The 2012 Rankings of Graduate Programs in Creative Writing: Frequently Asked Questions

From the September/October 2011 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

The 2012 rankings feature ratings of full-residency, low-residency, and doctoral programs in creative writing on the basis of their popularity, funding, selectivity, fellowship-placement statistics, job-placement statistics, and student-to-faculty ratios. In each of the three rankings, programs are listed in order of their popularity ranking, from most to least popular. Also included in each table are unranked categories of other important program features, such as size, duration, cost of living, foreign-language requirements, and the availability of cross-genre study.

Should I rely on these tables to choose where to apply?
No. The following tables offer information to help you begin your research about which program is best for you. The best programs are those that will provide you with the experience you need to thrive as you hone your skills as a writer and refine your craft. You are the only one who can determine the criteria that will result in such an experience. As you research programs, you should prioritize which features are most important to you. Are you most interested in working with a particular writer? Do you need to apply only to a program that will give you funding to attend? Is location a crucial factor? Do you want other professional experience during your tenure, such as teaching, editing, bookmaking, or publishing? These are the questions you must ask yourself as you begin your decision-making process. For more information about how to approach your search, turn to page 85 and read what program representatives advise.

What if the program I’m most interested in isn’t included in these rankings?
That doesn’t mean it’s not the right program for you. Read rankings of the other eighty-one full-residency and thirty-nine low-residency programs.

How were the overall rankings determined?
For the full-residency MFA program rankings, 640 MFA applicants were asked during the 2010–2011 application cycle where they applied for the forthcoming academic year. For the low-residency MFA program rankings, 230 applicants to low-residency programs were asked during the last four application cycles where they applied. For the doctoral rankings, 145 applicants from the last four application cycles were asked to provide their application lists. In each case, the size of the group surveyed roughly corresponds to the size of the national applicant pool for that type of degree program; for instance, there are six times as many annual applicants to full-residency MFA programs as creative writing doctoral programs. In each of the three rankings, a vote for a program equates to one appearance of that program on an applicant’s reported application list.

Who surveyed these applicants and how?
Attorney, poet, editor, and freelance journalist Seth Abramson conducted the surveys for the overall rankings, and compiled all the hard data for the other rankings that appear in each of the tables. Full-residency applicants were surveyed on one of the highest-traffic MFA-related websites, the Creative Writing MFA Blog, founded in August 2005 by Tom Kealey, author of The Creative Writing MFA Handbook (Continuum, 2005). Abramson is one of seventeen designated moderators for the discussion board at the Creative Writing MFA Blog. Moderators have the authority to initiate new discussion threads; posting privileges for the board are available to all visitors, but require a Google account. Moderators may participate in blog discussions along with other registered users. Abramson posted the question, “Where are you planning to apply?” fifteen times from April 16, 2010, to April 15, 2011, and catalogued responses from full-residency MFA applicants. Between April 16, 2007, and April 15, 2010, Abramson surveyed applicants to doctoral programs in creative writing by cataloguing their posted application lists on the Speakeasy Message Forum on the Poets & Writers website. For the 2010–2011 application cycle, these applicants were instead polled using a Google-sponsored polling application. Low-residency applicants were surveyed by cataloguing their posted application lists on the Speakeasy Message Forum on the Poets & Writers website between April 16, 2007, and April 15, 2011.

What qualifies Abramson to do this work?
Abramson has been researching and collecting data about graduate creative writing programs from applicants, faculty, and program directors for five years. He has established himself as an authority on this subject. A 2001 graduate of Harvard Law School, he is also a 2009 graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the author of two poetry collections. He was a contributing author to the second edition of The Creative Writing MFA Handbook (Continuum, 2008) and is coauthor of a third edition forthcoming from Bloomsbury in 2012. His essays on creative writing graduate programs have been cited by the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, the New Yorker, the Economist, the Los Angeles Times, the Huffington Post, the Poetry Foundation’s website, and elsewhere. He is the founder of the Suburban Ecstasies, a website offering the largest online archive of MFA statistics. He regularly addresses university audiences on the subject of graduate creative writing programs, and researches the history and development of such programs as part of his doctoral studies in English literature at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. All of the data compiled by Abramson for these rankings was or is either publicly available or publicly accessible.

Why survey applicants to programs and not students and faculty?
Applicants have a vested interest in researching and comparing as many programs as possible and have no special interest in favoring one program over another, aside from their own preferences. Those applicants who frequent the Creative Writing MFA Blog have demonstrated something of an aptitude for online research, as the discussion board on the MFA blog comprises a hundreds-strong community of applicants who ask one another questions, pool their information on programs and program faculties, and engage in joint research projects. MFA students and faculty at particular programs—while experts on where they attend and teach—are less likely to have compared their programs with others as recently as applicants have. And it’s more likely that students and faculty have a natural affinity for their own program over others. The standard practice in education rankings—the one used, for instance, for the nation’s oldest annual education rankings, those published by U.S. News & World Report since 1985—is to disallow polling of individuals regarding institutions with which they have a present or prior affiliation. The Poets & Writers Magazine rankings adhere to this tradition.

