What to say in your Statement of Purpose? (for an MFA Creative Writing)

Okay, so you’ve decided to apply to an MFA program in creative writing, and you are saddled with the unenviable task of writing a “statement of purpose” or “letter of intent” as I decided to call it in our new low-residency MFA program‘s application requirements. You’re undoubtedly flummoxed, thinking what the heck do I say, and where do I begin?

This is a kind of writing we’re not used to doing, and it’s a difficult tightrope to walk between bragging about yourself (which of course you need to do, at least a little) and sounding like a blowhard and an egotist; between describing your past and your imagined future, and boring your audience to tears. And there’s a lot riding on this statement or letter. It has to represent you to someone you probably don’t know, whose decision may decide your fate.

So I get it; you’re nervous. So was I when I wrote my first truly awful first draft of a statement of purpose. I showed it to a kind professor, who told me it was terrible and gave me some advice on what to write. Here, after many years of giving similar advice to students applying to graduate programs, and as I contemplate the letters of intent I’m about to receive for our new program, is my best advice for how to proceed, if you’re applying to a program like ours.

Tell about your past

Keep it brief and to the point, but do give some information about where you’re coming from. Remember that your main focus should always be to convince the program that you are ready to take on graduate work in creative writing. We don’t care that you’ve always loved to write (well, we do, but we kind of assume that), or that you only recently discovered your love of writing (if so, how ready are you for grad school?). What we really care about is how you’ve prepared yourself as a writer. That might mean discussing your English major and the kind of reading you like best (in and out of class). Or if you didn’t major in English in college, then you may want to say something about your major, why it led you to creative writing, and what kind of literature background you do have. Bear in mind that writers need to be avid readers, and that an MFA can be a qualification to teach literature. You’ll need to be able to pull your weight in a graduate literature class, so you need some background in literature, and you’ll need good research skills.

If you’re applying to my program, then I’ll see your transcripts eventually, but I’ll see your letter of intent first. We don’t ask for the full application until after we’ve evaluated your letter and writing sample, so we need to know something about your educational background up front. But we’ll get more detail when we see your transcripts.

Tell about your present

If you’re applying to grad school straight out of college, this may not be much different than telling about your educational background. But if you’ve been out of school for awhile, then I’d be interested to know what you’re doing now. Even if you’re in school now, tell some about recent accomplishments and activities. Since my program is a low-residency program, I expect that most students will be working or doing something while they’re in grad school. Let me know a little about what that is. Also, if you’ve published your writing recently, it’s good to let me know about that. I’m also curious about where people live (or plan to live when they’re in our program), since you don’t have to relocate to Columbus, MS.

Tell about your writing

If I could I’d make that heading double-bold, I would. The most important thing you can do in your statement of purpose is to give a clear and concise description of the kind of writing you do. This might mean listing some of your influences, or it might mean describing your style. You can talk about what you want to write, as well as what you have written. And by all means, tell me what genre(s) you’re interested in. Our program doesn’t require that you apply in one genre only, and cross-genre work is encouraged. But remember that I’m thinking about filling classes and putting people together who will work well together. Sure, I want to pick the best writers, but I also have to be pragmatic and pick a range or writers working in different genres and styles. Your writing sample will tell me a lot, but it is likely one piece or one genre, so here you can describe your interests as a writer. There is no ‘right’ answer here, so just be as honest and as clear about your writing as you can be.

Tell about our program

Okay, we know our program, so tell what interests you in our program. What makes you want want to spend a couple years of your life in it? Be honest, but also tailor what you say to the program you’re applying to. I tell my students all the time that it isn’t lying to say you want to do different things at different places. You’re just omitting the obvious part of the equation: “[If I’m accepted to your program], I want to do X” Chart out your life if it takes the path to the program you’re applying to. What makes you excited about that path? Tell me that. And be as specific as possible. Everyone wants to enter an MFA program to learn to write better. Why is this program the one where you can do that? Why does it meet your needs? Essentially, you want to show me that you know what you’re getting into. You want me to see that you can set realistic goals and goals that my program can fulfill.

Other things you might mention

There are lots of other details about yourself that might be useful to mention in a statement of purpose. They won’t be your main emphasis, probably, but could be worth including. Your family background could be interesting, especially if it relates to your writing goals. Certainly mention it if you have had publications or work experience in writing-related fields. Volunteer work, especially if it is related to writing or literature, can be an asset. And other work experience, especially if you write about it, is worth a mention. Give a little sense of who you are, in other words, but don’t feel like you have to give your life story. Include only the most important details that are relevant to your writing or your education.

How to write the statement/letter

So far I’ve concentrated on what to write in your statement of purpose or letter of intent. But what about how to write it? I’m looking for a somewhat formal letter (which is one reason I like calling it a letter of intent). It doesn’t have to sound as stiff as a formal business letter or an academic essay, but it should sound more formal than an email or post on social media. I don’t mind if you sound excited (I might even like it, unless it feels like you’re overdoing it), but I do want to see your analytical writing skills on display. Your letter should be well organized, and it should contain no grammatical errors (or very few, but do your best to make it as perfect as possible). Your letter should be concise —don’t say in 10 words what could be said in 5.

