AWP Hallmarks of a Successful MFA Program in Creative Writing

Graduate programs in creative writing have evolved since the 1930s to offer a range of artistic experiences, approaches, and courses of study. Because there are many paths by which one may become a writer, the curricula vary from program to program. AWP encourages this variety and innovation while it sets general guidelines to help ensure a high quality of artistic literary training within these programs. Although the courses of study vary, AWP has noted the following shared characteristics among successful programs that nurture a culture of creativity, vitality, intellectual rigor, artistic discipline, and collegiality. These definitive hallmarks also form the basis for “The AWP Guidelines for Creative Writing Programs and Teachers of Creative Writing.”

A successful MFA program has accomplished writers as faculty members, a rigorous curriculum, talented students, and strong administrative support, all of which are complemented by the assets that distinguish a generally excellent academic institution. The AWP Board of Directors recommends that MFA programs undergo an annual self-evaluation and periodic independent assessment in an effort to offer the best education for writers and to make the best possible contributions to contemporary letters. Independent assessments are especially valuable to programs that have been operating for less than ten years.

To facilitate, structure, and focus a program’s self-evaluation or independent assessment, the AWP Board of Directors has established these “Hallmarks of a Successful MFA Program in Creative Writing.” The hallmarks are grouped within five general categories.

Rigorous and Diverse Curriculum

The curriculum is consistent with the mission of the program as “studio” or “studio/research,” two types of programs established by The AWP Guidelines for Creative Writing Programs and Teachers of Creative Writing. This curriculum requires 48 to 60 semester hours or credits of study over two to three years. At the heart of this curriculum are graduate-level creative writing workshops and seminars taught by core creative writing faculty on craft, theory, and contemporary literature. The institution also provides challenging elective, graduate-level classes in the literature of many centuries and continents. The program should provide an enabling progression of both practice and study in the literary arts in order to prepare the student for a life of letters and to equip the student with the skills needed for writing a publishable book-length creative work for the thesis.

  1. Philosophy. The program has an overarching set of values, beliefs, and pedagogy that reflect: (a) the best practices of creative writing programs; (b) an awareness of the needs of its students; and (c) an understanding of the currents of contemporary literature and culture. The program's philosophy is appropriate to its institution's mission and the goals of its strategic plan. The curriculum requires studies that employ this philosophy effectively.

  2. Consistent and Frequent Course Offerings. Required courses are offered regularly in the actual course schedule every semester or quarter. Most of the courses are taught by permanent full-time (tenure-track or tenured) faculty members.

  3. A Challenging Workshop. The writers’ workshop is a seminar in which students critique one another’s work under the mentorship of an accomplished writer-teacher. The workshop is writing intensive, offering each student multiple opportunities for submission and revision of creative work.

  4. Extensive Literary Study. One must become an expert and wide-ranging reader before one can hope to become an accomplished writer. The curriculum balances the practice of the art of writing with the study of literature, requiring at least 21 semester hours or credits in literature courses, outside of workshops and independent study.  Of this total, 6 to 9 semester hours or credits may be in seminars on craft, theory, and technique taught by MFA faculty. Extensive and diverse reading lists for such courses should inform creative and critical writing assignments. Courses might cover topics such as the following: The Evolution of the Short Story; The Architecture of the Novel; Traditional Forms of Verse; The Craft of Translation; Magical Realism and Its Influence on Contemporary Authors; Post-Modern Theory and Contemporary Literature; The American Long Poem Sequence; etc.

  5. Attentiveness to Revision. In addition to frequent reading and writing, the curriculum requires frequent revision of student work, and the teacher provides suggestions for improving the work as well as references to literary models that may be helpful. Thesis advising focuses on specific suggestions for revision of creative work and includes feedback on successive drafts.

  6. A Variety of Seminars and Workshops. As study with writers of varied artistic sensibilities serves a student best, students should have the opportunity to study with a different accomplished writer in a workshop each semester. Topics for literature seminars should also be diverse along several axes, offering exposure to many literary periods and cultural traditions, to literature that reflects a multicultural American society, and to varied craft topics.

  7. A Variety of Lectures and Readings. The program broadens the student’s knowledge of literary techniques and aesthetics through literary lectures, craft lectures, and readings by the faculty, visiting writers, and scholars.

  8. Strong Thesis Advising. Faculty members excel in providing both holistic and line-specific suggestions for revision of each student’s thesis. Students are required to produce a publishable literary work, and they must demonstrate expertise in a primary genre to graduate.  Rough guidelines for the page range of a thesis manuscript vary by genre:  50-80 pages for poetry, 150-200 for a short story collection or collection of nonfiction essays, 200-350 for a novel or book-length work of creative nonfiction.  Where a mixed-genre thesis is accepted, the form should demonstrate coherence—i.e., the compositional quality that would make it a publishable work—and the page range should correspond to guidelines for prose manuscripts.

