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Taking Risks with the Writing Sample


Kantianisms

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I was just wondering what you all thought about taking risks with the writing sample. Of course, there are many different types of risks you could take, but I am specifically wondering about organizational risks. That is, making the paper extremely structured vs. intertwining parts of the paper.

For instance, you could start with the intro, then give the exposition of the view you are challenging, move on to your 1st criticism, then field some objections, then move on to the 2nd, field some objections to the 2nd, and then conclude:

Intro

Opposing View

Criticism 1

Objection

Reply

Criticism 2

Objection

Reply

Conclusion

 

Or, you could perhaps intertwine the criticisms with the "opposing view." That is, rather than having clear-cut sections in which you finish the entire exposition and then move on to your 1st criticism, you could raise your criticism at the point in the "opposing view" that you take issue with. Then, you could field some objections, strengthen their argument, give a reply, and then perhaps grant them the point for the sake of argument and continue with the exposition until you come to the 2nd criticism.

There are, of course, other ways one could intertwine parts of the paper, but this is the most straightforward example I could think of.

 

The dilemma I see here is that, on the one hand, the very structured way of doing things is extremely clear, straightforward, easy to follow. However, I think that in some sense it is "easy," in that it is simple and expected. I also think that it can be somewhat boring to read a paper like this - it's almost mechanical. On the other hand then, I think that having this riskier structure is more interesting to read - it's almost like reading a philosophical story. However, I think it is much harder to pull off, and if you don't do it right, it becomes unclear and difficult to follow.

 

So, I'm wondering what people think. Is it better to attempt a riskier type of paper? The pros may be that pulling off this type of paper looks much better to an admissions committee, and, even if it isn't consciously recognized as "better," it still may be a more pleasant read (which is a plus with so many applications). However, you may spend a lot of unnecessary time attempting to fiddle with the organization of the paper when you need to be working on other parts such as argumentation, clarity, fielding more objections, etc., and you may ultimately fail.

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I think it is smarter to err on the side of clear (but predictable).  Avoid taking (organizational) risks in your writing sample.  You will have plenty of time in grad school to experiment and find your writing style and hone your skills to be both clear and also display an interesting narrative.  The best thing you can do to impress the adcom into accepting you is to show them that you can write clearly about a topic, with sufficient depth. If your readers can easily understand where you're coming from, why the opposition view is a problem, how you got there, and where you might be going with your argument, you are on the right track.  You need to show them you can do the fundamentals; if that gets in any way obscured in your pursuit of an interesting paper structure then they will be much more likely to drop you.

 

That being said, I think there are ways you can write that evince a clear and easy to follow structure without using tedious transitions (such as "and now I will present my first criticism of the opposition view..." or "and now I will attempt to show why this objection to my criticism does not hold water...").

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I'd have to say that I agree with jjb919. I'd say what you want to have is a paper that shows you can apply your creative philosophical insights in a clear and structured manner. Given that adcoms have only a limited amount of time to go over these papers, having clear signposts in your writing is probably a good thing.

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Does anyone have any input on whether it is best for the writing sample to be mainly textual analysis (as in one interpreting the text rigorously) or that it have a lot of secondary sources? I ask because when I went to give a conference earlier this month, I was surprised at how many of my peers were using a bunch of secondary literature for their papers. This is definitely a habit I need to get into for the future but I was wondering if it has any effect on the writing sample?

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Does anyone have any input on whether it is best for the writing sample to be mainly textual analysis (as in one interpreting the text rigorously) or that it have a lot of secondary sources? I ask because when I went to give a conference earlier this month, I was surprised at how many of my peers were using a bunch of secondary literature for their papers. This is definitely a habit I need to get into for the future but I was wondering if it has any effect on the writing sample?

 

My sample was a close reading of a specific section of the Phenomenology of Spirit, and I didn't really use all that much secondary sources, except for mentioning in an endnote a couple of sources whose account of the section I found inadequate. And I did pretty well last season. So I wouldn't worry about it unless it's something that receives a lot of attention and for which not engaging the secondary literature would be obviously odd. So there's not a whole lot on what I wrote about, "Culture and its realm of actuality" in the Phenomenology, whereas, for example, writing a paper about Kant's Transcendental Deduction of the Categories and not engaging with Ameriks and Strawson and so forth would be odd.

