The Association of Writing Programs Strikes Back

The History, Context, and Ethics Behind the Most Important AWP Directive Since 1979*

Author: Seth Abramson

Each year, between three and five thousand aspiring poets, novelists, and memoirists apply to terminal-degree graduate creative writing programs. A surprisingly high percentage of these applicants congregate online in a single group designated especially for their use; some years, more than a third of the entire national MFA applicant pool is resident in this assemblage of anxious aspirants. With a group so large, it’s no surprise that there’s little consensus to be found there on much of anything: While applicants share anecdotes they’ve tracked down about individual programs and professors, discuss their values and first principles in selecting a program, and disseminate the hard data and even harder lessons they’ve encountered in the course of their respective program searches, each individual applicant remains, of course, a distinct personality. Yet on a small number of issues, nearly all applicants in this annually-1,500-strong group agree: First, that applying to graduate creative writing programs is more logistically and financially onerous than it should be; second, that programs are often minimally responsive to even the most elementary queries from prospective applicants; third, that program websites are often devoid of the sort of substantive hard data applicants require to make informed decisions; and fourth, that the organization ostensibly tasked with making the lives of applicants easier, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), does little to ease the way for the creative writing community’s most anxious, vulnerable, inexperienced, and under-resourced members—let alone hold writing programs’ feet to the fire when they’re misbehaving.

The result of all the foregoing is that the level of stress and depression evident amongst the MFA-applicant class is almost unimaginable. Applicants are generally young people—surveys suggest that the average age of a creative writing MFA applicant in the United States is twenty-six—with few financial resources and a host of esoteric obstacles in their path. As is the case with so many cadres of literary artists, there’s a high incidence of self-reported mental illness amongst the MFA-applicant set, as well as rampant unemployment and sociocultural isolation. Casting a long shadow over all of these limiting factors is yet another one: The fact that graduate creative writing programs are among the most difficult graduate programs to gain admission to in the world, with the most highly-esteemed programs boasting yield-exclusive acceptance rates of less than five percent. In consequence, many creative writing MFA applicants end up spending more than a thousand dollars to apply to a small slate of programs with only the barest hope of securing admission to even a single one. (These days, applying to graduate school carries with it several expenses above and beyond the sometimes costly application fees, including but not limited to: Test fees; transcript fees; ever-increasing postage and mail-tracking costs; and, for an enterprising few, on-site program visits. In a recent survey, MFA program faculty ranked “making a program visit” one of the most important things an applicant can do before matriculating—though at present no programs in the United States publicize offering any aid to applicants hoping to do so. Likewise, program faculties almost universally urge prospective matriculants to contact current students for more information, though at present no programs in the United States publicize offering the email addresses of current students to prospective applicants.)

As one might expect with a class of persons that turns over 80% or more of its population each year, applicants to graduate creative writing programs have few advocates. Even a cursory review of the public comments made by MFA applicants attests that programs all too often treat them with indifference or even hostility prior to matriculation, on the presumption that most of them will never be admitted to the programs they’re querying or applying to, anyway. AWP, too, is a non-presence in the lives of most applicants, as its publishing organs put out little of the information applicants have repeatedly stated, as a class, they desperately need and want. So applicants turn, instead, to outside sources: Tom Kealey’s Creative Writing MFA Handbook, the best-selling (and, for practical purposes, only) step-by-step guide to the MFA application process; Poets & Writers magazine, a nonprofit that’s the only publishing organ exclusively dedicated to the well-being of working writers rather than the writing institutions they patronize; and the aforementioned online group, which functions all at once as a support group, a data bank, and a social club.

*

In 2006, the state of affairs I’ve described above was significantly worse than it is today. Most program websites were inscrutable. Applicants did not yet have an online place of congregation. No comprehensive assessments of the hard data associated with graduate creative writing programs were available. Kealey’s invaluable handbook had only just been released, and most applicants hadn’t heard of it yet. Everyone was, in short, flying blind. So I initiated a pro bono research project on behalf of myself—I was applying to creative writing programs at the time—and my fellow applicants. I did what I could to scour the Internet and aggregate hard data about individual programs. I stuck to information I knew I and my fellow applicants actually needed, whether or not the programs themselves had independently assessed the information as important to the public. It was simple information of the sort available in most other fields: Acceptance rates, class sizes, timelines for application responses, and so on. I knew, too, that applicants were interested in knowing where their peers were applying—the MFA application process is fraught with so many doubts, but also such a surfeit of program options, that applicants quite naturally look to others similarly situated to help orient themselves—and so I collected this data as well. Reaction to the project was immediate, unanimous, and positive among the applicant community: I’d never seen a group of people so starved for information, collegiality, and, not for nothing, a little of the basic respect and dignity that comes with having all the data one really is already entitled to.

