Ranking the Writing Programs Best for You

"Great simplicity is only won by an intense moment or by years of intelligent effort, or both. It represents one of the most arduous conquests of the human spirit: the triumph of feeling and thought over the natural sins of language."
--T.S. Eliot

For the prospective student, the selection of a writing program is a four-fold choice. First and foremost, it is an artistic choice. Then, it is a financial choice, a professional choice, and a personal choice. Luckily, there are now hundreds of creative writing programs, and their variety makes it far easier for you to find the programs most helpful to your needs and goals. Attending a writing program will be a large investment of your time, work, and money, so it is best if you arrive at your own ranking of the programs best suited to your needs. Our Guide to Writing Programs will provide you with a convenient overview of the programs available to you.

When students learn that AWP does not rank its writing programs, some feel that we are being evasive, cowardly, or too diplomatic. But really, we have your best interests in mind. In choosing a program, you are choosing a community for your own artistic mentorship. Selecting that mentorship is far more idiosyncratic an enterprise than choosing a business school or another school of vocational training (for which annual rankings may have some limited utility). After all, no brand-name degree or any amount of schmoozing with literary celebrities will necessarily make you a better writer. Ultimately, a writer’s career is forged in solitude, individual choice by individual choice, word by word, line by line, sentence by sentence. If you succeed as a writer, you will make millions of such choices; you can’t let others make your artistic choices for you. Just as a good writing teacher will help you see how many options you have in telling a story or shaping a poem, AWP’s guide will help you realize how many choices you have; but in the end, you must decide what is best for you and your work.

Some magazines and websites do publish rankings of writing programs, and these tabulations are pretentious and misleading. The best writing program will help you develop your own literary affinities. No magazine’s centerfold of academic rankings is up to that task. Rankings of writing programs only simulate literary affinities; one should never confuse that simulation with finding one’s own authentic literary ties. Such rankings do for creative writing what pornography does for love. The rankings are provocative, but the heart of the matter resides elsewhere, in your own preferences as a reader, in your own sensibility as a writer, in your own love for certain books—and not in dubious statistics compiled by others. Before you apply to a program in creative writing, you must begin with a survey of our programs, but that survey must largely be your own, and the most helpful rankings will be rooted in your own criteria—and in your own artistic aspirations, financial needs, professional plans, and personal preferences. This introduction to AWP’s guide will raise a few questions to help you define your criteria for ranking the programs best for you.

Your Artistic Aspirations: Consider Your Artistic Community

Which contemporary novels, stories, essays, or poems do you admire most? Many of today’s best writers teach in creative writing programs. With whom would you like to study? No artist wants to work without a full palette, but there are countless ways to fill and mix the colors on that palette. Some writers need to study sixteenth-century literature to learn how to make their rhetoric stretch with pleasure—to impart allusive music, grace, and a greater elasticity to their sentences. Other writers may find such study silly or oppressive—an antique corset stuffed with stays of whale bone—and prefer to keep only the company of moderns and fellow contemporaries. Others may wish to reclaim a heritage not represented in the literature of English-speaking countries and mainly white European writers.

If you plan to write a historical novel related to the snubbing of women’s careers in science and medicine, for instance, you should probably choose a program where a strong practitioner of the historical novel is in residence along with those writers who are experts in feminist narratives and criticism. Or, if you wish to write experimental poetry, you might only be punishing yourself if you unwittingly go to a highly ranked program staffed mainly by practitioners of traditional verse. Your years of study in a creative writing program will be more fruitful if you can work with those writers whose works hold some affinities with your own subject matter and with your own aesthetics. Whose advice do you think would be most useful to you in helping you shape your first book?—that’s the big question.

You will probably not be familiar with all the writers at any particular writing program, but you should acquaint yourself with their work before you apply, and certainly before you make your final decision as to which program you will attend. Even though you may not ever hope to emulate the kinds of work some of those writers produce, do you still find merit in their work? The best advice here is paradoxical: be prepared to study with writers you like and with writers you don’t like, but in whom you still find substance, inventiveness, and intelligence. If you study only with writers you already admire, you may run the risk of becoming merely eclectic or imitative. Studying with a wide range of talents will probably serve you best, so look for variety in the faculty. You may learn, for example, to construct your own extraordinary stories of the ordinary in the unadorned style of Barbara Pym or one of your teachers only by first studying the redounding rhetoric of Henry James, the caustic satires of Dawn Powell, and the encyclopedic narratives of yet another one of your teachers (all of whom you may have previously resisted). In the end, you may find yourself—master of influences—writing simply in your own voice. Or you may improve your free verse by studying with advocates of formal poetry and by writing sonnets and sestinas. By doing things unlike themselves, writers grow, mature—and become artists.

