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.


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.

11 replies on “What should I know about MFA Creative Writing rankings?”

Your post might confuse people tho. PW still publishes rankings every yr–of program funding, selectivity, placement (teaching jobs and fellowships), student-to-faculty ratio, even comparisons of teaching load and cost of living and application fee etc. It also says which features different programs have, like language requirements, and as we all know how popular language requirements are for applicants even that info feels like a ranked comparison. The only “rankings” you talk about here are the popularity rankings measuring how popular programs are among applicants who get together online, which PW still publishes even now in 2014. They’re just not presented (as they were in 2011 and also 2010 I think) as an overall ranking of programs. But no one I know ever used them that way anyhow.

Yay, thanks for leaving the first comment on this blog!

If someone reads the entire post rather than just skims it, they shouldn’t be too confused. I provide two links to P&W’s MFA information and make it clear that they still provide info. I will write about this information more specifically when I write about how I chose my list of schools and can add an update to the beginning of this post just to make it explicit and obvious.

You’re correct that the only thing done away with is the overall rankings, but that is a pretty big deal. The overall rankings were what so many people had major issue with. Simply ordering the schools alphabetically instead of in a way that implies there is a number one best school, number two best school, etc., is huge and addresses most of the issues brought up in the open letter.

I went through the application process alone in the sense that I didn’t know anyone IRL also applying to programs. I spent about a month checking the Facebook draft group daily while waiting for responses and that was where I got the impression that many people took the overall rankings at face value.

Agree about the overall rankings. Tho if some block of progs are known to be the most popular with applicants over a long time, are best funded, most selective, best at placing grads, most likely to give students attention (student-to-faculty ratio), most reasonable about teaching load, least expensive to live at, most flexible about graduation requirements etc, I think applicants’ll come to conclusions about which progs are most attractive. Which is fine I guess as a lot of those things do matter. But I don’t know why anyone takes overall rankings about anything seriously, tho. Even to be angry about it. Just consider the info that matters to you, that should be obvious.

It would be interesting to see a statistical analysis detailing how much the popularity rankings correlate with various other rankings to try and identify how much each factor impacts popularity. Hm…I haven’t done anything statistical for quite a while. I wonder if I’d still know how to do something like that.

Before publishing this post I deleted a fairly lengthy part that I deemed irrelevant in which I made guesses at why people were so angry about the rankings. One thing I thought of and am curious about is the idea that the MFA rankings (or any rankings of anything, really) could be prescriptive rather than descriptive. If a program was arbitrarily put at the top of the list, would it then attract more/better applicants, professors, and funds, making it a better program? Would a program arbitrarily left off the list become shittier as a result?

The other main reason I came up with for people being so angry is that even though they’re artists and not scientists, they’re still part of the academy, which as a whole purports to highly value transparency, “truth” (however it’s defined), and facts. To perpetuate something inaccurate–even if it’s harmless–is a great sin to most academics. Maybe the greatest.

Think that’s where we disagree tho. No one ever said the non-pop rankings were inaccurate, I’ve never heard that. Re: popularity, the claim was not that the applicants didn’t say what P&W said they said but that popularity shouldn’t matter. Which I get. That’s not the same as inaccurate. About transparency, I’d say the P&W stuff made everything more transparent, not less. It doesn’t seem to me that the progs themselves ever valued transaprency actually. Or facts, which the P&W articles were full of IMHO.

When I wrote “inaccurate” I was referring only to the previous, overall rankings. I meant that presenting them as an overall measure of program quality was inaccurate. Perhaps I should’ve used “misleading,” instead. Some did argue they were inaccurate in the factual sense, however, by pointing out that people using the Facebook group make up a self-selected subset of applicants that might not represent all applicants.

I also agree that the P&W info and articles make everything to do with MFA programs more transparent. The only issue I was addressing in this post is that of the overall rankings, which no longer exist. When I mentioned transparency and facts in my previous comment I was speculating on possible reasons people became so angry, not making any sort of argument.

Nice write-up. I was wondering why the only rankings I could find were from 2012. The PW list is mildly helpful; at the least, it points out which of the then-popular programs gave full funding in 2011.

Time for me to get back to researching.

Hi! Thank you for this–I’m doing my best to find all blog posts on this topic since I’m attempting to apply for an MFA program this year. It seems such a daunting and impossible task at the moment. I was wondering where you found the individual rankings for this year–I purchased the P&W MFA Guide but didn’t find rankings in it. I want to know about the selectivity and funding of certain schools but haven’t been able to glean much from their websites.

Hi Meagan,

It appears that the rankings website is now private and the P&W guide no longer includes them this year. That might be for the better since so many people seemed to think the data was inaccurate.

Good luck in applying to schools!

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