Getting Your Writing Sample Right

Dr. Will Wittels, Program Manager, The Leadership Alliance

A writing sample is often a crucial part of an application to grad school in the Humanities and the Social Sciences. Prospective programs use them to gauge your ability to analyze ideas, criticize arguments, and synthesize new concepts. They also use them to understand better your scholarly interests and whether you are a good “fit” for them. So it is vital that you choose your writing sample carefully or even write a new one for your applications if none of the writing you have done previously reflects your current interests. This article describes how to choose or write, and then edit your writing sample.

Choose a paper that features compelling content, a clear structure, and effective prose.

The content should be relevant to your chosen area of study, but also distinct and thought-provoking. The faculty who are reading your applications are also reading dozens of other applications. Your topic and analysis should stand out – in a good way. Avoid mere summaries of core literature. Show your readers that you are capable of independent, creative thought. If you have published something in your field in a student or peer-reviewed publication, be sure to use that piece as its publication signals the strength of your writing. Do not submit a paper that breaks from the traditional format or structure of the program’s field of study. A non-traditional structure for your paper may be engaging to a reader who has the time to appreciate it. Application readers often do not. A paper with an unusual structure runs a significant risk of alienating and confusing your reader. You should structure your paper to make your content as clear as possible. And you should follow all structuring guidelines relevant to your field of study. (The same goes for your citations.) If you generated the paper in response to a prompt, be sure to include it.

Remember that longer is not necessarily better. Unless otherwise specified, choose a paper that is between 10 and 20 pages, which is roughly the length of a typical seminar paper in graduate school. Submitting a paper that is too long – especially one that is longer than the specified maximum – will reflect negatively on you as an applicant. The faculty who evaluate your application are often overloaded with work. They appreciate the cap on length because they have precious little time to dedicate to evaluating applications. As a result, they do not look kindly upon students who disregard those instructions.

Be sure to edit your paper, paying careful attention to the prose. Have a friend or roommate read it for clarity. Also, ask your letter writers if they would be willing to give you feedback on your sample. Do this early in the process, as they are likely to be busy. They are invested in you; they’ll want to help if given the appropriate notice!

Action Items:

  1. Pick (or write) a paper relevant to your field of study.
  2. Make sure it is no longer than a typical seminar paper.
  3. Edit carefully. Readers notice errors and unclear sentences.

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