Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Applying to Philosophy Ph.D. Programs, Part IV: Writing Samples

Part I: Should You Apply, and Where?

Part II: Grades and Classes

Part III: Letters of Recommendation

Do Committees Read the Samples?

Applicants sometimes doubt that admissions committees (constituted of professors in the department you're applying to) actually do read the writing samples, especially at the most prestigious schools. It's hard to imagine, say, John Searle carefully working through that essay on Aristotle you wrote for Philosophy 183! However, my experience is that the essays are read. For example, when I visited U.C. Berkeley in 1991 after having been admitted, I discussed my writing sample in detail with one member of the admissions committee, who very convincingly assured me that the committee read all plausible applicants' writing samples. She said that they were the single most important part of the application.

At UCR, every writing sample is read by at least two members of the admissions committee. How conscientiously they are read is another question. If an applicant doesn't look plausible on the surface based on GPA and letters, I'll skim through the sample pretty quickly, just to make sure that we aren't missing a diamond in the rough. For most applicants, I'll at least skim the whole sample, and I'll select a few pages in the middle to read carefully.

Few undergraduates can write really beautiful, professional-looking philosophy that sustains its quality page after page. But if you can -- or more accurately if some member of the admissions committee judges that you have done so in your sample -- that can make all the difference to your application. I remember in one case falling in love with a sample and persuading the committee to admit a student whose letters were tepid at best and whose grades were more A-minus than A. That student in fact came to UCR and did well. I'll almost always plug for the admission of the students who wrote, in my view, the very best samples, even if other aspects of their files are less than ideal. Of course, most such students have excellent grades and letters as well!

Conversely, admissions committees look pretty skeptically at applicants with weak samples. You definitely want to spend some time making your sample excellent.

What I, at Least, Look For

First, the sample must be clearly written and show a certain amount of philosophical maturity. I can't say much about how to achieve these things other than to be a good writer and philosophically mature. I think they're hard to fake. Trying too hard to sound sophisticated usually backfires.

Second, what I look for in the middle is that the essay gets into the nitty-gritty somehow. In an analytic essay, that might be very detailed analysis of the pros and cons of an argument, or of its non-obvious implications, or of its structure. In a historical essay, that might be a very close reading of a passage or a close look at textual evidence that decides between two competing interpretations. Many otherwise nicely written essays stay largely at the surface, simply summarizing an author's work or presenting fairly obvious criticisms at a relatively superficial level.

Most analytic philosophers favor a lean, clear prose style with minimal jargon. (Some jargon is often necessary, though: There's a reason specialists have specialists' words!) When I've spent a lot of time reading badly written philosophy and fear my own prose is starting to look that way, too, I read a bit of David Lewis or Fred Dretske.

Choosing Your Sample

Consider longish essays (at least ten pages) on which you received an A. Among those, you might have some favorites, or some might seem to have especially impressed the professor. You also want your essay, if possible, to be in one of the areas of philosophy highlighted as an area of interest in your statement of purpose. If necessary, you can adjust your statement of purpose, but that can only go so far. If your best essay is in Chinese philosophy or medieval philosophy or Continental philosophy or technical philosophy of physics or Bayesian decision theory, or some other subfield that's outside the mainstream, and you aren't planning to apply to schools that teach in that area, it's a bit of a quandary. You want to show your best work, but you don't want the school to reject you because your interests don't fit their teaching profile, and also the school might not have someone available who can really assess the quality of your essay.

Approach the professor(s) who graded the essay(s) you are considering and ask for her frank opinion about whether the essay might be suitable for revision into a writing sample. Not all A essays are. You might even consider taking a term of independent study with that professor, with the aim of deepening your knowledge on the topic and generating at the end a truly excellent longer essay that goes well beyond what you originally covered in class.

Revising the Sample


Samples should be about 12-20 pages long (double spaced, in a 12-point font). Longer samples can be submitted, but I'd recommend including an abstract on the first page along with advice about what sections (totaling 20 pages or fewer) the admissions committee should focus on in evaluating the sample.

