Thursday, October 31, 2019

Applying to PhD Programs in Philosophy, Part IV: Writing Sample

Part I: Should You Apply, and Where?

Part II: Grades, Classes, and Institution of Origin

Part III: Letters of Recommendation


Applying to PhD Programs in Philosophy
PART IV: Writing Samples

[Probably not your writing sample]

Do Committees Read the Samples?

Applicants sometimes doubt that admissions committees (composed 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 writing samples are read. For example, back when I visited U.C. Berkeley as an applicant in 1991 after having been admitted, I discussed my writing sample in detail with one member of the admissions committee, who convincingly assured me that the committee read all plausible applicants' samples. She said they were the single most important part of the application. Since that time, other professors at other elite PhD programs in philosophy have continued to assure me that they do carefully read and care about the writing samples. At U.C. Riverside, where I sometimes serve on graduate admissions, 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 we aren't missing a diamond in the rough. For most applicants, I will at least skim the whole sample, and I'll select a few pages in the middle to read carefully. I'll then revisit the samples of the thirty or so applicants who make it to the committee's cutdown list for serious consideration. Other committee members probably have similar strategies.

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 and whose grades were more A-minus than A. That student in fact came to UCR and did well. I'll almost always advocate 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, almost all such students have excellent grades and letters as well!

Conversely, admissions committees look skeptically at applicants with weak samples. Straight As and glowing letters won't get you into a mid-ranked program like UCR (much less a top program like NYU) if your sample isn't also terrific. There are just too many other applicants with great grades and glowing letters. The grades and letters get you past the first cut, but the sample makes you stand out.

You definitely want to spend time making your sample excellent. It is perhaps the most important thing to focus your time on in the fall term during which you are applying.

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 write clearly and be philosophically mature. These things are, I think, hard to fake. Trying too hard to sound sophisticated usually backfires.

Second, I want to see the middle of the essay get into the nitty-gritty somehow. In an analytic essay, that might be a 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 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 near the surface, simply summarizing an author's work or presenting fairly obvious criticisms at a relatively superficial level.

Most 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, I read a bit of David Lewis or Fred Dretske for inspiration.

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 you will highlight as an area of interest in the personal statement portion of your application. If your best essay is not in an area that you're planning to focus on in graduate school, however, quality is the more important consideration. So as not to show too much divergence between your writing sample and your personal statement, you might in your personal statement describe that topic as a continuing secondary interest.

If your best essay is in Chinese philosophy or medieval philosophy or 20th century European philosophy or technical philosophy of physics or some other area that's outside of the mainstream, and you're planning to apply to schools that don't teach in that area, it's a bit of a quandary. You want to show your best work, but you don't want to school to reject you because your interests don't fit their teaching profile, and also the school might not have a faculty member available who can really assess the quality of your essay.

Approach the professor(s) who graded the essay(s) you are considering and ask them for their frank opinion about whether the essay might be suitable for revision into a writing sample. Not all A essays are.

Revising the Sample

Samples should be about 12-20 pages long (double spaced, in a 12-point font). 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). You aim is transform it from an undergraduate A paper to a paper that you would be proud to submit at the end of a graduate seminar dedicated to the topic in question. What's the most convincing evidence that an admissions committee could see that you will be able to perform excellently in their graduate seminars? It is, of course, that you are already doing work that would receive top marks in their seminars. Philosophy PhD admissions are so competitive that many applicants will already have samples of that quality, or nearly that quality; so it will be hard to stand out unless you do too.

I recommend that you treat the improvement of your writing sample as though it were an independent study course. If you can, you might even consider signing up for a formal independent study course aimed exactly at transforming your already-excellent undergraduate paper into an admissions-worthy writing sample. Revise, revise, revise! Deepen your analysis. Connect it more broadly with the relevant literature. Consider more objections -- or better, anticipate them in a way that prevents them from even arising. With your professor's help, eliminate those phrases, simplifications, distortions, and caricatures that suggest either an unsubtle understanding or ignorance of the relevant literature -- things which professors usually let pass in undergraduate essays but which can make a big difference in how you come across to an admissions committee.

What If Your Sample Is Too Long?

Most PhD programs cap the length of the writing sample: something like 20 double-spaced pages, or an equivalent number of words, sometimes as few as 15 pages. What if your best writing is an honors or master's thesis that's 45 pages long?