But maybe the best advice I can give you is to relax and be yourself (or your slightly formal self). After all, I want to accept you into the program. I’m looking for the most exciting and interesting and competent writers I can find. Let me know who you are and what you write (and what your background is), and let me judge whether you seem like a good fit for the program.

How to make your statement/letter better

The best way to improve your statement is to revise it several times before you submit. If you’re a writer, that’s a rule you should live by for any writing. Even better than revising on your own is if you can let someone else read your letter and give you feedback. If possible, give it to someone who knows you and knows what a letter like this should include. I often ask students to let me see their statements of purpose or letters of intent if they want me to write a recommendation letter for them. I want to be able to give advice, but I also want to know what they’ve told the schools they’re applying to. That way, I can pitch my recommendation letter in a way the complements their letter. So don’t feel like you’re burdening your recommenders if you ask them to review your letter. You may be helping them to write a better letter for you!

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

14 thoughts on “What to say in your Statement of Purpose? (for an MFA Creative Writing)

  1. hi! Thank you for writing this helpful post. I was wondering if you had a ‘typical’ length of the statements you see? What would you say is the ideal length?

    1. We ask for 1-2 pages single-spaced. That gives you plenty of room to write. I would encourage a statement that is more than one page. Of course, you should always follow the guidelines of the program you’re applying to, and you should try to say as much as you can in the space allotted. You don’t want to write filler, obviously, and you do want to present your best case for why you should be in that program.

  2. Thanks for a great post. Your advice is golden. I was looking for tips on writing for entrance into an MFA Fine Art program, and What you said readily applies. Thank you! By the way- if I was looking for a writing program, I would definitely consider yours based on what you expressed in this post. I wish you the best. 🙂

  3. A very insightful post. Though I have a question to ask, how should I show my credibility as a writer, if I am not an literature graduate. Like for my case, I am masters in computer science and been working as an engineer from past 7.5 years, but I have been writing from a very young age and I have a literary blog from past 5 years. Apart from it I published a short story on kindle, last year. Your advice would be really helpful.

    1. Thank you, NJ. I think you really have your answer here in your reply.
      It’s fine to mention your prior masters and your career as an engineer. That’s fascination material. Talking about your blog and your publication is also good, as is talking about your experience as a reader, whether that’s in classes or on your own, and how your career and your reading inform your writing. If you’ve been in a writing group or gone to any workshops or seminars, they’re great to mention, but aren’t a requirement.
      Think less in terms of sounding impressive and more in terms of showing that you’ve done your homework and know something about the writing world. You don’t have to overdo it in your letter — your writing sample may tell us enough — but the letter is an opportuntiy to fill in some of the gaps about things you’ve done that might not be apparent on your transcript or résumé.

      1. Thank you so much for the advice and help 🙂 I will keep these points in mind while writing my letter.

  4. Well it looks like this is the post that keeps on giving! I, too, am appreciating these pearls of wisdom. Any advice on the letters of recommendation that are required for application submissions? My college years are very spread out over the past couple of decades. I earned my Bachelor’s in 2014. Only one of my creative writing professors remain, and I fully intend to ask her, but I need 3 recommendations. Because I tend to keep my writing to myself, I literally have no one who can speak on my behalf. I’m a great little letter writer, but I hardly think they want to hear from my personal friends! Making a joke, but I really am stuck. How important are these recommendations and who are people using? I have until February 2021 to find 3 people.

    1. Now, let me address your specific question. Having at least one professor is good. If you haven’t worked with anyone on your writing recently, then you might ask if she would be willing to read something you’ve written and are considering for the writing sample. I’m sure I would do that for a former student. In normal times, I might suggest going to a weekend workshop between now and September where you could have someoen look at your work, but those might be hard to find and unsafe to attend. That does put more pressure on applicants right now — it’s hard to connect with people who might recommend you. You’re right that friends should be low on you list unless they are writing friends. Family is generally not a good idea either. I would consider your boss or co-workers who can speak to your professionalism and communication skills. And I would also encourage you to track down one or more of your old professors even if they’ve moved on or retired from your undergraduate institution. Many of us would still write a letter for a former student even if we’re no longer affiliated with their alma mater.
      The good news is that you are thinking about this early, and you have time to track people down or to find someone who may not be an academic but who can speak to your professionalism. Believe it or not, I’ve had many applicants in your same position, some who have been out of school much longer than you have. If you applied to a program like ours, your letters would not seem unusual at all. In my experience, the letters do not make or break an application: they can help a lot, but they usually confirm what I have come to know about an applicant through the process. A few weaker letters from people who aren’t familiar with the academic world or with writing these kinds of letters won’t kill your application. They won’t help as much as one from someone who knows what to say, but I always consider the letter writer as well as the letter, and I know that it’s not always possible to reconnect with former professors when applicants have been out of school for awhile. The experience you’ve gained in those years will probably far outweigh the lack of a letter from a professor. Find someone who can speak to that experience, even if they aren’t a writer or an academic.

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