If possible, you should revise the sample under the guidance of the professor who originally graded it (who will presumably also be one of your letter writers). Your aim is to transform it from an A paper to an A+ paper. Deepen the analysis. Connect it more broadly to the literature, maybe. Consider -- or better, anticipate and defuse -- more objections. With your professor's help, eliminate those phrases, simplifications, distortions, and caricatures that suggest either an unsubtle mind or ignorance of relevant literature -- things which professors usually let pass in undergraduate essays but which can make a difference in how you come across to an admissions committee.

Part V: Statement of Purpose

45 comments:

Anonymous said...

What about analytic philosophy of religion? Is that too far off the core issues to submit as a writing sample? What if it incorporates very mainstream concepts such as properties, causation, supervenience, overdetermination, etc? Obviously applying to a department with an openness to phil. of religion is a plus.

Stephen said...

Thanks very much for continuing this series. It continues to be extremely helpful while also somewhat scary.

What bothers me about the writing sample's primary importance in one's application is captured where you say, "if you can [write beautifully] -- or more accurately if some member of the admissions committee judges that you have done so in your sample -- that can make all the difference to your application."

Since I can't know how my writing sample will be judged, it's difficult to know where I should apply. It's hard to imagine what could count as a "safety" program, given that every school in the "top 50" would reject a candidate whose writing sample was judged to be substandard, no matter what letters, grades, GREs, etc., accompanied the offending sample.

But what's to keep someone's bad day, someone's unexpected hostility to the position you advocate, or some other completely subjective factor from unfairly ousting you from consideration?

The only "safe" solution seems to be to apply to a great many (15-20) schools at all levels throughout the rankings, which seems a huge waste of the applicants' and admissions committees' time. I will do this because I satisfy the conditions you suggested in your first entry, i.e., I find the process of studying philosophy intrinsically worthwhile, and I could be happy teaching at a non-elite school. But I wish the process could be a little more predictable ...

I certainly don't mean to trail off on a dissatisfied note when I only started out intending to thank you! Unpredictable though the process unavoidably is, it would be even moreso without your efforts, which I greatly appreciate.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anonymous: The main considerations are: Can we teach it, if the person wants to specialize in it? And, can people on the committee evaluate the quality of the sample (or, in some cases, farm it out to another faculty member)?

Note that my list of potentially problematic areas included only very technical subfield and areas in the history of philosophy that mainstream analytic philosophers are often unacquainted with. It's mainly in those areas that the second issue tends to arise.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I agree, Stephen, that there's some arbitrariness and randomness in the process, especially in the evaluation of writing samples.

However, the common opinion among students that judgments about the quality of students' writing in philosophy are highly subjective and variable is not in my experience true. When I ask TAs to grade the same undergraduate essays, for example, they often (to their surprise) arrive at exactly the same grade, and differences of more than 2/3 a grade are very rare. More relevantly, people I've sat on admissions committees with generally agree, more or less, about the quality of samples (at least those they can evaluate) -- with just a few exceptions.

If two good, up-to-date philosophy professors at your school think your sample is excellent, admissions committees will probably also think it's good. The standards and the competition are very high -- maybe more than your professors are used to if you're at a lower prestige school -- but probably at least it won't be seen as a stinker that sinks your application!

Curtis said...

Thanks for this series. I have two questions:
1) If you feel like you have a strong writing sample that isn't from your master's (or senior's) thesis, and you send this to schools, does it look suspicious to admissions committees that you didn't send something from your major work?

2) Similarly, how much is it expected that the writing sample match with the interests of the faculty of the school? For example, say a student's personal statement says that her main interests are philosophy of language, political philosophy, and Kant. If the faculty is strong in the first two, but weak in Kant, is it problematic at all if her writing sample is on Kant? More generally, how much should the writing sample on its own, separate from the interests listed in the personal statement, cohere with the interests of the faculty?

Thanks

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hi, Curtis. My impression is that (1) is only a slight negative if any. It's more important to send your best work.

My impression is that you can partly counteract the effects of (2) by mentioning in your statement that although the topic in your sample remains a strong interest, you see your interests possibly going more in those other directions in the future. If your sample is on X, and the first thing you talk about in your statement is X, the committee will probably tend to think of you as an X person, unless you clarify matters.