As I continued the research project—and began, too, interviewing hundreds of current applicants about their values, interests, and first principles—I found that one of the greatest causes of consternation amongst the applicant class was (oddly enough) the treatment applicants receive post-acceptance. Those lucky few applicants admitted to their top choices often found their enthusiasm met with bizarre rough handling at the hands of their prospective alma maters. Applicants were being given uncomfortably “hard” sells regarding program features; they were being ordered to make binding matriculation decisions during the course of brief phone conversations; their funding offers were being mysteriously taken away from them just days or even hours after they’d been made; they were being fed, intentionally or otherwise, erroneous information about even the most basic program features; and, most common of all, they were being misled about their rights as graduate school applicants. That is, they were often being subjected to impromptu, program-specific “deadlines” set in contravention of a national agreement nearly ever MFA program’s host university had publicly signed. Needless to say, a good number of programs did none of the above things; however, all of these concerns were ubiquitous enough in the MFA-applicant community in 2006 to be considered endemic to the graduate school application process for aspiring poets and writers. Added to some basic facts about the MFA application process that most non-applicants still don’t realize—for instance, that some programs report acceptances in mid-January, while others check in as late as early April; application fees can run as high as $150, and the total application cost for a single program is often as high as $200; some program officials are willing to speak ill of other programs if/when accepted applicants reveal their other offers (and many programs engage accepted students in clandestine financial negotiations to secure matriculation agreements)—and one isn’t surprised to learn that applicants often find being accepted to an MFA program as stressful as waiting to be accepted to one.

In my years of researching graduate creative writing programs and interviewing successful and unsuccessful applicants to such programs, I’ve only rarely come across a program or program official with a strong sense of what it means to be a creative writing MFA applicant in the twenty-first century. In fact, misperceptions abound. The most upsetting misperception I’ve ever encountered was from a program official who revealed her belief that the archetypal MFA applicant is merely a brazenly spoiled repeat player who does all he can to game the system—including callously holding onto acceptances he knows he’ll never respond favorably to simply because he can. An even more widespread misperception among the many program officials I’ve encountered online and off is that program applicants have only a tiny base of knowledge about the individual programs to which they’re applying. In fact, I more often find that applicants know more about program offerings than even program faculty and administrators do. (The reason for this is that applicants read program websites more regularly and carefully than program administrators do. In any case, whatever their knowledge of their own programs, I rarely encounter any program administrator with the range of knowledge about disparate programs that even the least-informed applicant has.)

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Years ago, the Council of Graduate Schools passed a Resolution protecting the rights of post-acceptance graduate school applicants. Widely known as the “CGSR,” the Council’s Resolution Regarding Graduate Scholars, Fellows, Trainees and Assistants (available here: http://www.cgsnet.org/ckfinder/userfiles/files/CGS_Resolution.pdf) was intended to provide admitted graduate students with a minimum of protection against predatory admissions practices. In short, the Resolution says that students admitted to graduate school with funding have until April 15th of each admissions cycle to accept their offers; it also prohibits applicants from accepting post-April 15th offers to matriculate off a waitlist without first getting written permission from any institution they’ve previously committed to. In practice—because admitted students are permitted, under the CGSR, to withdraw without penalty any program commitments they make before April 15th—the Resolution has caused certain graduate programs to begin accepting students extremely late in the annual graduate school admissions cycle. (Presumably, these programs are hoping to make their pitch to prospective matriculants as close to April 15th as possible, and to narrow the timeframe during which committed students may decommit.) It also has compelled programs to honor post-April 15th decommitments incited by other programs’ waitlists, as such hard-luck programs can at least console themselves with the fact that they’ll be afforded the same courtesy under similar circumstances. The primary downside of the Resolution has been that programs are often forced to go to their waitlists late in the admissions cycle—either because their fellow programs are taking a long time to make their first round of acceptances, or because they’re losing committed students post-April 15th to peer programs’ waitlists, or (considerably less commonly) because accepted-and-committed students are exercising their pre-April 15th right, under the Resolution, to change their minds.

