Most PhD applications and some master’s applications require a 10-20 page writing sample. Personally I’d say that this was the weakest part of my application. Not because I didn’t have a decent writing sample to provide, but because what I did submit was not directly related to the interests of some of the programs I applied to. In retrospect, this probably disqualified me from a few places.
Some guidelines to choosing a writing sample are as follows:
1. Choose an ‘A’ paper. In other words, select a paper you got high marks on. This paper may have to be re-written with a broader audience in mind. All too often papers handed in for a class are part of a conversation shared with one professor and a few classmates. The writing sample, however, will need to appeal to those on the admissions committee; some of whom may not be familiar with the topic of your paper. In aiming for a broader audience it may help to have the professor who originally graded the paper re-read it, now thinking about how an admissions committee would view it. This strategy is particularly helpful if this professor is also writing one of your letters of recommendation since s/he can talk about the strength of your work with regards to this paper in his/her letter of recommendation. You may also want to have others read through this paper as well.
2. Choose something that relates to your interests. This doesn’t need to be the future topic of your dissertation (most admissions committees do not want your interests to be that narrow at the admissions stage), but it should represent the kind of thinking you want to continue to pursue in a graduate program.
3. Choose something that relates to the interests of the program you are applying to. If you’re applying to a program in early Christianity, the writing sample you submit should be about early Christianity (although there’s more leeway on this if you’re applying to a master’s program). You need not directly engage the scholarship of those in the program you’re applying to; however you need to demonstrate that you can be a part of the same conversation that they are a part of. This might entail focusing on similar topics or texts, situating your argument in the same secondary scholarship that they situate their argument in, or utilizing similar methods or theorists in making your argument. Your writing sample should paint a picture of you participating in and contributing to the intellectual life of the program.
Certainly academic cultures vary. Some admission committees may read every writing sample. Most, though, will only read those on the “short list”–those written by candidates who are real contenders for admission. Within both of these groups, some will read them very carefully, others will only read a few pages. The writing sample, I believe, is not the most important part of the application. However, it may be the defining part of your application after you’ve wowed the admissions committee with your statement of purpose, and floored them with your letters of recommendation. The writing sample can situate you at the top or the bottom of the short list.
[Editors note: My apologies to The Yellow Dart. This post has been two and a half years in the making--see comment 31]