If the topic of your sample is too far from the faculty's strengths, you also run the risk that no one on the committee will really feel able to evaluate the sample.

Curtis said...

Thanks for the reply!

Eric said...

Hope I'm not too late to get noticed on this thread!

First of all, thanks for talking about this... it's difficult to find good, cogent information on applying to Philosophy programs. I discovered phil late in my undergrad and my major was "Humanities" so I picked up a minor in "Philosophy and Religious Studies." However, I went to a small, private, liberal arts school and not a major research school.

My questions:
1) Is the fact that I didn't major in Philosophy (esp at a small school) going to be an asset or liability?
2) Same question about my Masters Degree being a Master of Liberal Arts (even though it's at an Ivy League school and the courses are graduate level Philosophy and Political Sci courses?
3) I have access to some great professors at my school now, but how willing / accessible are they? Are profs annoyed by students who are clearly interested in getting their help?

Thanks again!

Matthew M Perry said...

Sir, do you have any any advice for a writing sample to be submitted for a continentally oriented program? Obviously, style considerations in this vein of philosophy are quite different from the typical analytic prose of the "mainstream" department.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Matthew, on this topic I can really only speak about UC Riverside, which has a strong Continental contingent in a mostly analytic department. Even the Continental philosophers here generally look for an "analytic" style of writing. It's absolutely fine for your sample to be about Hegel or Nietzsche, but you want to write like Dreyfus or Leiter or Clark.

Eric, sorry I missed your comment last fall -- that was before I set up my comments feed to keep up with old posts. On (1) and (2), you can still be a strong contender for an excellent program if you've excelled in at least a half-dozen upper-division philosophy courses and can get letters from at least two philosophy professors. On (3), it varies quite a bit. But if someone at your own school is annoyed by your asking her for advice in her own field, who does so in an efficient and respectful way that doesn't waste their time, I'd say they deserve to be annoyed!

Lauren said...

First of all, thank you so much for your very helpful website. I have a question about choosing a writing sample. In my undergraduate work, I wrote an honors thesis which I consider to be, by far, my best piece of work, the most polished, and representative of what I would like to study in graduate school. The paper, however, is roughly 200 pages long. Do you think it would be acceptable to include an abstract, the introduction section (where I lay out my central argument) and 2 or so crucial excerpts from the middle? It won't all hang together as well as I would like, but if I include an abstract (and perhaps the table of contents?) I might be able to explain things a little better.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Lauren: I haven't seen too many 200 page samples but my advice would be to send the whole thing along with an apologetic note about its length, as well as an abstract and a pointer to the two crucial excerpts from the middle. You might say that those excerpts are your official sample but that you include the entire paper for completeness. Make sure the exerpts are comprehensible on their own, with the help of the abstract, and say as much.

I'm not entirely confident of this advice since I haven't seen many cases of samples this long, so I'd welcome others to pitch in.

Eric said...

First of all, thanks for this great resource!

My writing sample (or what I intend to use) is 26 pages long and it is on a topic in Political Philosophy which is what I hope to continue studying from my Master's to a PhD. The prof. who graded it gave me an "A" and he works in PolPhil as well and thought it was "very good." (He has, in fact, published on this very topic as well)

However, when I asked him about using it as my writing sample, he suggested that it may be appropriate to write on a "core" problem within PolPhil, but didn't seem to indicate it was critical. How much does the topic within the area of specialization matter? There are numerous contemporary papers on the same topic and it's certainly not an odd one, but this comment made me think twice (enough to come on here and ask!) about using the paper as a writing sample.

Any thoughts???

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Eric, if you're writing within your area of specialization, "core" vs. non-core is probably only a minor consideration unless the paper is way out, which it sounds like this one isn't. Choosing your best work is much more important. Still, I'd be inclined to take seriously your professor's sense that it wouldn't be a great choice for a sample -- maybe he thinks the quality isn't quite there or maybe he thinks your particular take is odd and will rub people the wrong way or....

Eric said...

