Make a statement with your personal essay

A perfect personal essay can clinch a spot in a writing program.
By Hillary Casavant | Published: August 26, 2014


iStock_000007408544MediumPassion. Discipline. Drive.

A successful personal statement demonstrates these essential qualities of a successful writer. Beyond securing a spot in a writing program, the personal statement (sometimes called a statement of objectives, statement of purpose or personal essay) is valuable in all aspects of a writing career. Whether composing a cover letter or querying an agent, writers can benefit from a well-crafted personal statement.

Emily Carr, director of the low-residency creative writing MFA program at Oregon State University-Cascades, says that all writers should be able to “talk engagingly and creatively about the work that they’re doing.” The personal statement provides context for a writing sample and indicates the applicant’s passion and interest in pursuing a writing degree. Carr says the committee looks for applicants who can write “articulately about their hopes and fears as writers and as people.”

“The writing sample gives us a sense of where you are now,” she says. “The statement is the opportunity to give us a sense of where you’re coming from and where you hope to go.”

While the writing sample carries the greatest weight in an application, the personal statement can make or break it. Richard Duggin, creative writing MFA program director at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, says that committee members “have also been swayed to recommend yes or no on the basis of the sincerity and goals expressed in the essay.”

Leslie Epstein, who was the director of the creative writing MFA program at Boston University for more than 30 years, values personal statements that show personality in addition to writing ability. He looks for statements that indicate why the applicant wants to dedicate a year, if not an entire life, to writing.

“The personal statement counts second most to the stories themselves – and, indeed, in certain instances can undo the impression, favorable or unfavorable, of those stories,” he says.

When reviewing applications, Carr first reads the writing sample, followed by the statement and reference letters. In conjunction, these three pieces reveal valuable information about an applicant.

“The statement is in fact as important as a writing sample, and you should treat it as carefully and intentionally as you do the [sample],” she says.

As the director of a low-residency program, Carr looks for applicants who can succeed in an independent, long-distance learning environment. In their statements of objectives, applicants should show “their initiative, self-reliance and discipline specific for the low residency model.”

To craft an effective personal statement, applicants should devote some time to self-reflection, to assess why they have chosen the writing path and how an MFA program can move them forward in their careers. This self-awareness, Carr says, is valuable in all aspects of writing.

“If you’re going to write a great character, a great protagonist, you have to first do the vulnerable work of knowing yourself before you can get to know one of your characters,” Carr says. “You have to probe that ‘Why?’ question.”

Carr encourages applicants to be as specific as possible in the personal statement, with concrete details and personal anecdotes. Essays should also be concise; a two page limit does not necessarily require two full pages. Use only the space necessary to convey a precise but short snapshot of your writing abilities. The program director also cautions writers to avoid humor, especially when it pertains to clichés of the writing life.

Carr is open to creative, more experimental statements. But other MFA faculty members, including Epstein, are more reluctant to encourage unconventional statements. So proceed with caution.

Duggin advises the prospective applicant to “be genuine and speak to us as if she were at an informal interview and wanted to convince us that it is her time to pursue in earnest the literary life she’s imagined for herself.”

Additionally, writers should be careful when they express their motivations for an MFA. Duggin says the committee looks unfavorably on statements that suggest the writer simply needs editing advice on a single project or the writer wishes to earn the degree primarily to obtain a teaching job.

The statement shows the committee that a writer is suitable for MFA programs in general, but it also indicates if the applicant is a good fit in their particular writing community.

“Just like people, programs have personalities, and not every program is the best fit for your personality as a writer,” Carr says.

She advises applicants to contact prospective programs and ask questions before applying. In their statement, applicants should indicate why the desired program and faculty are an ideal fit. Specific details give the statement more weight. The faculty committee is staffed by those who teach the program, so familiarity with the faculty’s work will only boost the applicant’s chance of acceptance.

“[Committee members’] recommendations are colored by how individually they feel they could work with the student as a mentor,” Duggin says. “In other words, each weighs how he or she could be helpful to the student’s creative process and progress.”

Finding supportive faculty is perhaps the greatest benefit of an MFA experience. Carr believes that students should emerge from the program with a “passionate advocate for their work.” A successful personal statement will align an applicant with the ideal faculty members who are committed to the writer’s success.

Hillary Casavant is a writer in the Boston area and editorial assistant for The Writer magazine.