Writers often ask what they should put into a statement, and how influential these very short writings are in the whole of admissions. What we know for certain is that the creative sample matters most, obviously, because the sample is representative of your voice, interests, technique, facility with language, and creative heart or drive. And we are told every admissions cycle from faculty that the manuscript is 95+% of the admissions decision. But how much does the statement really matter?
The statement matters in every round of admissions. If the creative sample is fantastic, but the statement is muddled and pitchy, this can detract from everything you’ve done to prepare your application.
Let’s say that your manuscript makes the first cut, and then the second! Now you’re in the final round with a few dozen other promising writers. Your extensive study of Victorian ghost stories, or your childhood in Vietnam, or your concrete plan to write a collection about your year working in Las Vegas can help set you apart from all the others. It’s not always possible to know with whom your statement will resonate, but it can happen.
Before you even begin writing the statement, I have two prerequisites : 1) meditating about what you really want, and where you’re coming from, and 2) researching your schools and faculties.
Then, to write an excellent personal statement, statement of purpose, or teaching statement:
- Begin with an outline. Tedious, yes. But professionals do this all the time. The difference is like starting to build a house with or without a blueprint. Set yourself up with good ideas, and concrete information from your research.
- Organize the material on every level. Make sure that there is a logical progression, and that the statement answers the particular school’s questions with specific answers you’ve created out of your research. The statement shouldn’t look like buckshot, or paint thrown at a wall. The statement should be crafted with care.
- Don’t apologize (explicitly or implicitly). If you’ve been out of school for a long time, have never taught, worked at a paper mill for the last decade, grew up destitute or still live under the poverty line–whatever it is, find or impose a narrative line that shows the knowledge and experience that has come out of it. These are origins or outcomes you couldn’t have changed for a number of reasons. Be a little generous with yourself while still being honest; view yourself from a different viewpoint. Your viewpoint influences the language, which controls the tone of your writing. Don’t put yourself down.
- Be concrete. Specify exactly why you want to go to a school, who you want to work with and why, and what you want to accomplish. “It’s a good school and I want to work with A and B because I enjoyed their books” is a D- answer. It invites the reader to gloss the whole thing. Put in concrete answers: what specifically makes it an appealing school? What courses do you want to take? What elements of A and B’s books engaged you and inspire you? What are your definitive or particular literary interests? If you’re not sure, the uncertainty will come through in your writing.
- Revise, edit, and proofread.
Happy Thanksgiving week, all!