Why Rank MFA Programs? Or Why Not…

News appeared recently on the Creative Writing Pedagogy Facebook Group about a new ranking of MFA programs based on publishing history in annual prize anthologies. Naturally, a discussion ensued about the value of rankings (which is dubious, and to credit this one, they even begin their post with a disclaimer about why you shouldn’t care about their ranking, but then they go on to rank programs) and the methodology of basing rankings on placement in Best American Short Stories, Best American EssaysBest American Poetry, O. Henry Prize Stories, Pushcart Prize anthologies. As you might guess, quite a few programs get left out of that list, since only a very few writers (even well-published ones) end up in these anthologies each year.

The selection criteria for these anthologies might be called into question (though their goal is not to serve as a tool to rank MFA programs, so their editorial policies may well meet their market and their own goals). Furthermore, we might ask what other awards or anthologies are out there that are overlooked, thereby privileging certain kinds of writing: the Best New Poets series comes to mind, for instance, as well as AWP’s Intro Journals Project, which is specifically focused on current MFA students.

Annual prize anthologies have been criticized for their lack of inclusivity, so they may not be the best to use (exclusively) when ranking. In recent years, I’ve noticed attempts by the editors of these anthologies to be more inclusive in terms of race, gender, and identity, yet they still may not by as inclusive in terms of region, genre, and literary style. So why not include publication in “best of” genre anthologies, too? Many of our students have no desire to write the kind of stories, poems, or essays that would land them in the annual prize anthologies, yet they receive other forms of recognition in their chosen genres.

Rankings of MFA programs will always be controversial, yet the debate about what criteria to use can be constructive. If a prospective MFA student’s goal is to get into one of these anthologies, this ranking might be worthwhile, though a causal relationship isn’t guaranteed: as any investment portfolio is required to tell you — past performance is not a guarantee of future success.

If your goal is to be a professionally active writer, however, then this list may not help so much. How successful are the top-ranked programs at getting books by their students/alumni published? Probably pretty good, but what kind of books, and what kind of book does the prospective student want to write? What programs are overlooked in a ranking that focuses on annual anthologies? Which programs best serve students who want to teach, work in publishing, find alternate writing-related career paths, etc.?

Which programs best serve writers who aren’t already very sophisticated writers at the time they apply? Is the success of the top-ranked programs due to the instruction they provide or the quality of writers they’re able to attract and how selective they can be? What does the prospective student really need — excellent teaching that can help them improve or powerful writers who can help them network and get their already polished work noticed in the literary marketplace? Does a prospective student want mentoring or does she/he want to be anointed by a literary gatekeeper. And what happens if you don’t get anointed? Not everyone at these programs goes on to an illustrious literary career, after all.

These are all questions a prospective student ought to consider: what kind of program best meets your needs and what kind of culture will you fit into as a writer. Most of the advice I read urges prospective MFA students to avoid rankings and to really research the programs they are interested in. And yet, humans love rankings, and rankings tend to reduce the choice to a number — who performs best in terms of certain criteria.

My program has been ranked number 1 in a list of online programs in English and Creative Writing at Nonprofit Colleges Online (low-res programs were included). The next year, we fell to number 2, though we were still the top creative writing program on the list. That was gratifying, though I’m pretty sure the main criterion for this ranking was that our tuition is very low, which was confirmed by the slight change in ranking the second year. Don’t get me wrong, I love the exposure, and if you’re looking for low tuition, then this ranking is helpful. But I don’t let my ego swell too much because of it.

Rankings may be useful when considering graduate schools, but a ranking should only be one source of information you use. Carefully consider the criteria used in making the ranking, and compare it to other sources of information. AWP’s Guide to Writing Programs is a good place to learn about MFA, MA, and PhD programs, as is New Pages,  while Poet’s & Writers focuses on the MFA, and Publisher’s Weekly claims to list MFA, MA, and PhD programs, but I’ve primarily found MFA programs in their listing. Each database provides different information and might index different programs, so it’s worth checking and comparing them all. And it’s probably worth comparing different rankings for the information they might provide, but don’t just apply to the top-ranked programs. And don’t discount the programs that are overlooked in those rankings. Look for the program that will be the best fit for you!

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