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How strategic should you be when selecting a writing sample topic?


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Specifically with regards to trying to pick a topic that's not "too popular" a topic for writing samples that year. Some people seem to think that the popularity of a topic won't affect how the paper is received, but others seem to think that if you write on the same topic as many other applications, then your writing sample will be (perhaps subconsciously) held to a higher standard.

Of course, there's also the question of how you could even know what the popular topics will be, which is difficult. In the area I'm writing my writing sample in, political philosophy, I think I could make guesses as to what will be popular based on the current political environment, but I'm not sure if that is actually a good basis for my guesses.

But even if a topic is popular, would it be best to choose a topic that you are motivated by and want to write about, rather than something less interesting to you but perhaps more strategic?

I'm in a weird place right now where I feel like my best option would be to develop a writing sample from scratch for various reasons, but of course that leaves the question of the topic open, and the subsequent issue of how I should pick a topic.

What do you all think? Discussion on other issues related to picking a writing sample topic are welcome in this thread, as well.


Edited by ThePeon
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I chose a chapter of my MA thesis, because it's where my interest and research continue to lie. I specifically chose an author who has written a number of books, to write about for my MA thesis to carry over to a dissertation. I selected one theme that appears to run through all of his texts and had at it. There are any number of "gimmicky" things that people do, in order to try to get into a PhD program, although my own approach was just to be the best that I could be. What if one of those gimmicky things worked and it wasn't really your area of interest? Do you then see yourself changing course? Your WS will be better if it's something you are passionate about--more so than if you simply did it to try to gain a foot up.  Just my own opinion.

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Don't overthink it. Quality matters a lot more than popularity which, as you noted, you're not even well-placed to judge if you're a BA or an MA student. Just pick your best, most representative paper and make it better. If you're writing from scratch, pick a topic that's interesting to you, and work to convey your excitement while doing your best work.

I think it's best, all things considered, to submit a sample related to one of your areas of interest. But that's totally defeasible. Popularity isn't really worth anything. The point of the exercise isn't publication, after all, or getting hired.

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While I agree that it's probably not a good idea to write on some topic just because it's popular, I also disagree that quality is all that matters. It's a good idea to think seriously about the topic of your writing sample and to be slightly strategic sometimes. There are several considerations to take into account. First, you want a topic that's not too niche and doesn't require too much setting up for someone who's not familiar with the literature. This is because the person who reads your writing sample might not work in your particular subfield, much less in that particular area of your subfield. Second, it's still preferable to have a paper on a topic that philosophers still actively engage in. While it's true that working on something you're not interested in just because it's a hot topic will probably not turn out well, a paper on a popular topic will help your chances. This need not be a gimmick. There are legitimate reasons to prefer a more current topic: readers of your writing sample are more inclined to get excited because it deals with questions that they're still interested in and it shows that you're keeping up with the forefronts of research. Again, it's obviously a bad idea to work on something you're not interested in just because it's popular but you might have multiple topics you're interested in and how accessible and current each topic is should factor into your consideration of topic choice. 

For what it's worth, when I applied, I got into the three schools (two in the top 15). All three schools had faculty members who work on the topic of my writing sample and whom I cited in my writing sample. I didn't get into any of the schools that didn't have people who work on that topic, not even much lower-ranked schools. So, from experience, I'm inclined to think that topic choice, and not just the quality of your writing sample, is an important factor in deciding where you end up getting accepted.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Topic choice also seemed to be at least somewhat relevant for me, as well. When I talked with some of the people I was especially interested in at the departments I was accepted to, many of them mentioned liking my sample, usually the ones who research in the area I wrote in. (Of course, in my personal statement I also mentioned what I am interested in, so perhaps the correlation of topic and where I was accepted/rejected can be explained by AOI alone.)

As far as popularity, I haven't heard anything about it, but there's likely some at least subconscious effects. Being memorable is probably easier with a more radical thesis. As is being interesting in a pile of writing samples. (I can tell the difference between "Libertarianism is compatible with the PSR" "Oh...cool...." and "Everything supervenes on the mental" "Wait, how did you get that?") Too far out may lose some charity from readers. 

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Topic seemed relevant for where I got in as well. My main AOS was in Kant and German Idealism, and my writing sample was on Hegel. I applied to twelve places, and the four I got into were the four that seem to have the biggest emphasis on history of philosophy, especially Kant and related figures (Johns Hopkins, UCSD, Georgetown, Pitt). The eight from which I was rejected all have at least one or two people who work on this stuff, but all seem to place less of an emphasis on it.

I wrote on a pretty well known thing in Hegel (the self-consciousness chapter in the Phenomenology), and argued that two positions in the recent literature are compatible. I don't think it was a terribly original thesis, although it was one that hadn't yet put forward in print - I think what was really useful was showing that I was good at both doing close reading of a historical text and engaging in a pretty detailed way with secondary literature. The latter especially is, I think, a really helpful skill to demonstrate in the writing sample regardless of topic.

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On 6/10/2017 at 4:20 PM, cowgirlsdontcry said:

I chose a chapter of my MA thesis, because it's where my interest and research continue to lie. I specifically chose an author who has written a number of books, to write about for my MA thesis to carry over to a dissertation.  

That's about what I did-- my history applications asked for a sample of 5,000 words, or two shorter samples.  I chose two excerpts from my thesis, picking spots that were (a) coherent and fairly interesting in their own right, (b)  that I'd done well on, (c) that my examiners had highlighted in their positive comments [which my recommenders might have quoted from to save time], and (d) vaguely relevant to my doctoral proposal, which was tangentially related to my master's topic.  

I made sure that a few references might have been clarified for any admissions people who didn't know anything about my topic ("President James Monroe"-- not just "Monroe"), and put a half-paragraph intro before each section to establish context and intent.

Some of this was strategic in the sense of gaming the system, but it really came down to finding something worth reading that left a decent impression of my best work, and lent strength to the notion that I might continue on.  There were a handful of essays from coursework that I might have used instead, but those were necessarily written with less care-- over a few weeks, not most of a year-- and about topics that were more circumscribed.  

Another option was a successful pre-MSt term paper that discussed the WWII atomic bombings from the point of view of "historical controversy."  I had used that for my master's application because it was very good, and the right length, even though it had nothing to do with my topic.  For this application, though, I didn't think it was anywhere near as useful as my recently-completed thesis.  If nothing else, there was also the risk of running against a committee member who had taken a stance exactly opposite  to what I'd chosen, and would be a pill about it.  By contrast, my thesis was about a topic that nobody knows much about.  Also, the scholar I politely trashed in my excerpts had not much to do with any of the universities to which I was applying.

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  • 5 weeks later...

I was strategic in a slightly different way, but I think that my topic helped a lot with where I wound up being accepted. Rather than focusing on what others might do, I tried to pick a topic that aligned as many of my strengths as possible. I think that kinda helped make it unique naturally, if that makes sense. I've worked the most with Hegel and was most comfortable with his Phenomenology, so I wrote my sample on that (like @isostheneia!). But I also know ancient Greek and had taken courses in ancient philosophy and the philosophy of tragedy, so I wrote on Hegel's Antigone, where I could use some of my own translations and bring in ancient ideas as well as working with some contemporary secondary literature on Hegel's work. 

All the schools that accepted me had professors working in both ancient Greek and modern German philosophy and a smaller subset of them were really excited by the work in tragedy. 

So, I think the best bet is to write about something that you're confident that you can produce your best work in. Especially if it can pull together multiple strengths in a natural way, even better! 

Edited by goldenstardust11
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