The talent is there.
But the next generation of great American writers needs a collegial place to hone their craft.
They need a place to explore the writer’s role in a wider community.
They really need guidance about how and when to publish.
All these things can be found in a solid Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing degree program. This degree offers access to mentors, to colleagues, and to a future in the writing world.
A good MFA program gives new writers a precious few years to focus completely on their work, an ideal space away from the noise and pressure of the fast-paced modern world.
We’ve found ten of the best ones, all of which provide the support, the creative stimulation, and the tranquility necessary to foster a mature writer.
We looked at graduate departments from all regions, public and private, all sizes, searching for the ten most inspiring Creative Writing MFA programs.
Each of these ten institutions has assembled stellar faculties, developed student-focused paths of study, and provide robust support for writers accepted into their degree programs.
To be considered for inclusion in our top 10, these MFA programs all must be fully-funded degrees, as recognized by Read The Workshop.
Creative Writing education has broadened and expanded over recent years, and no single method or plan fits for all students.
Today, MFA programs across the country give budding short story writers and poets a variety of options for study. For future novelists, screenwriters – even viral bloggers – the search for the perfect setting for their next phase of development starts with these outstanding institutions, all of which have developed thoughtful and particular approaches to study.
So where will the next Salinger scribble his stories on the steps of the student center, or the next Angelou reading her poems in the local bookstore’s student-run poetry night? At one of these ten programs.
Here are the 10 best creative writing MFA programs in the US.
10. University of Oregon (Eugene, OR)
Starting off the list is one of the oldest and most venerated Creative Writing programs in the country, the MFA at the University of Oregon.
Longtime mentor, teacher, and award-winning poet Garrett Hongo directs the program, modeling its studio-based approach to one-on-one instruction in the English college system.
Oregon’s MFA embraces its reputation for rigor. Besides attending workshops and tutorials, students take classes in more formal poetics and literature.
Tsunami Books, a local bookseller with national caché, hosts student-run readings featuring writers from the program.
Graduates garner an impressive range of critical acclaim; Yale Younger Poet winner Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Cave Canem Prize winner and Guggenheim fellow Major Jackson, and PEN-Hemingway Award winner Chang-Rae Lee are noteworthy alumni.
With its appealing setting and impressive reputation, Oregon’s MFA program attracts top writers as visiting faculty, including recent guests Elizabeth McCracken, David Mura, and Li-young Lee.
The individual approach defines the Oregon MFA experience; a key feature of the program’s first year is the customized reading list each MFA student creates with their faculty guide.
Weekly meetings focus not only on the student’s writing, but also on the extended discovery of voice through directed reading.
Accepting only ten new students a year—five in poetry and five in fiction— the University of Oregon’s MFA ensures a close-knit community with plenty of individual coaching and guidance.
9. Cornell University (Ithaca, NY)
Cornell University’s MFA program takes the long view on life as a writer, incorporating practical editorial training and teaching experience into its two-year program.
Incoming MFA students choose their own faculty committee of at least two faculty members, providing consistent advice as they move through a mixture of workshop and literature classes.
Students in the program’s first year benefit from editorial training as readers and editors for Epoch, the program’s prestigious literary journal.
Teaching experience grounds the Cornell program. MFA students design and teach writing-centered undergraduate seminars on a variety of topics, and they remain in Ithaca during the summer to teach in programs for undergraduates.
Cornell even allows MFA graduates to stay on as lecturers at Cornell for a period of time while they are on the job search. Cornell also offers a joint MFA/Ph.D. program through the Creative Writing and English departments.
Endowments fund several acclaimed reading series, drawing internationally known authors to campus for workshops and work sessions with MFA students.
Recent visiting readers include Salman Rushdie, Sandra Cisneros, Billy Collins, Margaret Atwood, Ada Limón, and others.
8. Arizona State University (Tempe, AZ)
Arizona State’s MFA in Creative Writing spans three years, giving students ample time to practice their craft, develop a voice, and begin to find a place in the post-graduation literary world.
Coursework balances writing and literature classes equally, with courses in craft and one-on-one mentoring alongside courses in literature, theory, or even electives in topics like fine press printing, bookmaking, or publishing.
While students follow a path in either poetry or fiction, they are encouraged to take courses across the genres.
