What MFA Program Staff Want to Read in Your Admissions Essay: A Cheat Sheet

If I’d only known then what I know now …

Actually, if I’d only known then that writing a statement of intent for a graduate program was pretty darn close to writing a cover letter for a job!

In may ways, I feel like it was blind luck that got me into the creative writing program I attended, because I just cringe when I look back on the statement of intent I sent them. Sure, over the years, I’ve changed as a writer, which changes the perspective I now bring to the reading of my old statement. More importantly, I’ve changed as a person.

But I’ve also learned a lot about marketing myself and others through these types of letters. And really, it is about marketing.

English: Steve Jobs shows off the white iPhone...

Selling it like a champ! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So when one of my clients reached the point where she would have to prepare her statement of intent for entree into some graduate creative writing programs and hit a wall, I was glad I could see things clearly for her, even though I hadn’t been able to for myself all those years back.

The biggest mistake you can make

Most applicants think that they have to have their entire creative careers mapped out, their aesthetics completely defined and honed, and their whole mission as creative people detailed point by point in order to get a statement of intent right. Part of this, I believe, can be blamed on the sometimes ridiculous statement essays one must write to get into college as an undergraduate.

By the time you’re applying to graduate school, no one will waste your time with trying to deciding which you would rather be raised by: aliens, robots, or dinosaurs. Thank your lucky stars for this.

English: Madonna during The Virgin Tour of 1985.

Not that lucky star. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By that same token, however, no one will want you to waste their time with your missive on how, at age 5, you shook Maya Angelou’s hand and realized you needed to dedicate your life to writing, including every painstaking action you’ve taken as an artist from that point forward. (That’s what your blog is for. Just kidding. Sorta.)

As tempting as it will be to talk about how you came to write, what you love to write, why you love to write, and why any of us should care — and it will be tempting because, let’s be honest, no one ever asks us about our writing outside an artistic circle — do yourself a favor: don’t.

What those admissions people really need to hear

As painful to your soul as it may be, the more you treat a college like a business, the better off you’ll be. Why? At the end of the day, no matter who denies it, colleges are businesses these days. (If you don’t already know this, grad school will likely teach you this lesson as it did me.)

That being said, your approach should be much like the one you would take toward an employer, your goal being matching your skill set with their requirements.

Pieces of a puzzle

Fit into that groove! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“But what requirements would a creative writing program have besides good writing?” you might think.

I’m glad you asked! Let’s talk about the “business needs” of a creative writing program.

What creative writing “businesses” want

Now, before I continue, some of the things I’m about to say may come off as sounding cynical, but this is not the intent. I value creative writing programs and am immensely grateful for my experience in one. I’m simply pointing out the business side of the coin for the sake of illustrating how one might approach the application process from that standpoint — and, of course, keep it fun.

There are two main outcomes all MFA programs strive for. These outcomes help the programs maintain their prestige and keep the money (in the form of tuition, grants, etc.) coming in. These outcomes are:

1. Produce writers who publish and become as respected and renowned as possible.

Stephen King, American author best known for h...

How any MFA program would love to claim this guy as an alum! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

2. Produce teachers who will, by their very existence as teachers of creative writing, promote the validity and success of creative writing programs.

This being said, know that when your full application is read — from creative sample through recommendation letters — the review committee on some level has this in mind.

Therefore, you would be served well by a letter that indicates — albeit in an extremely indirect way — that you plan to address these needs. Here’s how.

The MFA statement cheat sheet

Most programs will ask you to explain why you want to attend their program. You should know why you want to attend the specific programs you’ve chosen (see my blog on the subject here) beyond “It’s in the top 10 based on U.S. World News Report — duh!” You will want to be both general and specific in your response to create a flexible template, thereby saving yourself some time and energy as you blitz as many programs with applications as your bank account allows you to afford the fees for.

Focus your statement around the following four topics, and you’ll be golden:

1) Best Program in the World will give you the time to focus strictly on improving your writing to the point of publication. Always mention a goal of publication. Even better, if applicable: Mention publications you already have.

2) Best Program in the World will allow you to collaborate with Best Faculty in the World. Not only does this provide insight into how you see your work relating to the people you’d be learning from while kissing their rings at the same time, but it also indicates that you buy in to the notion that successful writers come from creative writing programs. Do good research on the faculty you’ll be studying with before writing this part of your statement.

Ring of the pope

Behold! Now pucker up, buttercup! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3) Best Program in the World will provide you with the opportunity to work with the Best Peers in the World. The admissions committee in its infinite wisdom would never pick bad apples, right? Again, this just indicates you buy into the system and its outcomes. There’s a black sheep in every family — at least one.

4) Best Program in the World will award you the credentials you need to teach creative writing. This, again, would continue to perpetuate the idea that creative writing programs are the best thing since amazeballs. However, it’s only applicable to those who actually do want to teach, so use this only if that indeed reflects your situation.

Final thoughts

Hopefully this info will help you write the statement of intent that gets you into the program of your dreams. Still want more? Here’s a great blog by Oronte Churm, aka John Griswold, who teaches in the MFA program at McNeese State University.

Be aware that entrance into any fine arts program still hinges primarily on the quality of your creative sample, but at least your statement of intent won’t make someone who was on board before picking up your essay think twice about your acceptance afterwards.



Filed under Creative writing

2 responses to “What MFA Program Staff Want to Read in Your Admissions Essay: A Cheat Sheet

  1. manuelalatte

    Raegen, thanks for sharing your expertise! Very helpful stuff, here. 🙂


  2. R

    Thanks for reading! Hope you’re able to apply this information directly someday (hint, hint). 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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