As part of the standard graduate school application package, most research-driven institutions will require a writing sample. Even if you swore off writing following your Composition 101 class freshman year of undergrad, you will be hard pressed to find a graduate program that does not want to make sure you can write a coherent sentence before they admit you. Academia is a world of research, rigorous scientific inquiry, teaching, and yes, writing. Whether you intend to study the evolutionary patterns of Ebola, to unearth long-forgotten cultural artifacts, to explore migratory patterns of humans and birds alike, or plan to dismantle systemic oppression through social policy change, you will spend an extensive part of your academic career hunched over your laptop and referring to your APA, MLA, and Chicago style manuals. Academia is academic, and the academic world thrives on ideas, and those ideas are documented in journals, annual reviews, manuscripts, policy briefs, books, decisions/cases, etc. In addition to documenting ideas and sharing research findings via the written word, academic writing may sometimes be your sole source of funding.
Applying for and receiving research grants may be the only way an advisor has enough funding to take you on and/or keep you as an advisee. Before applying to and entering my own PhD program, I do not think I fully appreciated the amount of time, effort, writing, and revising that goes into grant writing. One trusted faculty mentor stated, “Writing successful funding applications is the bread and butter of your academic life.” I do not think this faculty member means to suggest that your sole purpose as an academic is to write for money. Instead, I think he highlighted an aspect of academia that does not always receive the most positive press. Yes, you will spend a lot of time writing to receive funding, and you need that bread in order to disseminate your ideas and findings. In this way, providing a well-written writing sample as part of your graduate school application demonstrates that you 1) have the ability to communicate your ideas in a thoughtful and coherent manner, 2) have the potential to write for scholarly audiences and funding sources, and 3) can share your passions/research agendas within a structured format.
That said, writing samples are often the least stressful aspect of the application process. Depending on the type of program, you may be required to submit a document anywhere from 8-30 pages. While this may seem like a lot of work, the best part is that you can usually just upload something you have already written! Yay flash drive technology. The second best part? There were still a few typos and overlooked grammatical errors when you submitted that capstone paper senior year? Not to worry. Make those edits and submit. Here are a few additional tips for selecting a writing sample for your application:
- Submit a piece that makes you proud. Your graduate school application is essentially a snapshot of who you are/could potentially be as a graduate student at their institution. If you are lucky to be pursuing advanced study in a field or discipline you are familiar with then submit your most recently published paper. Not published? No problem. Send a piece that captures what you intend to study so admissions staff see your research agenda as part of a comprehensive set of interests.
- Read the requirements carefully and follow those requirements. Your paper is 8 pages but they require 10? Find a different paper. Your paper is 25 pages but they say no more than 20. Find a different paper. You never know who is reading the first pass of applications. Maybe that person is a stickler for the rules. Who knows. Just follow the requirements. At the end of the day, see the tip above. If your paper is too short or long make a few adjustments, and submit a paper you are proud of that fits the requirements.
- Have a person you trust edit and re-read your writing sample before you upload it. Everyone knows that if you spend too much time with a paper your eyes are bound to gloss over and you will for sure miss that you wrote “eye” instead of “I” or “there” instead of “their”. Even the most updated version of Spell Check may not catch that. Find a lovely, non-critical or at least constructively critical person, and have them read and revise your writing sample. A fresh set of eyes never hurts.
- Send your writing sample along with the rest of your application essays to your recommenders. It is always a great idea to send any and all application essays to those sacred individuals writing your letters of recommendation. Usually they will ask to see these documents, but if they don’t, send them anyway. Then, make sure to politely ask them to review your essays and provide any helpful advice/suggestions.
Don’t plagiarize. At this point this should be a given, but seriously, don’t plagiarize. Cite. Cite. Cite. Once you’re admitted and later become a full-fledged academic you’ll appreciate all those times you gave credit where credit was due.