Columns > Published on April 17th, 2012

Honey, I Shrunk the MFA Application Pile: Crafting Your Statement of Purpose

Every place you submit, you can usually sample what they publish. Just to get a feel for what works there, what doesn’t—whether the current editorial tastes veer toward the gory and in your face or seem to be more in keeping with first-person first-kiss kind of stories. And this goes beyond publishing: before you apply for a job you can cruise the aisles of the store, see if people are slicking their hair back and covering their tattoos. And, if you want the job, you take their lead, you fall in. You need that check. It even works with whoever you’re looking to shack up with: stalk their ex, use them as both a model and a cautionary tale.

MFA applications, though. As far as I know, there’s no way for an applicant to page through fifty or a hundred of those, see what your competition’s doing. See what they’re overdoing, so you can do something different. You can track people you know who are applying, sure, and chances are you may have even helped them with their writing samples somewhere along the way, and they’ll tell you their GPA and GRE if you want, because who cares, none of that means you can or can’t write. But, just keeping up with two or three people’s acceptances, and trying to associate that with your estimation of the actual quality of their writing sample, of their talent as compared to yours—it’s not going to help you that much, finally.

Where you need to look, it’s their Statement of Purpose, their Statement of Intent—the cover letter to their whole application. However, the way you need to look at those Statements, at least if you hope to adjust yours accordingly, it’s not just one or two or three at a time. You need to look at them the way the writing professors who are reading them are going to be looking at them. Which is to say en serious masse. In a slushpile. And, chances are you’ve worked one or two of those, yes? Then you know. You don’t dive in looking for gold. You dive in looking for reasons to reject, the idea being that, once the obvious losers have been removed, only the gold will remain.

Reading through two or three hundred MFA application Statements, however, the only way I know to (get to) do that’s to have no choice. To have to do it. Even though all this new genre awareness you’re gleaning—and it is a genre—it’s pretty useless to you now, as you’re obviously not ever going to be in that slushpile again. Well, it’s useless unless of course you can pass it on, so as to maybe, possibly make next year’s application reading better.

So, in hopes of that better tomorrow, here’s ten things to keep in mind, next time:

1. "It All Started Here" is Not the Place to Start

There seem to be an endless series of variations on the “When I was a kid” openings: I always knew I was writer; I found my fifth-grade journal the other day; I fell in love with stories at a young age; Writing is the only thing that’s ever felt right to me; I come from a family of liars. At one time, these all had to have been new and effective, or new-ish and effective-ish, anyway. Now, however, there’s nothing left but fatigue. This is what everybody’s saying, so just assume that we’re going to be assuming that when you were a kid you always knew you were a writer because you fell in love with stories because your family’s always telling them. Cool? And, what tends to work better is to talk about writing, then plug yourself into that discussion at some opportune, quiet moment.

2. People Don't Care About Your Life Story as Much as You Think

Your condensed autobiography isn’t nearly as vital as you might think it is. Granted, it’s probably interesting to people at the bar or at the gym that you were kicked out of monastery, that you once fought an alligator to a standstill, that you can count to five hundred in your head, in Aramaic, that you started a trivia-group for Friends. Good: you’re interesting. Also: we don’t care. What we’re looking for is the content of your mind, articulated well, not the content of your life. Or, the idea, I guess it’s that the content of your life, it colors everything you put on the page. Let us get it through your writing sample, then, yes? Another way to look at this is if you build yourself up as too interesting in your Statement, then you better have some just very interesting stories in your sample. And that’s a gamble you might not want to take.

3. Proofread Like Your Career Depends on it

You don't have to eat all of an egg to know it's bad — Gardner Dozois

The easiest rejections, they’re those Statements where there’s a typo or mechanical error or grammar issue or formatting jack-up. Because that’s our first impression of you: that you’re sloppy, that you don’t re-read—that you don’t care, that the details don’t matter, you’re moving too fast for that. Well, so are we. And the rest of your application, it’s looking a lot like details . . .

4. Sycophancy is Your Friend

Just like when submitting a magazine, mentioning our names, yes, it’s the cheapest, most obvious and wheedling tactic there is. But it works. Seeing our name and a title or two of ours in your Statement, even if it’s nothing incisive or particular, still, at the very least it shows that this isn’t one Statement, printed twenty times. It suggests you cared enough to individualize. To target. And we tend to repay that kind of chicanery—better, we even identify with that kind of chicanery, and sympathize with you, having to use it. And, man, right there, we're already starting to be on your side.

5. PDFs Read Differently than Paper 

Used to, all the applications were in some sort of crazy pile of folders, and the folders were in boxes or some central location, and there were papers and paper clips and bad copies and worse sorting and endless headaches. Now, it’s all PDF. Which is a lot easier to tote around, yes. But be aware of how a PDF changes the game, too. Used to, when we got to your writing sample, we could page ahead while keeping our place, see where this portion of the sample ended. Now that’s much more difficult. So, those applicants who thought to thumbnail a little barebones Table of Contents top-center on the cover page of their writing sample? Thank you. This helps tremendously. Makes me feel like I owe you, even.

