Ranking MFA Programs in Creative Writing

It’s that time of the year again — the time when writers everywhere get serious about looking for an MFA program. It only makes sense, with many application deadlines coming due in December or January, if you want to be in an MFA program a year from now, you’ll want to get serious about looking by now, or at least very soon. There are a lot of programs out there, and finding the right one for you, can be a challenge.

Our program has already received its first application for Spring (our December 1 deadline is for Spring 2023; our priority deadline for Summer or Fall is March 1), and we’ve had other inquiries, some of whom will probably send in their applications in September or October, which we recommend. But our main application period will begin in earnest in December or January when the Fall applications start to roll in.

As you are looking at programs, you might be tempted to look at the rankings. And if you do, you may find that there both are quite a few places online that rank graduate programs, and none or just a few that are very authorative. I tend not to take much stock in those website rankings, even though we’ve been grateful that we’ve ranked fairly highly among low-residency programs, and that has probably steered some good students our way. I’ve also seen how they do their rankings (or tried to figure that out), so I have my doubts.

How did we go from #1 to #9 in the span of a year in one ranking? I can’t tell. Did I believe we were the best program in the country? Sure, but not really that we deserved that ranking more than some other really good programs. Do I think we deserve to be #9? Maybe, though I’m not sure why. I do suspect that a big weight in a lot of those rankings is placed on the cost of the program, which helps us because our tuition is low. That’s good information to have, but isn’t the only consideration a prospective MFA student should consider. I don’t think those websites are really qualified to rank MFA programs, especially when I see they often put MFA and MA programs on the same list with no distinction between the two. A 48 hour MFA is hardly equivalent to a 36 hour MA, after all, yet in a couple of rankings some MA programs are ranked higher than ours, probably because our extra hours cost more in tuition. Yet the difference in the credential between an MA and an MFA is worth the added cost, especially if the MFA is your goal. (Nothing against MA programs, either; they just aren’t the same thing.)

So as glad as I am when our program ranks highly (yet I wonder why), and as often as I let our PR department put out a press release touting these rankings, I’m equally aware that the only MFA ranking that really matters is yours. If you value what our program has to offer, then we’ll make it onto your list. If not, then maybe I’m glad we don’t. If the online rankings get us on your radar so you consider us, then I’m happy, but I don’t put much more stock in them than that.

So how should you rank MFA programs? That’s probably what made you read this blog post, and maybe why you’ve kept reading. The answer really is that only you can know. It all depends on your goals and the kind of program you’re looking for. But that’s not terribly helpful. so here are some of the things I think you probably want to consider.

Reputation. Yes, I realize this is going to factor highly on many of your lists. It’s not a bad criterion to have, though it’s not the only one. Consider how long a program has been around, who is on the faculty and where have they published. Also consider what their graduates have gone on to do (though this can be a little harder to suss out). And consider what their current students are doing right now, which is what their future reputation will build on.

Our program is only 7 years young at this point, so we probably won’t score quite as high on this one, but we do think we’re on the way to developing a stellar reputation as a scrappy little program at a state university. What kind of reputation do you want in your program? There are a lot of ways you can look at reputation. Longevity is not the only one. For a program that has a long-standing reputation, ask whether they are still living up to it, or are they just resting on their laurels?

Community. This is also a tough one to judge unless you get a chance to visit a school, attend virtual readings, stalk them online (it’s alright, we don’t mind if you watch our social media to see who we are — that’s what it’s for after all!), or reach out to current students and alums. Again, there is no right or wrong answer to this question. Do you thrive on competition? There will be plenty of programs for you. Do you want a supportive, collaborative environment that will foster you as a writer? Those programs exist, too. We like to believe we are the latter. Do you look for something in between? I bet you can find several.

Genre. Who are the writers, both faculty and students, in the program and what do they write? Are you tracked into one main genre or are you allowed, encouraged, or even required to step outside your comfort zone and explore other genres? Besides the main genres of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and drama, where does the program come down on sub-genres? Are young adult or fantasy or Afrofuturism or traditional verse forms or lyric essay allowed or encouraged? Or treated as pariahs? Look at what the writers in the program produce. Look at the courses the program offers. Talk to people in the program to see how they respond to the kind(s) of writing you want to do.

Cost. Yes, this is a big one. I could put it number one, but I’d like to think it’s not the only factor. I do realize that it is a big one. Do the programs on your list offer full funding? If so, what does that cover and what other costs might be incurred if you attend that program? If the program is fully funded, is it enough to live on? What income might you have to give up from your day job to enter the program (if it’s a traditional resident program, as most fully funded programs are)? If it’s not fully funded, how easy will it be for you to fund yourself, either through loans or by holding down a job or both? What are the true costs of the program, in other words?

An MFA is worth an investment, and if you’re funded, you will be investing time and energy (often by teaching), so what kind of investment is right for you? In considering costs, also consider the emotional costs that entering a program might entail. Will you have to move? How will your relationships be affected by this choice? It’s never simply about the dollar amount, though finances are important, as they should be. You should have a financial plan.

Location. If you’re looking at traditional resident MFA programs, then the location is especially important. Can you live there? How easy or hard would it be to move? What is the cost of living? Will it be a familiar place or a grand adventure? And if you’re looking at low-residency programs, the location can still be important. What will your travel costs be? How often will you need to be on campus? For either kind of program, and even for those fully online programs, how does location affect the culture of the program or the kind of writing they may be looking for? Where do the students and faculty come from? I won’t say that location fully defines either, but it might have an influence and is worth considering. What kind of location do you thrive in? What locations might challenge you in important ways?

Our program’s home is in small-town Mississippi, which may not be many people’s first idea of where to get their MFA, yet one of our alums, Kyla Hanington, recently published a piece in Bitter Southerner about her own journey to falling for our state after traveling here for our program. I mention her essay because it’s instructive about how any location can affect the writer in surprising ways.

Community. Finally, I think community should be on your list. Yes, I’ve already mentioned the culture of the program, but by community, I am thinking beyond your years in the program. An MFA should last a lifetime. What is the program’s relationship with its alumni? Are alums involved with current students or invited back for workshops or events? How do alums of the program interact with one another? It’s a good sign when there’s a strong connection among alums, especially alums from different years. It’s something I’m sure most MFA programs try to foster; how well we do at that is indicative of how well we do overall. Maybe you want a program that you can leave as soon as you graduate, never looking back. Maybe you want one that will continue to support you and that is invested in your success, as a writer, as a scholar, and as a person.

These are the main criteria that I would use if I were ranking programs. I’m sure there are many others. I’ve certainly written about some of them. But if I’m thinking about what any prospective MFA student ought to consder as they compile their list and begin their own ranking, these would be the main ones. From there, dig down into the specifics that affect your search and your choice. Find the best program for you and your situation. There is no program that should be ranked #1 for everyone.

Consider the communications you get from the program, the information they make available on their website, the way they promote their students and alumni. Attend public (or virtual) readings or other events. Go with your gut, and also consider the costs of a program and what you will be able to do with it once you graduate. There is a great ranking — it’s the one you come up with as you research the programs that may be in your future! Best of luck to everyone. May you find your MFA home! (I assume if you’ve read this far, that’s your goal.)

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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