2015, Archives, October 2015, The MFA Years

How I Wrote My Statement of Purpose

Hey, Cady here. Just want to let you know I read the message boards. I’m active in one Facebook group for MFA applicants, and I help moderate another. I am aware that a lot of people are panicked about the creative writing statement of purpose.

I’ve been known to show my statement to people, but that’s not what I’m going to do here. I know this is a strange thing to say about a document that I sent out to a bunch of strangers at one point, but it’s personal.

What I’m going to do instead is more helpful to you. I’m going to break my statement down paragraph by paragraph, giving instructions on how to write one like it. There are even quotes!

Paragraph 1: 164 words

My opening sentence was “I write stories about women, class, and power: which women have power, which don’t, how women and men negotiate power, and what the consequences of that power distribution are.” I then proceeded to explain why this topic interests me and to mention how it relates to the fact that I tutored in my undergrad English department.

In your first paragraph, I would definitely say what you write about and why. Be specific when it comes to subject matter and preferred forms. Share information about your personal life only insofar as it relates to why you write about a given topic or in a given way.

Do not divulge a cute childhood anecdote or generalize about the wonder of writing when you could instead say that you do a specific thing due to your unique experiences.

Paragraph 2: 193 words

What are your writing influences? In my case, I mentioned that I spent a large chunk of undergrad convinced I would be a journalist, working at student or even real-world newspapers, and that I learned through that experience to appreciate concision. I then listed the authors whose work I felt was pertinent to my own, or who did a thing I hoped to emulate. Grace Paley, Muriel Spark, and Lorrie Moore made it onto this list, as well as Diane Cook. Alan Gurganus, too. If I could do it again, I’d include someone else who started writing after I was born, but hindsight is 20/20.

Do not list any authors you were required to read in high school or undergraduate survey courses when you talk about the folks you admire. Do not list a bunch of people who write core genre fiction or who died before your mother was born, and don’t exclusively list people who are extremely famous. Prove that you read widely in contemporary literary fiction, even when nobody is forcing you to do so, even the authors who aren’t in The New York Times on a regular basis. 

Give a sentence or two about why you like each author. Make it as sophisticated as possible. A quote from this paragraph: “I admire the way she gathers salient details before a reader becomes conscious of her manipulations.” Another quote: “Diane Cook’s ‘Girl on Girl,’ through its apt characterizations, does an excellent job of articulating differences in social status.”

This paragraph was also the one in which I mentioned my previous publications. But you know what? I wish I hadn’t. I probably made myself look naive, because all of my previous publications, while I was perfectly happy with them, were just not in the sort of exclusive journals people brag about. Unless you published with somebody on the top half of one of these lists, I wouldn’t bother mentioning it in your SOP.

Paragraph 3: 159 words

Do you have outside academic interests? If so, and if your word count will allow, mention them here. Talk about what a great scholar you are. In my case, I explained how I love composition and rhetoric as well as copyediting. I mentioned my undergraduate senior thesis, which was an attempt to describe the process whereby Associate Press copyeditors have historically made, and can make in the future, decisions about whether to call individuals in news stories “Native Americans” or “American Indians.” Talk nerdy to your adcom.

Paragraph 4: variable word count

Customize this paragraph for each place you apply. Why do you like a given school? Don’t say you want to go to a school because it’s highly ranked or the stipends are large. Don’t blatantly flatter either the school or its famous professors, or even the less famous ones. Instead, focus on things like teaching load, which classes you would teach, the number of years in the program, the successful publications of alumni. The non-workshop or non-creative writing courses you’d like to take, or how happy it makes you that the program is centered on workshops, because you are interested in studio programs only. Whether the MFA students run outside events and readings and how much you want to participate in those. Any community involvement that’s important to you and offered through the program, such as teaching to high school kids or prisoners.

A quote: “I’m passionate about the intersection of editorial studies, sociolinguistics, and composition and rhetoric, which means that I’m attracted to MFAs like NAME OF SCHOOL’s, where I might be allowed to take a course in linguistics and which is attached to an English Department with a strong rhetoric and composition program.”

Yes, looking back, that sentence is sort of a clunker, but I also think it maybe made me sound smart. 

Paragraph 5 and 6: variable word count

This is where I talked about teaching for those schools that specifically wanted applicants to address teaching in their statements. I mentioned again that I was a tutor in undergrad and that I had done a lot of informal tutoring in my capacity as editor-in-chief at my school’s student newspaper.

