So, You Want to Go to Grad School?
Pt. 4– The Statement of Purpose
Ah, yes, my favorite part of the graduate school process. I have so many thoughts and feelings to share with you, and man, this one is a doozy.
When applying to MFA Photography/Visual Art programs, every school will ask you to submit a Statement of Purpose/Intent. This is just as important as your portfolio of work– and let me ask you a question: Did you create your graduate-school-worthy body of work in one night? No, you did not.
Don’t treat your personal statement as something you can crank out in one night. Because if you want to get into a good program, making it up as you go will not help you.
GIVE YOURSELF TIME. I’m pretty sure I’m in the minority here, but I started thinking about my statement in August of the year I was applying. I’m not exaggerating– August. Most people don’t start until late November/early December. This is a mistake, and I will tell you why later on.
So, let’s get down to business. What makes a good Statement of Purpose? Almost all schools want you to answer a few questions:
- How did you come to focus on your medium?
- Tell us about the development of your work?
- Why our school?
- What is your plan for the future?
You have to answer all of these questions in 250-700 words or less. The word count depends on the institution. Daunting yet?
No worries. I’ll be showing you examples of answers to these questions, from one of my own Statement of Purpose. I have a damn good statement– I interviewed for every school I applied to except one (oh Columbia University, u so silly,) minus the ones that didn’t do interviews, and the ones that didn’t do interviews straight up accepted me.
Oh, I also got a full ride scholarship.
You are in good hands, mes amis.
Introduction: How did you come to focus on your medium?
This is vital to your success. The committee reviewing your application is going through hundreds of them, and if they start reading your statement and it is boring as hell, say hello to the trash can. Your first sentence should be compelling enough for the reader to go on to the next one, and the one after that. Many people start off with quotes from famous artists or photographers. I wasn’t keen on this approach, since it is done often, and I wanted to be special (who doesn’t?)
My opening sentence was this:
I had been absorbed in photography throughout high school, but I put down my camera and took up a pen when I left for college.
This sentence makes the reader ask, “What does she mean, she took up a pen?” My sentence is simple, and clearly begins a narrative. The introduction to your statement is the part where you explain why it is you want to pursue the MFA. This is where you get to share your passion for your medium! The best way to do this is to write out your story of how and why you love your medium. Then cut out the unimportant bits, change the language so the story flows– because that is what your introduction is, a story.
I had been absorbed in photography throughout high school, but I put down my camera and took up a pen when I left for college. I thought becoming a writer was the best way to make the ideas that were in my head tangible, but as much as I loved reading and writing, their images seemed latent and unfulfilling. I reconnected with photography, and after creating a series of images that satisfied my longing, I added a Studio Arts BFA to my studies in my second semester of freshman year. Being a part of an artistic community and having the guidance of inspiring faculty, my passion for photography was restored, and now there is only room for it to grow.
Tell us about the development of your work?
This next section was the hardest for me to get through. Here, you have to prove that you know how to talk about art– especially your art. You need to be able to convey your ideas clearly, and relate those ideas to your portfolio you submitted.
WARNING WARNING WARNING
PLEASE HEED MY ADVICE HERE. Too many artist statements say nothing. You have read them yourself in galleries: just a block of text with fancy words thrown in that doesn’t mean a thing. Artists are known for not being particularly good writers, but never fear– if you suck at writing, you’re going to be okay. I’ll tell you how, so stop hyperventilating and close the thesaurus tab on your browser.
Back to your work: what themes are you exploring? What does your research entail? What are you hoping to convey?
Because of my work in literature and writing, I’ve become a photographer who is interested in visual storytelling. The tableau is my aesthetic of choice and the stories of dreams and memories are what I want to share through the lens. The stories I tend to tell are dreamlike because dreams have fascinated me since I was old enough to know what they were. As a child, my dreams were so lucid that I sometimes confused them with reality. The personal weight they have on my early life created a life-long interest in finding out more about them and what purpose they have. If a dream has significant impact on an individual, they may remember the dream for the rest of their life—which ties dreams and memory together.
Here I clearly state what my work is about, and why. I like to work with dreams and memory because these topics had an impact on my childhood. My “what” is dreams and memories, and my “why” is because they impacted me as a child. I expanded on the “what” and “why”, and ta-da, I had a good start. But I continued in a new paragraph, to discuss my research, my bodies of work in my portfolio, and what I wanted to convey:
My goal is to continue investigating dreams, memory, and narrative and how the three oftentimes intersect. My most recent research has led to the creation of surrealist scenes directly tied to my childhood. Home Sweet Home and Allow Me to Share My Nightmares with You explores the nostalgic tendency of memory, and whether or not the memory is something that has root in reality. Our memories of things that happened and our memories of dreams follow a narrative pattern that is oftentimes distorted or romanticized. Instead of choosing just a pen or a camera, my work requires both. This is my way of storytelling, and, when done correctly, viewers leave with their own stories about what they saw in my work. I’m a writer and a photographer—I can’t help feeling like I have something to say, and when my stories are continued in the voices of others, I’m compelled to keep sharing.
