How to Write Your MFA Statement of Purpose: A Success Story

MFA Statement of Purpose Tools Paint Pencils Notepad

Though they may not realize it, Fine Arts students are cursed. (Believe me, I know, I was one.) Not only are they more stubborn than engineers, but often they suffer the misfortune of being shackled to creative self-expression. Of course, unbounded creativity is a necessary and glorious aspect of their existence. But when it comes time to write an MFA statement of purpose, this same creativity can be a kiss of death.

It doesn’t matter that we’re applying for a somewhat non-academic degree. It doesn’t matter that we’re being judged on our ability to produce meaningful art. All that matters is that this one aspect of the application – the SOP – is NOT the same as a portfolio, in which we unleash our most potent creative juices. Instead, the SOP is a test for how clearly we can articulate our goals.

The funny thing is, these difficulties apply to ALL kinds of MFA applicants, from creative writing to visual arts to theater. (Creative writing students might be the worst.) Though the art differs, all seem to have trouble articulating their goals and inspirations without resorting to artful prose gimmicks. In fact, they face the exact same obstacles that ALL graduate applicants face.

That’s why I was so impressed by Yuxuan.

A color-blind graphic designer and painter, and non-native English speaker, Yuxuan wrote an SOP that puts many creative writing students to shame. And it earned admission to 5 fully funded MFA programs.

But before we read Yuxuan’s amazing essay, let’s examine how he started planning, so we can help you achieve the same wild success.

Getting Started

When he looked back on his applications, Yuxuan expressed his anxieties this way:

“I think the pandemic was a huge disadvantage. It increased the number of applicants and also reduced schools’ funds. This was a big challenge for me since I mainly applied for fully funded MFAs. At the same time, the pandemic reduced available studio time, and I had to complete a lot of my projects at home. The lack of space and equipment gave me a lot of concerns about my portfolio, so I knew I needed a statement of purpose that showed I could be better than other applicants.”

Luckily, Yuxuan was a willing student. When he read the Structure is Magic template, he understood immediately that the SOP isn’t a work of creativity, but a job application. His portfolio would reveal his artistic potential. But the essay had to reveal his potential as a clear thinker who knew exactly why he was applying to each program.

What did he want to convey?

  1. The over-arching theme of his work; the artistic problems that really motivate him.
  2. Why each individual school was a perfect place for him to develop those themes.
  3. How his past successes prove he’s ready to succeed as an artist (and maybe…teacher).

What’s Great About This SOP?

Yuxuan followed Structure is Magic as if it were a paint-by-numbers exercise, and the results were spectacular.

  • Two paragraphs in the Introductory Frame Narrative
  • One paragraph for Why This Program
  • Two paragraphs for Why I’m (Overly) Qualified
  • One resounding frame narrative conclusion paragraph

Amazingly, this paragraph-by-paragraph structure is almost exactly the same as that used by uber-successful Neuroscience PhDs. (When I tell you these narrative structures are universal and timeless, I ain’t lying!)

The frame narrative starts with the compelling story of how color-blindness makes Yuxuan a truly unique artist. It’s funny, humble, and it teaches us something. Quickly, this evolves into a description of the techniques he obsesses over in his pursuit of barrier-free art, and how this defines his goals.

Next, it goes into great detail to explain why two professors at his target school are the absolute perfect mentors for Yuxuan: they share the same artistic obsessions, and have much to teach him. Then, he gives a “highlight reel” of his artistic and academic achievements, proving that he’s ready to continue succeeding in graduate school.

Finally, the SOP ends with a clear rearticulation of Yuxuan’s goals, proving that his “genetic color weakness is actually an invaluable lens for viewing the world.”

This essay is beautiful. After reading, we walk away knowing we’ve encountered a true and talented artist, one with a uniquely powerful mind. Let’s read it and find inspiration for your own writing.

A Brilliant MFA Statement of Purpose

I have a red-green color weakness, one most people know as color-blindness. Most people think this means I see the world without green and red. Actually, in my world, reds and greens are grey shades with variegating shadows. I also have difficulty distinguishing pink from grey, and purple from blue. Curiously, this makes me think of animals. Dolphins are dichromats. They can see only two colors. Humans are trichromats. We see red, blue and yellow. Pigeons are tetrachromats. They see the world in a way people cannot even imagine. All creatures see the world through the heteronomy of their colors, and I exist somewhere between humans and dolphins. This fascinates me deeply.

In college, I have largely worked with chiaroscuro and high-contrast color. Chiaroscuro has always been provocative, as my insensitivity to color only increases my sensitivity to light and shadow. No shadow is a single shade of darkness, and I have found high-contrast color offers the same points of inquiry, especially blue, which is as bright as red in the eyes of people with color weakness. Color is thus an expression of self-identity. In most of my work, it is not an emotional expression, but a rational guide in a metaphysical dialogue that alters over time, and this issue of barrier-free visualization is exactly what I hope to explore in the MFA program at Gotham City School of Design.

