She studied at Yale University (1986). In 1987, Yale conferred upon Lin an honorary Doctorate Degree in Fine Arts. She is married to Daniel Wolf, a New York photography dealer. They have two daughters: Rachel Wolf and India Wolf.
In 1981, at age 21 and while still an undergraduate, she won a public design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The black cut-stone masonry wall, with the names of fallen soldiers carved into its face as requested by the families of the casualties, officially opened to the public on November 13, 1982. The wall is granite and V-shaped, with one side pointing to the Lincoln Memorial and the other to the Washington Monument. Lin's conception was to create an opening or a wound in the earth to symbolize the gravity of the loss of the soldiers. The design was originally controversial but has since been much acclaimed and is visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. It has also become an important pilgrimage site for relatives and friends of the American military casualties in Vietnam, and personal tokens and mementos are daily left at the wall in their memory.
Lin believes that if the competition had not been "blind", with designs submitted by number instead of name, she "never would have won." Some groups criticised the memorial because of its non-traditional design, but Lin successfully defended her design in front of the United States Congress. Eventually a compromise was reached and a bronze statue of a group of soldiers and an American flag was placed off to one side of the monument.
In 1994, she was the subject of the Academy Award-winning documentary Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision. The title comes from an address she gave at Yale where she speaks of the monument design process.
In 2000, Lin re-emerged in public life with a book Boundaries. Also in 2000, she agreed to act as the artist and architect for the Confluence Project, a series of outdoor installations at historical points along the Columbia River and Snake River in the state of Washington. This is the largest and longest project that she has undertaken so far.
In 2002, Lin was elected Alumni Fellow of the Yale Corporation, the governing body of Yale University (Upon whose campus sits another of Lin's designs: the Women's Table - designed to commemorate the role of women at Yale University.), in an unusually public contest. Her opponent was W. David Lee, a local New Haven minister and graduate of the Yale Divinity School who was running on a platform to build ties to the community with the support of Yale's unionized employees. Lin was supported by Yale's President Richard Levin, other members of the Yale Corporation, and was the officially endorsed candidate of the Association of Yale Alumni.
In 2003, Lin served on the selection jury of the World Trade Center Site Memorial Competition. Some have attributed the trend toward minimalism and abstraction among the entrants, finalists, and current World Trade Center Memorial to Lin's presence on the jury.
Lin was commissioned by Ohio University to design what is known as punch card park, a landscape literally designed to resemble a punch card, supposedly based on Lin's memories of their early use in universities. The park is a large open space with rectangular mounds and voids on the ground. photo At first the park was criticized for being relatively uninviting (with punchcard pits promoting mosquito infestation and preventing safe active recreation) and lacked trees or structures to shade students from the sun. In addition, from the ground level, it is difficult to tell what the park is supposed to look like, though from an aerial view it does resemble a punch card. Although the university since planted trees around the park's perimeter in an attempt to make it a more popular place for students to gather, this has been unsuccessful.