A program will provide you with the time and structure to stretch and write unlike yourself, better than yourself; but your experiments will be the most rewarding if you first select the faculty of writers whose works you admire most.

Another question you may wish to answer for yourself is: Which programs are the alma maters of writers you admire? At Stanford, in a famous seminar room called the Jones Room, Ken Kesey, Larry McMurty, Wendell Berry, Ernest Gaines, Tillie Olsen, and others would gather around the same table. At Iowa, Kurt Vonnegut once taught a workshop with John Irving, Gail Godwin, and John Casey, among the students. You may learn as much from your fellow students as you will from your teachers if you choose a program with ambitious and productive students. As you browse our guide, follow the links to the programs’ websites, where you may find historical notes on the programs and their graduates. Don’t let fame be your sole guide. In addition to the level of literary accomplishment among the graduates, consider whether or not the graduates have produced a style or genre of writing to which you aspire. Do they represent the best artistic company for you?

Your Financial Needs: Consider Each School’s Level of Support

“‘Nothing’ is the force / that renovates the world,” wrote Emily Dickinson. And every day, facing the empty page, the writer feels the burden and the exhilaration of that force. Unfortunately, it is also what writers are usually paid at first: nothing. Dedicating yourself to a career as an artist or writer is among the most challenging and risky goals because the wages can remain so modest. Meanwhile, the rising costs of tuition have outpaced inflation for many years now. Along with the Great Recession, the growing expense of higher education is another obstacle to earning a secure middle-class life.

As a result, it is important to consider how much long-term debt you can carry in earning your degree in creative writing. If you already have a large amount of debt from your undergraduate studies, it may be best to minimize your expenses for graduate school, or to pay down your debt for a few years before you enter graduate school. Many programs offer teaching assistantships, fellowships, scholarships, and tuition waivers to help reduce the cost of attendance.

In this regard, recent rankings have been particularly misleading. In rankings published by Poets & Writers, for instance, small programs that offer financial support to all their students tend to rank higher than larger programs that offer support to only some of their students. A small program that admits only seven students may award fellowships to all of them. A large program that admits forty students a year may support twenty of the new students. Which is the more generous program? Which program is most likely to award you support? The program with seven fellowships or the program with twenty? Again, rely on your own survey of the field, not on rankings prepared by others.

Your Professional Plans: Consider the Curriculum Best for Your Art & Your Work

In choosing a writing program, you may also want to consider the practical side of writing: what to do for a living, until both your avocation and vocation become one and the same. Please keep in mind that—although academe has never been more hospitable to living authors—the competition for full-time teaching jobs is fierce. Most graduates with advanced degrees in literature and creative writing will not find tenure-track jobs as professors. The number of graduates exceeds the number of good, full-time academic jobs, while colleges and universities continue to create a larger percentage of temporary and part-time positions with low pay and poor benefits.

There are, however, many vocations that require a writer’s skills and creativity, and many graduates of creative writing programs have enjoyed successful careers in advertising, public relations, journalism, publishing, arts administration, and technical writing. Many programs provide internships, editorial opportunities, and courses in various kinds of professional writing that might improve your prospects in securing professional work in these fields; but if wealth and job security are your main goals, an MBA will serve you better than an MFA. Your main goal in attending a writing program must be artistic, or you will be disappointed. If you aspire to become a literary writer, you will benefit from attending one of the programs listed in our guide.

If you plan to brave the academic job market upon graduation, keep in mind that there are two assets in that arena: first, excellent published work by reputable presses and, second, expertise in various niches of literary scholarship and theory. In addition to finding the artistic company and mentorship that will facilitate your best artistic work, you should also become an expert in a few literary eras, authors, and theories. With budgetary cutbacks in higher educations, departments of English increasingly value versatility in faculty members—those who can teach various courses of study. If your background in literature is somewhat weak, it may be best to consider a three-year—or longer—course of study in order to give yourself more time to complete some scholarly research and to develop expertise in teaching other courses of literature besides those in creative writing.

