What is a graduate school purpose statement?

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Your college applications may have been a breeze, but graduate school is a whole different ballgame. While college admissions officers look for well-rounded students with high potential, graduate admissions officers care about one thing and one thing only: focus. The graduate school purpose statement is your chance to explain -- in two pages or less -- who you are, why you're here and exactly what you plan to accomplish.

A graduate school purpose statement -- sometimes called a "statement of purpose," "personal statement," "letter of intent" or "personal narrative" -- is a required part of the admissions process at most graduate schools. It's a personal essay based on a short prompt or a series of prompts [source: Berkeley]. The prompt may be very specific ("Explain why you wish to study in the American Studies Department at State University.") or totally open-ended ("Tell us about yourself.").


The Princeton Review says that even though the wording of purpose statement prompts may vary, they all cover the same four basic questions:

  • What do you want to study?
  • Why do you want to study it?
  • What qualifies you to study it?
  • How will you use your degree?

The goal when writing a graduate school purpose statement is to attach a face to all of the test scores, GPAs and other numbers littering the rest of the application. It's your chance to tell a compelling story about why you're passionate about your chosen field. What were the experiences that inspired you? Who were the people that influenced you? And where do you plan on going from here?

A purpose statement is not the same as a college application essay [source: Princeton Review]. The goal of a college admissions essay is to present yourself as well-rounded and multi-talented. Purpose statements should be focused exclusively on the skills directly related to the field of study.

Purpose statements aren't memoirs or life stories, either [source: Callaghan]. Admissions officers don't want a point-by-point retelling of your academic and professional career up until this point. That's what a resume is for.

Still unsure what a graduate school purpose statement should look like? Keep reading for specific tips on how to write a killer purpose statement.


A brilliant purpose statement doesn't just flow out of your fingertips. It takes preparation and planning. Start with some pre-writing exercises [source: Callaghan]. Pre-writing is also called "free writing," because there is no editing involved. Just start writing and see where it takes you. Use these prompts to generate ideas:

  • What is the most fascinating thing about your chosen field of study?
  • What was one of your most memorable achievements in your field of study? Why? How did it happen? Who helped you?
  • Where do you envision yourself in 10 years? What are you doing?

Read over your answers to the pre-writing exercises and look for a unifying theme. It could be a quality that you possess -- deep curiosity, leadership, persistence, creativity -- or a recurring idea that runs through your academic and professional work.

Read the essay prompt carefully. Make sure you're clear about what is being asked. If the school asks for specific information, be sure to provide it.

Now it's time to write an outline. The unifying theme from your pre-writing exercises will become your thesis, a clear and focused statement that guides the content and structure of the essay. Then choose two or three personal experiences -- inside and outside of the classroom -- that directly support your thesis. The experiences should be unique and real, showing the personal connection you have with the subject matter and your dedication to the field. Remember to end with a conclusion that artfully ties the experiences back to the unifying theme.

When it's time to write, do so in your own voice. Don't try to impress the admissions officers with "academese" or highly technical vocabulary [source: Berkeley]. The subject of the essay is you, not the field of study. Whenever you discuss your academic or professional achievements, you need to answer the question "Why?" Why was this achievement so important to you? Why did it change you/inspire you/put you on the path to graduate school?

If all else fails, remember these rules:

  • Write about something you're passionate about
  • Be specific; include concrete details
  • Be yourself

Once you complete a draft of your purpose statement, show it to the professor or colleague who wrote you a letter of recommendation. Use their feedback to write a second draft. Then show it to someone else you respect and write another draft until you are satisfied with the results.

One last thing: Admissions officers hate typos [source: UNC]. Have several (yes, several) friends proofread your essay for spelling and grammatical errors.

For lots more information on graduate school and the admissions maze, check out the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Abraham, Linda. "Writing Your Statement of Purpose for Grad School"
  • Callaghan, Glenn M. San Jose State University. "Writing a Winning Statement of Purpose."
  • The Princeton Review. "Writing the Statement of Purpose"
  • University of California Berkeley Career Center. "Graduate School - Statement"
  • The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Department of Biology. "Biology Graduate Admissions: How to Apply"