6. Novel Chapters are Not  Your Friend

Talking writing samples, sure, John Barth was right: some people sprint, some have a longer stride, a slower pace. Some write complete stories on cocktail napkins, some think in epic trilogies. And, not to privilege the sprinters overmuch, but if your writing sample’s chunked up, if you’re giving us two or three pieces instead of an out-of-context excerpt from a novel, then we can see both how you open and how you close, not just the high quality of your prose. And being able to open and close, that matters a lot. Anybody can write a solid novel chapter. Not everybody can tell a whole story in fifteen-hundred words. Short pieces work better in writing samples than long pieces. It’s not fair, but I hope nobody told you it was going to be.

7. The "Sans" in "Sans-serif' Means "Without You

This should go without saying, but, the files you upload to the school’s server, either as PDF or to get converted along the way—is it possible you could please please please use a serif font? Peeling through twenty-five pages of fiction in Arial is an exercise in pain, for us. And, we reward accordingly. It seems shallow to let something like font guide our decisions, yes. But, when everybody in the applicant pool’s good, then you select by what you can. You get the luxury of being picky.

8. Pretend  not to be Ambidextrous?

Understand that if you’re applying to two genres, if you’re trying to sell yourself as a fiction-writer/poet, a memoirist/fiction-writer—and all the rest of the possible combinations—then you’re already hurting your chances. Not because we don’t trust that people can do both, but because you’re gambling on having risen to the top of two different sets of professors’ stacks. When even rising to the top of one set of professors’ stacks of applications is rare and difficult. Rising to two, though? Not even remotely likely. What you’ve done by cross-genre’ing yourself is make it easy for us to sacrifice your app, to ‘trade’ it for somebody we know will be all ours. So, fake it: ‘commit’ to the genre you think you represent the best in, then lay the two-genre thing on us when you get here, when there’s nothing we can do about it.

9. This Page is Made for Turning

It's the price you pay for your riches and fame. Was it all a strange game? You're a little insane — Tom Petty

Your Statement is really a cover letter. Meaning you want to summarize the rest of your application. You want to plant hooks there (“3.98 GPA? Seriously?”; “Is in Best American-what?”; “Has a letter from which big-time so-and-so?”) that get us to turn the page, actually read your transcript or CV or letters of reference. Instead of just skim, yes. We should be better people and start early, peel through, pore over, reread, think it over, come back later. But come on. MFA apps are a flood every year, like somebody’s dynamited the dam. There’s no time to be a good person. We just have to hope that the good people—you—will float to the surface long enough for us to see you. So, rig your statement so we’ll see you as you want to be seen. Never trust us to look deeper on our own.

10. Short and Direct, Like You're Robbing a Convenience Store

Two pages, tops. And that’s double-spaced. Those Statements that sprawl on for four or five single-spaced treatises on The Life and Times of Applicant X, and Associated Childhood Pets? They’re often well-written, and show exuberance. But they’re such a chore, and usually wind up just trying to be clever, and clever, it’s the bane of these Statements. How to actually be clever? Don’t try. Just be yourself. Hopefully you’ve got a natural wit, a pleasant disposition, a facility with words, and can, in five- or six-hundred words, intimate to us that you understand how fiction works. Intimate—show, don’t tell—that you’ve got the stories inside you, and always have. You just need us to help you be a better writer than you already amazingly are. That, we can sometimes do that. Especially if we feel that all you need is one good nudge to go superstar.

All pretty grim, yes? All the same, every year, in spite of typos, of lost transcripts, of letters of reference a month late, still, every April another Rocky runs up those stairs, hands in the air, eyes closed in joy, the whole future laid out for the taking. It happens again and again and again. And, whatever our selection process has been, however arbitrary or fraught with hope, however difficult and random and laden with guilt, when you show up in the fall, when we’ve almost definitely forgot your writing sample, to say nothing of your GRE or GPA, every fall, seeing you in the seminar room, your lips bitten in like you’re about to not believe even one word we’re going to be laying on you, we know that something must be working. That we got the writers we wanted. We got the best. Hopefully you feel some of that as well.

About the author

Stephen Graham Jones has ten novels and more than a hundred and thirty short stories published, and has been teaching fiction for twelve years. 2012 will see at least two more novels from him, then at least one in 2013 and one in 2014, he says, "should the world not have ended by then."

Stephen Graham Jones' recent few books are Zombie Bake-OffSeven Spanish Angels, It Came from Del Rio, and the Stoker finalist The Ones That Got Away. Next are Growing up Dead in Texas (MP Publishing), Flushboy (Dzanc), and Zombie Sharks with Metal Teeth (Lazy Fascist). The last few anthologies he's in are The Weird, Amazing Stories of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Creatures, and West of 98. Jones teaches in the MFA program at CU Boulder. More at

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