If you already have a professional career, you should be aware that our low-residency programs provide a great alternative to the programs that require residential study. These programs offer you mentorship and structure without the requirement that you quit your job for residential graduate study.

You should keep in mind that one writing program may differ greatly from the next, even if both programs offer the same degree. The basic requirements are listed in this guide so you may decide which curriculum is best for you. In some programs, students must satisfy many traditional requirements for literary scholarship: proficiency in one or more foreign languages; distribution requirements in the arts, sciences, and humanities; an overview of literature from three or more centuries; and a command of scholarly research and documentation skills. Other programs have few of these requirements, if any, as the emphasis is mainly on the progress of the student’s writing. Most programs offer writing workshops in two genres only: poetry and fiction. A few programs offer workshops in only one genre, and an increasing number of programs offer workshops in a multitude of genres: creative nonfiction, playwriting, screenwriting, technical writing, translation, and writing for children. For admission, some programs require previous study in literature, a high grade-point average, and good scores on aptitude tests or graduate examinations; other programs will require only an original writing sample that demonstrates talent and promise.

If you will soon graduate from high school and you are seeking a college with a strong course of study in creative writing, you should keep in mind that every great writer was, at first, a voracious and omnivorous reader; and many great writers, as part of their apprenticeships, also became fluent in two or more languages. Nothing makes one’s mother tongue more vivid and mysterious than seeing its limitations and powers from the vantage point of thinking and speaking in another language. With each passing year, the world grows smaller, and literature, to remain relevant, will become more global in its reach. You must first become an expert and wide-ranging reader before you can hope to become a serious writer, so you may benefit the most from an undergraduate course of study in which the majority of your work is in classes of literature and languages, rather than in workshops. You should seek a college that features a strong and diverse curriculum in the liberal arts in addition to classes in creative writing and a lively series of visiting writers.

If you are selecting a graduate program, be aware of the differences in curricula. Most graduate programs will require that you do coursework in literary scholarship and theory, in areas outside of creative writing; and in regard to this requirement, the programs vary the most. One graduate program may require 48 semester hours (s/hrs) of total coursework, 24 of which may be writing workshops. Another program may also require 48 s/hrs of total coursework, but only 12 of those may be workshops, as most of the credit must be acquired in literature courses. (A few schools are on the quarterly system; their requirements are listed in quarter hours—abbreviated q/hrs.) AWP classifies each program as one of three basic types: a Studio Program, a Studio/Research Program, or a Research/Theory/Studio Program. Studio Programs allow the most coursework in workshops and independent studies while Research/Theory/Studio Programs require most of the coursework to be in the study of literature and various theories of cultural criticism. The Studio/Research Program, the most common type of graduate program, seeks to strike a balance between the study of literature and the practice of the art of writing. If you already have a strong background in literature and you have already been writing a great deal—and perhaps you have been publishing some of your work, too—a Studio Program may work best for you; otherwise, you may benefit more from one of the other types of programs.

A variety of degrees are offered. At the undergraduate level, most programs confer a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree in English literature, with a minor, an emphasis, or a concentration in creative writing. Many undergraduate programs, some of which confer the Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree, offer majors in creative writing. There are also Associate of Arts (AA) and Bachelor of Science (BS) programs that offer studies in creative writing.

At the graduate level, the following degrees are offered: Master of Arts (MA), Master of Fine Arts (MFA), Doctor of Arts (DA), and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). There are also a few postgraduate or fellowship programs that offer no degree, like the Stegner Fellowships offered by Stanford University. Most degree-conferring programs require a residency of a year or more, but a few MFA programs are low-residency programs. These programs combine brief residencies (usually of ten days, twice a year) along with extended, independent studies that are directed through written correspondence with instructors.

The best writing programs are member institutions of AWP, and they are designated as such in this guide. These programs receive the publications and collective support of our association, which upholds professional standards in the teaching of writing, and which provides writers with services, advocacy, and information on employment and publishing opportunities. The students of our member programs receive free access to AWP’s publications via this website and our digital apps. The members-only sections of this site provide young writers with hundreds of helpful articles on the art of writing, on strategies for teaching, and on pursuing a career as a writer.

