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About Less Popular MFA Programs


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How do you all feel about the P&W's list of Top 50 MFA Programs? Did you apply to school that aren't on that list?

Top 50 List. Fully-funded programs in bold:

1. University of Iowa (Iowa City)
2. University of Michigan (Ann Arbor)
3. University of Wisconsin (Madison)
4. Brown University (Providence)
5. Cornell University (Ithaca)
5. Syracuse University
7. University of Virginia (Charlottsvile)
8. University of Texas (Michener Center)
9. Washington University in St. Louis (WashU/WUSTL)
10. University of Minnesota (Minneapolis)
11. University of Oregon (Eugene)
12. Indiana University (Bloomington)

13. University of Massachusetts (Amherst)
14. Vanderbilt University (Nashville)
15. University of California (Irvine)

16. New York University (NYU)
17. Johns Hopkins University (JHU)
18. University of Alabama (Tuscaloosa)

19. University of Houston
20. University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign (UIUC)
21. Arizona State University (ASU, Tempe)
21. Louisiana State University (LSU)
23. Virginia Polytechnic Institute (VPI, Blacksburg)
24. University of Florida (Gainesville)
25. Southern Illinois University (SIU, Carbondale)

26. University of Montana (Missoula)
27. Brooklyn College
28. Hunter College
28. Purdue University
30. University of Wyoming (Laramie)
31. University of California (San Diego)

32. University of Colorado (UCB)
33.  Ohio State University (OSU)
33. Pennsylvania State University (PSU no longer has an MFA program)
35. University of Arkansas (Fayetteville)
36. University of Nevada (Las Vegas, UNLV)

36. University of Notre Dame (South Bend)
38. University of Mississippi (Ole Miss)
39. University of North Carolina (Greensboro)
40. McNeese State University
41. University of Arizona (Tucson)
42. The New School
43. Hollins University
44. Bowling Green State University (BGSU)
45. Colorado State University (CSU)
45. Texas State University (San Marcos)
47. Columbia University
47. University of North Carolina (Wilmington)
49. University of South Carolina
50. Boise State University (Idaho)

50. Boston University

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I applied to Sarah Lawrence because of their amazing A+ list faculty and involved program. Top 50 is not the end all be all of good MFA programs. I think the SLC program is truly great, and only suffers in the rankings because of their stingy aid packages. 

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I only have the top 50 from 2012 on hand, but I think it's bullshit, if you'll excuse me for saying so.  For one thing, as I remember the vote tabulation process, they were surveying applicants not people who had been in a program.  The fact is, a lot of the undergraduate writers I have known have been, let's say, excessively confident in their skills and abilities.  They think themselves as largely finished products who just need a couple of years to get a book together.  From those bases and by that criteria, you're going to necessarily skew towards prioritizing funding packages over the quality of instruction and who's teaching there. 


I had a number of friends and even past mentors who went through the Iowa program.  They've described it as a pressure cooker environment, and few have had glowing things to say about the faculty.  A number of them thought the professors sexist or dismissive of their work and some of the feedback I've heard relayed by them was rather insulting.  I applied there for poetry and didn't get in.  I applied there because I really and honestly dig James Galvin's work.  I would apply there again knowing what I know now and given what I know because, hey, why the hell not?


I came in unfunded at a NT50, survived on resident tuition and living at home.  I never did get full funding, for reasons outside of my control and not really worth going into, but all throughout the faculty was extremely supportive of me, very much apologetic about the position I had been put in (with a few of them claiming that it was an "embarrassment" that someone like me would go unfunded), and gave their all.  I got some responses on my critical and creative theses at three or four in the morning the following day from Heather.  And in the end, while I left with a bit of debt, I had a number of great advocates in the literary world who really helped encourage me and develop my craft through their own unique insights, providing me some excellent advice that I reflect back on to this day.


Funding situations can be terrible.  I legitimately lucked out by having grown up in the state and never changed legal residency when I got my BA.  Others weren't so fortunate and they like me had to grind their way though food service and retail jobs.  It was a real bummer for all of us.  But I don't think there's one among us who regrets the quality of instruction that we received, that thinks that we should have done better elsewhere.  While having some extra cash to live off of is certainly nice (likewise, time to write), if you didn't get much out of the program otherwise, who cares?

