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
Wednesday, October 03, 2007
Part I: Should You Apply, and Where?