Predictably, graduate programs have bristled a bit under the constraints of the CGSR. On the other hand, it’d be worse for them by far without the Resolution. Prior to the Resolution, institutions owed no debts of any kind to their peers, and applicants owed no debts of any kind to any of the institutions they applied to.

As to graduate creative writing programs, the main dilemma posed by the Resolution is that AWP has declined, for forty-five years, to recommend or require that its member institutions offer first-round acceptances by a date certain well prior to April 15th—something AWP has every right to recommend or require under the Resolution. Programs presently get hurt under the Resolution primarily due to (what they perceive to be) irresponsibility at peer institutions: Most notably, the fact that some programs accept first-round applicants in March or April rather than January or February. The result of such “late” acceptances is that programs that report in January or February often must fumble about on their waitlists come March or April—their penalty for being (as they see it) responsible citizens of the MFA community who read and respond to program applications quickly.

If there’s a second dilemma posed to creative writing MFA programs by the Resolution, it’s that a number of MFA programs are attached to host institutions which are not signatories. These MFA programs—any of whom could voluntarily and informally “join” the CGSR if they wished, and could certainly (also or instead) push for their host institutions to formally join—are free to impose upon prospective matriculants significant restraints on a most critical life decision. Generally, CGSR-violative programs (a program is considered violative of the CGSR if it does not somehow formally guarantee applicants—in advance of receiving any application fees—that it will adhere to the CGSR) typically set their artificial commitment deadlines as early as possible. Presumably, such early commitment deadlines are more effective at stripping coveted poets and writers from peer programs that haven’t issued their first acceptances yet.

If there’s a third dilemma posed by the Resolution, it’s that even nominally CGSR-compliant programs don’t commonly adhere to all its requirements. For instance, many CGSR-compliant programs don’t actually include a copy of the Resolution with each acceptance—as they’re required to do—with the obvious and foreseeable effect that poets and writers receiving such acceptances will generally feel compelled to respond to offers of admission much earlier than they otherwise would. In this way, programs that follow the CGSR to the letter are disadvantaged, even as those that violate the spirit of the CGSR benefit from admitted students’ never-acknowledged misperceptions.

Looking at the three dilemmas above, one through-line is evident: Each could have been solved by AWP and/or its individual member institutions at any time since the founding of AWP in 1967. For the sake of argument, for instance, today—or tomorrow, or the day after—AWP could recommend that all its member programs reply to applications by February 15th; it could decline to accredit or admit to membership programs that do not adhere to the letter of the CGSR; and it could create a mechanism for applicants to anonymously report (and for AWP to non-anonymously investigate) alleged CGSR violations. (In making this third observation, I note that, since 2006, 100% of all known, applicant-alleged CGSR violations have been proven to be founded.)

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A recent AWP directive addresses the above dilemmas in a way no one could ever have anticipated: By encouraging individual graduate creative writing programs to violate the CGSR. This new AWP directive (available here: https://www.awpwriter.org/library/directors_handbook_timeframe_for_admissions) was released without fanfare, appears not to have been the subject of a vote among AWP member programs, will severely damage the majority of such programs, and—worst of all—repeatedly misstates basic facts about MFA program admissions and (unaccountably, given the publicly-stated mission of the organization) severely misconstrues present practices.

The directive, referred to in its text as a “recommendation” but clearly an official delineation of appropriate practices, first wrongly states that the CGSR was “agreed upon by graduate schools in other fields.” In fact, the Resolution is signed by university-wide graduate-school divisions, not individual departments or fields, and clearly states that its signatories are the undersigned “CGS member institutions.”

Second, the AWP directive wrongly implies that most applicants have received all their offers and rejections by March 1st, two weeks before the directive’s suggested March 15th commitment deadline. In fact, readily-available public databases of program response times show that between a quarter and a half of AWP’s member programs notify acceptees after this date.

