Finding a dedicated creative writing program at a school you're excited about can be a real challenge, and that's even before you start worrying about getting in. Nonetheless, there are some great options. In order to help you find the best school for you, this list rounds up some of the best colleges for creative writing in the United States.
The Ranking Criteria
You should never take college rankings as absolute truth — not even the very official seeming US News ones. Instead, use these kinds of lists as a jumping off place for your own exploration of colleges. Pay attention not to just what the rankings are, but how the rankings are determined.
To help with that, I'll explain how I came up with this highly unscientific list of great creative writing colleges. I started by narrowing my search down to schools that offered a specific creative writing major. (If you don't see a school you were expecting, it's likely because they only have a minor.) Then, in ranking the schools, I took five major criteria into consideration:
- MFA Ranking — If a school has a great graduate creative writing program, it means you'll be taught by those same professors and the excellent graduate students they attract. Schools with strong MFA programs are also more likely to have strong alumni networks and internship opportunities. However, many schools with great undergrad programs don't offer MFAs, in which case I simply focused on the other four options.
- General School Reputation — The vast majority of your classes won't be in the creative writing, so it's important that other parts of the school, especially the English department, are great as well.
- Extracurricular Opportunities — One of the key advantages of majoring in creative writing is that it can provide access to writing opportunities outside of the classroom, so I took what kind of internship programs, author readings, and literary magazines the school offers into consideration.
- Diversity of Class Options — I gave extra points to schools with a variety of genre options and specific, interesting classes.
- Alumni/Prestige — This last criterion is a bit more subjective: is the school known for turning out good writers? Certainly it's less important than what kind of education you'll actually get, but having a brand name degree (so to speak) can be helpful.
The Best Creative Writing Schools
And now let's get to the good stuff: the list of schools! The exact numbering is always arguable, so look at it as a general trend from absolutely amazing to still super great, rather than fixating on why one school is #3 and another #4.
#1: Northwestern University
Northwestern's undergrad creative writing program boasts acclaimed professors and an unparalleled track record of turning out successful writers (including Divergent author Veronica Roth and short-story writer Karen Russell). Outside of the classroom, you can work on the student-run literary journal, intern at a publication in nearby Chicago, or submit to the Department of English's yearly writing competition. The university is also home to a top journalism program, so if you want to try your hand at non-fiction as well, you'll have plenty of opportunities.
#2: Columbia University
Like Northwestern, Columbia is home to both a world-class creative writing program and a top journalism school (plus one of the best English departments in the country), so you have a wide range of writing-related course options. Columbia also benefits from its location in New York City, which is bursting at the seams with publishing houses, literary journals, and talented authors.
Columbia University's Low Library (Wally Gobetz/Flickr)
#3: University of Iowa
University of Iowa's big draw is the infrastructure from its graduate Writer's Workshop, which is the best MFA program in the country. As an undergrad here, you'll take classes from great young writers and established professors alike and get to choose from a wide range of topics. You'll also have access to university's impressive literary community, including frequent readings, writing prizes and scholarships, and the acclaimed literary journal The Iowa Review. Be aware, however, that the program is selective and the university as a whole isn't as strong as most of the other schools on this list.
#4: Emory University
Emory is renowned for its dedicated undergrad creative writing program, which draws the very best visiting scholars and writers. Students here have the chance to attend intimate question and answer session with award-winning authors, study a range of genres, compete for writing awards and scholarships, and work closely with an adviser to complete a honors project.
#5: Oberlin College
A small liberal arts school in Ohio, Oberlin offers very different advantages than the schools above it on this list. You'll have fewer opportunities to pursue writing in the surrounding city, but the quality of the teachers and the range of courses might make up for that. Moreover, it boasts just as impressive alums, including Lena Dunham.
#6: Hamilton College
Hamilton is another small college, located in upstate New York. It's known for giving students the freedom pursue their interests and the support to help them explore topics in real depth, in and out of the classroom. Hamilton's creative writing program takes full advantage with small classes and lots of opportunities to intern and publish — it also has one of the best writing centers in the country.
#7: Brown University
Brown's Literary Arts program offers one of the top MFAs in the country, as well as an undergraduate major. Moreover, because Brown has no core requirements you'll also be able to explore any topics or ideas that interest you outside of writing including courses in the stellar English department and screenwriting program.
