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So I'm still putting together materials for applications and feel that things are going along pretty well...except on the writing sample front. The schools I managed to pick have drastically different guidelines for length (5-15, <25, <10, etc.) so it seems like choosing the same piece for all applications might be impossible (or at least would be a big time-suck).

I'm in a somewhat unique situation in that I don't have a wealth of 20-ish page seminar papers to submit. And I'm on the verge of insanity trying to figure out the next best option. Maybe others in this situation (or in a better one) could offer thoughts?

What I do have:

--a 50+ page bachelor's thesis on a topic unrelated to my proposed field (comparative)

--4-5 shorter papers (10-13 pages) related to comparative topics but using only secondary literature and case studies [assignments from classes]

What I will hopefully have in another 2 weeks:

--one seminar paper that's probably overly ambitious and may flop, but is directly related to a component part of my interests as per applications (also 20 pages)

--one seminar paper that's really only tangentially related to my interests (also 20 pages)

--a working paper that will be the basis of one section for my master's thesis, based on original research (this may take longer than 2 weeks)

Granted these descriptions are vague, but I guess the overarching question is--what to do if you don't have a paper right in the ballpark length range? Go with a shorter one? Lengthen a shorter one? Cut a longer but unrelated one? Anything?

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For what it's worth, I'm in a very similar position and applying to almost the same list of places. I majored in a different subject so I don't have any writing samples related to political science. But I do have a 40-page masters thesis from another social science, using a lot of statistical techniques, that I got an excellent grade for. I've decided to submit that to Berkeley (as they're asking for a full paper) and for everywhere else I have taken an extract from the longer piece of about 12 pages containing the key bits of analysis, plus a summary of the whole paper and missing sections at the beginning of the extract.

I don't have much sense of how sensible a tactic this is, but my only other option was to submit a lit-review type piece on my area of interest that wouldn't contain evidence of research abilities. Everyone I have spoken to, including professors in the field, have said that the most important thing with the writing sample is that it shows you can do original research, and that you shouldn't submit something containing only a lit review etc.

Princeton kind of allude to this on their website, where they say "The writing sample should be a seminar paper or a couple of chapters of a senior thesis (along with a thesis summary). Ideally, the sample would move beyond a literature review to display research abilities and capacity for original thought. "

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My two cents:

Don't worry so much about the paper being related to the field; so long as the sample is of a topic that the adcomm can puzzle through, the most important thing is to show the capacity for original thought.

I haven't spent a ton of time look at writing sample requirements yet (which might bite me in the ass), but I'm applying to many of the same schools and thought the samples were all allowed to be 20 pages. That being said, assuming that your thesis and one of your shorter papers are of comparable quality, take an 18 page cutting of the thesis for the 15-20 page samples and use a shorter seminar paper for the 5-10 pagers. I'm not going to stress if my samples are a couple pages too long or short.

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Thanks guys--that makes alot of sense. I'm doing some field hopping (interdisciplinary bachelor's --> professional master's --> PhD in comparative politics) so I think generally I have a lot of anxiety about engineering a precise sense of fit for the discipline. These suggestions make sense though--looks like I'll have to get editing!

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