Your Other Personal Preferences: Consider the Various Artistic Environments

Would you like, in addition to your own creative work, to complete some scholarly research? Are you looking for teaching experience? Editorial experience? Can you spend a year, two years, or three or more years to educate yourself in your craft? Would your writing benefit from your living in a city? Beside an ocean? Close to mountains? Or a desert? A small town? Would you prefer a big program or a small program—having a dozen classmates or a hundred? Would you prefer to study in the U.S., Canada, or the the U.K.? Happily, the programs listed here are as various as the answers to these questions.

For some the diversions, society, and expenses of a big city will only dissipate their talents, while others will find it enriching and essential to their work. It once was that writers had no other choice but to live in big cities for the company of other writers and mentorship, but writers have many other options now that artistic communities have grown more numerous and decentralized. This has been a good thing, because there are more stories and songs than those of New York, London, Paris, and San Francisco, though many would argue that publishing still remains myopic in its urban self-adoration. Nonfiction writers, who write as naturalists or as documentarians, have especially benefited from having literary programs near the landscapes, communities, or wildlife that are the subjects of their writing.

What subjects of writing attract you the most? And what writing environment will help you the most in becoming a master of that subject?

What environment is best suited to your temperament and needs? A small program of thirty students? Or a large program of approximately one hundred students? Some students thrive in the competiveness and social swirl that large programs provide; other students find the competiveness and society to be a distraction.

Again, the questions raised here cannot be answered by rankings produced by anyone other than yourself. In building a stronger and more resourceful artistic character, you must value your independence and your own discernment.

Be the Best Possible Steward of Your Talents

As is the case in the study of music, dance, theater, painting, or sculpture, an advanced degree in writing will not ensure your artistic success. No enterprise is more challenging than the effort to become a successful artist; but no enterprise is more rewarding or more sublime, even if you fail—and failure is surely part of the process when it comes to making art, even if you do finally succeed. While the poet Frank O’Hara was still in college, he wrote, “Life for all its travails has far more zest than any ideal utopia ever would.” O’Hara could just as well have been referring to a writer’s career. If you love literature, it’s worth the trouble and the risk. If you love literature, there is no better way to spend a year or more of your life than in the study of the art of making stories and poems. To be surrounded by people who love books is a thrilling experience—life-changing for many. In a mind-blurring age that keeps accelerating the production of disposable icons of celebrity and consumerism, the slow and profound pleasures of reading and writing are much needed antidotes. The communities created by these programs have enabled many of us to develop lifelong friendships based on a shared devotion to literature. This support sustains many writers long after they have graduated. And for those graduates who finally choose other careers, the study of writing and literature remains an enduring personal asset.

“Character is higher than intellect,” declared Emerson. Writers know this to be true because character includes intellect. Academic study alone will not make a great artist, nor will unique experiences alone, smart ideas alone, mastery of style alone, nor passion alone. It has been the wisdom of writing programs to include many kinds of writing, learning, thinking, and feeling. Writing programs may or may not be able to convert a mediocre scribbler into a lasting luminary, but they can certainly improve a writer’s heart, intellect, or both. Ultimately, your success is your own responsibility, though our programs can help you practice the habit of art and provide you with supportive peers along your way. For those of us who work among the programs, we see that talent is not a particularly rare quality. What is far more extraordinary is the emergence of an artistic character who fuses talent with the discipline, perseverance, and dedication to make the most of one’s gifts. Consider your choice of a program as one of many steps you will take in becoming the best possible steward of your talents and your character.

What kind of artist would you like to become? While you survey our programs, address yourself to that question. The world does not need another writer who follows popular consensus. The more comfortable you become with exercising your independence in solitude, the more likely you will become successful in the development of your own audience. This is your cherished paradox as a writer: you help to build a literary community through work in solitude. The more independent decisions you make, the more likely it will be that you will have a great experience at the creative writing program of your choice.

Writing programs can exercise and develop a stronger character—a greater range of sympathies, resourcefulness, and playfulness. Writers today have more means than ever by which they may sharpen their pencils and wits. And we as readers, too, are richer for that.

—David Fenza
Executive Director
Association of Writers & Writing Programs