The New Yorker Model: Writing to Please Harvard

T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, John Dos Passos, Wallace Stevens, Robert Lowell. All these literary luminaries went to Harvard but none majored in Option III, the creative writing program within the English concentration. Of course, they were all here well before the advent of the option a short five years ago, but even if they had had the opportunity to apply for admission to the highly selective program, one might wonder if any of the above writers would have been accepted.

Only five students from each class are admitted to the option from approximately 30 who apply each year, and the competition for the opportunity to work on a one-to-one basis with the accomplished, professional authors and poets who comprise the writing faculty often becomes keen and heartbreaking.

Oppressed and J. Pressed

Megd Mahoney '78 said last week she was "really upset and depressed" last spring when her application to the option was rejected. She added that she "got over the disappointment" but believes the entire process of competing for five slots was "kind of strained to say the least."

Charles A. Glazier '77-3, another applicant, last week described the selection process as "intensely competitive" and said he was "bummed out" when he was not accepted.


The difficulty in gaining admittance to Harvard's creative writing major underscores a sentiment among many undergraduates interested in the literary arts that the University fails to meet their educational needs in this area of instruction. All writing courses are highly selective and limited in size, and demand frequently exceeds the limitations. Competition on a selective basis begins early for potential writers here, with a limitation on the number of students permitted to take the College's introductory course on narrative fiction, Expository Writing 13.

Unlike all other expository writing courses, the fiction offering requires students to submit samples of their writing to gain admission, Donald Byker, assistant director of expository writing, said last week. He added that the standing faculty committee which oversees the expos program has limited to eight the number of fiction sections that may be taught each year. No such ceiling is placed on non-fiction courses. Byker added that some faculty members feel the study of creative writing does not satisfy the expectations of the expository writing requirement, hence the limit on the number of classes offered.

He added that this year only seven sections of creative writing are offered. "Somewhere between 50 and 100 students were turned away" from the fiction course, he said, but he added that no one considered qualified to take the course was rejected.

Those students who are not admitted to the fiction course in their freshman year are not handicapped "because the English Department does not look on our fiction course as preparatory for English C," Byker said.

However, Robert S. Fitzgerald '33, Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory and the teacher of English C, "English composition", may have implied differently when he said last week that all freshmen have the "experience of expos" and that no student can "take second-year Latin unless he's acquired a reading knowledge" of the language.

Fitzgerald describes English C as "an intermediate course that is mainly for sophomores," and official English concentration requirements specify a two-semester sequence of the course as a sophomore year prerequisite for admission to Option III. English C is limited to approximately 72 students, Fitzgerald said, and this fall "at least 140 people" attended the course's first meeting to seek admission.

Fitzgerald adds that every year "the number of people interested in the course has grown." He believes, however, that many students come to the initial meeting out of curiosity rather than a serious interest in writing. If one disregards those students and the serious writers who gain entrance to other writing classes instead of English C, Fitzgerald feels that the number of students denied the opportunity to take a writing course is actually quite small, and everyone who "should be in such a course" is.

"No doubt some students feel they have missed out when they shouldn't have," Fitzgerald admits. But he adds that "one ordinarily assumes that students who propose to do work in the arts have some qualification for it, and the instructor's judgment has always been what one has to rely on for that qualification."

Although some students fail to gain entrance to English C or one of the two other courses offered for writers in the fall, the most intense competition comes when the student applies to Option III.

Monroe Engel '42, senior lecturer on English, said last week he has not felt "so far" that there are "more students who should be in the option" than the five accepted each year.