It definitely isn't way out there and it is by far one of my best papers. I didn't press further on the matter because he simply said if I had a comparable paper on a core issue I might prefer that, but this one would be a good choice too. I'm just trying to ascertain whether this is a big issue (core vs. non-core), which I think you've answered. Thanks!!! If you have anything to add... please do so :-)

Anonymous said...

Hi Professor Schwitzgebel,

I too, want to thank you for this series. It's one I've visited several times and I've always found something new and helpful with each visit.

I have almost the opposite problem concerning my writing sample as the one you have described. I just graduated from a liberal arts school which has a very analytical department. So my best undergraduate essays are in mainstream areas like metaphysics, philosophy of language, and philosophy of mind, focusing on analytical philosophers such as Quine. However, were I to go on to graduate school, I might consider studying continental philosophy, though most likely in a department that also has a strong analytical program as well. Should I then, instead of revising one of my undergraduate essays, write something completely new that would actually be relevant to my personal interests? My former academic adviser does not think it matters if I submit a writing sample in a topic that I won't be stating as an interest on my personal statement, but I would like to hear your opinion on this situation.

I'm also not planning to apply for at least another year, if that changes the situation any.

Thank you once again!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Oct 18: I think it is a little bit of a disadvantage to have one's writing sample outside the area of one's stated interests. But I wouldn't recommend choosing a so-so essay in one's area of interest over an excellent one outside one's area of interest.

Writing something from scratch on a topic you're passionate about outside the direction of a course might easily generate something quirky or too ambitious, so if you do want to generate a Continental sample I'd advise working on a very narrow topic, under the close supervision of an advisor. If you'll be applying to combined Continental-analytic departments it wouldn't be unreasonable to declare interests in both, even if you're leaning Continental at this point.

styvrt said...

Hi Professor Schwitzgebel,

I hold a bachelors in Electrical Engg. and a Masters in Applied Maths, but am interested to apply to Logic programs. At least two non-maths departments, viz. UCI-lps, and CMU-philosophy do not bar me on eligibility grounds, but they do ask for long writing samples. They seek a sample 'not necessarily in logic/philosophy albeit recommended- which can show the ability to argue carefully'.

Now although I have done some Engg., Applied/Computational maths writing, I am not sure if these would appease the argumentative tastes of the philosophers. Is it fine if I come up with a personal viewpoint on, say, religion or transhumanism, or is it too amateurish to even try? I should mention that my philosophical/ logical education is limited to 'till predicate logic' in logic and random fictional and nonfictional works.

Kindly help. Thanks in anticipation.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Styvrt: My guess (though of course I can't know for sure) would be that a philosophy paper like what you describe, not written in the context of a course and set of readings, would come across as too amateurish. If you have nothing philosophical, your best bet is probably to send in something technical that you've written, as closely connected to your philosophical interests in logic as possible. It wouldn't be strategic, I think, to highlight your lack of background in philosophy, though my sense is that interdisciplinary logic programs do sometimes admit people without much philosophy in their background. Besides CMU and UCI, Berkeley's logic program comes to mind; I'm sure there are others; it might be difficult to gain admission to a "straight" philosophy Ph.D. program with your background.

Good luck!

styvrt said...

Dear Professor Schwitzgebel,

Thanks for the tips, I'll keep them in mind.

An additional little question from my side- are there other interdisciplinary logic programs, i.e. other than Berkeley, Irvine & CMU?

Thanks again.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Styvrt: I'm sure there must be, but none leap to mind. It's not my area. Richard Zach at logblog would be a good person to ask.

Anonymous said...

The writing sample I'd like to use is a 30 page Master's thesis proposal. Since most programs ask for a size half this length, would it be a good or bad idea to submit this (with an abstract)?

Thanks!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Nov 30: I think it's okay to send it with a cover letter acknowledging that it's over the requested length, an abstract, and advice about what sections (totaling under the requested page length) can be read, in conjunction with the abstract, as a stand-alone sample.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm a rising junior just starting to consider philosophy for graduate school. First of all, thanks for your hard work in making this information available. Initially I was really disturbed by the dearth of substantive information about the admissions process. Just so unlike undergraduate admissions. I was wondering a few things:

1. Are there examples of top-notch writing samples, especially those written by students applying straight out of undergrad? I want to see what kind of quality I should aspire to.

