Tuesday, February 15, 2011

My MFA Personal Statement (a.k.a. Statement of Purpose)

The chatter over at the Creative Writing MFA Blog indicates some folks wish to see examples of personal statements, so I thought I'd post mine here.  It's no golden ticket, but it has gotten me into a few reputed programs. I applied to 14 schools and received acceptances from LSU, Wash-U. in St. Louis, Vanderbilt, and Florida.

Notes:  My letter was more or less the same to all the schools, but of course I tailored each according to their specifications.  Below is the letter I sent to Vanderbilt, just shy of 500 words, which I believe is pretty standard.

I've also included a link to an earlier draft that includes edits and feedback from a consultant at Driftless House, which I found enormously helpful.

Finally, I have links* to my teaching statement for Indy (also used for LSU and Syracuse), and my pair of letters to Michigan, which required a more academically-oriented "Statement of Purpose" in addition to the personal statement.  Please bear in mind that I did not get accepted to Michigan or Indiana U., so those letters aren't "proven."  And the teaching statement is reflective of someone who has no formal teaching experience to date.
  • Early draft of Personal Statement with edits
  • Teaching Statement (Indiana)
  • Personal Statement and Academic Statement (Michigan)
*Update (11/17/16) unfortunately the filesharing service I used for these is no longer active, it seems, nor can I find the docs elsewhere. If I ever stumble across them I'll repost. Sorry!

Personal Statement, Final version

November 30, 2010

Creative Writing
Vanderbilt University
411 Kirkland Hall
Nashville, TN 37240

Dear Selection Committee,

Once upon a Grade One writing test I composed "Chicky and Eggy," a nine-sentence saga that follows a hatchling and pre-hatchling as they explore the world outside their nest, flirt with danger, and discover the power of friendship and forgiveness.

More recently, I am making final revisions to a manuscript I have worked on for the past six years, an underground fantasy inspired by the humor of Richard Russo, the tenderness of Charles Baxter, the imagination of Chuck Palahniuk and the talents of so many other authors who move me. The journey has been nothing short of a gift, but even so, getting lost in the wilderness of one project for so many years has made me hungry for new terrain. Scraping together even ten hours per week to write is challenging when one works full time and tries to maintain a balanced lifestyle. It makes for slow progress, no matter if you measure by total words written or refinement of craft.

I long for sophisticated criticism from professionals and fellow aspirants, and for the emotional support of an impassioned community. In that spirit I am currently auditing a workshop at Harvard taught by Amy Hempel, and the perspective and inspiration I’ve found there has convinced me I am ready to be immersed in creative writing full time. If enrolled in your MFA program I would pursue short story projects to explore my written voice, as well as various character and plot ideas, with a long eye toward my next novel.

In my current position at the Harvard Kennedy School, I edit a weekly column on public management for the online magazine Governing.com, as well as a biweekly e-newsletter highlighting government innovations, reaching ~10,000 and ~8,500 readers, respectively. This work has honed my attention to syntactic detail and improved my ability to clarify complex ideas. Most significantly, it has taught me how best to make my criticism constructive and respectful.

My professional interests are eclectic and ever-changing. After switching majors twice, I graduated with a degree in psychology and for three years worked on a research project focused on preventing depression in children. I then came to the Kennedy School where, in addition to my editing roles, I produce web conferences for government professionals on topics ranging from land conservation to combating human trafficking. I have also been a nightclub bartender and a day camp counselor, built water collection systems in Africa, mentored children, tutored prisoners, and conducted supervised psychotherapy sessions with the developmentally disabled.

Throughout all of this, I have crafted stories. Writing remains my most enduring passion and defines sense of purpose. I have proven to myself that my commitment to the craft merits a higher level of instruction. I hope I have the opportunity to prove the same to you, and thank you for your consideration.


Jim Cooney


Anonymous said...

Hey James,

Thanks for being so open and helpful! I would love to read your sample too, if you would like to share it with me. My email is tt002006@mymail.pomona.edu

Thanks again and good luck with the rest of the MFA process!


Ink and Beans said...

Thank you so much Tiffany, and of course I'd love to share it. Will send shortly. Good luck to you as well!

Andrew Maynard said...

Thanks James for your willingness to share. I would also love to read your story if you don't mind. My email is mommymayday@hotmail.com

Cherry Lou Sy said...

You sound great. Ok, let me clarify: you sound like you know what you're doing and that you haven't been wasting time and that you have a trajectory. I guess anyone from a recruitment perspective would eat you up.

