Wednesday, July 11, 2007


Ask the Administrator: Letters and Writing Samples

A grad school aspirant writes (edited for length):

Applying for grad school is pretty different than applying for undergrad, and
applying for the specific school I went to was even more different. When I
applied to my college, we had to write a "Why (that college)" essay,
which I wrote as a love letter (curly silly font and overblown
romantic metaphors and all), and we could add as many other things (be
they essays or art projects or cookie baskets) as we wanted to... so I
got to be silly and serious and everything by turns. (Grad U) offers no
such indulgence. They want a 5-10 page personal statement, and a
20-30 page writing sample (and three recommendations, transcripts,
GREs and the usual nonsense) Since they have such strict limitations
for this application, I really want to offer the best (and most
appropriate) pieces I can.

I have an outline for my personal statement, and I keep going back and
forth between a coolly academic/historical tone ('this is what I did,
these are my research interests, this is how they fit with x, y, and z
in your program..') and a more, well, personal one ('this is why I
love what I'm studying, this is what I'm really excited about, this is
what motivates me to study this and not other things' etc.). I
realize that I can cover both sets of subject matter at the same time,
but I'm having a hard time figuring out what level of, hm, intimacy is
proper when applying for graduate school.

My other problem is rather along the same lines. I'm rather confused
about the writing sample. I've heard different things from people
about what sorts of sources are best, and how much rewriting and
editing one is expected to do. My first inclination is to use a
segment of my thesis. That would clearly demonstrate how I write for
academic occasions, and show off some of the research I've done.
Unfortunately, one of the big things about my thesis is that it's
quite long, and a good portion of that length goes to
defining terms and laying out basic evidence. By the time you get to
the analysis and the "good" writing, it's already well over the page
limit...(its data are also somewhat dated.)

My other inclination, which I'm sort of leaning toward, is to rewrite
a paper I wrote while I was in (another place). That paper, currently untitled, was
never quite finished... but it was the subject of my research while I
was there, and covers a lot more ground than my thesis does. Where
the thesis is deep and specific, this paper is broad and very general.
It's also much shorter.

The two problems I foresee with that are that a) it's not at all
finished and was never formally "turned in" for a grade or publication

and thus might not "count" if it's supposed to be an example
of a completed work, and b) it's not nearly as fleshed out as I'd like
it to be, and I would need to add quite a lot of original writing to
it to make it worthy of submission (which brings us right back to the
'how much original work is appropriate?' question).

Honestly, I'm much more excited about the prospect of rewriting that
paper than editing my thesis, even though it would probably entail
more work. My thesis was a lot of fun, and dovetails really nicely
with the research (in the program at Grad U). It's just so *big* and *specific*
that I'd feel like I couldn't adequately convey anything of meaning in
such a short space.

So I'm sort of stuck, and was wondering if you could offer any advice.

First, the obligatory warning: Not Grad School! Noooo! Run for hills!

That out of the way, on to your question.

I've never worked in graduate admissions, and cc's are open admissions, so I may not be the best person for this. Any readers with experience in graduate admissions are invited to chime in, since I'm basically speculating on this one.

That said, my understanding of the function of the writing sample is less to show what you're going to do -- which, by definition, you haven't done yet -- than what you're capable of doing. In other words, it's all well and good to have big plans, but if you can't write your way out of a paper bag, then it ain't gonna happen. The letter is to express future directions; the writing sample is to show capability. If you show competence with the sample and ambition with the letter, I think you're pretty much on target.

I'd say that if you're facing a tight deadline, go with the already-written piece, maybe with an asterisk noting when it was written. If you have the time to work up the piece you're more passionate about, do that. Time is really the critical variable.

The closest analogue to this I've experienced has been on faculty search committees, where writing samples were basically reality checks to make sure that phrases like “the dissertation is nearly complete” had more substance than “the check is in the mail.” If a candidate couldn't produce a presentable completed chapter, that was a pretty convincing sign that she was deeply lost in ABD land. The content of the sample was far less important than the fact that it was done, and done well.

Wise and worldly readers – does this track with what you've seen? Any killer ideas for graduate applications floating around out there?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Ok--I sit on grad admissions committees (3 different programs), and have coached undergrads on their statements.

1. Use your thesis. It's the most "weighty" scholarly work to date. As a committee member, I'm going to want to see that--not an unifinished paper. If you go with the paper, I would suspect there's something wrong with the thesis and that you're HIDING it.

2. Good for you for highlighting how YOU fight with a SPECIFIC program. Try to keep the personal statement more professional (what skills you bring to the program, what you hope to gain etc) than personal (most committees won't care and will view this as fluff--your cool factor can take a dramatic hit if you wander around in personal ick).

3. Try for a certain "writing flare/flair" without being a 4th of July fireworks display. Strive for restrained "flash," if possible. Good scholarly writing is painful to teach--If you are a decent writer already, you are several steps ahead in the admissions line.

