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It’s getting toward that time of year when prospective students begin to sweat out their applications to art school, film school, creative writing school and the like.  What do all those programs have in common?  They require statements of purpose.  But what the hell is a statement of purpose, anyway, and how do you write a good one?  Read on and find out.

By Ben Feuer, photo by Drew Coffman

Most people are confused by the very idea of a statement of purpose.  They look at it and think to themselves, “Well, isn’t it obvious?  I’m here, aren’t I?”  One of the downsides of being trapped in your own mind all day (aside from the redundancy) is that it’s difficult to see the world from someone else’s perspective — say, for example, your average admissions officer.  Perhaps there are six types of candidates for a given program — adcom wants to know what type you are so they have an idea who to compare you with.  They want to know what you’ve done and what you’re planning to do.  So no, your work samples and your resume do not speak for themselves.  You do.  And if you’re smart, you’ll see it as an opportunity.

Take us on a journey.  Another way of looking at a personal statement is as a way to answer the question, who are you and why do you need our program at this stage of your life?  Both parts of the question are important, and together they should form a kind of continuum — there should be a path you can identify yourself as being on (even if you didn’t know it at the time!).  For instance, if you started out writing serialized fiction but you’re now more interested in nonfiction because of some fabulous experiences you had abroad last year, and you want an MFA to refocus your efforts, that’s a journey.  If you’re an intellectual with a good eye who wants the chance to work with intuitive artists and better understand how they function, that’s a journey too.  It’s about transformation.  Before and (hopefully) after.

Don’t be modest — but don’t brag either. 
Sorry about the twin pitfalls, but you really do have to walk a tightrope with the content of your SOP.  Basically, if you come across as too accomplished, you won’t leave any room for the school to shape you as a writer (which is what they do).  If you come across as too self-deprecating, you won’t make any impression at all.

One important tip to remember — it’s a good idea to use the personal statement to subtly highlight other strengths of your candidacy — GPA, publications, or anything else you’re particularly proud of.  You can’t count on a bored reader to weigh every aspect of your application seriously, so make sure they don’t overlook what’s awesome about you.

Name names.  Time and time again people overlook this simple fact — doing research into your target school (and who’s going to be reading your essays), studying their work and taking something useful away from it is ONE OF THE MOST USEFUL THINGS YOU CAN DO to improve your odds of getting in.  Why?  Because everybody likes to be liked.  That, and it shows you didn’t just blindly reuse a personal statemen from another school.

This also goes for those of you who have worked with interesting/famous people, by the way — everyone enjoys a little bit of insider info about a celeb.

Be concise.  It varies by program, but typically two pages of personal statement is more than enough.  Divide your time roughly evenly between discussing your personal journey and what you want to get out of the program you’re applying to.  Notice I said ‘evenly’?  You’re going to focus 75% or more on your personal history in your first draft.  That’s OK.  Do more research and rebalance.

Get advice.  Don’t try to go it alone.  It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to evaluate your own personal statement objectively — your brain automatically fills in gaps others will miss.  Plus, it never hurts to have another set of eyes looking for typos.

That’s about it!  I hope this was useful, and that you spend many happy hours at your choice of MFA program with the help of this little advisory column.  If you have questions, just email me.