I am particularly inspired by the work of Professor Karl Banksy. His work often deals with underserved public interest issues, echoing my own pursuit of barrier-free visual experiences. As I create designs for people with achromatopsia, color disorders, and others with visual impairment who are often overlooked in social services, I believe Professor Banksy will be a great mentor. I also feel inspired by Professor Wang Lu, whose research focuses on historical and cultural influence in graphic design. As a Chinese-diaspora artist, I often explore design themes idiosyncratic to Asian culture in my work. I experimented with this in my contribution to “Seeking Plural Narratives,” a recent anthology which sought to examine Eurocentric design and typographic cultures. My pieced discussed Cuban graphic design and its similarities to communist iconography from China. Therefore, I think Professor Lu will be a reliable mentor as I grow my international, multicultural vision for design.

As I consider working with these ideas at GCSD, my academic experiences give me confidence. At Metropolis University, I have excelled as a Graphic Design major, earning a 3.8 GPA even as I took graduate-level coursework in design and computational thinking. These latter courses allowed me to explore philosophy of art, particularly regarding deep fakes and artificial intelligence, as I combined critical reviews of important texts with coding experiments. By studying our emerging culture of disinformation selectively deployed as media manipulation, I learned how new modes of thinking are required to critically and artistically engage with computer culture in the public realm. This use of technology is also an area I hope to explore at GCSD. At the same time, I have interned for one year at the Metropolis Center for Arts and Technology, where among other tasks I serve as a teaching assistant for students from low-income families. Teaching these students, many of whom work part-time to fund their art tuition, has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It has taught me new degrees of empathy, inspiring even more my desire to study barrier-free visual experience, and sparking my a desire to become an educator.

This is why I apply to GCSD: to study barrier-free visual experiences, to contemplate art in a multicultural and technological world, and to prepare to become a teacher myself. If given the chance to pursue these goals, I will work hard to be a credit to the university, and prove that my genetic color weakness is actually an invaluable lens for viewing the world.

Professional, Powerful, Persuasive

I admit that Yuxuan has a unique background that not everyone can match. A colorblind artist?! C’mon. But either way, it’s easy to see how everyone can model his essay and speak to program directors in a professional, powerful, and persuasive way.

  1. Start with a compelling Frame Narrative

What is it about your art that makes you unique? What are you trying to accomplish? What stories are you trying to tell? Which aspects of humanity are you trying to draw out and explore? Most importantly, how are these inspired by your own life and experiences?

Don’t devolve into hackneyed proclamations about social issues. I assure you, every MFA program receives 500 essays a year about social inequalities and art-as-activism. Instead, focus on the things that make you and your art different from everyone else’s.

  1. Explain “Why This School” is perfect for you

Once you’ve established the goals for your art, it’s time to explain how this school will help you achieve those goals. Look at the studios and resources available. Look at the faculty. Look at their work. See which courses and workshops you can take under them. Make sure they’re actually teaching next semester! Draw connections between your own themes, obsessions, and questions, and those in the work of your hopeful professors.

A warning, however: don’t claim that a school is perfect because they have a famous professor. Fame is not a good reason to want to work with someone. You need to find real connections between their work and yours. If the connection isn’t there, you’ll only look immature. Remember: if a school has a famous professor, everyone who applies will mention them in their MFA statement of purpose.

  1. Prove that you’re ready to succeed

You’re applying to be a graduate student. Here, give them proof that you’ve been a good student in the past, and will continue to do so in the future. Remember, your portfolio proves how good an artist you are. This section shows that you take everything else seriously as well.

Good GPA. Awards you’ve won. Unique design internships you’ve held. Whatever constitutes your “Greatest Hits List,” include it here.

  1. End your Frame Narrative

In the beginning, you showed how your life has been unique, and how this gave you unique artistic goals. Now, restate those goals. Remind us of them. Be circular. Take us back to the beginning. Give us a feeling of harmony as we finish your essay.

Conclusion

I’m grateful to Yuxuan for allowing me to republish his work and brag about his success. I originally met him through BosonEd in Philadelphia, a fantastic organization that helps internationals study in elite universities in America. Right from the start, I knew Yuxuan would be an artist of true consequence one day, and I hope his writing is an inspiration for you.

As you craft your MFA statement of purpose, do exactly what Yuxuan did: follow the Structure is Magic template or the SOP Starter Kit. Use the timeless, universal lessons of narrative structure to compose an essay that actively persuades programs to choose you.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking: “Oh, I’m an artist, I’m a creative writer, I know how to do this.” Chances are, you don’t. The SOP isn’t a short story. It’s not a film script nor a personal memoir. It is, however, the easiest part of the application to screw up. But if you treat it properly, as a clear, mature, professional statement of your plans for the future, then I’m sure you too can achieve wild success, and I wish you all the luck in the world!

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The SOP Starter Kits

These FREE (and highly insightful) guides will tell you exactly what to write, step-by-step, and leave you feeling super-confident and ready to hit “submit.”