How Not to Write a Statement of Purpose for MFA School

caveat 1.
I’m one person with strong ideas, so read all of the below with as much skepticism as helps. Also: nothing in here can guarantee you’ll get into the MFA program of your choice. Your writing sample is going to do the major lifting there.

But I’ve been reading MFA applications for five years now at two very different programs, and as a person with strong ideas I see the same misfires come up enough that I thought I might write this guide to help. It’s a weird thing to write, an SOP, particularly when your purpose for MFA school seems ignoble. You’re out of options. You’re afraid of office environments. You’re sick of the town you live in. You’re tired of just reading books but have no idea how to write them, and you trust higher education so much that you want to run back there to learn how.

Those were pretty much my purposes. They tell you why I wanted to go to grad school, but they don’t tell you what I planned to do there, which is one of the things I’m looking for when I read SOPs.

what I’m looking for.
I want to know how we’re going to work together. The best SOPs give me a sense of what kind of student the applicant will be in and out of the classroom. It tells me what the work alone can’t. I’ve found this comes down to two data points I always want in an SOP but rarely get:

  1. A sense of the applicant’s plan for how they’re going to spend their time here.
  2. Some evidence the applicant is thinking critically about their own work.

your plan.
So many applicants treat the SOP as a kind of defense: explain to readers why they are most deserving of admission. Or even crazier: why they desire it more than any other applicant. You are not in competition with other applicants. (Not in this way, at least.) So, never begin with a story about how you’ve always wanted to write, or were born a writer, or a reader, how at a young age you wrote poems or novels or read the backs of cereal boxes. I just don’t care about it. And why I don’t care is that I’ve never been shown how a lifelong love for writing translates to success in graduate work. The logic of it seems wrong. People come to our program having discovered writing very late in life, with maybe two years of experience behind them, and they succeed as incredibly hard-working students who improve dramatically in two years and go off to write the rest of their lives. Are they for some reason less deserving of admission because they didn’t write their first illustrated novel at age eight?

I was one of them. I came to my grad program after just like a year or two of thinking I wanted to try to be a writer. So maybe I’m reacting personally here, but even if I am, the truth of SOPs is that 75 percent of them begin with some story on how the applicant has been writing since they were little. Maybe even 80 percent. And if there’s one thing you shouldn’t do in an SOP, it’s something that everyone else is also doing. The SOP is just as much a place to stand out as the sample is (though see “more don’t” #1 below).

It does help to give me a sense of who you are and how you came to want to apply to our program. But it’s at most 20%-of-your-total-SOP important.

Instead, focus on your plan. Not why you want to come here but how you imagine spending your time once you’re here. You have two or three short stories and you’d really like to write enough to end up with a full collection, but you don’t know how to do that. You’ve written a lot of poems but they all look the same and have the same sense of the line and you’d like to expand your understanding of what else poetry is and can do. You want to focus for two hard years on your novel. You want to dabble in every genre and emerge a well-rounded writer. Whatever it is. Ask yourself: what’s the best way I can imagine spending my time in my MFA? Then tell me about it. Talk to me about the work you want to work on.

caveat 2.
With your plan, always be personal, honest, and specific. Write what is honestly relevant to you and where you are, not what you think I want to hear from “an applicant”. And by “specific” I mean avoid the generic ideas everyone puts in their SOPs. Everyone wants to find themselves immersed in a community of writers. Everyone wants the time to focus on their own writing. Everyone wants to grow in a supportive environment. Don’t do what everyone else is doing in the SOP.

your own work.
So much of MFA instruction involves thinking critically about other people’s creative work that it helps to see your ability to do this kind of work with your own. Looking specifically at your writing sample, or at the stuff you’re writing more generally, what do you feel are its strengths, and what do you feel you need help with? What is your work doing that other writers’ work is not doing? What are you concerned with as a writer that you wonder why others aren’t as concerned with? Do you celebrate a kind of regionalism in your work? Is it important that you depict the lives of sex-positive people, given the oppressive role of shaming in our culture? Is it time, do you think, for a return to the 5¶ essay form?[*] And don’t be afraid to talk about weaknesses. We want to know what we can help you with. Do you find dialogue a challenge? Does it feel like your essays are too narrow in focus, or that you rely too much on outside research?

Knowing you’re thinking critically about your writing tells me you’re ready to be a writing student.

why us?
It’s often a good idea to include some explanation on why you’re applying to that program specifically. This is tricky, because you’re probably applying to multiple programs. Yes, I think you should tailor your SOP to each individual program. Don’t use the same reasons for every school you’re applying to. Don’t just find-replace to swap out “University of Iowa” with “University of Michigan” or wherever you want to apply. Again (see above), know that everyone else is doing this.[†]

Instead say something honest. Most people want to come to USF because they love San Francisco. That’s fine. That’s 100% perfectly fine and well and good. We hope to be the best MFA program in the Bay Area. We actively try to make connections to SF’s literary history and community. If that’s the only reason you’re applying, great. Fine. Well and good. It’s specific. If you sincerely like that we have cross-genre courses, or something else you’ve found on our Web site, also great.

But don’t blow smoke up our asses. Just be honest. With everyone. If you want to go to Iowa because it’s the oldest and most prestigious MFA program in the country, great. It’s your loss, but say that.

more don’ts.
The SOP, I feel, is not the place to show off your creativity. Your writing sample is the place to show off your creativity. This is the place to show off your teachability. Or if that sounds too passive or Orwellian, then think of it as the place to show your readiness to learn and work. So can it with the vivid verbs and dramatized moments of discovery.

Maybe don’t mention any faculty members by name. It can be a bummer to read an SOP that mentions many of my colleagues by name but not me. Especially when the SOP lists every single NF professor except me. Do I get over it? Of course. Can you ever know who will read your SOP? No. Is it your job not to damage the fragile psyche of neurotic, insecure writer-teachers? No. But still: it’s a bummer. Best not to bum me out before I’ve read your sample.

Don’t say that getting your MFA will help you realize your dream of teaching, especially at the college level. This makes us feel bad because it’s untrue. MFA degrees don’t guarantee anything in this job market, and most of the time there’s nothing we faculty members can do about it. That’s a dean- or state-admin-level problem. If you want to teach, it’s not impossible, but use the SOP to focus on your time in the program, not what you’ll hope will come after. (So don’t talk about wanting an agent or book deal, either. There’ll be time to get there once you’re in.)

caveat 3.
I should say I’ve never passed on an applicant because of anything they wrote in an SOP. Again, it’s the writing sample that matters. Also, I’ve never made the lone decision on an application. Both programs I’ve taught in required at least two readers for each application because a colleague might see something I didn’t in an applicant, and vice versa. It’s hard to find this out, but if the school you’re applying to doesn’t put at least two eyes on your application, don’t try to go there. (At Iowa, students working toward MFA degrees read your application, btw.)

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. There are plenty of shitty writing professors out there who will read this in an SOP and think, I can’t possibly work with someone who doesn’t see that the way of writing I’ve built my career on is the only way to write. And then potentially pass on your application. So there’s danger, potentially, in following this advice, but wouldn’t you rather study with people who respect your tastes as a student writer, and who understand they’ll continue to change? A visiting poet once told me a story about a professor at Iowa who won’t allow anything other than realist fiction in her workshops, because to her that’s the only real literature worth writing. “And I won’t say her name,” he said, “but it rhymes with Marilynne Robinson.”
  2. And sometimes poorly. It’s always a shame when we at USF get an SOP that includes a line like “…which is why I think I’ll be a perfect addition to the MFA program at the University of Minnesota.” Triple-check those SOPs, folks!