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Help with writing sample


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So I'm new and this is (obviously) my first post after lurking on here for a bit for an answer to a nagging question I have. Not much of an introduction, but hi i guess?

Anyway, I have a B.A. in English from UCONN and am applying for a few PhD programs. Going straight for the PhD rather than the MA because my professors recommended it, as they believe my writing is strong enough to do so.

As for the components of my applications: letters of recommendation, GRE, C.V., SOP, all that is pretty much taken care of (aka I'm not too worried about them). I'm finished with the CV and SOP, have formally reached out to recommenders who have already offered to write good letters, and am taking the GRE in a few weeks and am confident I can do well. The writing sample, though? Another story.

My writing and critical analysis is pretty solid, and the paper I'll be submitting is the final paper for my capstone course. It is without a doubt my best, most scholarly work. My specific interest lies in Irish Lit, as that's what I have a concentration in and that's what my research focus will (ideally) be in grad school. This specific paper is obviously Irish Lit focused, and, as stated, the research/writing is pretty solid. Basically, the issue here isn't writing, it's length.

Out of the applications I'm sending, Emory is my first choice. The application requirements say the writing sample needs to be 15-20 pages, and no more than 20. The paper I'd like to submit is 28 including the Works Cited. I'm having trouble cutting it down and even when I remove what I think can reasonably be removed without majorly altering the overall effect, it's still 24 pages. 

My ultimate question(s) is/are: do I say screw it and submit the full 28 pages? Do I edit it down to 24? Do I edit it further to 20 even though I feel like I'm butchering it, and am getting concerned with how well the overall paper works if certain paragraphs are missing? How badly will it reflect on me if I submit the full 28? I'm also unsure of how to include brief summaries of the sections I would take out to shrink it, i.e. do I put italics in between paragraphs, do I just do an abstract in the beginning? 

Because Emory is my first choice and I know how competitive it is, I do not want to do anything that would jeopardize my acceptance.

I hope this wasn't too confusing and I appreciate anyone's help! I'm so stressed out about the entire process and some reassurance or tips (maybe from some current PhD students from the program if possible) would go a long way!

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Non-Lit-specific advice here:

First off, in general, if there is a page/word limit, take it seriously. There will be many times where you will be required to meet a certain limit, and going 40% over the limit, or even just 20% over, will get you immediately tossed in the "reject" pile (think grants, conference abstracts, journals with page limits, etc.). Even if someone still reads your work, you are guaranteed to piss them off by not complying with instructions. My reaction to these cases is to ask myself (1) doesn't this person respect me and my time? and (2) does this person think they are so special that rules don't apply to them? why is it that you think that everyone else can meet the limit, but you should get an extra 40% on top of that? Either way, I don't really appreciate it. I may choose to read only the text that's within the limit, or I'll skim more quickly to spend the same amount of time on this work as all others; either way, it might lead to shallower digestion of the work, with all that that entails. 

So, I would be for cutting the paper down. As a first step, though, I would contact the school to ask if the references count toward the page limit (if that's not already specified). I might also ask about their policy on students submitting longer works with instructions to only read pages X-Y or similar. Some might accept that, and it could be a good compromise where someone can choose to read more if they want to, but you are not assuming and/or forcing them to. As for cutting down the text, cutting out a paragraph here and there might not be the right way to go. That would inevitably lead to an unbalanced and stilted text. I would suggest finding whole sections that can be removed or greatly shrunk/summarized. I am sure that you can find some of those. Maybe there is a stronger argument and a weaker argument for the same thing and one can be summarized as "supporting evidence could also come from blah[footnote: blah shows that X by looking at Y, see Smith (2016) for discussion.]" Maybe something in the exposition could be similarly assumed without supporting evidence, with a footnote summarizing what that would be and the appropriate citations? Maybe some of the transition text can be tightened. It may be a lot of work, but I have no doubt that it is doable. Sometimes it's also easier to start from scratch and copy necessary stuff in, and writing new 'glue' text, than taking what you have and cutting stuff out. 

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  • 1 month later...

Thanks for your response! Sorry I'm just replying now, but better late than never, I guess?

I was able to successfully edit my sample down to 21 pages, the 21st being my Works Cited, and I actually made it better than it was before. I was able to find a lot of unnecessary details and other "extras" that definitely didn't need to be in there, which, by being removed, cut the paper down and improved the flow.

(Also, as an aside, luckily for me my second choice school upped the page limit for their writing samples from 15 to 25 so I won't have to go through the stress of more editing. Phew.)

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