Writing Classes Turn Students Away

An impressive creative writing portfolio helped Margaret D. Maloney ’06 get into Harvard, and she intended to take advantage of the University’s popular creative writing program to hone her craft.

However, her literacy aspirations suffered a serious setback when she arrived in Cambridge.

Her writing portfolio wasn’t enough to get her into any of Harvard’s creative writing classes, which are some of the most selective classes in the course catalogue.

“There’s so much rejection at Harvard,” Maloney says. “The last thing that I had to really try out for that I got into at Harvard was the freshman talent show. After that it’s all been downhill.”

Maloney says she has decided to be a linguistics concentrator, in part because of her rejection this semester from creative writing courses.


“I did lots of creative writing in high school, and it was kind of what I expected to do at Harvard,” Maloney says. “I thought I was going to concentrate in English and focus in creative writing. I always thought I was going to be a writer, that’s sort of what I came to Harvard to do.”

Maloney shares her experience of rejection with scores of other students. Harvard’s creative writing classes often receive more than 400 applications each semester for about 156 spots, according to Director of Creative Writing Patricia Powell.

The Department of English and American Literature and Language, which runs the creative writing program, is considering taking steps to satisfy the demand for creative writing classes. But for now, many students have found that they will not have the chance to study creative writing at the College.

A Blockade of Writers at Door

At the start of every semester, hundreds of students crowd into an Emerson Hall classroom, filling the aisles and the hall outside, hoping to get into a creative writing class. Maloney, who says she applied to six creative writing classes this semester and didn’t get into any of them, says she was intimidated from the moment she squeezed into Emerson.

“When I went in to that room, I thought to myself that there are like 14 classes, hundreds of people in the room, and it’s like applying to Harvard all over again,” Maloney says. “I knew then that there was a very slim chance of me getting into the creative writing program.”

The English department offered 12 creative writing courses in the fall and 15 this spring. The classes focus on areas ranging from fiction to poetry, screenwriting to environmental writing. Taught by established writers, the classes are structured as workshops where students critique each other’s work and practice reading as a writer rather than as a critic.

The courses have long been popular with students willing to put together a five-page application for each class.

In 1995, about half of the students who applied to creative writing classes in the spring semester were rejected, when about the same number of spots were available.

Individual students often submit applications to different classes, and some offerings are more popular than others. Powell says there were about 250 applications to the five fiction sections alone.