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mfa writing

What should I know about MFA Creative Writing rankings?

What should I know about MFA Creative Writing rankings?

1) They don’t exist any more.

[Update: To clarify, the overall rankings–the only rankings I’m focusing on in this post–don’t exist anymore. Individual rankings in terms of several criteria are still made available yearly here and here.]

2) When they did exist, they were probably really inaccurate.

Last fall when I first began researching MFA programs, the rankings confused me. As I searched for information in MFA-related blogs, forums, and Facebook groups, I kept finding other potential 2014 applicants discuss where they were applying in terms of “high-ranked” and “mid-ranked” programs.  I then found 2012 MFA Rankings: The Top Fifty on the Poets & Writers website. Since this was in 2013, I assumed those were the most recent MFA rankings available online for free and that there were other, more recent rankings in the print version of Poets & Writers magazine.

Wrong.

It turns out that 2011 was the last year Poets & Writers ranked MFA Creative Writing programs. (To clarify, they were labeled “2012” because they were marketed toward the fall of 2012 applicants, but they came out in 2011 and used data from 2011 and earlier.)

I will repeat the point of this post since clearly there are many applicants out there still holding misconceptions.

“MFA Creative Writing Rankings” do not exist. No one has ranked MFA Creative Writing programs since 2011.

Why don’t the rankings exist any more?

Remember the blogs and Facebook groups I checked out to get MFA information? Lawyer-turned-poet Seth Abramson polled potential applicants like myself in those exact  same groups and their responses determined the rankings. Yes, for real. The rankings were based on a non-scientific blog/Facebook poll of potential applicants who were probably visiting those sites in order to find information themselves. (Read the P&W rankings FAQ for more info on the methodology.)

Because the rankings essentially identified program popularity, not program quality, and because the methodology of the data gathering was clearly not scientific, a whole bunch of creative writing professors and administrators complained in an open letter and there was a lot of bad press. Poets & Writers responded with their own open letter defending the rankings, but then did away with them anyway. They don’t exist any more. (P&W does continue to publish all the other MFA program information as before, minus the rankings.)

In 2011, the New Yorker asked, Should MFA Programs be Ranked? Slate ran an article titled MFA Rankings: Why the Poets & Writers MFA Rankings are a Sham. Best American Poetry was even harsher, with Poets and Writers MFA Rankings: Garbage in, Garbage Out. Best American Poetry ran another post that ended with an appeal to MFA programs to pull advertising from Poets & Writers for as long as P&W kept running the rankings. (Best American Poetry was still so bothered by the rankings that they wrote a satirical article about them for April Fool’s Day this year.)

As I already mentioned, and perhaps most importantly, the New York Observer ran an open letter signed by ~200 creative writing professors and administrators arguing that Poets & Writers cut the rankings. Here’s a quote that sums up their main point pretty well:

To put it plainly, the Poets & Writers rankings are bad: they are methodologically specious in the extreme and quite misleading.

The signatories represent a wide range of schools. The list isn’t just a collection of academics at “lower-ranked” schools who were angry about their programs’ positions on the list. Many “top-ranked” universities are represented. It appears that almost across the board, people in the creative writing field agreed that the MFA rankings were both factually wrong and harmful.

The logic behind the online poll was that applicants are unbiased (compared to professors or existing students) since they are not yet associated with any MFA program, and that they are knowledgeable since they are researching programs. I understand the thinking, but as an MFA applicant, clearly see the flaw in it. It just doesn’t make sense that the people searching for information online (like me) should become the providers of that information, especially when their opinions are largely shaped by the information that is already available online, i.e., existing rankings.

From what I witnessed, many 2014 applicants who were active online formed their initial opinions of MFA programs and their applications list based on past rankings along with “Honorable Mentions” and “Underrated” lists. You can probably see how circular and hype-centric this could quickly become–new applicants decide to apply to “top-ranked” programs. They’re polled. They report where they’re applying. Those programs remain top-ranked. Sometimes an “underrated” program highlighted in an online list joins them.

