Applicants to full-residency graduate creative writing programs have more options now than ever before -- there were 152 such programs in the United States and abroad at last count. Ever since novelist Tom Kealey advised MFA applicants, in the first edition of his Creative Writing MFA Handbook (2005), to consider a program's online promotional materials as one indicator of program quality, young poets and writers have been comparing notes online about which program websites measure up and which don't. Today, the three largest online communities for MFA applicants (The Creative Writing MFA Blog, The Poets & Writers Speakeasy, and The Suburban Ecstasies) boast well over half a million unique visitors a year combined.
Generally, applicants favor attractive websites which are informative and transparent as to those program features a) relevant to MFA applicants, and b) capable of being substantially transmitted via a website format: for instance, information on funding, healthcare, teaching, selectivity, student-to-faculty ratio, and cost of living. Unfortunately, many programs spend their IT dollars emphasizing, instead, those program traits program administrators have historically considered most important, most of which are only minimally probative of program quality: notably, long rosters of current and former faculty and alumni. In a recent unscientific poll of hundreds of MFA applicants, fewer than half of respondents rated faculty among their top five reasons for applying to or matriculating at a graduate creative writing program, with fewer than a quarter mentioning alumni. Faculty rosters in particular give no information on what applicants care about most -- the quality of teaching at a given institution. Alumni rosters often feature graduates from decades past, many of whom worked under faculty no longer with the program.
Lately, some MFA programs have developed a reputation within the applicant community for misrepresenting program offerings, making dubious claims about program reputation, and/or presenting long-outdated information as though it were current -- so now seems a good time to laud those websites which do precisely the opposite. Here are the ten (actually, twelve) best full-residency MFA program websites in terms of design, structure, and transparency:
Arizona State University (Link). It's no surprise that one of the best-funded programs in the United States would have one of the most attractive websites. Site content is beautifully and seamlessly integrated with content from the ASU Department of English, Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, Hayden's Ferry Review, and the countless international and domestic outreach programs with which the MFA at ASU is involved. Surfing this site, the prospective ASU applicant has a strong sense of the literary arts community in Tempe.
Hollins University (Link). Large, elegant, inviting, and as informative as any MFA program website in America, the webspace for Hollins University's MFA reflects the program's recent substantial strides in the area of applicant outreach.
Indiana University (Link). It may not win any design awards, but the IU program website may be the largest of its kind in terms of sheer volume of information (and webpages). Fortunately, all those webpages say everything that needs to be said and then some.
Southern Illinois University (Link). There are many reasons to laud this website--more than any other, it feels unhurried and properly respectful of the importance of applicants' application and matriculation decisions. The program gets special credit for offering, along with everything else, a simple but obsessively-updated program blog.
University of Alabama (Link). A compact -- almost squat -- website, UA's webspace gets high marks for the clarity of its descriptions, the thoroughness of its faculty profiles, a more-than-adequate on-site acknowledgment of program peripherals (like an associated journal and the achievements of current students), and its lack of ambiguity regarding critical program features. UA is one of the few programs to explicitly "guarantee" incoming students full funding for a set term of years (four). That's the longest such guarantee in the world.
University of Houston (Link). All the information applicants want, plus a strong focus on the culture and character of the program's sizeable and culturally diverse host city.
University of Michigan (Link). An easy to navigate site, and one that prominently features information on current news and events. Plus, a detailed multimedia section.
University of Montana (Link). A gorgeous and comprehensive site. UM is to be commended, too, for making no bones about its still-imperfect funding situation. A sincere yet stylish outreach to applicants.
University of Notre Dame (Link). The program's recently-redesigned site is probably the most attractive of its kind in the field. What's more, it has one of the most extensive FAQ sections of any MFA webspace, including detailed information on funding, healthcare, and selectivity.
University of Virginia (Link). As clean, elegant, and simple an MFA website as you're going to find. A cinch to read, and presents more or less exactly the information applicants are interested in and no more.
University of Wyoming (Link). No great shakes design-wise, but there's an obsessive level of detail here -- just what the obsessive, detail-oriented applicant is looking for. And it's all intuitively presented, too.
Washington University at Saint Louis (Link). Not only is the navigation on this recently-redesigned website as easy as one could hope for, the program also seems aware of how applicants weight different program features -- as the most applicant-relevant program traits are the most visible here and receive the most attention from the site's designers and writers.
Honorable Mention (15): Bowling Green State University; Brooklyn College (CUNY); McNeese State University; Ohio State University; Purdue University; Rutgers University at Camden; University of Arizona; University of Arkansas; University of Florida; University of North Carolina at Wilmington; University of Oregon; University of Pittsburgh; University of Texas at El Paso; Virginia Commonwealth University; and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech).
Most Improved (4): Louisiana State University; University of California at San Diego; University of Maryland; and University of Texas at Austin.
A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Seth Abramson is the author of two collections of poetry, Northerners (Western Michigan University Press, 2011), winner of the 2010 Green Rose Prize, and The Suburban Ecstasies (Ghost Road Press, 2009). Presently a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he is also a contributing author to the second edition of The Creative Writing MFA Handbook (Continuum, 2008).
Follow Seth Abramson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/sethabramson