How to write your statement of purpose

You see it on all the schools' websites as a required part of your graduate school application: a Statement of Purpose. But what does that even mean?

With respect to costume MFAs, i have a few thoughts. I'm writing this post from purely my own perspective, what I think about how a tatement of purpose should be written. I don't make acceptance decisions, but i do read all the applications and offer feedback, so i've seen dozens of statements of purpose. Bear in mind as you read it, this is only my opinion and is not to be considered any kind of list of stone-carved commandments on the subject.

Because honestly, I can't tell you what your Statement of purpose should be, really, because it's YOUR statement of YOUR purpose in becoming whatever type of costumer you hope to be, and how could I know that? I can tell you for sure what it shouldn't be though.

It shouldn't be a rehash of your resume. You've sent that, they've got it. Don't waste anybody's time--yours or theirs--restating info they already can check out (and have). If you have a great example of how a specific experience was revelatory in terms of your decision to pursue graduate study, then that's ok. For example, we had an applicant who mentioned in her statement of purpose that she realized she needed to pursue graduate study when she was hired as a wardrobe crew member for the Broadway tour of Lion King and had the opportunity to see the interior structures of the Hyena costumes; she wanted to learn how a costume that unusually-structured was conceived and felt that graduate study in a Costume Production program was the best way to achieve that goal. The statement wouldn't have been nearly as compelling if she had just said something like, "I knew from the moment i worked wardrobe on Lion King, this was the path for me." See the difference?

Your statement also shouldn't dwell on how you have always wanted to be a costumer, used to dress up your dolls as Shakespeare characters, played with fabric instead of toys, etc. This may all be true, but it reads like cliché and implies you don't have a grasp on the field beyond a child's idealism. It's great if you loved dressup as a kid, or sewing or whatever, but how has that carried through in mature expressions of the pursuit since you became an adult? I spent about six years of my childhood drawing pictures of elaborate formal gowns on women with cat heads. I now see a direct line between that and my career choice, but i would never, ever, ever mention that in a professional context (well, except in this blog as a negative example). I might, however, state that I first learned to sew as a ten-year-old at the Girls Club and have been making clothing and costumes ever since, because that illustrates how long sewing has been a part of my life.

Your statement shouldn't be vague in terms of what you communicate about the field. Have there been specific shows, or theatre companies, or a particular professor or designer you have worked with or learned from that helped you come to the decision to pursue graduate study? Explain how! This is much more effective than gushing about loving theatre since childhood or having "always" known that costuming is the field for you. That said, don't name-drop without purpose and connection. If your statement says something like, "When i was in high school, i knew as soon as i saw William Ivey Long's costumes for Hairspray, theatre was my passion!" that conveys little to the reader, unless your next sentence is something like, "That conviction was confirmed two summers ago when i interned with Mr. Long himself, swatching and learning about fiber content, weave structure, and levels of fabric quality. This experience illustrated how much more there is for me to learn in a graduate program such as yours."

(Small digression: do you know how many people say that theatre/drama/costuming is their passion? Verbatim? Nearly all. Nearly ALL.)

If you have any specific areas of interest, by all means mention them. "I am particularly interested in the challenges and requirements of costuming for professional dance." Or maybe "Tailoring systems for menswear are an area I'd like to learn more about." If you don't yet have any specific interest, that's okay, but maybe that's a red flag that you should work more to get a handle on where your interests lie before applying to graduate school. Conversely, many applicants have more than one focus interest--"This program will expand my knowledge of shop management and millinery, areas in which I hope to work professionally after graduate school." You don't HAVE to pick just one focus.

And yet, it doesn't reflect a mature understanding to profess that you "love everything to do with costumes." No one loves everything to do with costumes. Seriously. There is a huge difference between being willing to accept employment at a ballet company for which you must hand-wash dirty dance belts on the regular, and LOVING to hand-wash dirty dance belts on the regular. One is a solid career choice to add a relevant wardrobe credit to your resume, and the other is...well, definitely a private matter.

Is there anything specific to the program to which you are applying that appeals to you? Suppose that the program functions within a learning-lab paradigm with productions entirely student-produced--student actors, directors, designers, technologies, stage management, etc.--and that really appeals to you, then mention it. Or suppose the program works in tandem with a professional company in residence and you are drawn to that aspect, mention it. Or perhaps the program is partnered with a museum archive and involves a component of restoration or reproduction of antique garments; you love this, so mention it. Maybe you're enthused about their teaching assistantships, or some specific outreach program in which they participate. Maybe you read a book written by a faculty member and want to study with that person for their specific expertise, or maybe you have worked with several alumni and have been impressed with their profesionalism. All of those options could be a good element of your statement.

And a last piece of advice: ask someone to read the finished draft over for you who is likely to know their stuff. What about whoever's writing your letters of recommendation? Or someone in your department's costume faculty? Someone besides your friends, your mom, or the person you're dating. You don't have to take anyone's suggestions on edits, but a reader in the field might have good feedback on something which hadn't even occurred to you.

So, for readers considering graduate applications this year or in future, hopefully the statement of purpose doesn't seem so daunting and nebulous now. Maybe this post will jog a few ideas loose for how to compose yours, what you might include (and not include).

And as ever, good luck!

This concludes the third of ten posts on grad school application advice for those interested in an MFA in the field of costuming.

 Hand bound busk eyelets on third-year grad Cami Huebert's corset reproduction


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