If the MFA Creative Writing rankings ceased to exist a couple of years ago, why are you writing about them now?

I’m writing this post in hopes it’ll come up in searches for “MFA creative writing rankings,” and will help prospective MFA students understand the history and bigger picture I wish someone had clearly laid out for me when I began my research. Although there are bits and pieces of information online, I didn’t find a single post outlining everything I’ve put here.

People already in the MFA scene seem well aware of the rankings’ history, but newcomers are clearly not so aware. I saw several 2014 applicants comment online in ways suggesting they were making application decisions based on the 2012 MFA rankings and were not very aware of the surrounding controversy, or of the fact that the rankings had been ended altogether.

I have no issue with Seth Abramson or Poets & Writers, and am genuinely grateful for his research and their publication. I’m glad they decided to end the rankings as I agree with the signatories of the open letter, but I don’t want this blog post to be misconstrued negatively. I purchased The Poets & Writers Guide to MFA Programs pdf, which largely consists of data collected and compiled by Seth Abramson. That guide and P&W’s MFA database formed the basis of how I chose which schools to investigate further as I whittled down my list of where to apply. In a future post, I’ll write in detail about how I chose my list of schools.

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mfa writing

“Should I get an MFA in Creative Writing?”

“Should I get an MFA in Creative Writing?” is a phrase I’ve searched before, maybe dozens of times over the years, as if Google were a magic eight ball that could instantly dictate my major life choices.

I don’t know whether or not you should get an MFA in Creative Writing, if you are considering it. To MFA or not to MFA is a personal decision entirely dependent on your values, situation, and goals. Last fall I decided to go for it and applied for MFA Creative Writing programs in fiction. I’m sharing how I came to this decision in hopes it’ll help someone who is interested in the MFA, but dealing with uncertainty.

It’ll improve my writing. This is the number one reason I am getting an MFA. For years I doubted the benefit of an MFA because it seemed as if everywhere I turned great writers were spouting off about how creative writing can’t be taught. In the fall of 2013 I took a writing course at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver. In the first two weeks I made more progress on my novel than I had in the entire past year. Maybe the classroom/workshop setting doesn’t work for some people, but it is amazingly effective for me.

My MFA desires stood the test of time. In 2005 I entered a Master of Urban Planning and Policy program. Almost immediately I felt frustrated because it left me no free time to read poetry and fiction and write creatively. I began researching MFA programs online, but the idea of dropping out of one  Master program to apply to another felt totally insane. I’d already had people in my life act like I was flaky for pursuing public policy after studying psychology as an undergrad. I bought into the idea that I needed to just stick with something and stop jumping around. When I was still interested in MFA programs in 2013–eight years later–it became obvious that my desire was real and not just a phase or flight of fancy.

I know I’m not trying to avoid “the real world.” There are many twenty-somethings who go to grad school not because they’re really passionate or driven in their field, but because grad school is less awful than having to work a 9 – 5 day job. That might’ve been part of why I went to grad school the first time around. Since then I’ve spent several years in “the real world” and have figured out how to make it work for me (I find doing varied work from home is best). This time I am certain I am going to grad school in order to pursue something I love rather than to avoid something I hate.

I believe it’ll help my career. I write “I believe” because it is definitely a faith. Google the phrase “MFA Creative Writing useless” (minus the quotes) and 723,000 results come up in .35 seconds. Unlike other graduate degrees that prepare students for specific careers, the MFA in Creative Writing does not. Yes, it technically qualifies you to teach at the college level, but I recently read the dismal statistic that <1% of MFA Creative Writing graduates land full-time teaching positions. Maybe I am arrogant and delusional, but I believe that if I really want to be part of that <1%, I eventually will be. (Arrogance and delusion can turn into self-fulfilling prophecy, right?) The way to get a decent teaching gig as an MFA is to publish a book, and I’m already working on that. If I decide I don’t want to be in academia, I’ll still want to do something reading- and writing-related, and having an MFA can only help me be qualified and make the connections to bring that into reality.

