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Why Graduate School?

College campus

Because people do not make career decisions based purely on reason, it can be difficult to explain why you have chosen a particular field of study. What follows are some categories into which your ideas may fall, but your focus should be on your unique, personal details. Also, keep in mind that you are not limited to any one of the following, but should develop multiple reasons as you see fit--so long as your points are focused and coherent.

Early Exposure to Your Field

Graduate school is a serious commitment, and it may have been your goal for a long time. Describing your early exposure to a field can offer effective insight into your core objectives. Watch out, however, for these two potential problems:

  • Avoid offering your point in such a cliched, prepackaged way as to make your reader cringe. For example, you should not start your essay, "I have always wanted to..." or "I have always known that [X field] was my calling." Instead, you should discuss specific events that led to your interest in the field.
  • Do not rely solely on your initial reason and forget to justify your choice with more recent experiences. Think about what you have learned about your chosen field-and yourself-that has further stimulated your interest and reinforced your conviction that you are well suited to that course of study.

Goals

Graduate school is, of course, a means to an end, and admissions committees prefer students who know where they're going and to what use they'll put their education (though the occasional soul-searcher, who may exhibit exceptional raw potential, is welcomed). For many people, the long-term goal is to work in academia, and to differentiate yourself in such cases, you can stress more specific objectives such as your research interests.

Research Interests

Read the instructions carefully: Sometimes schools will ask for a statement of purpose describing your specific research interests in lieu of, or in addition to, a personal statement that emphasizes your character and qualities. For these types of essays, you can assume that a faculty member will be reading your statement, but it should still be accessible enough for a non-specialist to understand. Remember that such essays should also still aim to engage the reader in a way that conveys your own enthusiasm for the subject matter.

Addressing the School

While professional schools tend to have similar curricula, the differences between graduate programs abound. The highest-ranked institution in your basic subject might not be strong in the particular areas that you want to pursue. Moreover, graduate school involves more direct faculty relationships, so you want to evaluate your potential mentors carefully.

You should do this research for your own sake, of course, but discussing your discoveries in your personal statement can help convince the admissions committee that you are a good fit. Avoid mistakes like discussing the school's rank or prestige, or simply offering generic praise. Instead, mention faculty members by name and indicate some knowledge of their work. Consider contacting faculty members first and discussing their current research projects and your interest in studying under them. Then refer to these contacts in your essay. You may also want to discuss your interest in becoming involved in a particular student organization or activity.

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