2. What exactly counts as relevant versus non-relevant classes? Are all non-philosophy classes lumped into the same category, or does it depend in part on the type of philosophy you would likely be doing? I ask this because I wonder if there are any advantages to taking more math courses, because I heard somewhere that philosophers really prize mathematical ability. And if I do, is it the case that those classes can only help but cannot hurt me?

3. Honestly, since specific admissions data are not available, how do I best gauge what tier school I should be aiming for? I come from a small school with a small philosophy department, where I know very few upperclassman majors and where the professors have not been keen on taking a sophomore seriously with these kinds of inquiries. But I like to know and plan ahead.

Thanks so much again!

Anonymous said...

Have you any experience with or thoughts about students submitting two writing samples?

My interest is analytic style continental philosophy - i.e. taking a mainstream methodological approach to a traditionally continental range of ideas and thinkers - and I am applying to programs that have a similar orientation. I have two strong samples - one in straight up analytic, and one in a fairly anglo-accessible area of continental philosophy - but neither paper really crosses over into the other area in the way that I'm aiming for.

I think writing a new paper is too risky. But I also think that submitting one over the other gives only half of a picture of my capabilities. If I use the analytic paper, then the interests and abilities highlighted in my SOP won't match my sample. If I use the continental paper, which will at least match the subject matter, then I won't be able to demonstrate my ability to engage in the the kinds of discursive methodology that mark the "analytic" style.

What would you think about the idea of submitting two papers - perhaps with an attached note detailing which one takes precedence, if necessary - and an attendant explanation in my SOP detailing why my abilites are nevertheless best reflected in two samples?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Dec. 24: A few students (not many) submit two samples. My experience is that members of the committee will read only one, whichever seems most interesting or quickest to evaluate. What will happen in discussion is that committee members with different evaluations of the file will then have a harder time convincing each other, if they saw different samples (since they won't be able to evaluate the one they saw). Since split decisions tend to go against the applicant (given the number of applicants), I think applicants are generally best off submitting only one sample. However, there may be situations in which that is not true; and perhaps yours is one of them.

Jay S. said...

Dr. Schwitzgebel,

To echo what others have said, thank you for this series of posts. Information on applying to grad school is hard to come by, and this has all been extremely useful to me.

I don't know if you still check the comments here, but I have a question that I'm a bit torn on: I graduated in May and am on fellowship for a year. I'm applying to grad schools this fall to start in fall of '12. Because I graduated I have my honors thesis on hand. It is, however, roughly 33 pages long.

My professors were very pleased and complimentary, and there is one particular section of it that they suggest could be strengthened even further by some modification. I am torn, however, on whether I am better off sending in a ~33pg document that has been thoroughly vetted by my dept. or whether I should work on slimming it down to a 15-20 page paper.

What do you suggest? Will readers be annoyed at me for sending something as long as a thesis when they've asked for 15 pages?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Some might be annoyed. Others (like me) will just skim through and select a portion to read. One compromise is a brief apology at the beginning directing the reader to 15 or fewer pages, independently comprehensible, to read.

Jay S. said...

Thanks for responding!

So would your advice me to submit the revised thesis rather than trying to cut it down to 15 pages?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Best would be 15 pages that are your best work. You might give a cutdown a try. But if it just doesn't work right, don't send an inferior essay just to be under limit.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Professor for the extremely useful information!

I have one quick question. I was able to cut down my writing sample to 22 pages (from 33), including the reference section. Most universities I am applying to give a limit of 20 pages for the writing sample. Would you suggest that I cut down 2 more pages to meet the 20-page requirement? Is it really necessary, considering that my reference section is 2 pages long?

Thank you.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I'm not rigid about it when I read applications, and probably most people wouldn't be, but some might be.

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,

I had a question re: including an appendix in my writing sample. I am cutting a much larger paper down to send and opted to remove an entire section, but was counseled by my advisor to include it as an appendix. Total, the appendix is about 2900 words, so it is sizable indeed. The rest of the paper stands alone and is complete, but the appendix adds another layer to it and also showcases more of my secondary research interests. Is this worth including, or should I cut it altogether? Also, should I in any way indicate that the appendix is for informational purposes only and does not need to be considered as part of the writing sample?