Good luck!

Brandon said...

Hi James, I've been following yours and other comments on the MFA blog and was glad to find the link to your personal blog. With my second application cycle so far looking just as grim as the first, it would do me well to read a sample that has some positivity around it. If you don't mind sending your sample my way as well, my email is brandonjoshuawilliams@gmail.com.

Thanks so much,

heathercore said...

Love your letter and would love to read your sample. If you don't mind, my e-mail is hkrisman at gmaildotcom. Thanks!

J. Rosemary Moss said...

I hate to admit this--but I want to read the Chicky and Egg story!

Mazel tov on all your acceptances--I can't wait to hear where you end up. :)

FireSnake said...

Hey Ink,

I was curious, I noticed a few people asking if they could see your sample. If it's possible, could I receive a copy too? I'm just trying to gage what the various schools are looking for for when I apply next year.



Anonymous said...

Ink and Beans, I have been a long-time reader of your awesome blog. I've been very grateful for how open you've been throughout the entire process.

I'm getting ready to apply myself for the first time: what are your thoughts on Driftless House? Should I save up and try for it? Where all did you get in this year? Do you know others who've used it?

My Super Best to you.


Ink and Beans said...

Clara, thanks for your kind words. Yes, I highly recommend Driftless House. It wasn't cheap but it was worth every penny. Perhaps you read this already but I describe my experience in more detail here.

Unfortunately I haven't heard a direct opinion, one way of the other, from anyone else who has used them, but there are other people who have been admitted to top programs and used Driftless House -- you'd have to ask them if they thought DH was a significant factor. I'm sure the consultants at DH would happy to put you in touch with other MFA students who have used their services so you can ask for their honest assessment.

Taks said...

Hey James,

Just came across your site from the Creative Writing MFA blog.

Anyways, I just wanted to say we're totally in the same boat (I applied to 9 MFA programs last year, got rejected from all, applied to 14 this year and got accepted to 2) and congratulations for the awesome acceptances.

I have a bunch of friends at Harvard grad school, so we might know someone who might know...

anyways, good luck wherever you end up!


Anonymous said...

Thanks Jim! I definitely will take your advice.

Good luck to you with your decision-making for the fall!

Clara :)

The Hoot said...

I&B, where did you decide to go, in the end? Or are you still deciding??

Anonymous said...

Thanks for being so helpful, you've really helped me find some sense of direction for the application prep process I will shortley be engaged in. Would it be possible to see your writing sample that got you in?


I've re-vamped mine about a million times and still find I'm lacking in confidence. I would love to see one that has been accepted :)

Anonymous said...

Seriously, thank you so much. All of your materials have been tremendously helpful! Where did you end up deciding to go? Best of luck to you!

Joanne said...

Hey Jim,

I know this is an old post by now, but I was wondering if I could get a copy of your writing sample too? I only realized that I wanted to do a graduate program in Creative Writing last month after I had been traveling Europe and thinking about my goals. So now I'm playing catch up and preparing my manuscript this month. I wish I had more time to prepare and do my research. I'm nervous and trying to get past my nervousness induced writers block. Help please? My email is joanneyao@yahoo.com. Thank you :)

Anonymous said...

Can u post your writing sample?

Anonymous said...

Chicky and eggy?...seems like post modern, smug, cutesy ploy at approval...just be real...writing sample is key

Ink and Beans said...

"Chicky and Eggy" is post-modern and smug?

Clearly I don't feel as ashamed by this letter as I should.

Melissa Soderquist said...

Hi Jim,

I think it's really helpful of you to post you're personal statement on your blog. I know it's a few years away, but I'll have to write one of these for my medical school application and it's always nice to read someone elses. It seems like you have a lot of experiences to write about. You seem very accomplished and I would love it if you would help me with my personal statement when the time comes!

Ink and Beans said...

Thank you Melissa!

Anonymous said...

I know this is an old post, but I would be so grateful if you sent your writing sample to mockbirdhollow@aol.com. I would love to read it. Congratulations! Thank you so much for sharing!

Yazz said...

Hi Jim,

Thanks for the share. I've been looking for something like this for a while now. Would you mind sharing your sample with me as well? My email address is yyilmaz.ucla@gmail.com

Thanks again!

Sirenna Blas said...

This was extremely helpful! Thanks so much for posting! I had found this part of the application process to be intimidating, but this helps me relax about it a bit.

Ink and Beans said...

Thank you Sirenna! Best of luck to you as you apply!

