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.