Ridgley Hall with flowers

A powerhouse of a program: The MFA in writing

Washington University’s nationally recognized MFA in writing has received a record number of applications in recent years, becoming one of the university's most selective graduate programs.

Over the past decade, Washington University’s MFA program in writing has developed into one of the most selective graduate programs at the university. From 2017­­–21, applications to the program have increased by 86%, with over 500 talented applicants vying for just 15 spots each year. In 2020, the program accepted 4.1% of its applicants. WashU's world-renowned medical school has an acceptance rate of 8.2%.

The immense popularity of this program is no mystery. According to David Schuman, director of creative writing and senior lecturer in English, the secret sauce is a mixture of talented writers with a small program that allows faculty experts to closely mentor students.

“Our faculty are not only terrific writers and literary stars, but also tremendous, generous, and challenging teachers,” said Schuman.

Many students come to WashU specifically to study with the well-known poets, novelists, and non-fiction writers on faculty: fiction writers Danielle Dutton, Marshall Klimasewiski, and Kathryn Davis; nonfiction writers Edward McPherson and Kathleen Finneran; and poets Mary Jo Bang and Carl Phillips.

Justin Danzy, a recent graduate of the program and current senior fellow in poetry in the department, said that the program’s reputation for professional mentoring was a driving factor in his decision to come to WashU.

Pictured (left to right): Danielle Dutton, Aaron Coleman, David Schuman, and Paul Tran

“Carl Phillips and Mary Jo Bang are renowned writers and masters of the craft and also demanding, yet generous teachers who I knew would challenge me and help me become the writer they knew I could be,” said Danzy. “They were equally willing to offer praise and critique when necessary, and I spent many hours outside of class in one-on-one meetings where they offered additional feedback and wisdom.”

The program is home to writers engaged with every element of the creative and publishing process. Graduate students can intern with the award-winning Dorothy Publishing Project, a small press run by Danielle Dutton, associate professor of English, and Martin Riker, senior lecturer in English, that focuses on publishing the work of women novelists. In addition to running Dorothy, Dutton and Riker both teach in the writing program.

According to Schuman, another factor in the program’s success is its strong financial support. Many MFA programs are unfunded or require students to take on a heavy teaching load while studying for their degree. WashU’s program has a generous funding package that allows students to focus on their writing.

Each year, 15 students are admitted, five each in the individual fields of fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction. “It’s small, intimate, and intense in a good way. These are a group of people who care about writing and reading so much, and who want to talk about it, even fight about it sometimes (always friendly fire!),” said Schuman. “Come to one our reading events – in person, soon, we hope – and you’ll notice a sort of hushed joy as one of our invited guests reads, and then after the reading, during the receptions we hold in front of Hurst Lounge, there’s just this explosion of conversation and laughter.”

Recent alumni of the program have gone on to be nationally recognized for their writing. Paul Tran’s poetry collection All the Flowers Kneeling is forthcoming from Penguin Press, and Aaron Coleman’s Threat Come Close (Four Way Books, 2018) won the Great Lakes Colleges Association’s New Writers Award. The last several years have also been big for alumni of the fiction and nonfiction tracks, with major releases from Teddy Wayne, Anton DiSclafani, and Miranda Popkey, and a book on the way from Gabe Montesanti.

"Recent alums of the program have exploded onto the national stage," Schuman said, "winning prizes like the Whiting Award and the National Book Award, and publishing some really important and well-reviewed books. It’s sort of amazing when you consider the size of our program and compare it to that sort of success."

Read more about the MFA program in writing on the Department of English website.