensive, how studio-intensive, and how focused on faculty teaching (cf. student-to-faculty ratio) your prospective program would be, and had time to research 200+ programs in grave detail rather than relying on massive online communities where others charitably contribute, for free, such intelligence. Granted, I don't know of any MFA applicant who fits this description--and I've had contact with literally thousands since 2006--but if I do come across any I will pass along the link. The point is, the rankings are the product of a community, and implicitly promote that community; David's comments mention some undoubtedly important considerations in choosing an MFA--and I endorse such considerations wholeheartedly--but nowhere can one find better discussions of such considerations than the polling locus used by the P&W rankings. It's not a coincidence. In any case, hopefully at some point in the future there'll be a possibility of discussing this more responsibly and decently (cf. "this guy"); David knows, I think, that the views he's attributed to me are not mine, and that I've said, from the start, and quite publicly, and repeatedly, that it would be foolish for any person to make an application or matriculation decision purely or largely on the basis of rankings. The difference between me and David is that I think artists are fiercely independent-minded enough to actually do this; meanwhile, David's concern on this score has somehow morphed into A) a categoric opposition to rankings (don't misunderstand his comments; at the time AWP vehemently opposed the very methodologies David's now implicitly endorsing, i.e. those of USNWR and The Atlantic), and B) a brand of advice -- as mystical as it is misleading -- which endows MFA applicants with powers of perception and prediction not even the best artists among us could possibly lay claim to. Be well, Seth


It's unfortunate that P&W would continue to back flawed methodology and a writer whose logorrhea is well-documented (just check out Abramson's responses to pithy statements in this comment section). The first word in the title of the magazine is "Poets" (which Abramson professes to be!) but this ranking and the sheer amount of insecure writing done to back up the ranking (funding...funding...funding...) is so far removed from anything poetic, or even useful to a writer or human being. Yes, this article, this ranking, this comment thread will get the clicks and eyeballs that P&W wants (and probably needs), but it is worth it?

Stovedore, I'm sorry you

I'm sorry you feel that way, and sorry also for my long-windedness. This is a complicated issue, and I'll admit that I balk when folks approach it only superficially. Any good faith discussion of the subject would need to be more exhaustive than the sort of pith that finds favor in our drive-by online exchanges -- all too many of which, like your own note, are peppered with irrelevant personal attacks. (These don't help a single applicant.) If you're curious about my poetry I hope you'll check it out, it's readily available -- and I can assure you, from personal experience, that there's more than enough time and space in the world for both writing poetry and providing a public service for young, under-resourced applicants to MFA programs. Cheers,

MFA rankings

According to the magazine, somewhere on the website there's a complete listing of all MFA programs, domestic and international. Can't find it. What's the URL? Thx.

Hi Sputnik, These two links

Hi Sputnik,

These two links -- (http://www.pw.org/content/2011_mfa_rankings_the_top_fifty_0) and (http://www.pw.org/content/2011_mfa_rankings_the_additional_rankings_of_fullresidency_mfa_programs) -- together constitute the largest and most complete listing of domestic and international full-residency MFA programs (as opposed to M.St., M.A., or M.Phil programs) available online or in print. In fact, every full-residency MFA program domestically or internationally that advertises itself is believed to be contained somewhere on these two lists.



Seth, I first found your rankings last year, and couldn't wait for this year's. They are an integral component of my MFA quest. Thank you so much for the time and effort put into the database. Having so much useful information gathered in one place is an inestimable help.


There is no doubt that you do great work with Full Residency MFA Programs. What about Low Residency? Don't they deserve some attention as well?


See here:


At that link, there's also a link to a listing of the additional 36 low-res programs in the U.S. and abroad. And if you read the methodology article (see sidebar) it covers low-res programs as well (there's a separate section). Plus these programs are mentioned in my articles in the print edition of the magazine. Hope you find them helpful! Best,


Doing a Classical Argument on this subject

I am an undergrad, a really low undergrad (sophomore) and I want to get an MFA. Your rankings have helped me make a decision about where to apply and to know that I need an MA in something else. I am thinking of being an editor if I can't make it writing, because lets face it, few can. For an unbiased classical argument, I need as many facts as I can and your article helps. How much influence do you have on the rankings? This is a real help and as someone who lives below poverty level currently, I appreciate your rankings. Perhaps the naysayers have money that they can throw around but I struggle and your rankings have helped me decide. I also look for faculty and community. Those are my top criteria. But for anyone to say that they may dismiss P&W because of these rankings is missing the entire point of P&W. It is a side endeavor. And they should know poor folks like myself rely on such thoroughness.

MFA & PhD versus MA & PhD

Seth - My son is a College Junior with a post graduate goal of getting his PhD in Creative Writing. I have to admit I am somewhat confused about the benefits of an MFA along with a PhD. From what I've seen, both of these are thought of as terminal degrees. So my question is - is it advantageous to get the MFA over the MA if the intention is to get your PhD? Also, there are only about 35 colleges in the U.S. that offer a PhD with a Creative Dissertation. Are there any rankings of these schools?

Hi CWD, Unfortunately no


Unfortunately no ranking of CW Ph.D. programs has been possible thus far due to a lack of data, but I'm hoping that will change soon. Suffice to say that you can expect the programs at University of Southern California, University of Houston, Florida State University, University of Denver, and University of Illinois at Chicago to be in the top 10, and likely also (though with less definite assurance) University of Georgia, University of Missouri, and University of Utah. CW Ph.D. programs are slightly more likely to accept applicants with MFA degrees, I feel, so in that sense an MFA may be preferable to an M.A., but generally you're absolutely right--both are terminal degrees, and one doesn't need more than one terminal degree technically (though with today's CW job market it really couldn't hurt), so one could certainly get an M.A. if one wanted to go on and get a CW Ph.D (or as more and more folks are doing, get a terminal CW MFA and then a terminal non-CW English Lit Ph.D.). The question I'd ask, though, is this: Why get an M.A. over an MFA? Why not get the terminal degree instead, in the event something unexpected happens (for instance one hits one's own personal comfort "limit" as to student loan debt, one suddenly can't move from one's current location for personal/family reasons, etcetera)--that way, one would already have a terminal degree, whereas if all you're holding is an M.A. when additional schooling becomes impossible you now have zero terminal degrees. Also, graduate school admissions in CW work almost entirely off one's portfolio, and the MFA gives one more time, generally, to work on one's thesis (and thus, by extension, one's CW Ph.D. portfolio) than an M.A. does. So one's chances of ending up in a top CW Ph.D. are better, for that reason also, following an MFA. I think the reason many MFA grads get a CW Ph.D. is not because of some added practical value--there's no proof yet it really affects one's job prospects, and there are no signs the CW Ph.D. is becoming the new CW terminal degree as some say (there's been almost no growth in the number of such programs in the past decade, whereas there have been maybe 40 new MFA programs over that time)--but because it gives one more teaching experience, more time to write and publish, more time in a supportive community of fellow artists, and so on. And yes, in a "tie-breaker" employment-related situation it might break a tie between two job candidates. Hope this helps, and best of luck to your son! --S.