The questions under general background focus on what you hope to reap out of the time you spend at the university. In return, the university will also get a lot out of you, monetarily and otherwise. Academic background focuses on what you can bring to the table and how you will collectively help advance the position of the university by working on new areas of research, publishing papers, obtaining funding, and attracting more students.
A commonly asked question here is: how has your previous experience prepared you for this degree at our university?
The question is asking you to talk about your relevant past experiences as well your plan to utilize them for future research at the university.
Let’s assume that you plan to pursue your graduate degree in Computer Science at the University of Washington. If you were to prepare for this question, your first stop should be the page that shows the areas the department focuses its time and money on.* Pick the area that resonates most with your past work and future aspirations (for now, assume it’s security and privacy*), and hop on to the page* dedicated to the research in that area. In this case, the Security and Privacy Research Lab lists 14 projects they’ve worked on in the past (as of this writing). They also link you to over a dozen people (faculty, doctorate students, research scientists) who themselves have dedicated pages that go into more detail on their academic hopes and dreams.
This trove of information can be overwhelming, but try to follow a similar three column methodology like before—mentioning the research work you’ve done in the past, extracting the learning threads from it, and connecting it to a specific area that the lab is currently working on. The following is a real-life template written by a mechanical engineering graduate:
I’d like to share a story here. During my third year internship at [university], I got an opportunity to design an ankle exoskeleton from scratch, as part of the Assistive Robotics Lab. Designing the entire structure, including the motor selection, was a tipping point in my career as it gave me an insight for what I wanted to pursue next in my career.
I developed an interest to learn the control algorithms and electrical interfacing behind these devices. Considering my ambition was to build products catering to different needs, I decided that learning all the related fundamental concepts from my domain first will help me become a better engineer. I had built several products with hands-on manufacturing and assembly techniques for mechanical devices, so I wanted to specialize in algorithms and interfacing components next.
I was going through the projects of different labs at [university] and found that [professor]’s work perfectly aligns with my interests. I noticed the members of the lab are developing an autonomous prosthesis using gait analysis and feedback from different sensors.
Fortunately, my second year internship at [university], where I devised a mechanism for propelling a wheelchair, involved reading a lot about gait analysis and MATLAB optimization toolbox.
With my past research experience and related coursework at [university], and with my coursework related to control algorithms at [university] in first semester, I strongly believe my learning curve to get started with research work on new concepts related to algorithms and interfacing will be minimum, as I have the necessary background.