The lawn at Brown University (Chuck Roberts/Flickr)
#8: Washington University in St. Louis
Washington University has an excellent MFA program, lots of super specific class options, and a number of scholarships specifically earmarked for creative writing students.
#9: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
MIT may not be a school you generally associate with writing, but it actually has an excellent program that offers courses in digital media and science writing, as well as creative writing, and provides plenty of guidance on how graduates can navigate the tricky job market. Not to mention the school is located in Cambridge, a haven for book lovers and writers of all kinds. Still, MITs probably not the best place for you if you hate science of all kinds.
#10: University of Michigan
University of Michigan is one of the best state universities in the country and has a top notch MFA program. If you're looking to attend a big school with a great creative writing major, this is a perfect choice.
#11: Johns Hopkins University
Johns Hopkins is another school that's known more for engineering than for writing, but, like MIT, it has a dedicated writing program. However, JHU's Writing Seminars program is less specialized than most of those on this list: rather than asking students to focus on a specific discipline within creative writing, the program requires majors to explore a variety of different forms, including not only poetry and fiction but also reporting and persuasive essays.
#12: Colorado College
Colorado College is a small liberal arts school known for its block plan, which allows students to focus on one class per three-and-a-half-week block. The creative writing track of the English major involves a sequence of four writing workshops and requires students to attend every reading of the Visiting Writers Series.
Bonus School: New York University
I didn't include NYU in the main list because it doesn't offer a dedicated creative writing major, but it's a great school for aspiring writers nonetheless. It has one of the most impressive creative writing faculties in the country, and it offers all of the benefits of a Manhattan location.
How to Pick the Best School for You
Just because Northwestern is great school doesn't mean that you should set your heart on going there. (The football fans are completely terrifying, for one thing.) Here are some questions to ask when looking at creative writing programs to help you determine the best school for you.
Are there courses you’re interested in?
Look at the course offerings and see if they interest you. You can't predict exactly what classes you'll love, but you want to avoid a mismatch where what you want and what the program offers are completely opposed. For example, if you want to write sonnets and the school focuses on teaching fiction, that won't be a great fit.
And don't forget to look at the English courses as well as creative writing workshops! In most programs, you’ll be taking a lot of those too.
What opportunities are there to pursue writing outside of class?
I touched on this idea in the criteria section, but it's important enough that I want to reiterate it here. Some of the best writing experience you can get is found outside of the classroom, so see what kind of writing-related extracurriculars a school has.
Great options include getting involved with the campus newspaper, working on the school’s literary journal, or interning at the university press.
Who'll be teaching you?
Who are the professors? What kind of work have they published? Check teacher ratings on Rate My Professor (but make sure to read the actual reviews and always take them with a grain of salt).
If you’re looking at a bigger school, there’s a good chance a lot of your teachers will be grad students, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing: a lot of the best teachers I had in college were graduate students. Just take into consideration what kind of graduate program the school has. If there’s a great MFA program, the graduate students are likely to be better writers and more engaged teachers.
What are the alumni doing now?
If you have a sense of what you want to do after you graduate, see if any alumni of the program are pursuing that type of career. The stronger the alumni network, the more connections you'll have when it comes time to get a job.
What about the rest of the school?
Don’t pick a school where you like the creative writing program but are dreading everything else. Most of your time will be spent doing other things, whether hanging out in the dorms, exploring off campus, or fulfilling general education requirements.
Many schools require you to apply to the creative writing major, so make doubly sure you'll be happy with your choice even if you aren't accepted to the program.
Are you sure a creative writing major is the right fit for you? Read our post on the pros and cons.
For more general advice about choosing a college, check out our complete guide to finding the right school for you. Some major considerations might include deciding whether you're interested in a small college or a big university, an in-state institution or an out-of-state one, and a public school or private one.
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Alex is an experienced tutor and writer. Over the past five years, she has worked with almost a hundred students and written about pop culture for a wide range of publications. She graduated with honors from University of Chicago, receiving a BA in English and Anthropology, and then went on to earn an MA at NYU in Cultural Reporting and Criticism. In high school, she was a National Merit Scholar, took 12 AP tests and scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and ACT.