My fear is that including the appendix will give the impression that I have not read the length requirements for writing samples (where they exist) or that my sample will not be seriously considered because it is viewed as too long.

Thanks for your input, and as always, thanks for being so willing to help out curious applicants!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I wouldn't hold it against an applicant, as long as it was clearly marked as an optional appendix, independent of a free-standing sample within the page limit. I can imagine that a small percentage of committee members might just see the overall length or be snarky about such matters, but that might be balanced against a minority of members who might read the appendix and be impressed by your depth of knowledge -- so I could see going either way.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this resource; it has been very helpful.

I am submitting a refined and shortened version of a final paper from a previous class. I am wondering how much importance admissions committees generally attach to sources and citations. To be a bit more specific, I am submitting and analytical paper on a topic in philosophy of law that is generally well-known and very simple to characterize and critique without making very many references to other sources.

As it stands, I have eight sources in my works cited; however, I think that with a little effort I could get that number down to three or four. Conversely, I have done enough research on the subject to raise the number of citations as well. What do you think? How important are supplementary sources in the writing sample? To my mind, given that it seems that the readers will primarily focus on virtues such as clarity, analysis, consistency and logical maneuverability, and that I have no idea who is going to be reading my paper, the more accessible it is, the better. It would seem to me that getting rid of as many quotations and references as possible would aid in this. Thanks!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Keep it however you think it works best. No need either to trim down the sources or drag in other ones that don't naturally belong.

Derek said...

Prof. Schwitzgebel,

Do you think it would perhaps go against an applicant if he or she wrote on, say, the Gettier problem as opposed to Epistemology of Disagreement or Contextualism? While I've heard that students should show their familiarity with recently published material, we are often taught the canonical issues and so spend a lot of time and energy thinking about problems of the past. I'm just wondering if this might make an applicant look less attractive.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I think either way is fine. Gettier is classic and will be familiar to people who aren't up to date in epistemology.

Zach said...

Hi Professor Schwitzgebel,

I've applied to several graduate programs, following your advice as closely as I could. I submitted a writing sample that my referees liked. For some reason, I have continued to polish it even after submitting it. I didn't make sweeping changes, but I do prefer the new version.

Would it be unwise to e-mail it to the departments I am applying to? Would it be ignored? How did UCR handle such situations?

Thanks Professor S.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Zach, if there's a way to update your file online, deleting the old sample and replacing it with the new that would be okay, but sending a second sample if you can't delete the old might confuse things or come across as disorganized. If it's a *lot* better, maybe it's worth that risk, but I wouldn't do it for minor polishing.

Zach said...

Thank you for the clear advice. I'm not going to send the revision. I don't want to risk seeming disorganized. I am disorganized. (I'm also teaching math full-time.)

Sean said...

Eric,

Considering applications for MA programs contain virtually the same materials as an application for PhD programs is it safe to assume that your advice regarding all aspects of the application process is transferable? Would you add anything else about applying for an MA? About writing samples specifically?

In my particular case, I've spent the past month or so re-researching the topic of my final undergraduate essay in philosophy and I plan to make substantial revisions to my paper. Is this okay, or should I be weary of making drastic changes? My reason for doing so is that I went back and read my paper (which got an A) and plainly thought it could be much better.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Sean: I'm not an expert on MA admissions, but I did get a guest blogger to work up a post on the topic, here:
http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com/2009/09/applying-to-ma-programs-in-philosophy.html

Good luck!

Ratheesh Gopal said...

Respected Prof.Eric Schwitzgebel,
Thank U so much for your valuable guidance regarding Ph.D writing sample for new students like me through blogs.If I want to see a model then how can I get?
If you don't mind kindly spend a little time for the benefit of research scholars.
Thank You

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I have some on my Underblog now. Here's one of three:
http://schwitzsplintersunderblog.blogspot.com/2012/05/sample-statement-of-purpose-c.html