Now, mind you, these paragraphs are short and sweet because they needed to be. My original explanation was easily 3x as long. Also, everything I say means something. I’m not typing gibberish, and I’m not being vague. You need to radiate confidence, not just in your work, but in your writing as well. Show those committee members you are a person who knows what they want! You came, you saw, you conquered, you got into your dream school because you are the baddest bitch.
Why our school?
So, why do you want to attend that particular school? Unfortunately, you can’t say “because I want to,” or “it has been my dream to attend this school.” The first thing you need to do is go to the website of the school you are applying to, and look at their philosophy and how the department operates. Do you want to create work that has a sociopolitical impact? Or do you want to explore what it means to be a contemporary photographer? Perhaps you are more interested in learning about theory and criticism, or maybe you just like the facilities. Like I said– be confident, show that you put in the work, and show them you know what you want.
The support of inter-disciplinary research found at -insert college here- is important to me, as I come from a background of English and Art, and I’ve found that pursuing degrees in both disciplines only improves my photography. That, in combination with being in a program with different voices, backgrounds, techniques, practices, among some of the best image-makers in the field, would be invaluable. Engaging in discourse with such a community would show me new ways to approach my work, and that thought alone is enticing. I’m ready to be a part of that kind of community, and I’m ready to contribute my own background as an artist and writer.
and here is another example:
The encouraging environment at -insert college here- fits well with my academic interests and goals. The emphasis on exploration and redefinition of the photographic medium is appealing, as are the opportunities to work with other departments at the university. The support of inter-disciplinary research is important to me, as I come from a background of English and Art, and I’ve found that pursuing degrees in both disciplines only improves my photography.
After reading this, they get it. I like the school for the interdisciplinary opportunities, which I know about through their website. #nailed it.
What is your plan for the future?
I hate to break it to you, but you cannot write “Hell if I know!” as an answer to this question.
I used this question as a way to wrap up my Statement of Purpose. Some schools just want to know what you kind of want to do, whereas others want to see that you have a plan already in mind. My college was the latter.
My ultimate goal is not to just become a professional fine art photographer, but a well-educated one. Since I want to do this for the rest of my life, I have many years to produce work. However, I’m afraid that after a while my work will grow stagnant, becoming a circle of redundancy and devolution. The MFA in Photography program at -insert college here- would prevent that from happening, as it would grant me access to a world of artists who have different ideas, backgrounds, and practices. I’m drawn to the challenges a MFA program presents conceptually, technically, and critically, as these things are necessary tools for work to change, grow, and improve. There may be times where I feel like I’m stuck as an artist, but the MFA in Photography will remind me that there are different ways of approaching a problem and giving me a chance to solve it. Another opportunity the MFA would grant me is teaching at a collegiate level, should I choose so down the road. If I decide to take this route in the future, I would need to be experienced as a professional and educated like an academic. With all of that in mind, studying photography at -insert college here- would undoubtedly enhance my practice.
You can use your last paragraph for more explanation on why you want the MFA. I said why, and tied it into my future career goals. This is probably the easiest part of your statement, but don’t call it quits just yet. You need to end the statement gracefully, not abruptly. A terrible place for me to end my statement would be:
Another opportunity the MFA would grant me is teaching at a collegiate level, should I choose so down the road.
Like, okay? That’s nice? Good for you? I was writing so nicely about my goals and how the MFA is a perfect compliment, and I ended it with a sentence that looks like a tagged-on thought? No, Felicia. Bye.
I finished my thoughts. When you are ending your statement, close it like a book. You want the last sentence to resonate with your entire statement.
SOME HELPFUL TIPS:
- I started my statement in August. I wrote it in September, and edited it until it was due. I spent hours typing away, trying to figure out what to say and how to say it. Every time I went to work on my statement, it would be for a minimum of three hours. I feel I must reiterate: START EARLY.
- Use your professors. If you are currently in school, this shouldn’t be much of a problem. If you’re out of school, don’t be afraid to contact a professor– they would be more than happy to help you. Having a professor to speak with was extremely beneficial, as he knew what the graduate selection process was like, so he knew what to look for in a statement. He was able to point out my weak points, and improve them. Professors also make great editors– my favorite English professor edited mine, and if it weren’t for his guidance, my writing would read like a hot mess. If you suck at writing, you must do this.
- Include the word “research.” Researching in the arts can be reading, looking stuff up on the internet, looking at photos other people took, and messing around with your own work. Trust me, you have done research. Try to incorporate that word into your statement, because all grad programs talk about doing research. This was a piece of advice given to me by a professor.
- Read your statement aloud, every. Single. Time. I know, I’m the worst, but SO MANY PEOPLE submit their statements, go back to look at them, and realize they made a grammatical error, a spelling mistake, or the worst– having the wrong school typed in. So many regrets from so many people. Don’t be that guy.
- Take it seriously. Usually, faculty look at your portfolio, then if they are interested in you, they will look at your personal statement next. And if that is good, they will look at the rest of your app, like your resume and transcript. The Statement of Purpose is important for your success.
- Don’t sound as if you have a croissant shoved up your ass. If your grandma can’t understand your statement, you are using too many big words. Don’t lose your personality in ridiculous vocabulary. It’s not worth it.
I think that should be good for now. The statement may seem daunting, but it’s okay, you’re going to do just fine.
Only 6 more months until everything is due!