  9. Residential Course Work and Mentorship.  Although AWP recognizes the effectiveness of electronic learning and Web-based classrooms, face-to-face mentorship is crucial to an artist’s education. Because residential learning and individualized instruction foster the best retention and graduation rates among matriculated students, every MFA program, including a low-residency program, requires at least 14 days of residential study annually.

  10. Cross-Genre Study. The program may require the student to take one seminar or workshop in a genre other than the student’s declared specialty. A nonfiction writer, for instance, often benefits from learning the narrative strategies of fiction writers, while fiction writers often benefit from learning the research techniques of nonfiction writers. Although this feature is not a necessary part of a program’s curriculum, it is a feature of many effective programs.

  11. Vocational Study Options. Students may have access to elective classes in journalism, publishing, composition, theater, screenwriting, technical writing, teaching writing, or communications taught by distinguished faculty. The program may also provide internships through an affiliation with a journal, press, publishing venue, or other community literary programs that provide editorial experience.

Accomplished Faculty

These qualities distinguish a program that supports excellent teaching:

  1. Accomplished Writers Who Teach Well. The program has a faculty of published writers who have distinguished themselves as teachers and as artists. As teachers, they command the respect of their peers, and they receive generally good to excellent student evaluations. Each faculty member has published significant work in one or more of the following genres: fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, playwriting, writing for children and young adults, or screenwriting. Each faculty member has published at least one book by a respected press, and that book is in the genre which the faculty member teaches. Each faculty member holds an MFA or the appropriate terminal degree in creative writing. An outstanding publications record of literary book publication may serve as an equivalent for the degree.

  2. Stable Faculty. Most of the faculty are tenured or tenure-track so that students may rely on continuity in instruction, mentorship, thesis advising, and recommendations for professional advancement.  Faculty members routinely make themselves available to students outside of class. The intensive nature of advising on a creative thesis should be a factor in determining a teacher’s course load.  Senior tenured faculty, who have distinguished themselves by their national publications, have a teaching load of 2-2 or lower in order to support their advising of theses, their mentorship of students, and their research, writing, and contributions to contemporary letters.

  3. Diverse Faculty. A program’s faculty provides depth and expertise in each genre and variety in aesthetic sensibility.  A diverse faculty provides a range of aesthetic viewpoints related to literary, ethnic, cultural, or other influences, and a range of approaches to craft. A visiting writer’s position often helps to enhance this diversity.

  4. Community Service.Faculty members are professionally active, not only publishing creative work, but also providing leadership in the profession through national, regional, and local service. The faculty members are dedicated to making sure their program provides a supportive literary community in addition to effective instruction.

  5. A Low Faculty-to-Student Ratio. A good program has a faculty-to-student ratio of one to twelve, or better. Because of this low student-to-faculty ratio, students have the opportunity to receive frequent and extensive critiques of their work and their theses.

Excellent Students and Support for Students

In its efforts to serve its students well, an effective program offers these features:

  1. Small Classes. To facilitate extensive critiques of student work, workshops should have no more than 14 students, and class size in other graduate seminars should range from 11 to 20 students. Online classes are no larger than seven students.  A mentor in a low-residency program conducts no more than five tutorials a semester.

  2. Regular Evaluation of Faculty and the Program. The program is responsive to the needs of its graduate students, and students evaluate their courses and instructors each semester. At least once every four years, the program also conducts exit surveys of students after they have completed the program. The exit survey seeks an overall evaluation of the program’s effectiveness in curriculum, thesis advising, and other areas that are not evaluated in course evaluations.

  3. Selective Admissions. With generally high and selective admissions standards, the program sustains a high ratio of applicants to admissions.

  4. Strong Recruitment of the Best Students. Both the institution and the program work in concert to enroll qualified students of different backgrounds, social classes, and races.

  5. Financial Aid. Programs offer some financial aid in the form of scholarships, waivers, assistantships, fellowships, internships, subsidized loans, travel support, or other forms of support in order to attract the best students.

  6. A Student Handbook. Students are given clear guidelines for the structure of a tutorial or online coursework, which protect their right to consistent, regularly scheduled feedback and provide appropriate means for redressing any grievances. The handbook also clearly defines the etiquette for online classes and discussions, and it explains the requirements for earning the degree, including guidelines for a creative thesis and expectations for any requirements in addition to course work (critical papers, lectures, or oral or written exams). 