What are the primary expectations and concerns of the applicants surveyed?
Between 2009 and 2011, research regarding the applicants surveyed was conducted on both the Creative Writing MFA Blog and the Suburban Ecstasies, including individual polls regarding applicant demographics; these polls received many hundreds of responses. The results of this research reveal that the four most important values in this community of applicants are program funding, program location, program reputation, and program faculty. The rankings that follow reflect these values. For more information on the demographics of the surveyed applicant group, see

How is the quality of a school’s faculty accounted for in these rankings?
These rankings measure the quality of a program’s faculty to the extent that it was taken into account by those surveyed when they decided where to apply. And it’s reasonable to assume that this factor was taken into account to a substantial degree, as faculty quality is one of the top four concerns for members of the surveyed group. Nevertheless, applicants do report some hesitation in judging the quality of teaching at a program on the basis of the writing aptitude of its faculty. Those interested in researching programs primarily on the basis of program faculty can visit our MFA database at, which lists the core faculty for each program. To learn more specifics about the teaching abilities of individual faculty members, contact the programs to which you plan to apply and speak to the program director about how faculty teaching is evaluated. Also, ask to speak to currently enrolled students about their experiences. Keep in mind, programs have varying policies regarding providing the names of current and former students to applicants.

Aside from the columns that are self-explanatory, what do the other columns in the top-fifty and honorable-mentions full-residency tables refer to?
Poetry Rank refers to the most popular programs applied to in poetry, Fiction Rank refers to the most popular programs applied to in fiction, and Nonfiction Rank refers to the most popular programs applied to in nonfiction. Total-Funding Rank refers to the programs that offer, dollar-wise, the most valuable funding packages (1 being the most valuable). Selectivity Rank refers to how selective each program is in accepting students into its program (1 being the most selective). Fellowship-Placement Rank refers to how successful graduating students from each program are in being awarded distinguished fellowships in the creative writing field. Job-Placement Rank refers to how successful graduating students from each program are at being hired for full-time creative writing teaching jobs at the university level. Student-Faculty Ratio Rank refers to the number of core faculty members per student at each program (1 being the most faculty members per student).

What is CGSR Compliance?
CGSR stands for the Council of Graduate Schools Resolution, a document known colloquially as “the April 15 Resolution” and more formally as the Council of Graduate Schools Resolution Regarding Graduate Scholars, Fellows, Trainees and Assistants. The resolution requires those universities that are signatories to keep all funded graduate school admission offers open through April 15 of each year. Those universities that are not signatories and/or have violated the resolution are indicated with No.

In the PhD rankings, what does Departmental-Reputation Rank refer to?
Data from the 2010 National Research Council doctoral rankings was used to order programs on the basis of their English departments’ relative reputations for academic quality. The National Research Council Quality Measure, which quantifies individual departments’ academic quality, comprises two scores. One of these scores is the result of a survey of individuals in the same academic field as the department, and another is the result of a multivariable regression analysis. For the purposes of the doctoral rankings, these two scores have been averaged.

And what does the column Offers MFA/MPW refer to?
This column indicates whether a master of fine arts degree in creative writing or a master of professional writing degree is also offered at the listed university.

Where can I find more information about graduate programs in creative writing?
Visit our MFA database (, which includes program information such as core faculty, application deadlines, and other distinguishing features, plus contact information for each program. To share information and read insights from other students and applicants, visit the MFA Programs topic in our Speakeasy Message Forum (

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various selectivity indices

I didn't spend more than a few minutes finding these links, but I thought I would mention in a bit more detail: Not all measures of college or program "selectivity" equate that characteristic with acceptance rates; for example, some selectivity rankings combine SAT or GRE scores with the number of students admitted:
Yale's Dean of Undergraduate Admissions also doesn't necessarily equate the two
“'My general sense is that the number of students at the most competitive end of the spectrum for admission has changed less than the attraction or appeal of putting in an application to see what happens,' he said in a recent interview. 'That is, the application base may be swelling, but it isn’t necessarily because you have a lot more students who are at the most highly qualified end of the applicant pool.'
"And so, Brenzel said, Yale’s acceptance rate may not necessarily mean heightened selectivity."
Of course, the writing sample is, according to my understanding, by far the most important admission criterion for most MFA programs (some programs also place importance in a statement of purpose, but the program I attended didn't ask for such a statement). I don't know, though, how an MFA rankings system could possibly measure the overall quality of writing samples.
In any case, for MFA programs, ranking "acceptance rates" rather than "selectivity" seems to me more descriptively accurate.