It is not the most important piece of the application -- that would be the writing sample -- but it has to be the most stressful for applicants. My theory is that it's difficult because it's too open ended. We know what to do for the writing sample: we write our own way. We know what to do for recommendation letters: we get someone to recommend. But the SoP needs to be about the applicant, and the university, as well as about the program and why s/he is better than all the rest. It needs to boast and suck up without either boasting or sucking up. And moreover, it needs to be short.
Do I have a magic formual? Nope. No one does. Probably because it's not as important as your writing sample.
The MFAblog's best advice is
a statement of purpose is not a resume in narrative form; it is a plan that outlines the relationship between the candidate's past, present, and future.(read full article here)
Some things to consider about this SoP: I had recently quit law school and wanted to address that fact. Namely I wanted to say that I wasn't going to be a grad school hopper or a flake, and that I had truely learned my lesson, so I used my SoP to handle that. Some applicants use their SoP to address their research interests or what form or vein they would like to work in. My interests could be summed up simply as "writing contemporary fiction" and being "well read" in as many time periods and literary styles as possible so I didn't go into depth on that.
The first story I ever wrote was “Alfred the Alligator with Stripes.” I was seven. “Alfred” had hand drawn illustrations and an illustrious print run of one. My mother was terribly proud of me. She bound the book in a scrap of green and white wallpaper to make it a “real” paperback and showed it off to everyone. I couldn’t understand why she was so excited. It was just a story; I was making them up all the time. The real challenge was sitting still long enough to write them. By the time my attention span caught up to my creativity I had another monster to battle: my own practicality.
When I went in to meet with my Intro to Creative Writing professor for the first time as a college sophomore she asked me what I was planning to major in. Computer science, I told her. She was disappointed I was not going to major in writing and told me that I should consider it given my current work. I told her it did not seem like a practical major. She laughed and asked me what major from a liberal arts school was practical. I was back a week later with the paperwork for her to sign to become my advisor for my chosen major of English writing.
When senior year rolled around, students from my seminar asked me what I was going to do when I graduated. I told them law school. Really? They all asked. You don’t want to be a writer? I told them glibly that I also wanted to eat. To be honest, it was not a desire to avoid being a starving artist as much as it was the thought that becoming a lawyer would make others take me, my work, and my opinions seriously. However, the more I discovered about lawyers the less I could not envision myself being one. I could not see myself solving the mundane problems of the everyday attorney by wading through stacks of old case opinions written in archaic language. Archaic not because they were ancient, but because judges can be as stuffy and long winded as they like. No one is there to push judges to write something that a reader could relate to or, perhaps, enjoy.
I began talking to a friend who was then working on her senior project in fiction. I began to reminisce about how much fun that semester had been for me and how much time I had spent on my project, a novella. None of the writing I had completed for my seminar project had felt like work. Neither had the readings, rewrites or critiques of classmates’ projects. They were what I got to do in stolen moments, things that I chose to do to push off “homework” until later. I smiled at the memory. I was about to tell her to enjoy every moment of the process, particularly workshop, when she cut through my reverie to state that it was the hardest thing she had ever worked on and could barely make herself write each week. I tried to rationalize the discrepancy in our experiences. Maybe I had just been lucky to have a great professor or an intriguing group of students. They had respected my work and given my suggestions weight. Perhaps they had caused me to disproportionately enjoy the process. But the more I considered it, the more I realized my senior workshop was not an anomaly. Time and again, with different instructors and different groups of students, I had thrived in the workshop environment. I had been taken seriously, both for my own writing and for the feedback I had given others. I realized that the respect I had been hoping to find by becoming an attorney was what I had left behind in my creative endeavors. I realized that I wanted to work with words for the rest of my life. I wanted to teach about words, write about words, read, edit, and write about them again. There is a Confucius saying: choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life. In order to lay the foundation for such a life I have decided to pursue graduate education in creative writing.
I understand that I first need to develop my craft. It is part of the problem I ran into when I was seven. I had great stories floating around in my head but not yet the tools to put them down on paper with art or grace. I have come a long way since seven. In addition to my ever expanding attention span, I have earned a B.A. in English writing from DePauw University, completed a novella, won an honorable mention in a local poetry competition and engaged in writing workshops outside of my degree program. One of the most valuable experiences I have had in the past year was attending the Kenyon Review writer’s workshop. At Kenyon I met a group of adults from all walks of life who took writing seriously, and took me seriously for doing what I did. To them writing was not playing or dabbling, it was weighty work. It was the first time I had met such a group of people outside of the writing faculty at my university. By the time I gave my reading to the assembled group, a hundred people with literary backgrounds, I was so enthused that I could not have been prouder or happier, not even if my mother had bound the story up in a scrap of wallpaper.
This essay (or some form of it: shortened, more specific, or split up depending on specific school requirments) was submitted with six applications -- a range of schools. Please note that if you don't apply to a range of schools you had better apply to a great many schools. I was accepted at three out of the six. Five were MFA programs and the sixth was a MA to PhD in creative writing program. Three fully funded and accepted less than 6% of their applicants the year I applied, Wisconsin-Madison, Michigan, Notre Dame. I was in the other 94%.
Ideally, what any applicant reading this will take away is to stop worrying about his or her SoP and spend that energy on his or her writing sample. However, I know that probably won't happen.
2010 Update: I'm now in the final year of my MFA program and because someone asked me for an MFA Progress Update I started writing a series of posts about it including my thoughts from Year Zero of the process (decision and application), Year One (arrival), Year Two (doldrums), Year Two-point-five (figuring out who you are as a writer) and Year Three (or at least the beginning of year three). If you're on this page with my MFA SoP sample, then these posts will probably be of interest to you as well.
2011 Update: I have completed my MFA! I'm also running a series of posts this fall on MFA application season, Reasons to get an MFA, Low-residency MFA programs, How to find an MFA program, and Why you should pay no attention to MFA rankings. To see all at once, follow the tag MFA or MFA application.