  7. A High Retention Rate. A high percentage of matriculated students graduate from the program, and a small number of students drop out or transfer to other programs.

  8. Publication by Students and Graduates of the Program. The number of publications by students and alumni is the ultimate measure of an MFA program’s effectiveness.  A high number of students go on to publish significant literary work and to win honors and awards for their writing.

  9. Mentorship for TAs.If teaching assistantships are available, a regular program of  TA training and mentoring ensures that TAs develop good pedagogical methods and benefit from the experience of a skilled teacher.

Strong Administrative Support

An effective program has these features in its administration:

  1. Strong Leadership.The MFA program director provides strong leadership in planning, in staffing, in devising curriculum, in training new faculty members, in recruiting the best students, and in advocating program needs to the host institution’s administration. The program director also facilitates alumni relations and fund-raising for the program.

  2. Sufficient Autonomy. The institution’s administration gives the program sufficient autonomy with regard to curriculum, admissions, budget, graduate support, physical facilities, and personnel to ensure quality, stability, flexibility, and the capability to take advantage of opportunities quickly.

  3. Strong Financial Support. The institution provides financial resources to facilitate excellence in the recruiting and retaining of faculty, in providing services to students, in providing administrative support for the program director, and in maintaining the facilities used by the program.

  4. Good Collegial Relations. If the program is part of a department of literature or another larger entity, the program has a supportive relationship with that department. The program has good working relations with the university’s leadership.

  5. Community Outreach. The program director and the institution’s administrators seek, whenever possible, to establish a strong, positive presence in the local community. Typically, several events of the reading series or lecture series are open to the public, and the marketing of these open events is effective. Affiliations with community literary centers is also encouraged.

  6. Diligent Quality Control. The program director makes sure that students have the opportunity to evaluate their faculty annually. In a low-residency programs, the students know that they have the right to a productive tutorial with a frequent exchange of packets, or to a rigorous online class that demands participation of the students and timely instruction, guidance, and responses from the teacher. The program director will take immediate action in counseling faculty members and in replacing faculty members if high standards of instruction are not consistently maintained. Although the faculty are entitled to some flexibility in the quantity of assignments, as justified by the varying difficulty of those assignments, the program director monitors the assignments to ensure that the program remains rigorous and challenging.

  7. Clear Criteria for Evaluation of Faculty. Faculty members are promoted and tenured based on publication of creative work, demonstrated ability as teachers, and contribution to the university and greater literary community. The program should have clear criteria for designating, hiring, and promoting creative writing faculty, and the criteria should be specific to creative writing faculty, whose respected venues for publication may reside outside the usual circle of university journals and presses that publish scholarship and theory.

  8. Participation in Professional Networks. A good program provides membership in AWP and other appropriate local, regional, and national associations to assure that faculty members and students have access to timely information about contemporary letters and the teaching of creative writing.

  9. Administrative Support Staff. To facilitate excellence in administration, the program director has the administrative support of one to two full-time workers, depending on the size of the program.

  10. Release Time for the Program Director.Depending on the size of the program, the program director has his or her teaching load reduced by one or two courses a year.

Other Assets and Infrastructure

An effective program also has the assets and infrastructure that characterize any good college or university:

  1. Accreditation. The program, institute, or department is part of an accredited institution of higher education, or it is an accredited institution in and of itself.

  2. Good Infrastructure. Classrooms, offices, and other spaces are adequate to conduct workshops, conferences, readings, and informal student and faculty gatherings. Spaces assigned to the program promote an atmosphere conducive to concentration, listening, social exchanges, and focused work. When students are housed on campus, they are housed in close proximity to each other to provide more opportunity for them to develop the kind of lifelong friendships that are often crucial to sustaining the writing life after the completion of the degree.

  3. A Computer Lab. The lab is open at least twelve hours a day for students to work on manuscripts and conduct research on the Internet.

  4. An Excellent Library. Faculty and students have access to a library with extensive holdings in canonical and contemporary literature.

  5. A Unique Educational Feature. A special focus, initiative, resource, archive, project, or other opportunity for students distinguishes the program from other comparable programs. Such a feature might be a literary magazine, an emphasis on translation, a small press, special internships, or the archives of a literary author.

  6. A Campus Bookstore. The program has a campus bookstore that supports the curriculum, special events with visiting writers, and faculty and student authors.

  7. An Affiliated Literary Publication. The program is affiliated with a journal, press, or other publishing venue that can provide editorial and publishing experience.

—The AWP Board of Directors