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Introducing an excerpt from longer work for writing sample?


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One of my applications has a 1,000 word limit on the writing sample.  I've decided to use an excerpt from my undergraduate seminar paper because its my best and most releavant work.  Any advice on introducing the expert to put it in context? Should I admend my introduction or write an abscrat for it? This is my first year applying (MA programas) and first time doing this so any advice is apperciated.

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Without having a single clue about your paper or what part of the paper's structure you're running with, I can't give you specific advice. I can't give specific advice about the history field.

Research papers (in any field) have the same basic logic when structuring. First, they all have a central idea that the paper focuses on, often expressed in a thesis statement or in a purpose statement (the goal of this paper/research is....). This statement is never proven directly. I use the word proof in an argumentation manner, not a scientific manner, as in here is my claim and this is evidence to support it. Instead, the central idea is proven/supported by a series of main points (claims). What these points are and how they are presented in a paper is a convention dependent on the field. A paper about Shakespeare will not have a methodology section. Anyway, these main points are supported by evidence. Like prove, I'm using evidence in an argumentation manner, meaning that evidence is some form of support for the point being made, even if the point is that content analysis was used, and this is how it was done). In addition to evidence, analysis is used to support the main point (how the part relates to the whole) by explaining the whats, whys, and wherefores as necessary. From the previous example, Content analysis of op-eds were chosen because the.... Anyway, the main point, evidence, analysis, along with other stuff like transitions are all part of a section of thought (cool phrase, huh?) that is complete in and of itself.

The introduction of a paper serves to provide a few things. First, the context (reviews of the literature are often part of the introduction) and/or background information the reader needs to know to understand the paper. Context with the thesis statement also adds what we English people call the "so what?" That's actually a technical term, so it's googleable. In other words, why should the reader care? The intro will also provide the reader with an idea of what to expect in the paper, and finally the central idea. Finally is kind of a misnomer, because not all thesis/purpose statements come at the end of the introduction.

The conclusion is, in English shorthand, a tell-em-what-you-told-em thing. It sums up the basics of the paper and wraps it up. I can't get into any more detail because conventions on conclusions vary a lot more.

So, what should you do (and why all of the composition hoo-ha)? I assume that your excerpt involves one or two sections of thought, but not the introduction or conclusion. The problem is that you now have one or two claims, supported and analyzed, hanging out without any context, let alone the point that they're trying to make. How do you bring that in? I would suggest that you rework your introduction enough to include it and then the section of the paper that you think will rock the socks off the adcomm.

The reason why the intro is important is because it shows the breadth of your scholarship (it will bring in the context of the research, why its important, how it relates to other research in the field, what theories/perspectives you worked with, etc.) while the excerpt will show the depth of your scholarship (your critical engagement with the material, your ability to analyze, your ability to work with specifics, etc.). The final sentence of your excerpt is likely, already, conclusionary in feel, if not in fact. It ends your discussion on that section, right? If it doesn't, you can look for a conclusionary sentence (probably the first or second), in your conclusion, rework it so you can add it to the end of the excerpt.

The logic of this comes back to a single thing: rhetorical situation. (Comp classes were years ago, right?) Purpose, audience, genre. Why does your adcomm want a writing sample in the first place? How will the adcomm use writing samples to evaluate applicant suitability for the program? Why does the adcomm want such a limited writing sample? Who are adcomm people, in general? Do you know anyone like them (you pay for the privilege of having them lecture you)? What do these people, that you know, that are adcomm-type people, look for in the writing you turn in for a grade? How is that similar to what the adcomm might be looking for? How can you present your excerpt to fit that genre (a really short writing sample)? Bear in mind that adcomms know that they're going to be getting excerpts and will overlook the fact that your excerpt is missing parts that the rest of the paper fills in. But, this is also where you have the chance to shine, because you can re-work your excerpt to give it a sense of unity that still implies that you have more depth of scholarship to offer.

I read that over and while it makes sense to me, it seems a bit wonky. I really hope it makes sense to you, and that it offers you something useful.

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A 1000 words is really short. I think it's be very hard to have a good self-contained excerpt from a paper that could serve as a strong writing sample. If I were you, I'd attempt to write an abstract of sorts for some section of your seminar paper. Since the goal of the writing sample is to show (1) that you are a proficient writer, and (2) that you can do meaningful research, I'd aim for a structure of a simple scientific conference abstract. Start with a clear introduction that sets up the problem and give a summary of your solution. Then give a detailed explanation of one argument for your proposal, and sketch your other arguments briefly. If there is space, discuss what others have said and why it's a problem. Or alternatively, discuss some predictions your proposal makes or some conclusions you expect to follow, and show that that is indeed the case. Detail questions that arise from your proposal or obvious problems that need to be addressed. Finish with a summary/conclusion of what you've proposed and what the main argument in favor of the proposal was. 


[Disclaimer: I know nothing in particular about your field, so if this sounds completely foreign to you and you've never seen this kind of thing done, please ignore this suggestion.]

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