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!