Third, by establishing an artificial deadline for applicants to be “required to make a commitment to enroll,” AWP implicitly encourages applicants to falsely make commitments to programs—as the only voted-upon agreement that both binds MFA programs and has an enforcement mechanism to punish dishonest applicants is the CGSR. Post-directive, an applicant’s “commitment” to a CGSR-violative program technically means nothing whatsoever, as CGSR-compliant programs will almost certainly refuse to penalize matriculants who have “deceptively” committed to a CGSR-violative program.

Fourth, the directive erroneously presumes that program applicants can get application decisions on demand—that is, that given two weeks to do so, an applicant can both force final decisions from any and all programs with which she has an outstanding application and (in the same timeframe) spend a responsible amount of time deliberating over any new offers of admission turned up by such tactics. In fact, application decisions can never be forced, and if MFA faculties are serious about encouraging applicants to visit the programs to which they’ve been admitted, two weeks is an unreasonable and arbitrary deadline to put on such visits being planned, made, and deliberated over.

One must suppose from this directive, then, that applicants are not seriously expected to visit programs before committing to them, however the programs themselves may publicly recommend such due diligence; that programs are willing, however, to encourage accepted students to browbeat peer institutions for application responses; that AWP wishes for its member programs to ignore completely all provisions of the CGSR—including those governing professional courtesy between programs and punishing misbehaving applicants—as the new directive would immediately render moot all such agreements; that applicants are expected to view hundreds of dollars in wasted application fees (that is, fees sent to programs they’ll never be given adequate time to hear back from) as “sunk costs,” and that the displeasure applicants feel as a consequence of this financial burden will not somehow translate into diminished in-program morale and increased transfer requests; that applicants admitted off waitlists in May or June should (contrary to all of the foregoing) be given a relatively-luxurious two weeks before they’re required to notify programs they were admitted to as early as January that they’re decommitting; and that programs should not be permitted to hold open their waitlists past April, though many of the nation’s largest graduate creative writing programs are presently compelled to keep such lists open through fall registration. One wonders, in view of the above—a non-exhaustive recitation of the directive’s infirmities—whether AWP Board members did any research whatsoever, pre-vote, into how creative writing MFA admissions actually works.

What AWP has done is the opposite of what history and present circumstances require: It has taken away the only actionable right accepted applicants ever held in the graduate school admissions process, and has done nothing substantive, in view of this historic attack on applicants’ rights, to encourage honorable behavior by its own member institutions. The AWP Board of Directors, composed almost entirely of individuals already affiliated with member institutions—the present board boasts only two exceptions—has zero MFA students on its roster, zero MFA applicants, and zero MFA-applicant advocates. How the Board may be seen as credibly representing the interests of both writing programs and writers, as the organization’s name and charter implies, is unclear. Only two present Board members lack fealty to a writing program (and one is tasked with representing only the interests of writing conferences and writing centers), meaning that even when the organization’s two non-program-committed Board members vote as a bloc they lack the ability to counter the will or entrenched interests of program representatives.

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This new AWP directive is likely to be devastating to the majority of AWP member institutions, approximately 75% of whom are presently CGSR signatories (this figure rises to over 85% when only the fifty most-applied-to programs are considered). Programs that remain fully compliant with the CGSR will begin losing coveted admits to programs given license by AWP to coerce applicants into commitments as early as March 15th (or even earlier, as if the CGSR is held by AWP not to govern the conduct of creative writing MFA programs, then nothing does). Meanwhile, programs that choose to violate the CGSR in light of this new directive from AWP will receive—history shows, unambiguously—a devastating blow to the size and quality of their annual applicant pool, as applicants report viewing CGSR compliance as an important consideration in deciding where to apply. (This helps explain why CGSR compliance is markedly higher among the most frequently applied-to programs.)

In short, this new AWP directive is bad for applicants and—incredibly—even worse for those programs determined to attract the most talented poets and writers. From the outside looking in, this decision appears to suit the needs of a very small cadre of programs (generally speaking, those for whom the CGSR is already inoperative because they offer minimal or no student funding; also, programs which benefit, for whatever reason, from students making impulsive decisions regarding matriculation) and further distances AWP from any credible claim that it represents the rights, values, and interests of individual working writers. Indeed, it’s worth noting that of late there’s been a trend, among younger poets and writers, of referring to AWP as the “Association of Writing Programs”; this new directive suggests that appellation is not just understandable but in fact conclusively deserved.

 

* The year the organization declared that the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) would henceforth be considered the terminal degree in the field of creative writing.