The time is right. I’m not married. I don’t have kids. I don’t own property. My health is good. There’s nothing tying me down to any specific geographic area. I used to think I never wanted to get married, have kids, or buy a house, but recently I’ve begun to reconsider. I still don’t know for sure, but I might want some of those things five or ten years from now. Sure, you can get an MFA while married or after having kids, but I bet it’s much more difficult. I want to pursue an MFA now, while I can devote all of my time and energy to it without having outside responsibilities.

It is in line with my values. Getting an MFA in Creative Writing is not a wise financial decision. Because the degree does not guarantee any sort of career, it can’t be viewed as an investment that will pay off monetarily. Even if you get a “fully funded” offer, you’ll probably have to use some outside funds to get by. Your tuition is waived, but there are still fees, books, and living expenses. The living stipend is generally <$15,000. I had to think long and hard about this reality before making my decision. I realized I value taking risks and pursuing my dreams more than I value being financially secure.

I’d like to point out that I have not yet started an MFA program. It’ll be interesting to come back to this post in three or four years and see if my decision was on point.

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mfa writing

How much it cost me to apply to MFA Creative Writing programs

I recently applied to MFA Creative Writing programs in fiction for the fall of 2014. Before entering the application process, I really had no clue how much it would cost. Whoops. I’m writing this post in hopes that it’ll help prospective MFA students. I applied to seventeen schools, three of which had no application fee. Today I did the math and found out it cost me $1,416.60 $1,550 or more. (Probably more.)

Check it out:

MFA Creative Writing Application Costs

MFA Creative Writing application costs

Okay! Let’s dig in.

Application fees: The mean application fee (not including the three schools with no fee) was $46.07. If you’re low on cash and want to apply to schools with no fee, know that there are four main high-residency, mostly funded options: McNeese, University of Arkansas, University of Mississippi Oxford, and Vanderbilt.

GRE testing: The GRE cost $185 to take and GRE score reports are $25 a pop. I spent $385 on testing and score reports. I didn’t buy any study materials. Ten of the schools I applied to required GRE scores and seven did not. ETS allows you to send four score reports for free immediately after taking the test. I accidentally sent two of my four “free” reports to schools that don’t require the GRE, which cost me $50. Bummer.

Transcripts: I am very lucky on the transcript front–my undergraduate school will send out transcripts for free as long as they are requested via postal mail. That saved me anywhere from $80 – $275 compared to others. My graduate school’s transcripts were $5 each if requested by postal mail and $10 if requested online so requesting them in advance via postal mail saved me about $50. I also had to request super expensive $12 transcripts from University of Florida, a school whose campus I’ve never set foot on, because they co-sponsored a study abroad I once did. A few schools claimed not to receive transcripts so I had to order some extras. All in all, I estimate I spent $319 on transcripts.

Postage: I think four schools required me to mail my application in a big packet instead of submitting it online. (I didn’t keep records or my USPS receipts, unfortunately.) I also paid postage in the form of addressing and stamping envelopes that I sent to my letter writers to use for the schools that accepted letters of recommendation via postal mail. I’m pretty sure I’m way underestimating this one at $67.60. More realistically I spent $100+ on mailing items when you factor in envelopes, paper, ink, and what not.

Why did I apply to so many schools? When I did research I found that it is not uncommon for fiction applicants–qualified applicants, even–who apply to fewer than ten schools to be rejected from all of them. This is because funded MFA Creative Writing programs are more selective than Ivy League med and law schools–lots of people want help writing the next great American novel, apparently. Yes, a good writing sample matters, but it’s also a numbers game. I applied to as many schools as I could afford to reduce the chance I’d have to wait a year and go through the process again. It cost me ~$1,500, but it worked!

Stay tuned for more posts on various aspects of the MFA application process.

UPDATE: I almost forgot–I paid Rachel Weaver of Sandstone Editing (highly recommended) to provide feedback on one of the pieces I included in my portfolio. It cost $113.75. Also, I had to pay about $10 for parking when I took the GRE. This makes the total ~$1,600.