If that's your best work, then you definitely want it to be your sample. Some applicants ignore the length limits and submit the whole thing, hoping to be forgiven. (Sometimes they single-space or convert to a small font, hoping to minimize the appearance of violation.) Others mercilessly chop until they are down within the limit. Admissions committee members vary in their level of annoyance at samples that exceed the stated limits. Some don't care -- they just want to see the best. Others refuse to read the sample at all, using the rules violation as an excuse to nix the application. I'd guess that the median reaction is to accept the sample but only read a portion of it -- say 15 to 20 pages' worth.

You should probably assume that the admissions committee will only read the number of pages stated in their page limits. There are three reasonable approaches to this problem. One is good old-fashioned cutting -- which, though hard, sometimes does strengthen an essay by helping you laser in on the most crucial issue. Another is submitting the entire sample but with a brief preface advising the committee to read only sections x, y, and z (totaling no more than 15 to 20 pages). Still another approach is to replace some of your sections with bracketed summaries.

For example, if your paper defends panpsychism (the view that consciousness is ubiquitous) and you need to cut a three-page section that responds to the objection that panpsychism is too radically counterintuitive to take seriously, you might replace that section with the following statement: "[For reasons of length, here I omit Section 5, which addresses the objection that panpsychism is too radically counterintuitive to take seriously. I respond by arguing that (1) intuition is a poor guide to philosophical truth, and (2) all metaphysical views of consciousness, not only panpsychism, have radically counterintuitive consequences.]"

[Old Series from 2007]


Anonymous said...

Whew, thank you so much for this post! I am currently revising my Honors thesis, but it's three to four times as long as the stated length at any graduate program (my undergraduate program intends the thesis to be adequate preparation for graduate-level work). Of all the programs I'm applying to, only one said that they'd accept the whole thesis. All the others were adamant that the sample not exceed the stated length. I've been working on an abstract that both adequately summarizes the work, introduces/contextualizes the revised excerpt, and ties it to my current philosophical interests. I hadn't really thought of bracketed summaries or sending the whole thing and specifying which pages to read. I really appreciate your blog posts on the graduate application process.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Anon! My main aim in this series is to help level the playing field for admissions by giving my (hopefully good) advice to students whose professors might not have as much knowledge of the details of philosophy PhD admissions as I do. It's especially gratifying when students learn helpful things from the series that they would not otherwise have known or thought of.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for these posts!

I was wondering if one should submit published work as a writing sample, if they have it. I don't know if one would need to submit a pre-print or be unable to cut-down/edit the existing work for publication reasons. I have in mind something like an article in a well-regarded philosophy or philosophy-adjacent journal here, although I suppose some people might consider submitting work they published in an undergraduate journal.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon: It will be a very rare undergraduate or Master's student who has a solo-authored work published in a well-regarded philosophy journal. But if you do, I think you would be forgiven for submitting it as your sample, even if it's over length!

Something published in an undergraduate philosophy journal or a journal that the committee isn't familiar with won't count for much, though. It shows a certain initiative, which is good, but in that case I'd recommend treating it as a normal sample, and if possible formatting it in the usual 12-point double-spaced way, within guidelines.

Anonymous said...

I am in my first year of PhD study in philosophy at a US institution ranked between 20th and 30th on the last Gourmet Report and I was told, not in so many words, that I was admitted primarily on the strength of my writing sample.

Jason C said...

I've really enjoyed your series, and I greatly appreciate the insight. I guess a question I have here would be: what if your grades were not superb (B average) and you (an applicant) don't feel like any paper you've written for your undergrad program is good or long enough for a sample paper? Would you say the applicant should write a sample paper that was never submitted for a grade?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hard to say — maybe! Consult with your letter writers. A fresh paper *could* be good, but without a prof’s supervision and evaluation it could be weaker than you realize.

Anonymous said...

Hello! Is having so many footnotes, especially long, technical ones, impressive (say, because they show attention to details and caveats) or harmful to the application? Thank you!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Overall, footnotes are probably good -- as long as they are serious and scholarly and not too digressive or off topic. Definitely *not* required. Only a minority of samples have them.

Anonymous said...

I wonder why is so difficult to find a sample of written work from a successful applicant from the previous years? I contacted a few departments asking for a sample, and I received a cold, almost arrogant rejection. I just wanted to compare the quality of my sample. I am not from the USA, and it is very difficult for me to have an objective assessment of my writings. My sample might be very good, it might be horrible. If I have something to compare, and If I find that my sample is just not at a satisfactory level to gain admission, I will just not apply. Is there some policy against making these samples public?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, I can see the problem! The samples couldn't be released without the applicant's permission. But even asking permission is probably inappropriate, given the power relationships between professors and students.