MFA FAQ: the SOP

MFA FAQ: the SOP

I often make these remarks to MFA program applicants: You’ll never write a good Statement of Purpose (SOP) until you realize that everything I say today is wrong. It may be right for me, but it is wrong for you. Every moment, I am, without wanting or trying to, telling you to write the SOP I would write. But I hope you learn to write an SOP like you. In a sense, I hope I don’t teach you how to write an SOP but how to teach yourself how to write an SOP. At all times keep your crap detector on. If I say something that helps, good. If what I say is of no help, let it go. Don’t start arguments. They are futile and take us away from our purpose, which is to get you into graduate school. As Yeats noted, your important arguments are with yourself. If you don’t agree with me, don’t listen. Think about something else.

When you start to write an SOP, you carry to the page one of two attitudes, though you may not be aware of it. One is that the SOP should not sound anything at all like you. The other, that the SOP should sound like you. If you believe the first, you are making your job very difficult, and you are not only limiting the writing of SOPs to something done only by the very witty and clever, such as Auden, you are weakening the justification for creative writing programs. So you can take that attitude if you want, but you are jeopardizing my livelihood as well as your chances of writing a good SOP.

First, please read the previous post on this blog about finding your voice by talking to volleyballs or other imaginary people.

Then, tell me why you want to pursue an MFA in creative writing. We are sitting in my office on a Friday afternoon. Bells are chiming in the distance. When I smile and ask, “Why do you want to do this?” you answer from the heart. You’re not trying to impress me with elevated diction or academic jargon. I know you struggle mightily with self-doubt. You keep asking me, Am I really a writer? and now you want to ask other people that question, and you are absolutely fucking terrified at what their answer will be. Forget them. Talk to me. I’m sitting right here with an encouraging smile on my face.

Okay. Now that you’ve got all that down. Pretend that I’ve invited some of my creative writing professor friends to join us. Revise what you just said, remembering that it’s just not me in the room anymore.

Give us something good to read. I know you know how to do that.

And follow the directions below.

Some advice from Vince Gotera at the University of Northern Iowa:

Here’s an organization I would recommend: (1) passionate hook; (2) segué to your background in the field; (3) specific classes by title and professors you have had (especially if well-known in the field); (4) related extracurricular activities (especially if they hint at some personal quality you want to convey); (5) any publications or other professional accomplishments in the field (perhaps conference presentations or public readings); (6) explanations about problems in your background (if needed); and (7) why you have chosen this grad school (name one or two professors and what you know of their specific areas or some feature of the program which specifically attracts you).

Some advice from Writing Program directors on the Creative Writing MFA Blog:

Erica Meitner: “I’m also a huge fan of the personal statement. It lets me know that the applicant can form full and compelling sentences (not always obvious from a poetry sample) and gives me information about a candidate’s life experiences (which often gives me an inkling about whether or not they’ll make a good instructor too, as all our accepted students are guaranteed TA positions). Alternately, I have colleagues who only look at the writing sample.”

Mary Biddinger: “The document that most frequently takes the wind out of my sails is the statement of purpose. I would discourage applicants from making grandiose claims about what they’ll do with the degree (a cushy 1:1 teaching load–all creative writing–immediately upon receiving the diploma, etc), and from spending time deliberating about the exact moment they decided to become writers, unless it’s somehow intrinsic to the work. Knowing that you wanted to be a writer the minute you emerged from the womb is much less relevant than getting a sense of your current interests as a writer, and as a reader. I would encourage statement of purpose writers to “be themselves” as much as possible, while maintaining a sense of audience, of course. The best statements work in tandem with the writing samples, leaving readers with a lasting overall impression.”

Me: Look, I know this hard and frustrating. I write SOPs all the time. They’re applications for promotion and tenure, internal and external grant proposals, performance reports, etc. They go by many names, depending on the school, but for now, I’ll just call them Academic Documents. It took me a long time to figure out how to write these things. I’d write an impersonal promotion application in the tone of a personal letter, as if there was an invisible title on the first page: “Things I Did This Year and Why They are Awesome.” I’d write a formal letter addressed to a committee of literary scholars handing out research grants as if I was writing an email to my agent, the subject line being “Argh. My Next Book. WTF.” I applied for academic positions as if I was blurbing myself.

Let’s just say that I have made many mistakes along the way, but over time, I’ve also learned important lessons in how to apply for things. I’ve learned that I must imagine to whom I am writing, and then I must convince/seduce them.

And if you are sitting there resenting the fact that you have to write an SOP at all, then I say: Maybe you shouldn’t go to graduate school, cuz wow, as a writer, you’ll be stating your damn purpose in one way or another for the rest of your life.

You may have noticed that I didn’t tell you how to write one of these things. Next time, I will give you some do’s and don’ts about how to write an SOP, but for now, let me just say: give ’em something good to read. Do that, and you’ll be fine.

[Want something more specific? Some do’s and don’ts? Then go to the next post. Here.]

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