Evaluating degree programs is an inexact science even for disciplines with relatively objective criteria of measurement, like engineering, medicine, or business.
Therefore, when it comes to ranking MFA (Master of Fine Arts) degree programs in creative writing (a concept which varies from school to school, but may comprise poetry, fiction, playwriting, screenwriting, and non-fiction), the process of ranking threatens to sink into a slough of subjectivity.
Here is an interesting argument for giving up the whole enterprise as fundamentally misconceived.
Nevertheless, the desire to compare—to sort wheat from chaff—persists in this area of academic life, as elsewhere. And, in fact, there is a surprising degree of consensus about at least some of the programs which belong on any list of the top 10.
For example, using as our sources U.S. News & World Report magazine (go here), Poets & Writers magazine (go here), and Atlantic magazine (go here), the following four programs appear among the top 10 on all three lists:
1. University of Iowa (Iowa City, IA). There is little doubt that Iowa’s Program in Creative Writing (more commonly known as the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—see here), which is a two-year residency program, is the premiere graduate creative writing program in the country. This can be seen by virtue of its illustrious list of past and present students and faculty (Robert Penn Warren, Robert Lowell, John Cheever, John Berryman, Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, Jane Smiley, Marilynne Robinson, Michael Cunningham, Jorie Graham—the list goes on and on). It can also be seen by virtue of the simple fact that if you asked someone in the street to name a creative writing program, this is undoubtedly the one they would mention first (and probably last). The program is also home to The Iowa Review.
2. University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI). The Creative Writing Program (see here) is a two-year residency program. Its best-known faculty member currently is Nicholas Delbanco, a prolific novelist and essayist, as well as editor of works by the famous novelists Bernard Malamud and John Gardner. The Program is also the sponsor of the Zell Visiting Writers series, which brings distinguished visitors to the campus from around the country and the world. The campus is home to The Michigan Quarterly Review.
3. University of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA). The Creative Writing MFA Program (see here) is of the two-year residency type. It is only one aspect of a very distinguished English department that is home to a number of literary journals, notably Meridian and Virginia Literary Review, often considered to be one of the best literary magazines in the country. The best-known names currently associated with the Program are Ann Beattie, author of the novel Chilly Scenes of Winter (Doubleday, 1976) and a frequent contributor of short stories to The New Yorker magazine, and Rita Dove, a former U.S. Poet Laureate.
4. New York University (New York, NY). The Creative Writing Program (see here) is located in the heart of Greenwich Village, a formative terrain in the development of American literature. The faculty is of truly stellar quality, including the world-famous novelists E.L. Doctorow, Breyten Breytenbach, Zadie Smith, Junot Diaz, Mary Gaitskill, and Jonathan Safran Foer, as well as the equally distinguished poets Sharon Olds, Anne Carson, Charles Simic, and John Ashberry. The literary journal Washington Square calls NYU home.
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There are five programs that appear among the top 10 on two of the three listings, namely:
5. University of Texas (Austin, TX). The Michener Center for Writers hosts an MFA in Writing Program at UT-Austin (see here). The Program is a three-year, full-time residency program. The list of visiting faculty is a highly distinguished one, including such internationally recognized names as Colm Toibin, Tomaž Šalamun, Peter Carey, Denis Johnson, Richard Ford, and Jorie Graham. The Michener Center generously funds all students out of a bequest by the highly popular American novelist James A. Michener, author of Tales of the South Pacific (Scribner, 1947), The Covenant (Random House, 1980), and many other best-selling historical novels. The Michener Center for Writers MFA in Writing Program is an autonomous institution associated with UT-Austin, and is not to be confused with the MFA in Creative Writing offered by the university’s English Department.
6. University of California, Irvine (Irvine, CA). The MFA in creative writing offered by the English Department at UCI is a three-year residency program (see here). One of the most distinguished writers on the faculty is the internatioanally celebrated Kenyan novelist, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. The well-known American novelists Richard Ford, author of Independence Day (Little, Brown, 1995—winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize in fiction), and Michael Chabon, author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Random House, 2000—winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize in fiction), are both graduates of this program.
7. Cornell University (Ithaca, NY). The MFA Program in Creative Writing is one of two creative writing programs offered by the Cornell English Department (see here). The other is a combined MFA/Ph.D. program. Best known as the former American home of the great Russian-Amerrican novelist Vladimir Nabokov, today the English Department at Cornell is graced by the presence of one of our finest contemporary writers, Alison Lurie, author of Foreign Affairs (Random House, 1984), among many other distinguished novels. The Program is small and highly selective (only eight MFA students are enrolled each year). First-year students receive practical training by working as Editorial Assistants for Epoch, the literary magazine published by the Department.
8. Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, MD). The MFA in Fiction and Poetry at JHU is known as “The Writing Seminars” (see here). The Writing Seminars is a two-year residency program. Students are expected to produce a substantial manuscript by the end of the program, in the form of a novel, short-story collection, or book of poetry. Fiction writers will work with faculty including Alice McDermott and Brad Leithauser. Poets will work with Dave Smith, Mary Jo Salter, and others. JHU also supports the noted literary magazine, The Hopkins Review.
9. Boston University (Boston, MA). The BU Creative Writing Program is one of the oldest in the country (see here). It is a small and intensive program lasting only one year. The program is also noted for its superb summer-semester Translation Seminar. Students interested in playwriting will have the opportunity of working with the Boston Playwrights’ Theater. Highly distinguished faculty members connected with the Program include the widely respected critic and novelist Leslie Epstein, the National Book Award–winning novelist Ha Jin, the world-famous novelist, activist, and Nobel Peace Prize–winner, Elie Wiesel, and two former U.S. Poets Laureate, Robert Pinsky and Louise Glück. Agni is BU’s highly regarded literary magazine.
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Of the remaining programs that appear on only one of the three top-10 lists, the following is the one with the highest ranking on another list:
10. Brown University (Providence, RI). The MFA program in creative writing at Brown is administered through the Department of Literary Arts (see here). The program, of the two-year residency type, is one of the older ones in the country, having been established in the 1960s by the poet and translator, Edwin Honig. The most famous faculty members today are probably John Edgar Wideman, author of Sent for You Yesterday (Alison & Busby, 1984—winner of the International PEN/Faulkner Award) and many other influential novels and memoirs, Robert Coover, author of The Public Burning (Viking, 1977) and other well-known novels and short stories, and C.D. Wright, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry. Brown is also home to The Brown Literary Review.