The MFA Statement of Purpose is (Probably) Not Evil  

Posted by Lucia LoTempio, Managing Editor for 3.1

Applying to graduate school. I can’t even finish that sentence—it makes me want to vomit. Let me start over. I’m going through the application process now, so I thought I’d give some advice from the little I have learned so far about the different parts of the whole shebang, especially for the Statement of Purpose.

The GRE? Okay I’ve bought my Kaplan books, I get the daily math email, studied some words, taken some practice tests—the works. And with half of my dream schools not even requiring it, it is bottoming my list.

Getting emotional over the now-abolished PW rankings

Getting emotional over the now-abolished PW rankings

And weirdly, I’m not worried about the most important part of my application: my writing—sure I stay up some nights afraid that no program will ever love me, but I believe in my work. I have put all I can and more into my poetry. I believe in poems I have written, I believe in the ones I will write. Am I afraid others (namely those reading my application) won’t believe in them? Abso-fucking-lutely. But worrying won’t do a damn thing about that.

So that leaves the SOP, the douchebag of the application if you will. It is killing me softly. It is inducing the vomit. I’ve done hours on hours of research. I’ve reached out to current MFA-ers. I’ve talked to every professor I can get my hands on. It’s helping—all these people and resources—but it’s still looming. Still pressing on me. So instead of working on it some more, I’ve decided to compile all that great advice in hopes that it might help you, or might pique something in me while it’s in this new light.

1. Have a drink

Just one. Loosen up. Everything you write will seem great. But don’t have more than one. Then everything will seem gloriously wonderful and you’ll have an SOP about how amazing tables are and your kindergarten sweetheart. One drink will help you get words on the page. As writers, we all know what a blockade typing a sentence, hating it, and immediately deleting it can be. It’s like catching a fish and letting it go.

2. Be You~

I hate this advice, but it’s good advice. I hate it because it is hard to do. It’s easy to be bland. It’s easy to just list your resume. Be You. Do it up. Because they want to see if they’d like to spend two years working closely with you. And here’s the thing—if you present yourself as coherently as you can and they reject you, chances are you wouldn’t be happy there anyways. You want to work with people who want to work with you. And speaking of people you want to work with…

3. Don’t name drop faculty members

No one likes a suck-up. Especially if you are the other faculty member the applicant isn’t sucking up to. Also, chances are that famous writer might be book tour-ing or doing sabbatical research or traveling for readings once you get there. I mean, at the same time don’t send a generic letter to each school. Talk specifically about what each program can offer you, whether it be work on their lit mag or their killer reading series or their penchant for visiting professors.

4. Take risks

You are applying to grad school because you haven’t got your shit together yet as a writer and you want to. You are going to be a student. You are going to learn things. Biting off a lot, even if it’s more than you can chew, is what someone who is learning does. Don’t get totally crazy—but don’t play it safe. You want to be medium salsa, ya dig?

5. Make people read it

Whether it’s your mentor or your mom or your thirteen-year-old cousin or the career services dude at your college, this thing needs to be read many times before you ship it off. Especially by those who are unfamiliar with you or your writing.

6. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours

Reading a peer’s SOP, especially one who is in or has been in an MFA program, is the best way to get you started. Obviously yours will look nothing like theirs, but it’s beyond helpful to read working SOPs. Think of it as asking someone what they’re going to wear to a party—you don’t want to know so you can get the same dress, you just want an idea of the tone and what’s appropriate.

7. The Statement of Purpose is a statement of purpose

I wasted too much time writing an SOP that just listed a bunch of (cool literary) stuff I had done. That’s great—but the point of the letter is to advocate for yourself and for your goals in grad school. The answer to why they should accept you should be rooted in what you want to accomplish. And along this vein, setting definitive universal rules for What Writing Is should not be the main focus, or even a tangential mention, in your SOP.

8. Don’t talk about loving to read as a child

This should be a no brainer.

9. Don’t have a specific plan, but don’t have no plan

This sort of falls under the umbrella of you not having your shit together. You don’t want to sound like you have your manuscript all unwaveringly mapped out—then what would be the point of working with faculty and peers at an MFA program? But, don’t portray yourself as a blank slate with no understanding of your own aesthetic or projected progression. It makes it seem as if you need to attend grad school to have someone make you write.

10. Talk about why an MFA is important to your literary life

Why is this endeavor integral to your development as a writer? How will it push you to achieve the goals you plan to accomplish as a writer?

And the best advice I can give you (and myself):

11. Just Do ItTM

Stop putting it off. And anyways, no one wants to proofread and work with you when it needs to be sent off the next day. Bite the bullet, dive in.

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