A Purposeless Statement?

December 13, 2006

To gain admission to a master's of fine arts program, or any graduate program for that matter, you have to write a statement of purpose. I began my statement like this: "From an early age, people have told me I should be a writer."

But no matter what I wrote from that point on, I couldn't convince myself that I belonged in an M.F.A. program. My reasons didn't seem good enough or smart enough. I felt like Stuart Smalley -- the sensitive motivational speaker from Saturday Night Live some years back -- but I wasn't about to write, "And doggone it, people like me!"

After a few more drafts, I had my undergraduate adviser read the statement. One of the defining moments in the essay described how my dad developed epilepsy as a middle-aged man. I wrote about how I had changed in the wake of that experience: I became more observant of people. I learned to watch how quickly they chewed their food and to listen for how fast or how slowly they talked, or if they hesitated to talk. As I looked for alterations of what was normal in my father, I wrote, I found them in other people.

After my adviser finished reading my statement, he leaned back in his chair and formed his words carefully: "This is sort of about your family's history of victimization. What if somebody else writes about how they survived the genocide in Rwanda?"

"They would still have to write better than I do," I said.

He was telling me to find a way to tie my personal experience into my "purpose," instead of just offering a story about personal difficulties, which has become a cliché in applications to college and graduate programs. But I didn't understand that immediately, so I started to second-guess him and my "purpose."

To see what somebody else thought, I walked to the opposite end of the English department to visit another brutally honest professor. As she read, I sat wondering how something so small as a two-page statement could secure my way into higher education. When she looked up, she said, "Good political identification." She seemed to think that by including my dad's epilepsy in the statement, I had demonstrated how that experience had restructured the way I understood and organized my relationships.

I said, "Thanks," but I was stuck, and I knew it.

The two different responses to my statement reminded me of the classic scene in those Looney Tunes cartoons in which a character must make a difficult decision -- like whether to kill Bugs Bunny or trap the Road Runner. An angel pops up on the character's right shoulder and a devil on the left to debate the character's motives.

The little guy with the pitchfork whispers taunting remarks about victimization, makes lucid statements about surviving genocide, and issues threats about using my past as a crutch. If I don't listen, well, I might suffer eternal rejection from graduate school.

The guardian angel thinks family history is a logical starting point for a writer trying to enter an M.F.A. program. She likes what I wrote in my statement and makes a couple of grammatical corrections, questions a few transition sentences, and suggests that I add a few more anecdotes.

Elmer Fudd and Wile E. Coyote never seemed to make the right choice. I wanted to avoid that predicament. But in my case both forces had good things to say, so I decided to blend the two points of criticism. I made my statement funny, told a good story, and shrank the victimization and political-identification sections. But I still wasn't sure I did the right thing.

Now that I am in an M.F.A. program, I am still puzzled about the purpose of those "purpose" statements, and the explanations I found on universities' Web sites didn't answer all of my questions. Almost all departments post basic advice about what to include in the statement. Some institutions go into great detail, describing exactly what they are looking for and in which paragraph. In the statement, you should let the program know you are familiar with its focus, appeal to its particular mission, and make a bid for an adviser, various Web sites say.

Graduate directors I contacted by telephone did not shed much more light on the deeper meaning of the purpose statement. One graduate director told me to read the Web site, and said that all the materials were already there. Another replied, "A purpose statement functions so that we can get to know the personal side of a student." And another described it as a personal or psychological exploration: "It's an entryway into a person to see if they are a fit for the program."

Those people weren't intentionally misleading, but nobody could convince me they actually knew what they were reading in "purpose." Most of the answers I got merely rephrased the question, which left me no closer to a unified theory on writing purpose statements.

Then I heard from a friend I knew as an undergraduate who works in a graduate-admissions department. I asked if he would help answer my question, and Benedict, who requested that his real name not be used, agreed to play turncoat.

Why, then, are purpose statements really necessary?

As an admissions officer, he said, "technically all I do is push paper, which means I am not really assessing the statements or transcripts, although I would be lying if I said I wasn't familiar with them, both good and bad, due to the fact that I read a lot of them while I am working." Then he continued, in a long e-mail message, to explain why the statements were necessary.

The purpose statement gives applicants a second chance to show how their past skills and experience fit into their future goals. It showcases their writing skills, which are crucial because writing and publications tend to be an important part of graduate school. Yet the statement is also about telling a good story and not getting too confident. "A student who has good grades and an impressive résumé or recommendation letters may shoot themselves in the foot if their statement shows a lack of general effort or general misunderstanding of the discipline's language," Benedict wrote.

Alternatively, he added, "I have seen statements come across my desk which showcase the talents of students who are obviously hardworking and have dealt with a good deal of adversity and probably deserve a shot at higher education; however, upon reading their statements it is obvious that the level of dedication one would expect from a graduate student is not present."

I read that sentence and reread it again. So no amount of victimization or political identification would substitute for weak writing and grammatical errors.

A dozen people, all of whom had been through the graduate-school admissions process, read drafts of my purpose statement. They all had their own sense of purpose and aesthetic, and found it difficult not to get caught up in that as they read my draft. Yet they knew how to help me not shoot myself in the foot in my own statement. If I had stopped seeking criticism of my draft and given up on fine-tuning it, guys pushing paper, like Benedict, and admissions committees might have seen a lack of quality and dedication to "purpose" in my statement.

Getting my purpose in the statement meant that I had to ignore why my advisors thought I should go to graduate school. To some extent, I had to ignore how people on admissions committees would read my statement. Instead, I had to be honest about my reasons for wanting an M.F.A. So I cut the line, "From an early age, people have told me I should be a writer." Other people weren't writing my statement (and the sentence had a dangling modifier, anyway). And I wrote in those opening sentences about my experiences and my reasons for wanting to write.

In the end, I showed as much honesty as I could in the final draft. But I knew that I was going to keep writing, with or without an M.F.A. program.

Peter Derby is a graduate student in an M.F.A. program on creative nonfiction at the University of Arizona.