The Personal Statement
2022 update: This post was written in 2018, but has been useful to many graduate school applicants across disciplines, so I migrated it here to my new site to continue to provide this as a free resource for everyone. Good luck with your applications!
Many of you know (because many of you know me in real life) I’m on my way to graduate school in August. This is the second time I’ve applied to programs, and it’s been a wild ride up to my eventual acceptance into Virginia Tech. I was not expecting to accept an offer this year, and I had resigned myself to another year of deep reflection and artistic reevaluation. I was so fully prepared to apply again this winter, I already started my third grad school spreadsheet and decided to aim only for the highest, most funded programs. I was going to learn another language! I was going to get a famous writer to write a letter of recommendation! I was going to start applying in June! Thankfully, I don’t have to do any of those things, because Virginia Tech came through at the 13th hour (long story) and I could scrap my 3rd spreadsheet with a huge sigh of relief. Before my eventual acceptance, I spent November to February applying to ten schools, narrowed down from about fifteen. By the time I was halfway through the applications, I was spending ten hours a day on my personal statements.
TEN HOURS A DAY.
My samples had been revised and tightened and polished so many times in the previous months in my writing group, all I had to do over my three-week winter break from work was talk about myself and my goals for an MFA program. I’ll tell you: the quickest way to realize you have no goddamn idea who you are and what you want out of a strange, risky, creative career is to write 500-2,000 words about it ten times, to ten groups of faceless strangers who hold the fate of your life and your $75 application fee in their hands. Hence the obsessive ten-hour days.
This post will hopefully help new MFA applicants write the dreaded personal statement without as much anxiety. I haven’t included the whole thing, because some of it is really specific and might be boring to non-committees, but I explain the pieces I cut out and left in the rest for a more thorough demonstration, particularly where I felt imaginative statements met a practical purpose.
The Opening: Origins & Ambitions
My opening paragraph came to me in an epiphany-like moment halfway through my application season, so I only got it into five or six applications. Previously, I had a hard time with the personal aspect of the personal statement. My intro was too straight, too dry, until one sparkling moment I had this new idea. I scribbled sentences in my notebook in a delusional flurry and refined the ideas in Word when I got back to my computer. This, I’m convinced, is what landed me a spot at VT, and was maybe as important as my writing sample. I had always heard one must “get to the point” as fast as possible to not waste anyone’s time on the committee, but this hook is not only a crucial part of my origin story, it’s also fun to read:
“If you were to rewind ten years, you would see me as a sculptor attempting conceptual art about communication, and as a writer attempting conceptual stories about communication. I did this by writing stories about teenagers whose only dialogue was “What?” back and forth for five pages, and by setting up big sheets of industrial felt in the middle of areas with heavy foot traffic. This messy but essential origin as a writer led me to explore language barriers and miscommunications in my fiction, inspired by the two creative disciplines bickering away in my heart.
Each time I write, I pull the thread of my thesis a little more, edging closer to some human truth that can only be represented by leaving it unsaid. I am driven to write because I am driven by questions that fuel narratives: Do these linguistic obstacles exist in children? In animals? Is it possible to understand that which has no word attached? Writing about language absence and lost translations comes from my personal journey to connect across the space between what I can say and what I can feel.”
BAM! Took me years of experience and lots of shitty first drafts, plodding introspection, and eventual satisfaction with a few short stories to come up with that opening paragraph. Your opening paragraph should give the readers a sense of where you came from and where you’re headed. Think beyond the typical “I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember” and punch it up several notches to paint a fuller picture of your rich creative life. For me, I felt it was essential to begin with a demonstration of my ambitions and early interdisciplinary origins. You also get a sense of my youthful ego in the opening line, but that segues into an honest reflection of why I do what I do and how I began to take it seriously. It’s also funny, because I know much of what I do under the pretense of living my best creative life is a little absurd. But it’s true, and it’s part of who I am and part of my creative process. Do some similar digging when building your opening.
The Journey/Research/Experience section
In the main body of the personal statement, I talk about my journey from visual artist to writer, and what led me to seek an MFA in creative writing. I talk about the writing courses I took at KCAI, who I studied with, and what I gained from the visual arts environment that influenced my writing. I talk about what happens when I study literature and how I keep track of my personal and academic growth in my own terms...basically demonstrating I haven’t wasted my time between degrees.
