Part Four: The Writing Sample

A core component of the graduate school application package, the writing sample often ranges between 15-30 double-spaced pages. This document gives the applicant the opportunity to demonstrate their capacity for advanced writing as well as the trajectory of their thinking, grasp over secondary literature, expertise of relevant research languages, and attention to detail.

This brief guide touches on some essential points you should consider when working on your writing sample. We begin with a general overview of the writing sample as a genre, followed by advice on how to consider and structure its various components.

The first question often asked by applicants pertains to the specific sample they should submit. Should you submit the paper focusing on the proposed topic of your research, or revise and submit your best paper thus far, even if the topic does not line up perfectly with what you want to research? Since the graduate school application is most about putting your best foot forward, the second option is generally preferred. You do not have to submit a paper exactly on what you intend to work on, though it is preferable the paper you shape and revise be a part of the broader discipline in which you will be doing research. Do not submit what is not your best work simply because it is closer to the specific project you want to work on. As long you avoid major divergences like writing on Shakespeare to a South Asian Studies program, your committee should not take issue with the topic of your sample.

At a very practical level, you also need to be aware of the length of the writing samples your different programs require. Often this will not be an issue since the vast majority of programs ask for a sample between 15-30 double-spaced pages, which means there won’t be an issue sending one seminar paper to each school. At the same time, however, some programs also ask for shorter samples between 8-12 pages. You need to research and note this information so that you are not caught in last minute surprises. Make a list of the writing sample lengths of each program and—should you find that some lengths are incompatible—decide early on how you will tackle this problem. Can you cut a few pages or sections from the existing writing sample and still have it be strong and engaging? Or would it be better to revise and submit another shorter paper instead? These are the details you need to finalize as soon as possible. Starting the application process early is essential. You should aim to begin this work in the summer before applying.

To write an excellent writing sample you must first know your readers. Unlike the essays you write for class or submit to a scholarly journal, your writing sample is not read only by specialists in your field but rather by an admissions committee whose members specialize in a range of areas. Moreover, whereas in other scenarios your reader is generally committed to reading through your piece, with the graduate school writing sample it is your responsibility to keep them interested and engaged. Professors have a large number of writing samples they need to read in a very short span of time. Unrevised and unclear samples may leave a strong negative impression and risk not being read all the way through.

Given the situation above, the strongest writing samples speak to both a specialist in your niche field (specialist) and a specialist in the discipline in general (generalist). For example, if your proposed topic is 20th century Punjabi poetry, the sample should of course be easily intelligible to an expert in modern South Asian poetry. At the same time, however, it should also remain accessible and relevant to someone working on 20th century poetry in any part of the world.

It is no doubt a difficult balancing act to make one sample speak to audiences from a range of backgrounds. And yet the means for achieving this effect is simple: ask your colleagues and professors to review your sample, and use their feedback to gauge how different scholars respond to what you have written. Their questions, comments, and criticisms will help make you aware of where you need to be more specific and where less, where your argument makes unwarranted leaps and where it stalls. Having gone through this extensive review process before submitting your writing sample is helpful because the comments from your colleagues and professors anticipate the questions that the admissions committee may ask ask. The more intelligible your sample is for your reader, the more likely it is to receive a strong mark from them.

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The success of a writing sample depends on a range of components. Each of these components performs specific functions. Collectively, they are capable of revealing different facets of your potential as a future scholar. Recognizing and revising these components thus lifts your sample, making it easier to read and reflecting positively on your capacity as a writer and thinker. They include:

1. Titles:

The first thing that the admissions committee reads is your title. Titles make a lasting impression, favourable or otherwise, and is important because it conveys to your readers what the essay is about. It is imperative that the title fairly and accurately reflect the body of the essay. As readers proceed through the sample, they orient themselves by asking how the lines before them relate to what the title promised. For this reason, you should ask yourself the following questions: does this title use terms that you use throughout the essay? Does this title summarize the essay as much as is possible? Does it indicate the focus of the essay? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then consider revising your title to better align it with the body of your essay.

Because the admissions committee is comprised of specialists and generalists, a good title will appeal to each of these scholars. In this regard it is good to keep in mind that a title that utilizes quotations from a foreign language without translation will speak only to a specialist while alienating the generalist completely. However, a title that utilizes a translated quotation can be intriguing for the generalist and also demonstrate your grasp of primary sources to the specialist. Similarly, referencing prior scholars/scholarship in the title can also help situate your reader in within the milieu of your essay. When you are soliciting comments from your colleagues and professors, ask them for their thoughts on the title too.

