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.