“Today, I study writers who provide space for subtle details to bloom in a reader’s mind. I look for this because it is how I once approached sculpting—as a complete narrative containing moments where language could vanish, giving rise to an emotional texture I’m not sure has a name.”
This is a snapshot of my abstract thinking tendencies and ability to switch gears between visual and written work, something I have been practicing for many years. In this section, I also talk about the writers I currently study and what I admire most in their craft. I chose two contemporary American examples and one mid-century non-American example, because my work is mostly contemporary and set in America, but I have been heavily influenced by the styles and sensibilities of non-American writers. I chose writers who are recognizable to people of literature—not really mainstream examples, or anyone I discovered in high school or earlier. If you have the space to talk about writers you read or try to emulate, definitely consider what you appreciate about their style and how it informs your work. This is more than just “I like his use of language.” Instead, be concrete: “I study the character arcs of her aimless young adults to inform my coming-of-age novel-in-progress” or something equally evocative. This is a chance to show the committee you're a worldly reader who appreciates subtle and dynamic literature, and as someone who kept reading after high school.
The next paragraph talks about my philosophy as a writer and how this developed over time. For me, it was in small press publishing, reading prose for a magazine, writing for The Pitch, belonging to a weekly writing workshop, and participating in contemporary visual art dialogue. My philosophy was developed over about ten years, so I've had time to think about my phrasing and presentation, summing the whole thing up in three varied sentences. If you have participated in any kind of critical/creative writing exchange, talk a little about what kind of peer you are. How do you approach writing written by other writers? What can you add to the workshop experience? How has that informed your decision to apply to this program? I applied to Virginia Tech because I have always been a cross-discipline writer, and I want to collaborate with writers in running a publication. Virginia Tech emphasizes both facets of the writing life, and I saw in the program a chance to build on my strengths.
The Self-Reflection section
You should also talk about your weaknesses, because ultimately, weaknesses are what get you into grad school. A brief detour: I love failing! Failure is the single best type of learning experience out there for creative people. There is no faster shortcut to creative self-reflection than crushing, debilitating, irreversible failure. I’m not saying this is fun to experience, but it’s so necessary in finding out how to direct our creative energies. For a personal statement, it’s good to recognize your shortcomings and tell the committee how you want to improve, what you’ve learned from rejection, and how you deal with criticism. If you address ways you want your cohort to help you improve, the committee can see A) that you are serious about improvement, B) that you won’t be a jerk to other writers, C) that you probably aren’t a genius (yet) and can admit to that, and D) you are capable of intense and productive self-reflection. All good things for a graduate committee to recognize in an applicant.
If your day job or professional work is of writerly importance, put it in the statement. MFA programs are not just for people who were “born to be writers” or “have been writing stories since childhood”. In fact, committees see that cliché all the time, and the truth is we live in a capitalist society that devalues or ignores creative work up until the point a creative person becomes famous. Most writers have jobs that pay the bills, and really good writers use that job to add something to their writing career—not always in the way Kafka used a job as fodder, but also as a way to grow and develop your skills in an area that will reflect in your creative discipline. For me, the routine responsibility of helping students with their writing and professional skills gave me academic experience in reading syllabi, constructing an academic plan around calendars, and articulating the creative bridge between visual art and literature. I gained research experience, worked on my chronic self-discipline problem, and recognized that I still consider myself a student of literature, even as I help students in their earlier stages of writing. I put all this in my statement.
I did not write that, as a bartender, I secretly made notes on the changing dialogue of my patrons. I did not write about my ruthless editor/mentor, who challenged me to write art journalism with greater clarity and precision. I did not write about how my time as an oyster shucker in Alaska, and a teacher in Cameroon, and a kid in the Michigan sand dunes developed my observational skills and help me imagine setting in new creative ways. But any of these personal things would have been fine to write about if I had unlimited space and attention. Choose the most effective personal experiences for the essay, and make your case for further study as persuasive as possible.
The Closing: Goals & Purpose
In the end, the committee wants to know exactly why you should be in their program. Talk about how you have prepared yourself for graduate level work, what self-direction you imposed on your routine, and where you see yourself headed as an artist and creative person. This is going to be different for everybody, and that’s what makes your perspective unique. If you want to get your MFA to teach, or get feedback on a book you’ve been working on for ten years, you’re not making a very convincing argument for your own capacity for growth and development. If you want to get your MFA in Virginia because you need 2-3 years to study the dialogue patterns of Appalachian natives because regional dialect is super important in your series of short stories, and this particular writer on the faculty has inspired you with their rendition of local speech etc. TELL THEM!! That example reason is much more colorful and unique to the program.
