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Writing a brand new sample


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#1 Ryzhaya

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Posted 26 September 2011 - 09:39 PM

I'm having sort of a slow-burning freakout regarding my writing sample, so I'm just going to post a half-kvetch, half plea for help thing here.

I've been out of school for 2 years, and while I did very well in my undergrad, I wasn't really thrilled by the idea of returning to any of my old papers. Plus, when I asked my favorite old prof for advice on editing a paper I wrote for his class, he just said "Your writing sample should be an example of what your interests are now" and sort of stared at me meaningfully. So I decided to write a completely new essay. It's a topic I'm really excited about and it is definitely in line with my planned areas of focus for grad study.

The problem is that I've never written a paper completely on my own before, and it's sort of terrifying. It's making me realize just how valuable bouncing ideas around in school really is. Also, without a colleague or professor to say "yes, this is interesting, you're on the right track," it's really easy to get pessimistic. I find myself reading more and more things that might even be tangentially related to my project because I'm so worried I'll miss something important. I'm also worried about the editing process; my former professors are wonderful and will help me as much as they can, but they're much to busy to edit my essay for me, and I'm not sure who to ask for help / how much time to give them / how much beer to bribe them with.

Has anyone done a project like this before? Any words of wisdom? Also, would it be a point in my favor to mention that I wrote my sample as an independent project in my SOP?
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#2 fuzzylogician

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Posted 27 September 2011 - 02:16 AM

OK, so writing a paper is obviously a useful skill to have in grad school. I'm not sure what you mean by "I've never written a paper completely on my own before" -- I'm guessing you mean that you had mentors to consult with throughout the process who read and commented on drafts, not that you actually can't write by yourself? It does sound as though you have a topic in mind and you're doing some reading, however. I don't know what stage you're at exactly, but from reading between the lines I think you may be at a stage where you've developed some sort of argument but it's not fully formed yet. In that case:

- I find that it help me to write out my argument on a large blackboard (I like chalk but any piece of paper will do..). I start with all the pieces in a list and I rearrange the pieces until I have a good structure that I could tell someone with general knowledge in my field but no specific knowledge about the details of my work. "Telling a story" forces you to think about the ordering and clarity of the argument.
- Once you've done some thinking: It sounds like you do have professors who are interested in your future, run the argument by them!
- Start writing! don't read too much or you won't be able to find your way out of the mess of keeping too many details in your head.
- Start by making a detailed outline of the paper. By detailed I mean detailed. Preferably, not only sections and subsections but once you've worked out the main argument in your head/on paper: a one-line description of every paragraph in every section. This is painstaking because it reduces your argument to its bare form but it'll help you see how to organize it and help it flow. It also helps the writing process - once you know exactly what you want to say, in what order and where, it's almost mechanical to transform one-liners into full paragraphs.
- Start from the easy parts: whatever those might be in your paper. It feels good to have some portion of the paper ready and it'll help you feel oriented when it's time to start writing the difficult parts.
- Get your friends and family to read your essay. They may not understand all the details but they should be able to know if you're not making sense or if you're disorganized. I'd wait with the beer until after they've read the paper:)
- Ask professors for comments. It sounds like they want to help so I'm sure they will agree to comment on advanced stages of your ongoing work.

ETA: re: mentioning this project in your SOP: it depends on how it turns out. If you learn things that are relevant to your proposed field of study, formulate ideas that you would like to test in grad school, concentrate/change your research interests, etc., then it'd be useful to reference the paper in that context. But if all you have to say is that you wrote the paper independently, I'd suggest having a recommender do that.

Edited by fuzzylogician, 27 September 2011 - 02:20 AM.

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The advice in this post is based on my own personal experience. YMMV.
Pardon my typos..

#3 Ryzhaya

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Posted 28 September 2011 - 08:27 PM

Thanks for your reply. And yes, of course I have written essays before, and in fact my process is quite similar to yours - - three cheers for painstakingly detailed outlines. I guess what I'm getting at is that writing an essay completely outside of an institution of higher learning is proving to be a new and different experience for me; in my undergrad, my ideas were always born out of the courses I was taking, with avenues for further research and areas for clarification suggested in discussions with classmates or professors. While I have faith in my essay writing abilities and I do think my argument is interesting, having formulated, developed, and begun writing this project in a complete vacuum makes me a little . . . nervous, I suppose, or downright pessimistic in certain moods. I have always been wildly hard on myself, though.

