How Are You Qualified?
Your academic performance will play the most significant role in exhibiting to the admissions committee your qualification for admission. However, the personal statement gives you the opportunity to analyze your background and offer the insight and interpretation that you want your readers to take away from your application.
The best way to prove your qualification is to discuss concrete experiences that show your abilities and qualities. Details about the process are paramount. What we mean by the "process" is the path to achievement. The rest of the application has already summarized your accomplishments and activities. Show the reader what you did in concrete terms, and most importantly, highlight your active roles.
The experiences that demonstrate your qualifications are not necessarily distinct from those that explain your motivation. You shouldn't plan on dividing the essay into two separate sections for each, but rather organize the structure by topic and extrapolate insights as they develop. We will cover structure in greater depth in its own section, but it is important that you begin thinking in terms of an integrated essay.
The best way to demonstrate your qualification for graduate school is to focus on research experience, since research will be your main job for the duration of your studies. Be specific about what you did. If you worked for a year under a professor, you might consider emphasizing one particular project and exploring that in depth. The experience does not have to have been a major undertaking: Any practical experience can be used as long as you demonstrate your enthusiasm and aptitude for the field of study.
Remember to keep the discussion personal. Do not become bogged down in minute details and jargon. Ultimately, the focus of the story should remain on you and your growth or success.
One applicant cites specific projects to demonstrate both the growth of his interest in psychology research and the skills he has honed in the process. He does not jump to the end result of presenting his paper at a conference. Rather, he shows the work he did--the active role he played--to make that accomplishment possible. Moreover, he concludes this paragraph not with a final word about his research, but with an explanation of what he has gained: "Again, I was involved in all aspects of the experiment, from typing the protocol and administering it to the subjects to analyzing the data and finally presenting my results."
If the program you're applying to is more practice-oriented, then demonstrating real-world experience can be just as important as academic pursuits.
Another applicant is applying to a computer science program, and he has a couple years of work experience. She explains one specific achievement as follows: "As an MS student at DePaul University, I worked as a network support technician and project manager for Information Services. My most significant accomplishment in this capacity involved the re-wiring of over a thousand dormitory rooms to enable the students to have Internet access with a link to the other four campuses. In doing so, I had to investigate the existing needs of a high-speed Internet network, as well as the transport of bandwidth to support future demands, which are almost impossible to determine." She starts by describing the end result, which in this case is acceptable because she poses it almost as a challenge that he faced, and then he proceeds to explain the concrete tasks he had to perform. In this applicant's case, it's clear that citing academic work could not prove the same level of skill that she has shown by drawing on real-world experiences.
Unrelated Work Experience
The skill sets needed to thrive in various fields often overlap, and some qualities are essential everywhere. If you have a strong record in an unrelated field, you should not hesitate to discuss this, though the more you can tie the discussion in with your current objectives, the better.
Another applicant is applying to a graduate program in geology, but he devotes some space to his work experience in computers: "During the past 18 months I have had firsthand experience with computers in a wide array of business applications. This has stimulated me to think about ways in which computers could be used for scientific research. One idea that particularly fascinates me is mathematical modeling of natural systems, and I think those kinds of techniques could be put to good use in geological science." Not only is this particular link relevant, but it also offers a unique angle, since few geology students would think to emphasize computers and mathematical modeling. Note, however, that the applicant could have described his work in computers in further depth before returning to geology. You should explore experiences on their own terms before trying to force connections.
The links provided by another applicant are far broader, but still effective. Though she is applying to a Master of Library Service program, she discusses volunteer experience in a nonprofit organization: "My work for the organization has taken a number of forms over the years, but can be summed up as gathering information, both practical and technical, and using human relations skills to make it accessible to others." Basic qualities such as "human relations skills" could have a wide variety of applications, but that fact doesn't diminish their relevance to the applicant's future in library service.
It is very possible to demonstrate the relevant qualities you possess for graduate school through extracurricular activities. The approaches you take will essentially be the same as those we discussed in the above two sections, Field Experience and Unrelated Work Experience, depending on whether the activity is related. In the Library Service case cited above, for example, the applicant was drawing on volunteer rather than work experiences, but the purposes were the same.