It's getting to be MFA application season, and I know one of the parts of the application students always worry about most is the personal statement. In hopes of demystifying this, here's some of what I'm thinking about when I look at one as part of an application.
(Disclaimers: I've done seven years of MFA admissions, at two universities. What I read for might not be what someone else does. And remember: The personal statement matters, but always remember that the writing sample is the prime piece of the application.)
First and foremost: How will the writer use their time in the MFA? Sometimes it's "I want to write a novel about X." Sometimes it's more an area of inquiry: "I'm writing stories in the tradition of Y and Z." But I want to see something more than "I want time to write."
Second: Where do they come from as a reader? I'm excited to hear about students' specific influences and inspirations. Many personal statements mention zero writers or books! There's no right answer here. It doesn't have to be cool or trendy. But I want to know who you love.
Third: What have you done as a writer since undergrad? If you're just graduating, no worries, but I'm always curious to know how an applicant has made progress on their own. Students who can grow outside the structure of a program will usually also succeed inside it.
Fourth: Will this person be a good citizen in our community? There's no right or wrong set of evidence here, but if you've been helping with a reading series or volunteering at mags or working in publishing or otherwise engaging your community, I'd love to hear about it.
That's the big stuff! Who you are as a writer. Who you are as a reader. A sense of ambition and work ethic. A likely good community member. The personal statement is where you speak directly for yourself. Take advantage of that chance.