Here are some specific and potentially provocative things about that interesting little document called a Statement of Purpose. If you agree or disagree with me, great! Put it in the comments. I’d love to get some more do’s and don’ts archived here.
Don’t talk about how, as a child, you loved to read and write. Everyone says that. For perhaps the first time in your life, you’ll be with your kind of people! I know that it’s important to YOU that your journey started when you were a kid, but it is not as important to me as what happened to you from that point on.
Do talk about who you read now, who influenced you. Everyone’s journey starts in a very similar way (at the library, at a desk making up weird stories, etc.), but then those journeys take lots of interesting forks. Don’t focus on how your story started, on your Act I. Focus on Act II. Because what you’re trying for is an Act III.
Don’t say that your goal is to teach creative writing, eventually becoming a professor. I know that I might be the only writer you have ever known personally, but that doesn’t mean that “being a writer” means “being a college professor.” You don’t aspire to it in the same way that say, you aspire to become a high school teacher. Your first priority is to self-identify as a writer. Aspiring to become a professor of creative writing is not a reasonable goal right now, the academic job market being what it is, and every time I read it in an SOP, I cringe inwardly and think that the applicant must be either naive or ill-informed. An MFA (even a PhD in Creative Writing) guarantees nothing in terms of employment, and you should understand that from the outset. It’s not a pre-professional degree (like law school or med school) so disabuse yourself of this notion.
Do say that you want to be a writer, that you intend to pursue a literary life, and that the MFA is a step in that direction. If you become a writer, meaningful work of some kind will follow. An academic career is predicated on you becoming an expert in your field. Focus on that.
Don’t try to talk abstractly about what creative writing is, what it’s for, what it all means. You’re not ready for that yet, and you’re avoiding the topic of this essay, which is to state YOUR purpose, not the purpose of the discipline or the activity of writing.
Do talk about yourself. We want to know you, and you have to tell us concretely and specifically who you are. Where you worked. Where you went to school, who you studied with. What you read. What you’ve been doing since. How you have been making a literary life for yourself.
Don’t talk about how much your writing life has sucked since you got out of college and how swell grad school will be. Grad school is not utopia. If you weren’t writing outside the structure of “class,” if you need to be “in school” in order to write, then I think that means you are not in the place you need to be in your adult life in order to make the most use of a graduate education. And especially do not say that everything about whether or not you become a writer is riding on my decision to admit you. That’s emotional manipulation–and it’s not true anyway.
Do say that that writing outside the MFA program hasn’t been easy. Say that having spent some time “writing in the cold” (as my teacher Ted Solotaroff called it), you have learned to appreciate the opportunity, the time, the community, the mentoring, the rigorous training that graduate school will afford you.
Don’t say that you are going to graduate school with either a.) a very very specific plan, or b.) no plan at all. I often tell my students that graduate school is the place where you go to polish a manuscript, not to generate one. But if your statement of purpose gives the impression that you will single-mindedly focus on your work-in-progress, then the question arises: why attend an MFA program and take a bunch of classes taught by veteran writer/teachers who might have something different to teach you? On the other hand, if your statement of purpose gives the impression that you have no work-in-progress at all, no sense of your subject matter or aesthetic, then the question arises: are you only pursuing a degree so someone will make you write? My preference when reading SOPs and Writing Samples is for students who DO have a sense of what kind of book they are coming to grad school to write, but I know that other faculty don’t like this at all, wishing instead for a “blank slate” upon which they might inscribe themselves.
Do strike a balance between being dedicated to a project and being open to the possibilities. And know that there’s absolutely no way to know how a given admissions committee will react to your particular plan. You can’t know. Just like with the submission and editorial process, you put your work into the world and see where and with whom it sticks. If you’re going to grad school to polish a novel and start another one, and the faculty aren’t “simpatico” with that plan, then that’s not the right place for you anyway.
Don’t write a boilerplate statement of purpose and send to each school.
Do address what each particular school has to offer you. Mention the name of the literary magazine or a particular course you’re interested in taking. Mention the name of a faculty member you’re interested in studying with–while bearing in mind that s/he might not be the one reading applications that year, but rather another writer in that genre who wonders, “Hey, what am I? Chopped liver?” If the city or region has a particular attraction for you, mention that.
Don’t go on and on, not about anything, but especially about the writing sample. Trust me, we’re reading the writing sample. You shouldn’t explain it much. We’re reading so much, so many pages, actually, that if I look down and see that your statement of purpose has some glorious white space on the page, I will be inclined to fall in love with you a little.
Despite my previous advice–to imagine the SOP as you talking to me–don’t forget that what you’re really doing here is talking to strangers. Maybe you have a great anecdote about what a strange child you were, and this relates to how and why you became a writer. Dan Chaon talks about being a strange kid in an interview that appears in The Fitting Ends, how moments such as these were part of his journey in becoming a writer. But when Dan tells this story, he’s doing so in an entirely different context than that of your Statement of Purpose. He’s telling these stories as an adult, as a respected and well-published writer, as a college professor. If you told the same story in your SOP–about purposely getting lost in a department store and refusing to appear even when your mother called hysterically for you–I might be inclined to wonder about your mental stability.
Yes, writers are strange creatures, but try not to come off as crazy. Stay classy. Do remember that the people reading this SOP don’t know you, and they especially don’t want to invite unnecessary drama into their lives.
Do try to keep it under a page. Do make it easy on the eyes.
Don’t write any sentences like this: “I am applying to your program in order to avail myself of the variety of opportunities you will provide in terms of my achieving my ultimate goal of being a published writer in the 21st century, whatever that means now or will mean in the probable future.”
I’m not going to rewrite that sentence for you. I think you can figure it out for yourself. And if you can’t–well then, young grasshopper, God help you.