My own Statement of Purpose for my MFA applications was groomed better than my own hair, and it was all structured around a conversation with one of my undergrad professors. “Gillian,” my professor told me, “The SOP does not solely determine if you’re accepted to a program or not—we put far more emphasis on the writing sample and the letters of rec. The SOP is used to determine if the candidate is a jerk.”
I thought about this for days. How could I write a strong SOP that told the world that I wasn’t a jerk? What did I want my SOP to stand for? (Also, what did I stand for?)
When I wrote my Statement of Purpose, I sat at my parents’ kitchen table (oh yeah, I’d just moved back in with my parents and was deeply ashamed of it), and I thought about my life. If I didn’t get into graduate school, there was no alternate plan. So I sat back, applied an enormous amount of pressure to myself, didn’t wash my hair for seventeen days, drank tons of coffee, and wrote. There was a franticness about my actions, a distinct overtone of craziness, probably due to the fact that I crammed my entire grad school application process into four short weeks, one of which was occupied by Christmas. (At one point, my mom told me she didn’t particularly care for a nonfiction essay I’d written—her exact words, I believe, were that she liked other essays of mine more—and despite the diplomatic way she said it, I was effectively shattered.) Since I’d just gotten back from Europe, I was jetlagged, and I embraced it; I was up at 6 AM every morning, when I’d spend 45 minutes looking at Facebook before slowly sliding into applications and more coffee.
Sometimes, my SOP would come out looking a little…harried. Occasionally, it was desperate (“accept me, please; I’ll be great!”) or frustrated (“ACCEPT ME DAMMIT I AM WORTH IT MAYBE”). I realized I had to cut that out immediately. I wanted my SOP to say several things about me:
- I was not a jerk.
- I was serious and earnest about poetry.
- I was serious about becoming a better poet.
- I was pretty great with sentence structure.
First, I decided to write some sort of hook (my reasoning: people like hooks, so this would increase my likeability). What was a snapshot of my life that was 1) somewhat unique/interesting and also 2) showed the reader how I took writing seriously? I wrote four possible hook/snapshots before choosing one.
After the hook, I decided I needed to add body. How could I weave that snapshot in my hook into the greater narrative of The Life of Gillian? And which narrative did I need to highlight? (I kept thinking about the various narratives of my life: smalltown Gillian, Europe Gillian, UVA Gillian, poetry class Gillian, religious Gillian, dreamer Gillian, writer Gillian, soup kitchen Gillian, nerd Gillian.) I chose two threads to follow in my first point; this way, I figured, I could touch on my writing philosophy. (One of my friends did this solely by tying her thoughts to a quote from an Ancient Greek poet. She’s pretty great. I couldn’t pull that off.)
After Point One, I decided to personalize my SOP to each school. (This was Point Two.) I wrote a paragraph about why I wanted to be accepted into each poetry program. This was the paragraph that changed the essay seven times; it also forced me to deeply consider why I wanted to go to each school. Of course, a lot of schools had auxiliary essays about teaching, funding, assistantships, etc, but some schools did not. With the schools that didn’t, I tried to squeeze that information into my regular SOP in Point Two.
After Point Two, I dove into the conclusion. (It took me awhile to figure out how to transition into this last paragraph; I didn’t want to just tack an ending on there.) In retrospect, I probably came off as sounding a little grand, but at least there was earnestness in there. I think programs are largely forgiving of SOPs as long as they think you’re earnest.
Which takes me back to the whole point of being a jerk: Don’t be a jerk in your SOP. Jerks aren’t earnest. My sister, who’s actually an engineer and not a writer at all, was pretty good about calling me out on anything she found suspect in the essay (“You really sat and wrote next to a river in Ireland? That’s pretty douchey”). But also, I kept coming face to face with this greater truth: You cannot advocate for yourself as a writer in an essay where the quality of your writing sucks. This is something that I firmly believe, and that’s what I struggled with the most when writing my approximately nine million SOPs drafts and their seven different versions. It would have been so much easier to write a sort-of-okay essay and move on.
Each variation of my essay was no more than one page, single-spaced. I did address each one to the Selection Committee, and I signed off on each one as well. At the end of the process, I felt like I did pour my soul into the SOP; a lot of people might tell you that that’s not necessary, and maybe it’s not. However, I don’t think an SOP that you’re proud of can be a detriment; I got accepted into five of my seven schools, and I liked knowing that my SOP wasn’t a liability.
Anyway, I hope that this SOP post is helpful to you hopefuls out there; this is just the tale of one applicant and her SOP. I know how much this entire process sucks—and I know how much it made me doubt myself and my own writing. Best of luck to you kids. I’m rooting for you and your magnificent Statements of Purpose.