I am still wary of asking my professors to read over any of my drafts. They are all extremely busy people, and I am no longer their student. One professor explicitly offered to edit ONE draft of my SOP, which certainly seems to imply that he wouldn't be able to edit another much longer work as well. I do have a few grad-school-lit type friends, and I suppose I just need to track them down and beg :)

You're probably right that I need to put down the theoretical texts and put all my energy into completing a draft. I suspect I'm overthinking the whole process . . . I just really want this to be a great essay!
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#4 lotuspetal7

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Posted 27 December 2011 - 05:53 PM

I did this. I'm applying to programs in Japanese while my undergrad is in music. I wrote on a literary work that hasn't been significantly analyzed at all, only annotated. And I had no one I even could have shown the paper to as my recommendations are a mix of people who can testify to my past work in English literature and people who can testify to my Japanese language level, no one who knows anything about Japanese literature specifically. So I was all alone! I know the feeling of paranoia. I think my paper is probably either quite original in a good way, or else kind of wacko. I just took the risk hoping it's the former!

It's funny about your old prof staring at you in a meaningful way. I could imagine the moment :)
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#5 TryingAwfullyHard

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Posted 08 January 2012 - 03:26 AM

I'm having sort of a slow-burning freakout regarding my writing sample, so I'm just going to post a half-kvetch, half plea for help thing here.

I've been out of school for 2 years, and while I did very well in my undergrad, I wasn't really thrilled by the idea of returning to any of my old papers. Plus, when I asked my favorite old prof for advice on editing a paper I wrote for his class, he just said "Your writing sample should be an example of what your interests are now" and sort of stared at me meaningfully. So I decided to write a completely new essay. It's a topic I'm really excited about and it is definitely in line with my planned areas of focus for grad study.

The problem is that I've never written a paper completely on my own before, and it's sort of terrifying. It's making me realize just how valuable bouncing ideas around in school really is. Also, without a colleague or professor to say "yes, this is interesting, you're on the right track," it's really easy to get pessimistic. I find myself reading more and more things that might even be tangentially related to my project because I'm so worried I'll miss something important. I'm also worried about the editing process; my former professors are wonderful and will help me as much as they can, but they're much to busy to edit my essay for me, and I'm not sure who to ask for help / how much time to give them / how much beer to bribe them with.

Has anyone done a project like this before? Any words of wisdom? Also, would it be a point in my favor to mention that I wrote my sample as an independent project in my SOP?

I was in the same boat (needing a new sample to send lit programs) and I definitely freaked out about roughly the same things. It's really difficult to write without anyone to discuss with. I enjoy working independently, but I'm also a verbal processor. So I found myself spewing gender theory at people who were a lot more interested in eating their lunches... Anyway, I hope it goes well for you (and me) and I'm glad to hear that I wasn't alone. :-)
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#6 PhDreaming

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Posted 16 January 2012 - 09:53 AM

I actually did the same thing this season. I didn't have any papers that I was particularly confident about so I just wrote a paper that was more in line with my research interests and not the class materials specifically. When I mentioned this to my advisor (2 days before my first application was due) she kinda flipped out. Apparently, she had told another student to avoid such a situation at all costs because 1) the paper has not bee reviewed by anyone and 2) you wouldn't have had time to work out any obvious kinks. If I had known that she was so against it I would have probably worked on making another paper better. Fortunately, my advisor is awesome and read my paper and said it was great... so I guess I lucked out!

I guess the moral of the story is: do what you need to do but there are some serious potential problems when you DONT have someone to talk to about what you've written.
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#7 socihealth

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Posted 17 January 2012 - 07:33 AM

I created a new paper for an application as well. I only had one school request a writing sample and I wanted to turn in a paper representative of my match with that program. I do see the danger of turning in work that is not reviewed by others but I think that it does represent my individual ability well. If they do not like my individual writing, they probably won't like me as a student. I did proof the paper and asked my lab mates to proof it for grammar errors/confusion in structure.
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