Yale Daily News

Creative writing at Yale is more popular — and more competitive to get into — than ever.

The program, which is run by the University’s English department, announced enrollment decisions for its spring 2022 semester creative writing courses on Nov. 22. In a message to student applicants, creative writing director Richard Deming said that the program has seen “truly record” numbers of applications — so many that professors were given five extra days to make deliberations. 

The News spoke to eight professors who are teaching creative writing courses in the spring. All eight said that their courses received more applications than last year, though two noted that numbers for their courses were roughly on par with pre-pandemic years. Deming attributed the increased demand to a larger undergraduate population and the “growing pains” of an accelerated University-wide enrollment timeline.

“We were surprised — nobody across campus was able to anticipate the perfect storm of this unprecedented size of the student body while we’re changing registration all across campus,” Deming said.

The creative writing program has also seen a steady increase in popularity since the program was formalized eight years ago, he said, though this spring’s application round still exceeded expectations. 

Students, meanwhile, reported disappointment about the increased competition and difficulty of enrolling in creative writing courses. All of the program’s courses require a written application which can include several writing samples. English major Josh Atwater ’24 said that he applied for three courses and was rejected from each until being accepted to one from its waitlist. 

“I was so frustrated when I didn’t get into any writing courses at first: it would’ve meant another semester of struggling to devote time towards improving my writing or developing a portfolio at all,” Atwater wrote to the News.

Four professors described difficulties grappling with processing applications earlier in the semester, in accordance with the new registration timeline which required that the English department receive course applications by Nov. 11, nearly a month earlier than in previous years and in the midst of midterm season. The April application deadline for fall 2021 courses, too, was earlier than usual. 

“I think the deadlines for writing classes are too early,” English professor Anne Fadiman, who will teach “Writing about Oneself” next semester, wrote to the News. “It’s very hard for students to apply during one of the busiest times of year. How can everyone be expected to know in April what they want to study in September, particularly in creative areas?”

Theater studies professor Deborah Margolin, who teaches a playwriting seminar each fall, described the new registration process as a “double shopping period” and said that using Canvas and Course Search to review and approve applicants in multiple rounds proved “unbearingly cumbersome.”

Part of the pressure professors face, however, can be attributed to the creative writing program’s overall growth. 

Since creative writing was formalized as a program in 2013, demand has increased significantly, both in the number of English majors concentrating in creative writing and in interest from non-majors, Deming said. The program has tried to meet this demand by nearly doubling its course offerings, adding a slew of new nonfiction lecturers and most recently, courses in writing for television and drama. The program is offering a total of 23 courses for the upcoming semester.

According to lecturer Susan Choi ’90, who will teach two courses on fiction writing, demand has always exceeded supply for creative writing courses, even when she was an undergraduate at Yale 30 years ago. Choi wrote to the News that she receives about four to five applications for every seat in her class “Introduction to Writing Fiction,” and three to four applications for every seat in “Advanced Fiction Writing.” Recently, Choi has had to create waitlists of 15 to 18 people for her courses. 

“My waitlists have grown longer in recent years because the harder it is to get a class, the more classes each student applies to,” Choi wrote to the News, “So there can be a lot of shuffling around and it’s nerve-wracking for everyone.”

However, Choi’s “Introduction to Writing Fiction” offered this spring received double the applicants than the normal four to five applicants per spot. Instead, Choi said that there were more than 10 applicants for every available seat in the class. In addition, “a number of students” requested to apply after the deadline, which was not possible with the already high number of applicants, according to Choi. So far, Choi wrote that only two people from the 20-person waitlist for the class have been able to sign up for the class.

The creative writing program has no official recommendation for how professors should select students from their applicant pools, Deming said. Generally, however, he said that the program strives to build communities in each workshop and that rejections are not a reflection of any student’s weaknesses.

“The mistaken impression is that professors only take the absolute best,” Deming said. “What they’re trying to do is to shape a community, and be attentive to having a diverse set of students from various backgrounds, and the voices that work best together.”

Four professors reported prioritizing students by major and class year, while two others admitted students on a first come first serve basis. 

Atwater said that — in their rejection letters to students — professors described “hardly any difference” between accepted and rejected applications, noting that all of them were generally exceptional. 

“That’s really frustrating to people who take their writing very seriously,” Atwater wrote. “It’s almost easier to be rejected for your own shortcomings than for a structural barrier like excess demand.” 

Four professors, including Choi and English lecturer Carl Zimmer, said that the collaborative nature of their seminars makes it difficult for them to scale up the number of available seats. Each instead advocated for the University to add more classes. 

Atwater agrees the University should expand writing course offerings to include more sections of foundational courses, such as fiction and poetry writing seminars. While centralizing the application form would make the process of applying less labor-intensive and more approachable, Atwater said he thinks it would only “exacerbate the problem” of high demand for creative writing courses and ultimately make them less accessible for students. 

The English department is located in Linsly-Chittenden Hall. 

Isaac Yu was the News' managing editor. He covered transportation and faculty as a reporter and laid out the front page of the weekly print edition. He co-founded the News' Audience desk, which oversees social media and the newsletter. He was a leader of the News' Asian American and low-income affinity groups. Hailing from Garland, Texas, Isaac is a Berkeley College junior majoring in American Studies.
Sarah Cook covers student policy and affairs, and she previously covered President Salovey's cabinet. Originally from Nashville, Tennessee, she is a sophomore in Grace Hopper majoring in Neuroscience.