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I think Weltgeist is right in that it depends on the content of your paper.  If it deals with a really difficult text--or section of a text--especially one without a great deal of influential secondary literature, then you can do a close textual analysis without needing to pay homage to much of that literature.  Other than that, though, I think it is a good idea to show you are aware of the ongoing debate among philosophers regarding your topic; what the dominant interpretations are, why they are right/wrong, and where you fit in. This is definitely something that was stressed in my MA program--professors expected you to discuss at least some secondary literature in your term papers. While I don't think it is a benchmark adcoms expect you to meet, I do think that the better writing samples will incorporate the secondary lit (with the above caveat).

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As far as content-type risks are concerned, I would say one thing, and that's that I would caution against openly endorsing widely disparaged positions. The reason I say this is that in my own writing sample (which was primarily concerned with topics in mind and epistemology as applied to philosophy of science) I endorsed a dualist picture of mind, and I think that might have caused some problems for me. In retrospect, I think it might have been better to simply write a negative critique of some of the prevailing views and then conclude with a sort of "we'd better go back to the drawing board" sort of thing. I could be wrong... but I have a hunch that I'm probably not.

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I think the other posters are mostly correct to endorse a structured straightforward writing sample. That said, I used a "riskier" writing sample this admissions cycle and was decently successful being admitted to South Florida (PhD), Marquette (unfunded PhD), Georgia State (MA), SF State (MA), LSU (MA), and American University (MA). 

 

I chose a less traditionally structured paper on topic outside the mainstream (Foucault and US immigration policies), because it was by far my best undergraduate philosophy paper. I may have been admitted to better programs with a different sample, but an odd ball sample isn't necessarily a deal breaker if it is actually good. I can't emphasis it actually being good enough!

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Does anyone have any input on whether it is best for the writing sample to be mainly textual analysis (as in one interpreting the text rigorously) or that it have a lot of secondary sources? I ask because when I went to give a conference earlier this month, I was surprised at how many of my peers were using a bunch of secondary literature for their papers. This is definitely a habit I need to get into for the future but I was wondering if it has any effect on the writing sample?

I think a paper devoted primarily to textual analysis is fine as long as you are working squarely within the history of philosophy or, possibly, continental philosophy (I don't know enough about continental to know whether such a paper would be appropriate as a writing sample).  

 

That said, I think it is important to get into the philosophy a bit.  Once you've analyzed the text (and I agree here with dgswaim that any interpretation you endorse should at least make note of any competing interpretations in the literature), you should try to take a stand on whether the author's view is any good.  So, suppose you're analyzing something in Descartes.  The paper might begin, "There's this puzzling passage in Descartes in which he discusses such and such.  However, the passage admits of two different interpretations..."  And then you'd go on to analyze the text and argue for one of the two interpretations.  But to that point, you haven't really gotten into the philosophy yet.  Once you get clear on what the author is saying, you should engage with the arguments a bit.  And that usually involves delving into the secondary literature, unless you are dealing with a passage that has had very little written about it.  

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Just want to take a moment to endorse departures from the structure outlined in the first post. Listen to your advisers first, of course, but you can also make your own argument for a particular point, argue that another account needs an added part to make it more plausible, or just raise a question. I did the last one and was relatively successful with my applications this year. 

 

If you do stick to the standard form, you need to be sensitive to its weaknesses. You want to put as much argument as you can in, and as little summary as possible and you want to get some of the argument in towards the very beginning. Critical exposition is fine too. I read quite a few writing samples whose primary weakness was that they didn't actually argue until after 15 pages of summary. Additionally, you want to make sure you are arguing against an important, broad, and plausible enough point. I feel as though the last part should be particularly stressed this early in the process. You should ask your adviser about it specifically if you don't think that they are the type of person who would already tell you.

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