Teaching is also a focus in Arizona State’s MFA program, with funding coming from teaching assistantships in the school’s English department. Other exciting teaching opportunities include teaching abroad in locations around the world, funded through grants and internships.
The Virginia C. Piper Center for Creative Writing, affiliated with the program, offers Arizona State MFA students professional development in formal and informal ways.
The Distinguished Writers Series and Desert Nights, Rising Stars Conference bring world-class writers to campus, allowing students to interact with some of the greatest in the profession. Acclaimed writer and poet Alberto Ríos directs the Piper Center.
Arizona State transitions students to the world after graduation through internships with publishers like Four Way Books.
Its commitment to the student experience and its history of producing acclaimed writers—recent examples include Tayari Jones (Oprah’s Book Club, 2018; Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2019), Venita Blackburn (Prairie Schooner Book Prize, 2018), and Hugh Martin (Iowa Review Jeff Sharlet Award for Veterans)—make Arizona State University’s MFA a consistent leader among degree programs.
7. University of Texas at Austin (Austin, TX)
The University of Texas at Austin’s MFA program, the Michener Center for Writers, maintains one of the most vibrant, exciting, active literary faculties of any MFA program.
Denis Johnson D.A. Powell, Geoff Dyer, Natasha Trethewey, Margot Livesey, Ben Fountain: the list of recent guest faculty boasts some of the biggest names in current literature.
This three-year program fully funds candidates without teaching fellowships or assistantships; the goal is for students to focus entirely on their writing.
More genre tracks at the Michener Center mean students can choose two focus areas, a primary and secondary, from Fiction, Poetry, Screenwriting, and Playwriting.
The Michener Center for Writers plays a prominent role in contemporary writing of all kinds.
Recent events for illustrious alumni include New Yorker publications, an Oprah Book Club selection, a screenwriting prize, and a 2021 Pulitzer (for visiting faculty member Mitchell Jackson).
In this program, students are right in the middle of all the action of contemporary American literature.
6. Washington University in St. Louis (St. Louis, MO)
The MFA in Creative Writing at Washington University in St. Louis is a program on the move: applicants have almost doubled here in the last five years.
Maybe this sudden growth of interest comes from recent rising star alumni on the literary scene, like Paul Tran, Miranda Popkey, and National Book Award winner Justin Phillip Reed.
Or maybe it’s the high profile Washington University’s MFA program commands, with its rotating faculty post through the Hurst Visiting Professor program and its active distinguished reader series.
Superstar figures like Alison Bechdel and George Saunders have recently held visiting professorships, maintaining an energetic atmosphere program-wide.
Washington University’s MFA program sustains a reputation for the quality of the mentorship experience.
With only five new students in each genre annually, MFA candidates form close cohorts among their peers and enjoy attentive support and mentorship from an engaged and vigorous faculty.
Three genre tracks are available to students: fiction, poetry, and the increasingly relevant and popular creative nonfiction.
Another attractive feature of this program: first-year students are fully funded, but not expected to take on a teaching role until their second year.
A generous stipend, coupled with St. Louis’s low cost of living, gives MFA candidates at Washington University the space to develop in a low-stress but stimulating creative environment.
5. Indiana University (Bloomington, IN)
It’s one of the first and biggest choices students face when choosing an MFA program: two-year or three-year?
Indiana University makes a compelling case for its three-year program, in which the third year of support allows students an extended period of time to focus on the thesis, usually a novel or book-length collection.
One of the older programs on the list, Indiana’s MFA dates back to 1948.
Its past instructors and alumni read like the index to an American Literature textbook.
How many places can you take classes in the same place Robert Frost once taught, not to mention the program that granted its first creative writing Master’s degree to David Wagoner? Even today, the program’s integrity and reputation draw faculty like Ross Gay and Kevin Young.
Indiana’s Creative Writing program houses two more literary institutions, the Indiana Review, and the Indiana University Writers’ Conference.
Students make up the editorial staff of this lauded literary magazine, in some cases for course credit or a stipend. An MFA candidate serves each year as assistant director of the much-celebrated and highly attended conference.
These two facets of Indiana’s program give graduate students access to visiting writers, professional experience, and a taste of the writing life beyond academia.
4. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (Ann Arbor, MI)
The University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program cultivates its students with a combination of workshop-driven course work and vigorous programming on and off-campus. Inventive new voices in fiction and poetry consistently emerge from this two-year program.