“I’ve discovered my drive to answer my creative and critical questions comes from the love of practice. I have prepared myself for graduate level work by applying this philosophy to self-directed writing, research projects, and professional activities. The more work I do, the more curious I become, the more I grow as an artist. Only Virginia Tech can pair me with resources, peers, and faculty who will embrace the interdisciplinary, collaborative essence of my trajectory. I am seeking a program with a history of educating writers who have taken artistic risks in their work—writers who have merged traditional and avant-garde ideas into a signature narrative style.”
For each statement, I found the most attractive aspects of the program I was applying to and I used that in my closing paragraph. For VT, it was their interdisciplinary curriculum and opportunity to work with two publications. For CalArts, it was the art school environment, which has proven beneficial to my practice. For Iowa, it was the understated writing tradition in the Midwest, a region I have lived in all my life. Every program I applied to (this time) had specific qualities that could improve my work and study of literature. One thing that sucks about applying: You might not know if your work fits the program or incoming cohort, but the committee knows, and sometimes even if your work is perfect for that school, it might not be the right time to attend. Rejections can say a lot about your readiness for rigorous work, but can also say a lot about the program itself.
“My goal is to emerge from an MFA program with a new body of work that continues connecting the communication ideas I started exploring in my undergrad. What I am looking for after a graduate program is a sustained relationship between art and language—a new way of writing that unveils the semantic bridge between visual and written work. After a graduate program, I want to continue to work with artists and authors to explore the collaborative grounds between creative disciplines. I will do this in a community role that compliments my fiction practice, either as editor of an experimental small-press, in publishing, or in a position an MFA from Virginia Tech will help me discover.”
I ended with this paragraph about my goals and ambitions in the coming years (to pursue the thread of my ongoing thesis) and the years that follow after an MFA (to bridge community work with writing work). Some goals will inevitably shift in August when I start the program, and they will shift again in January when I start teaching. My goals will continue to grow and shrink and change, but I’m totally open to this flexibility, because I’ll be in a supportive and engaging environment with other ambitious writers. Think about your goals as a writer and artist. What does your work look like in five years? How will you adapt to a changing job market? Will your creative work always be more important than your money-generating work? (It should be.)
In order to do all this, you need to REALLY look at what you’re writing and research the hell out of programs. I’ve applied to 18 programs in all and I’ve been rejected from 14 outright. Those 14 programs weren’t right for my learning and writing style, and that’s not always something new applicants are willing to accept. Although I’ll always be a little bummed I didn’t get into Brown or Iowa or University of Michigan, I also recognize my multi-discipline engagement might not have been a good fit for these straight-forward, traditional programs. It just took two years and many rejections to come to terms with that. The three schools that accepted me outright were The New School, CalArts, and California College of the Arts—three prestigious art colleges, not traditional writing universities. Virginia Tech is somewhere between an art program and traditional literary program, and this is totally where my work fits best. I ultimately decided on VT over the other three because it’s a three-year program with a broad focus (I can take non-fiction, digital media, and screen-writing courses), it’s fully funded and comes with a stipend for teaching, and I want to eventually relocate to the east coast. San Francisco is too expensive for my lifestyle, CalArts is great if I wanted to write for TV, and visiting The New School made me realize I don’t want to live in New York right now. Although I exchanged these hip metropolitan cities for a rural mountain community, Virginia Tech is only a few hours from DC, Richmond, the Outer Banks, Charleston, and Pittsburgh. I can scout these areas for cool internships and jobs in the summer when I’m not teaching.
Now you know how I managed to barely con my way into a program (just kidding! I don’t have impostor syndrome!! Not at all!!!) and secure the next three years for writing and studying literature. Whatever comes from this experience, I know it’s up to me to revisit my goals from the last ten years and set my sights on more challenging projects. This includes checking back on my statement of purpose and remembering the reasons I applied to school. If you’re going through this process now, or considering it this season, keep your arrow aimed straight at your target and allow yourself some flexibility when looking into programs. Make your spreadsheet, go visit schools, and write your head off!