Hey, Cady here. Just want to let you know I read the message boards. I’m active in one Facebook group for applicants, and I help moderate another. I am aware that every last one of you is panicked about the 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. Maybe if we know each other, or if you catch me in a good mood. But probably not. Sorry.
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! Let’s go.
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.
Definitely do not divulge a cute childhood anecdote or go on in a general way 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’ve learned thereby to dig concision. (Not that this blog entry is a great example of that, but you know, concision in my fiction. As a guiding principle.)
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 list exclusively 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. (If anything, my author list feels, in retrospect, a teensy touch too well known. If the people on it seem obscure to you, this is a bad sign.)
Give a sentence or two about why you like each author. Make it as sophisticated as possible. Do not say just that you think this author is clever or “so good.”
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 where I mentioned my previous publications. But you know what? I wish I hadn’t. I probably made myself look like an idiot, because all of my previous publications, while I was perfectly happy with them, were just not in the sort of journals people brag about. Basically, 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, then mention them here. Talk about what a great scholar you are. In my case, I explained how I love composition and rhetoric and am really into 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? Please do not take this as an invitation to say generalized and overly intense stuff about how they are the greatest and will fix your life. Don’t say you want to go there because they’re highly ranked or have a ton of money. Don’t blatantly flatter the famous professors, or 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 or whatever. I hope.
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, as well as 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. (Newsflash, 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 to do this thing I was doing 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-tenure-track), 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 somewhere—hiring 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 overly much about writing some sort of traditional conclusion, complete with a summary of all the points I’d made thus far, because statements are not SAT essays. And because 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. Seriously. Do not do not DO NOT 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 it 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 statement 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.
This post is for people who don’t have a ton of cash and haven’t lucked into help with the statement through other channels, or who don’t feel empowered to ask their professors for any reason. I hope some of what I’ve written here is useful to you.
Good luck. You’ll be okay. Breathe.