If you have any knowledge of pedagogy at all, you would do well to bring it up here. First of all because specific ideas about how you will teach read better than statements about how enthusiastic you are and how you want to help your students. (Everybody is enthusiastic and wants to help students.) In these two paragraphs, I deployed the phrase “non-directive heuristic” to great effect. I said some stuff about how I’m “process oriented” and, rather than treat each paper as an object to be perfected, want to use papers as learning experiences so my students can develop their own methods for composing.

Last paragraph: 200 words

Here is where I wrote about why I want the MFA in more general terms, not just at a particular school. I was careful to mention that I like structured writing environments, time to produce, and a community of my fellows. I talked about how I believe that composition is a collaborative process, and truly great work tends to come about as a result of writers pushing each other the way I hoped my future classmates would push me in workshop.

I was careful not to say anything crass about how I wanted money for a hobby I was indulging anyway, or how I was certain I’d be best friends with a famous professor, or how all I really needed was a degree as a credential for a creative writing professorship. College-level teaching jobs, especially the kind that are tenure track (or even just a livable kind of not-tenured), don’t exist for many people. And anyway, it’s not like someone’s going to throw a teaching gig at you just because you got an MFA somewherehiring committees also care deeply about your publications, for example.

The final sentence of my statement was: “What I’m looking for then is partners in authorship, people who can help me find not just those precise and correct words but also the right tone and emotional notes, and the most effective structures with which to convey them.”

And then I ended. Note that I didn’t worry about writing a traditional conclusion paragraph restating all the points I’d made thus far, because statements are not SAT essays. And it’s not like I had a ton of room.

The statement was done. Then I revised it twentyish times. You should too.

If there’s one final piece of advice I want to give you, it’s not to use any part of your statement as a place to make excuses. I had sixteen withdrawals on my transcript when I applied, which almost certainly hurt me at some programs. You know what, though? I didn’t mention it in my statement at all. Don’t ever address your poor transcripts or low test scores in your statement, because it’s impossible to bring this up in a way that doesn’t come across as excuse making, or serve to draw attention to a problem the adcom might not have even noticed or cared about before. Instead, I asked my recommenders to address my withdrawals in their letters, taking extra care to mention that I’m actually a responsible person and could be trusted to stick with the degree.

And that’s all the advice I’ve got.

Let’s part on this note: I worry about the statement of purpose. I worry because a surprising number of people pay for help with this part, or get extensive aid from their professors. I worry because there are those who can’t pay, and, frankly, not all professors choose to aid the right students.

If you don’t have a ton of cash and haven’t lucked into help with the statement through other channels, or don’t feel empowered to ask professors for any reason, then know this: your time will come. Your work is still valid and valuable. I hope some of what I’ve written here is useful to you.

Good luck. You’ll be okay. Breathe.

Addendum: For several years, this article was the only one I knew of online that contained explicit statement instruction. Now, Chioma Iwunze-Ibiam has another statement of purpose post up with examples at Creative Writing News.

Chioma’s article makes note of the fact that Elizabeth McCracken took to Twitter in 2019 to say the following:

While I think my instructions above about tone and overall structure are solid, I would encourage you not to try and reconstruct your SOP using my exact quoted sentences with some different nouns plugged in. This approach has been noticed by and will annoy at least one professor, and it’s also about a million miles off from the spirit in which I gave this advice.

5 thoughts on “How I Wrote My Statement of Purpose”

  1. This is extremely helpful. Thank you so much. You will never know the impact your work has out here. Thank you.

  2. I self publish (Amazon, Google Books, and even Literotica), so I’m not mentioning any of that.

    I’m not into frilly literature. I like man stuff, as in Hemingway and James Jones. And I didn’t attend a “good” university or major in Lit.

    Am I wasting my time applying? Frankly, some of the new literary stuff makes me want to grab an aluminum baseball bat (in anger).

    1. Hi Philip! I also love Hemingway and James Jones! Contemporary literary prose is less frilly than it’s ever been specifically as a result of Hemingway’s influence, so I’m not positive what you’re talking about when you say you don’t like “frills,” but I can tell you that if you feel driven to physical violence by the stuff that your instructors and classmates are publishing, you’re going to be very unhappy in an MFA.

      I never think it’s a waste of time to apply, exactly, since even those who don’t get in often find that the application process helps them achieve clarity about what they want as writers and readers. Unfortunately, it really sounds like you’ve achieved clarity about the fact that you’re incompatible with what the MFA does and expects from you.

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