The campus hosts multiple readings, events, and contests, anchored by the Zell Visiting Writers Series. The Hopgood Awards offer annual prize money to Michigan creative writing students.
The department cultivates relationships with organizations and events around Detroit, so whether it’s introducing writers at Literati bookstore or organizing writing retreats in conjunction with local arts organizations, MFA candidates find opportunities to cultivate a community role and public persona as a writer.
What happens after graduation tells the big story of this program. Michigan produces heavy hitters in the literary world, like Celeste Ng, Jesmyn Ward, Elizabeth Kostova, Nate Marshall, Paisley Rekdal, and Laura Kasischke.
Their alumni place their works with venerable houses like Penguin and Harper Collins, longtime literary favorites Graywolf and Copper Canyon, and the new vanguard like McSweeney’s, Fence, and Ugly Duckling Presse.
3. University of Minnesota (Minneapolis, MN)
Structure combined with personal attention and mentorship characterizes the University of Minnesota’s Creative Writing MFA, starting with its unique program requirements.
In addition to course work and a final thesis, Minnesota’s MFA candidates assemble a book list of personally significant works on literary craft, compose a long-form essay on their writing process, and defend their thesis works with reading in front of an audience.
Literary journal Great River Review and events like the First Book reading series and Mill City Reading series do their part to expand the student experience beyond the focus on the internal.
The Edelstein-Keller Visiting Writer Series draws exceptional, culturally relevant writers like Chuck Klosterman and Claudia Rankine for readings and student conversations.
Writer and retired University of Minnesota instructor Charles Baxter established the program’s Hunger Relief benefit, aiding Minnesota’s Second Harvest Heartland organization.
Emblematic of the program’s vision of the writer in service to humanity, this annual contest and reading bring together distinguished writers, students, faculty, and community members in favor of a greater goal.
2. Brown University (Providence, RI)
One of the top institutions on any list, Brown University features an elegantly-constructed Literary Arts Program, with students choosing one workshop and one elective per semester.
The electives can be taken from any department at Brown; especially popular choices include Studio Art and other coursework through the affiliated Rhode Island School of Design. The final semester consists of thesis construction under the supervision of the candidate’s faculty advisor.
Brown is the only MFA program to feature, in addition to poetry and fiction tracks, the Digital/Cross Disciplinary track.
This track attracts multidisciplinary writers who need the support offered by Brown’s collaboration among music, visual art, computer science, theater and performance studies, and other departments.
The interaction with the Rhode Island School of Design also allows those artists interested in new forms of media to explore and develop their practice, inventing new forms of art and communication.
Brown’s Literary Arts Program focuses on creating an atmosphere where students can refine their artistic visions, supported by like-minded faculty who provide the time and materials necessary to innovate.
Not only has the program produced trailblazing writers like Percival Everett and Otessa Moshfegh, but works composed by alumni incorporating dance, music, media, and theater have been performed around the world, from the stage at Kennedy Center to National Public Radio.
1. University of Iowa (Iowa City, IA)
When most people hear “MFA in Creative Writing,” it’s the Iowa Writers’ Workshop they imagine.
The informal name of the University of Iowa’s Program in Creative Writing, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was the first to offer an MFA, back in 1936.
One of the first diplomas went to renowned writer Wallace Stegner, who later founded the MFA program at Stanford.
It’s hard to argue with seventeen Pulitzer Prize winners and six U.S. Poets Laureate. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop is the root system of the MFA tree.
The two-year program balances writing courses with coursework in other graduate departments at the university. In addition to the book-length thesis, a written exam is part of the student’s last semester.
Because the program represents the quintessential idea of a writing program, it attracts its faculty positions, reading series, events, and workshops the brightest lights of the literary world.
The program’s flagship literary magazine, the Iowa Review, is a lofty goal for writers at all stages of their career.
At the Writers’ Workshop, tracks include not only fiction, poetry, playwriting, and nonfiction, but also Spanish creative writing and literary translation. Their reading series in association with Prairie Lights bookstore streams online and is heard around the world.
Iowa’s program came into being in answer to the central question posed to each one of these schools: can writing be taught?
The answer for a group of intrepid, creative souls in 1936 was, actually, “maybe not.”
But they believed it could be cultivated; each one of these institutions proves it can be, in many ways, for those willing to commit the time and imagination.