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Yea, I dunno how much I believe in the rankings, or how they were compiled, for that matter. I heard a writer who I really admired speak recently, Patricia Engel, and she came out of FIU. I kinda feel like fit matters more than anything, in helping a writer produce quality work. And if you can find the place that works for you, more power to you.


Then again, I did apply to a lot of places that were in the top 50, mainly because I was already familiar with their reputations and the writers coming out of them. Plus the funding, of course. But if I'd know about them, I would've applied to more places outside of the top 50 with decent funding. Those take a lot more work to find, I think, and I was already crunched on time.

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yea, enjay you have a lot of good insight here. i also thought the top 50 list was BS. there are plenty of great schools that didn't make that list or scored low, and their methodology was complete garbage. i mean really, asking applicants, rather than graduates of surveying published writers, etc..? it seemed ridiculous because it was. thats why they officially stopped making the list as of about last year, and P&W even apologized for having ever published them. it was always more myth that methodology. 


at the same time, as someone who can't afford to go to graduate school without generous funding, that list was helpful only in its determination of where the well-funded programs are, so i mainly used it as a starting point to do research into programs. but there are plenty of well-funded programs that aren't on that list (ie, UCF), and plenty of terribly funded programs that are (ie, Columbia)

Edited by lagoon91
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I did my BA at Columbia.  It's a boon being close to NYC publishing happenings, but it's pay to play and the NYC scene can be incestuous at some times, an echo chamber at others.  Nevertheless, I can see the practical reasons for it being given a boost.


As far as actual perception by published writers, you're right about there being a substantial difference between P&W rankings and actual esteem.  That said, you can end up in situations where a lower ranking can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, not because the instruction changes but because the applicant pools do.  I definitely witnessed some of the fallout from those low rankings, though there remained some legitimately talented folks in the cohort at all times.

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I went to the University of Washington. One of the grad TA's became a friend of mine. He and his girlfriend complained about David Shields - that he was dismissive and rude towards them, especially my friend's girlfriend - and David Bosworth. I had an independent study with Charles Johnson. We only met a couple times the whole quarter and he never seemed to really care about my writing at all. And the notes he gave me were pretty superficial... He was so consumed, it seemed, with speaking engagements and whatnot that I didn't really feel mentored whatsoever. I hope he was better with his grad students, but I don't know if he was or not. My friend's girlfriend had Shawn Wong as her adviser and I think he was better. Still. I don't have the highest opinion of the faculty at UW, at least on the fiction side. Glad the poets are better.

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I've heard my share of awful David Shields stories as well, not going to lie about that.  Bozzy, that surprises me, in that everyone I knew really seemed to respect him even though he wasn't writing as actively as the others.  A few people cited his Writers on Writing lecture on mythos-minded thinking as a must hear, and I've had a few nice conversations with him over the years about aphorisms and the like as he too is a big James Richardson fan.  Charles Johnson though, he was before my time, which I would guess meant that you were there in the era when Colleen McElroy was on poetry as well?  And Heather might have been doing any number of visiting stints elsewhere as she was wont to do.  Again, no insight there, but the people I worked with in my not-too-long ago tenure were lovely.  I think that UW's program has generally been more about poetry than prose though.  We all remember that seminal era of Roethke and Hugo and Wright and Kizer, but I've never heard of anything equivalent on the other side.

Edited by Enjay
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You're right Enjay. I was there from 2000-2003 as an undergrad. I thought about applying to UW, as I really love Seattle and have friends there, but no one on the faculty remotely excited me. Then there's the fact that Shields is still there, and that's a deterrent more than anything. 

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How do you all feel about the P&W's list of Top 50 MFA Programs? Did you apply to school that aren't on that list?


I applied to 2 programs that were not on the list, but now wish I would have applied to more. Even after all the thought and research I put into programs, I think it was a bit naive of me to apply mostly to highly popular programs with 2% acceptance rates.


I agree with the poster who said it's all about "fit." 

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