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Anatomy of the MFA Application: The Personal Statement

Wowza! I’ve gotten a spike of visitors to my site looking for MFA application advice and information, particularly at this general tips/tricks/how-tos post on program applications. In that post, I put a huge emphasis on the personal statement/biography. (Like, with ALL CAPS.) So I thought I’d follow up on my BOLDLY EMPHATIC statement and expand on the importance of the personal statement, as well as offer some general advice on this part that should be relevant, no matter what the MFA program you’re applying to — and should make your personal statement be absolutely compelling.

(Just in case, here’s everything I’ve got on Master of Fine Arts applications:

Now back to the regularly scheduled programming!)

You probably might suspect I’m over-stating the obvious or being way too emphatic about the importance of the personal statement, but let me make it clear again: this just might be the most important part of your application. As I said earlier, the entire application forms a portrait of who you are: you have any creative “tests” the department gives you, your portfolio, and your recommendations, but it’s often the personal statement that will give you any edge over one application or another in the processing of weeding out prospective students. If faced with a choice between two students of similar ability, talent and quality, they will turn to the personal statement to suss out any clues.

A personal statement does a lot of work: it gives the evaluation committee a sense of who you are, where your values and philosophy stand and provides evidence of your commitment to artmaking. Intangibly, it tells the program whether or not you’d be a fine addition to the classroom or workshop, and if you’re a good fit for the program in general. It can tell professors looking at your application whether or not they’ll find it a joy to teach you. It lets evaluators know if you’d fit into the rest of the school, or if you’d find it a miserable experience to be there. That is a lot of work for an essay of 4-6 double-spaced pages to do! And yet it’s such a daunting part of the application — how are you going to reduce your whole philosophy of art and portrait as an artist into such a short, compressed space?

It’s not easy, but keeping the following in mind should help you out:

UNDERSTAND THE SCOPE OF THE PERSONAL STATEMENT. The personal statement is not a biography; it doesn’t begin with your birth and travel through epochal moments like your loss of virginity, your dawning awareness of your political activism, your various jobs and career turns and then why you ended up as an office temp or bartender in Brooklyn. While I am sure you are a deeply fascinating person, your application judges and evaluators are wading through HUNDREDS of applications. Every detail you put must be there for a reason, and must communicate a lot.

THE STATEMENT TELLS A STORY OF YOU…AS AN ARTIST. The personal statement really guide the admissions committee through your journey as an artist. (If you’re rolling your eyes at the thought of a “journey” or being an “artist”…you really should rethink your decision to get an MFA.) The statement is really proof of your evidence and commitment to art-making in general. With this in mind, you want to cover ground like: How did you become interested in art? What makes you want to pursue it as a vocation or calling? How have you pursued this throughout your life? What were the pivotal experiences and decisions that cemented your identity as an artist? Brainstorm these points — they’ll form the rough skeleton of your essay. You want to make a case for yourself as someone who is already an artist and wants to take a next major step in that journey. An MFA program is not for dilettantes or dabblers, and admission committees sniff out these types fast.

YOUR STATEMENT IS NOT YOUR RESUME. This is really tempting for people who already have considerable industry experience and are applying to graduate school to take their craft to the next level. You want to emphasize all the big names you worked with, the big jobs you took, just to make sure they get it. And while it’s certainly not a bad thing to mention you worked for this Important Industry Person or studied under that Famous Smartypants, but if that information is already somewhere in your application — like if the Important Person wrote a recommendation for you — don’t give a lot of space to it in your application unless you elaborate on the key ways it shaped you as an artist. You’ll want to use any and all available space for something else.

TELL IT LIKE…A STORY. Even if you’re a visual artist or filmmaker, you still want to write your statement with a sense of forward momentum and flow, and even be a pleasure to read. You’ll probably be simply narrating who you are and what you’ve done, but don’t forget the impact of creating a vivid image or strong, distinctive language. You’re applying for an arts degree — think of your statement as a work of art, and try to make it a true experience to read it. At the very least, come up with a great opening line, image or incident. Trust me, a weary application reader will perk up, especially after reading hundreds of other uninspired, by-the-book essays.

…BUT DON’T BE OVERTLY CLEVER. I know, I know, contradictory advice! But there is such a thing as way too cute, clever or gimmicky. Don’t write your personal statement in blank verse. Don’t submit a comic strip instead of an essay. Just…

FOLLOW THE DANG INSTRUCTIONS. To the letter. Mind your Ps and Qs: spell-check like a fiend, get a very grammatically precise person to read it over and make suggestions. Don’t go beyond the page-length given! Make sure you’ve addressed every single thing the application has asked you to address. Don’t give an admissions application evaluator an excuse to reject your application.

REMEMBER THAT OTHER PARTS OF THE APPLICATION ARE SPEAKING FOR YOU AS WELL. I touched on this earlier, but it bears repeating: the personal statement is one of the most vivid and intimate parts of your application, but it’s just part of the larger mosaic. The tendency sometimes is to want to prove how brilliant and accomplished and talented you are, and what an asset you will be to the program, which is understandable. But remember: your creative exercises and your portfolio and resume also can do that as well — application readers are smart, they can read between the lines. It’s just as important to be human in your personal statement. If a reader is going to develop any emotional connection or even just remember your application out of the hundreds or thousands, it’ll be from something they’ve read in your personal statement. So don’t be afraid to be open and honest. You have nothing to lose.

PUT THE PROGRAM — AND YOUR LARGER VISION — IN THE NARRATIVE. If the personal statement is in part a story of your journey so far as an artmaker, then you’ll get extra special bonus points if you at least touch on how where the MFA program fits into that trajectory and how it fits into your larger vision of your life as an artist. Yes, you should allude to your larger vision of your life and career beyond or even without your MFA! This will tell the admissions committee how far you’ve thought it out…or else alert them to anyone whose created a vision for themselves that is “make or break” on getting an MFA, which isn’t good. Again: MFA programs for the most part look for applicants that already have a strong history and journey as an artist, in addition to your talent and your vision and temperament. They want to know that you’ll still be an artist, even if you don’t get into their program. It’s that kind of commitment that is the baseline for the MFA kind of experience — because without it, you’ll be eaten alive by the program’s intensity.

The most important thing about the personal statement in an MFA application (or any application, I suppose) is that it is a stand-in for you. And while it’s tempting to turn yourself into a pretzel to get into “somewhere, anywhere,” remember that the best approach is to be authentic. If you’re an experimental poet, don’t play up like you’re into writing classical fiction narrative if the program seems to emphasize that. (And why are you applying for this program, anyway?) Because all programs have limited resources, a good MFA program knows what its strengths are and diverts its resources towards that. It also has a plan of where it wants to be in the future and is making steps towards that as well — and often those shifts AREN’T touted on the MFA program’s website or other promotional materials.

The best thing is just to be yourself on the page; this will tell admissions officers if you’re a good fit for the program. If you are, you’ve cleared a big hurdle. If not, trust me — you’re better off not going there in the first place.

Good luck!

Like what you just read? Maybe you'll like my book as well

All Things Glorious and True: Love Letters to Pop Culture, New York, Fashion and Other Objects of Affection is a collection of essays exploring how my crushes on music, dive bars, books, outfits and so much else gave me a braver soul, more open heart and even love. All Things is like a great, stylish mixtape: surprising, kind of punky, fun and often heartfelt.


Tags: applications, grad school, , personal statement