2. Paragraphing:

Having strong opening paragraphs is key because admissions committees typically scan the first few sentences of your essay to grasp your overall argument. For this reason, it is essential your opening paragraph contain the following: a clearly stated thesis statement or argument; a justification of why your argument is important; and a brief indication of how you wish to make your argument. These are important for both the generalist and the specialist alike. An opening paragraph with the above elements both demonstrates clarity of thought on your part and prevents the reviewer from having to go through pages to figure out what is being argued, why it is being argued, and how the argument is being made. Beyond the opening paragraph the generalist and the specialist reviewers will engage differently with your sample. The generalist will focus not so much on content, but on the argument’s structure, its use of disciplinary sources, and writing style etc.. In contrast, the specialist will be more attuned to the details of the argument itself.

Given that your sample will be read by a variety of readers, its arguments must be clear and should flow into each other both logically and organically. Paragraphing is essential for this. Each paragraph of your essay should be a concise singular point/unit of thought. This thought should be announced in the first sentence of each paragraph, called the “topic sentence”, and then elaborated on in the sentences that follow. Take the following example:

In practical terms, the concept of World Literature is biased because of its roots in the English-speaking university. While many Anglophone universities now teach classes on World Literature, “the world” here effectively refers only to places that are not the U.S. or the U.K. It is very unlikely, for example, that Shakespeare is featured on a World Literature syllabus, this despite the fact that his work has perhaps travelled and been adapted more than any other writer’s. Shakespeare’s absence from the world literary canon suggests that English and U.S. writers lie outside “the world” of World Literature. Such a biased conception of this “world” has direct repercussions for the interpretation of those writers inside it, as the case of Daniyal Mueenuddin shows.

You can see that the writer of the above paragraph begins by telling the reader exactly what information is contained in the lines that follow. He then proceeds to flesh out the initial suggestion by presenting and analysing relevant evidence. In the above example, the initial suggestion of bias is supported by evidence of Shakespeare’s exclusion from World Literature. This evidence is then further analysed as the writer uses it to make a case for World Literature more broadly. These three movements—from topic sentence to evidence and then to elaboration—summarize the work each paragraph does in and of itself. Overall, this is one half of the job each paragraph performs. The other half is establishing strong links with each other.

Each paragraph should not just develop a concise and consistent thought but must link these thoughts so they flow through each other in a logical fashion. Whereas the paragraph’s internal consistency is developed through its evidence and elaboration components, the linking work is undertaken by its first and last sentences. Indeed, after the writer of the above sample completes his idea by analysing his Shakespeare example, he does not simply end the paragraph right there. Instead, he adds one more sentence that pushes the thought forward, but only in a very general way. This very general development of his thought then supports the topic sentence of the following paragraph. In the above quote, it is because the last sentence already brings in Daniyal Mueenuddin that the topic sentence of the next paragraph can make a more specific claim about his work without seeming out of place. This is, effectively, how paragraphs create organic and logical links with each other: the last sentence tosses the line of argument forward while the next topic sentence latches onto it and continues the chain.

3. Scholars, scholarship, and sources:

The writing sample is a great resource to demonstrate your grasp of secondary scholarship on a topic as well as your expertise in a research language. For example, if you wish to study the relationship between religion and the state in contemporary Pakistan, are you still only using Ayesha Jalal and Farzana Shaikh, or does your writing sample account for the more recent arguments of Venkat Dhulipala and Faisal Devji? It may be helpful to bring in scholars you are applying to work with and/or other scholars at the same department that you are submitting your application to. For instance, other than your potential supervisor, who are some scholars at the same department whose work you can engage? Pay extra attention to how you engage these scholars: any one of these could be on your admissions committee and will recognize whether their work is being taken up accurately and fairly!

In addition to scholars and scholarship, it is also important to pay attention to your sources, both primary and secondary. What languages are your primary sources in? What about your secondary ones? If you are writing on premodern Persian poetry in the subcontinent, primary sources in Persian and secondary sources across a range of languages will demonstrate to the admissions committee your ability to read widely and deeply.

4. Transliteration and translation:

Pay special attention to transliteration and translation in your writing sample. For transliteration, use a footnote in the beginning of the essay to specify what style of transliteration (Library of Congress, IJMES, etc.) you are using and stay consistent throughout your writing sample. Double check transliteration and translation of non-English words with a widely accepted dictionary (Platts for Urdu, Steingass for Persian, Hans-Wehr for Arabic). If you are choosing a word with multiple translations such as نفس, identify your primary meaning and defend it. What difference does it make to translate the word as soul over and above that of the self? Attention to these issues highlights your grasp of the technicalities involved in working across multiple languages.

5. Formatting:

Once you have all the contents of your writing sample in place, go through the formatting guide for the preferred citational style of your disciple (Chicago Manual of Style for Religious Studies). Are your footnotes and bibliographies cited correctly? Are block quotations single-spaced? Are the margins set correctly? The visual appearance of your essay is important for the initial impression, along with the title, on the admissions committee. Because committee members deal with hundreds and thousands of written assignments through the course of an academic year, they are exceptionally quick to note discrepancies that do not conform to the convention. In a highly competitive environment, following the citation styles is an easy way of crossing your t’s and dotting your i’s.

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