3. I'm a little surprised that you're applying now. I assume it's for FALL 2008 admissions. You're either VERY early or VERY late. The deadlines for admission at my big, bad state U are 1) March 1 for admission consideration only; 2) FEBRUARY 1 for admission consideration and scholarship/fellowship consideration. This is for the following Fall.

Ideally, you want your package to hit about a week before the deadline. This is when committee members are really picking over the packages. If you submit too early, you've needlessly stressed yourself out (and your letter writers), and the package will just gather dust. Also, the longer it sits in a drawer, unread, the higher the danger of it getting mispalced. So, pay attention to deadlines for strategic as well as practical reasons.

Good luck with this!
I would use the short writing sample to talk about your research plan. What will you do after you finish your thesis. What's another area you might branch out into. Will you pursue grants or outside funding. What's your timeline for publications. 5-10 pages is surprisingly long. I'd keep it right at 5 pages. The 20-30 page section should be a thesis chapter. Believe me, the committee will not read over this with a fine tooth comb. They'll skim it at best, to make sure you are making progress on your thesis. I've been on many faculty hiring committees and each time, their writing sample has been very short (1 page) about their teaching philosophy. Again these are skimmed over very quickly. Good luck.
Ten years as coordinator of our graduate program and my advice is pretty similar to the others here. I wouldn't send an entire undergraduate thesis but a selection of it -- perhaps the first chapter AND the conclusion? As others have noted, the committee won't read it with a fine-toothed comb but will want to see demonstrated literacy as well as familiarity with the field.

As for the personal statement, I only advise that you not get TOO personal or appear too demanding. I've had personal statements where students outline their entire life to date while others tell me what courses we'll need to add to the program for their needs AND how we're going to have to adjust our schedule while providing them extra money to go on a fully-paid research trip to an archive somewhere they're SURE is interesting.

If you have a professor who knows you and your work (and is writing your references) and whom you trust, ask her or him to review your statement. Another set of experienced eyes never hurt!
Hmm, nobody's yet said the obvious ---- that applications will vary by discipline, and it would help you (the grad applicant) to ask your profs or people you know _in_ your discipline to look over your materials or give you advice.

That said, English (where I am) is hopelessly overloaded with unemployed PhDs and grad students, and I hear that our admissions committee tends to toss the applications of smart, unfocused students whose personal statements consist of "I _love_ reading! It's so cool!" and instead select people who appear to have a fair sense of what grad school and research is like, even if they don't really know what exactly they will study. Throw in enough "personal" to give some flavor, but not so much that you produce, as someone put it, "personal ick." (no curly font love letters.) Personal information that would help you thrive in a grad program is great (writing/editing experience, travel and fluency in another language, some cool side research project, etc.)

Second, whatever writing sample you choose, make sure it is strong and punchy, _particularly_ the beginning. I don't know how many other professors only read the first three pages like Professor X in my dept. does, but I'm sure it's pretty high. Hook 'em fast and make them want to keep reading.
i'm probably totally unqualified here but i can tell you the advice I got and followed (and got into 3 of 4 programs I applied to). I used a very short paper for a writing sample, about 8 pages. A complete paper, very tight, very punchy, very nicely written. it wasn't on the exact topic I was proposing to study but close to it.

as far as the personal/professional bit, you can get too personal in a hurry as others have said but it does vary a bit by discipline. I got away with a lot of stuff about vocation and feeling called to teaching blah blah blah because I'm in religion and some of us talk that way. which is probably the key point: I sorta sounded like somebody who studies religion. That at least showed some awareness of the field.

Oh, away. run away now.
Be brief.
Wow, thanks! It's neat to see all these questions being answered.

(This was my question, by the way. Dean Dad was kind enough to answer me and put it out here for y'all.)

I finally got an answer back from the admissions guy at the program I'm looking into, and he echoed pretty much the same sentiments - the writing sample is just to prove you can write, the personal statement is for your goals, and they want to see clear ties between what I like, what I can do, and what their department is doing right now. So I'm pretty set on that front.. now I just have to buckle down and do it.

For the people asking about deadlines: the final/official deadline is December 1st. It is, however, for Spring semester, which means that they start classes in January. I still haven't figured out exactly how that works, but I'm assured that those are the official dates.

I'm trying to get it all done by August, however, as my contact there thinks that despite the official end date, admissions are largely processed on a rolling basis. Not only that, but there are some other things I need to do as well, and they're supposed to be done relatively quickly. (Not for the application per se, but bundled together all the same)

I don't know if I can be brief (I live up to my screenname, in that), but I will certainly try to tighten it as best I can.
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Thesis paper Writers
Well, I hope you finished this writing because it has what it takes to be a good thesis or dissertation paper. You dissertation writing skills can do you wonder when it times that you’re on grad school, so I think it would really be a good idea to go to grad school. Anyway, whatever your decision would be, good luck with it.
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