Reza Takhshid said...


First of all thanks for sharing.

I'm an English Lit. student from Iran, and I'm planning to apply for a Creative Writing program in the U.S. I could really use a hand.

I would appreciate it if you would send me an email so I could contact you and describe my situation.

Thank you in advance.

Rez(A) T.

Reza Takhshid said...

sorry forgot my email

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim,

Thank you so much for this post! I think my old comment may have just been deleted...I've been working on my personal statement and scouring the internet looking for examples. This is perfect. Thanks for all your insights on the application process, having come out alive on the other side. I know this is an old post, but I would be incredibly grateful if you'd be willing to share your portfolio at the time of your admission (zyphoidwolf@aol.com). Thank you so much again and good luck in your future writing life!

Ink and Beans said...

Hi there!

Thank you so much for your kind words. I'm so glad those ramblings are still proving useful to people.

I used to send my story out to those who asked --- and I always felt flattered that they would do so, as I am flattered now. But I made a decision to stop doing so a while back, for two reasons.

First, a more personal one, which is that I found I would occasionally receive unsolicited feedback on it. I'm sure you can imagine that this was slightly annoying, since I get more than enough criticism that I seek out in workshop and elsewhere. But it also indicated to me a larger issue, which is that I was having people read my story as something of a measuring stick, or a basis for comparison, or a frame a reference (however you want to call it) instead of reading it simply for the story it was. I'm not judging --- I have requested and read stories from successful applicants with similar motivations. But it's a perverse lens through which to examine a story, and for selfish reasons, I didn't want my story being read that way.

Which relates to the second point --- I truly believe there is little to be learned, in terms of applying to MFA programs, from reading the stories of those who are accepted. The process does recognize and reward good writing, I think, but even so, it's so subjective, and when I look at my classmates' writing I am amazed by how utterly different their styles are from mine. Also, the story that gained me admittance into a few good programs was not enough to dazzle the teachers in others. It really does come down to "Who is this group of 3-4 faculty writers most excited to work with?"

In short, I don't believe there's much to be gained, for either of us, if you read my story under these circumstances. Ultimately, the best version of your best story is all that matters, and when it does get you into the program you want, it won't resemble any other successful application story.

I hope that makes sense. And of course I'm honored that you would ask. Best of luck!

maria flaccavento said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
maria flaccavento said...

this is so helpful, thank you -- especially the version with comments. you & chris know your stuff.

Mandy said...

Hi James,

Thanks for sharing--I'm filling out my very first set of MFA applications and examples like these, both the final letter and the draft, are helping quite a bit. Good luck in writing/studying in the future.


Ink and Beans said...

Mandy and Maria, thank you for your kind words! I'm glad this stuff is still proving helpful to people! Best of luck to both of you this application season.

Mad Mack said...

You're awesome for doing this-- SOPs are the scariest part of the application package!

Ink and Beans said...

Thanks Mack! Good luck!

Nicole Gibbs said...

Thank you for this. I was all of a sudden struck with a paralyzing fear when I sat down to write my statement of purpose. It helps to see what others have (successfully) done. I am a little bit sad that you no longer share your story, though I agree with your reasoning. I doubt I would share it if it were my own!

Ink and Beans said...

Thanks Nicole! Good luck!

Anastacio Aranda said...

Hola James,

Your post has been immensely helpful. I cannot thank you enough for your help! I was wondering as many others have, would you be so kind as to share your writing sample with me as well? Thanks in advance!


Shelmah said...

This post has been very helpful. Thank you for sharing. I was hoping for a chance to also read your entry story and i would be grateful if you choose to send it.

My email is: oliviabarth@ymail.com

Kind Regards

Laurie Robins said...

Too bad I can't "like" your comment made on Feb 15, 2012. I'm grateful that someone was kind enough to be willing to share a "winning" entry for MFA programs. Very well done. I'd also like to hear your sample if you still read these comments....
laurie.robins5@gmail.com Thanks!!

Xavier Oyarb said...

Hi, I'm going through the MFA app process right now, and I would love to read your sample, if you care to share. And your SOP has been really helpful, thank you for sharing that with everybody!

xavier982 at gmail dot com

James Cooney said...

I just wanted to pop in and say, first, thanks to those of you who commented lately, and I'm so glad you found the blog and MFA info helpful.

For those who asked about seeing my story, I sincerely appreciate your interest. However, I no longer share the story -- I provide an explanation for why in an earlier comment on this thread (October 21, 2012).

Robert Linde said...