mfa, writing

How many MFA programs should I apply to? Which MFA programs should I apply to?

Although I’ve had a consistent curiosity about MFA Creative Writing programs for years, it wasn’t until October of 2013 that I, filled with inspiration and energy from a Lighthouse Writers Workshop course, decided an MFA was something I wanted to undertake  whole-heartedly and as soon as possible. My educational background is not in English or Creative Writing so I felt like an outsider unsure of how (or where) to make my way in. I had many questions, namely, How many MFA programs should I apply to? Which MFA programs should I apply to?

At first I figured I’d apply to 5-10 schools (not for any reason–I just thought this range sounded right) that were higher up on the MFA Creative Writing rankings list I’d found via Google and located in places I figured would be “cool” to live. As I did more research online, I realized that strategy was not the best and would most likely set me up for failure. There are many MFA fiction applicants who do not get into programs until their second, third, or even fourth year applying. I didn’t want to wait like that, so I created a new strategy.

Here are the factors I took into consideration while developing my MFA program application list:

Residency. The first decision I made was to go all in, meaning to a full residency program. There are many reasons to get a Creative Writing MFA, and one of mine is to begin a new career path. While I don’t know exactly what that career path will be, I want the experience of teaching in case I end up going the academic route. Most low residency programs do not involve teaching assistantships. I purchased the Poets & Writers MFA Guide, which indexes 78 full residency MFA programs. I printed out this list, grabbed a highlighter, and began the process of elimination.

(Note: Later, when I read other parts of the P&W guide more closely, I realized there are about 50 more full residency programs than those listed in that index. Because I hadn’t yet realized that, I only considered the 78 schools on the P&W full residency list. The full list of MFA programs can be found in the free P&W MFA database.)

Selectivity. The Poets & Writers MFA Guide contains selectivity rankings within it, with “1” being the most selective. Unlike many applicants, I do not view high selectivity as a particularly desirable trait. I am after a useful experience, not bragging rights about getting into one of the most selective schools. Also, the selectivity rankings do not explain why a school’s selectivity is high, and I do not believe high selectivity necessarily equals a better program. Selectivity could be high simply because it’s a small program and although they get an average number of applicants, they can only afford to accept two of them (or selectivity could be low for the opposite reason, as is true with Columbia). A great program could also rank low in selectivity because it’s in a location that not many people desire to live, so it doesn’t get as many applicants.

Because I wanted to get in somewhere this year and I know lower selectivity means a better chance of me getting in, I eliminated most schools on the list with a selectivity ranking of less than 50. (I did not eliminate those with no data, and I left UNLV in the mix although it ranked 37 because I really liked the sound of their program. Incidentally, I was waitlisted there and rejected from many more selective programs, which caused me to question my strategy a bit.) This helped narrow my list down a lot, cutting it to around 30 schools. After researching online and finding two past MFA applicants’ blog posts (one by Katie McGinnis and one by “That Kind of Girl“) and the Creative Writing MFA handbook blog, I decided to apply to 15 programs instead of 5-10. Later I upped it to 18 by adding 3 schools that do not charge application fees.

At this point I should remind you that I applied in fiction, which is the most selective of the genres due to the sheer number of applicants. It appears that fiction is at least twice as selective as poetry and creative non-fiction at any given school. If I had been applying in another genre, I wouldn’t have allowed selectivity to weigh in so heavily and I also wouldn’t have applied to as many schools.

Funding. Because I still have student loan debt from a previous Master degree, and because I want experience as a teaching assistant, I went through my list of ~30 schools and eliminated most of those that had ranked 70 or lower on funding. I think this brought my list down to around 20 schools. (I let UNO slide in because I thought their program sounded pretty cool and it was close with a rank of 81. I was accepted there but not offered a TAship, which I suppose shouldn’t have surprised me given the worse funding ranking.)

At this point, I inputted all of my potential schools into a spreadsheet. I made columns for the name of the school, the MFA URL, the length of the program, if they had a lit mag or not, if they required the GRE or not, their due date, their application fee, and more. The spreadsheet was indispensable and I don’t think I could’ve properly managed applying to so many schools without it.

Due date. Because I started late, I couldn’t apply to any schools with a December 15th due date. My GRE scores wouldn’t be available then, plus I needed the extra two weeks to get everything together. I think this eliminated a school or two. If I had to do it again, I’d begin earlier so such a meaningless factor wouldn’t have any effect.

Location (Sorta). Location wasn’t a huge factor, as my list was already pretty whittled down, but it helped me make some final decisions. I dropped one school because it was in a place I know I don’t want to live, and dropped another because of the high cost of living where it is located.

In retrospect, I wish I had allowed location to factor in even more. When I began receiving responses from schools in February, there were four schools that I found myself hoping would reject me. They aren’t bad schools, but they’re all in places that have harsh, snowy winters. If I’d been honest with myself about how much climate matters to me, I could’ve saved myself those application fees, or used them toward schools that might not have been less selective, but were in locations I prefer.

Program Info. My process was a bit different than that of applicants who spend months researching programs. I didn’t make program or faculty information a huge factor. As long as the school had a diverse, published faculty, a lit mag, a variety of interesting-sounding classes, and teaching assistantships, I figured I could learn a whole lot from it.

I didn’t do extensive research partly because I didn’t have the time, and partly because I wasn’t sure how useful it would be. Initially I contacted two schools asking for more info, but when what they responded with was essentially useless, I just stuck with visiting schools’ websites. There was no way I could read the writing of faculty at 15 different schools. Also, I don’t know that my enjoyment of a particular faculty member’s writing in any way predicts how helpful or supporting that faculty member would be to me as a professor.

One factor that did win points with me was the ability for students to take courses in other genres. I’m grateful I’m ending up at a school that offers this, and I look forward to taking both poetry and creative non-fiction workshops in addition to fiction.

You can see the full list of programs to which I applied in my post on how much it cost me to apply to MFA Creative Writing programs.

What else? 

After I had finalized my list of schools and started the application process I found more information that would’ve been useful earlier on: the Neurotic Writer’s Guide to Apply for an MFA, the MFA Research Project blogTheGradCafe Literature forums, and the Facebook MFA Draft group.

If you are a prospective MFA Creative Writing student, I hope this post helps you. I’m not suggesting my method is the best; I just want to share it. If I did it all over, I would’ve started sooner, made funding my top criteria, and only applied to places in locations with warmer climates. I would not have eliminated the most selective schools and would’ve applied to schools across the spectrum in selectivity. Although my approach was imperfect, it lead to success. I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be attending the University of South Florida in Tampa this fall. I can’t wait.

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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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