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Successful Writing Samples


Xia1
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I've been researching/gathering data from this forum and elsewhere on what exactly makes for a successful writing sample, since most agree that if there is a single most important part of the application, it is the writing sample. I'd like to give my thoughts and see what others think, especially from people who have been through the process, and especially especially from those who have had success. They are in no particular order and are far from exhaustive.

First observation, it seems to me many of the "successful samples" interact in some way with a unique, modern philosophical issue. Many of the less successful examples do not have this quality. That isn't to say that one can't write on Hume or Aristotle and be successful (quite the contrary), but it seems that those who do also relate their work to something with contemporary relevance.

Secondly, successful samples are by and large decidedly analytic. Many unsuccessful samples are musing, setting up vague (but maybe still plausible) premises and meandering their way through different possibilities to a conclusion. None of it is exactly clearly the case. That is to say, its hard to make any pronouncements one way or another about the validity of the arguments within, since they are perhaps plausibly true but not clearly true. Sorry continental friends, but to be fair, I am not continental myself and am not looking at many samples from schools with continental specialties. Though I don't think this is simply related to the analytic-continental distinction; many papers, even from the "analytic tradition," suffer from vague ruminations about esoteric topics.

Thirdly, and related to the last point, successful samples are by and large negative. That is to say, they argue against rather than for. I think this is simply due to how much easier it is to prove something is false than prove it is true.

Lastly, and this is definitely subjective, but successful samples are interesting. And by interesting, I do not mean novel, unorthodox, or about popular topics. I mean they grip the reader by making them invested in the arguments success, which presupposes that the reader thinks the argument even can be successful (or that there is an argument at all, don't take this for granted).

So I suppose my main take away is that common denominators of successful papers are that they clearly set out realistic goals, are hyper focused, and make arguments that can easily be shown to be objectively (not empirically, obviously) true or false given their validity.

If true, it seems helpful, because it gives us good advice that, without the preceding background information, is not immediately obvious. For example, it seems one would be more likely to succeed with a paper (and don't read too much into these examples, I certainly haven't put enough thought into them to be worth it) critiquing reductionism with Kripke than a paper trying to synthesize Aristotle's and Leibniz's ideas about a First Cause. The main exception to this would be departmental fit/specialty, but I'm simply trying to be as general as possible.

Thoughts?

Edited by Xia1
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3 hours ago, Xia1 said:

First observation, it seems to me many of the "successful samples" interact in some way with a unique, modern philosophical issue. Many of the less successful examples do not have this quality. That isn't to say that one can't write on Hume or Aristotle and be successful (quite the contrary), but it seems that those who do also relate their work to something with contemporary relevance.

I think this is partly right but perhaps not quite accurate. The key here is that you need to show an awareness of contemporary secondary literature on the topic. A paper on Hume or Aristotle can certainly be successful but to do so it's going to have to be responding to and/or taking into consideration the lines of debate that form current Hume or Aristotle scholarship. You mention Kripke, but a Kripke paper could be just as outdated if it doesn't take into account how others have responded to Kripke in recent years. It's less about the topic in this case and more about showing your awareness of the current conversations about the topic at hand (even if this occurs mostly in the footnotes).

3 hours ago, Xia1 said:

Secondly, successful samples are by and large decidedly analytic. Many unsuccessful samples are musing, setting up vague (but maybe still plausible) premises and meandering their way through different possibilities to a conclusion. None of it is exactly clearly the case. That is to say, its hard to make any pronouncements one way or another about the validity of the arguments within, since they are perhaps plausibly true but not clearly true. Sorry continental friends, but to be fair, I am not continental myself and am not looking at many samples from schools with continental specialties. Though I don't think this is simply related to the analytic-continental distinction; many papers, even from the "analytic tradition," suffer from vague ruminations about esoteric topics.

I think the analytic-continental distinction is largely unhelpful and this is no different in the case of writing samples. What you need is clear, compelling prose that makes a coherent argument. This applies whether you're writing on Heidegger or David Lewis. If you're going to write on Heidegger, your prose better be closer to that of Dreyfus, Kelly, Carman, Wrathall, et al. than it is to Heidegger's. That being said, if you want to do German/French philosophy in a department that isn't primarily "continental", it would probably behoove you to demonstrate some awareness of major issues in analytic philosophy. Fit comes in here too. You have to think about who can support the sorts of projects you want to do and what sorts of students are typically admitted at the program in question. 

3 hours ago, Xia1 said:

Thirdly, and related to the last point, successful samples are by and large negative. That is to say, they argue against rather than for. I think this is simply due to how much easier it is to prove something is false than prove it is true.

Yeah, maybe, but I expect this is a case where the exception proves the rule. Send your best work. If that happens to make a positive claim, then so be it. (I'm also skeptical how strong the distinction between a negative paper and a positive one really goes, but that's another story).

Edited by Glasperlenspieler
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3 hours ago, Xia1 said:

So I suppose my main take away is that common denominators of successful papers are that they clearly set out realistic goals, are hyper focused, and make arguments that can easily be shown to be objectively (not empirically, obviously) true or false given their validity.

1. On most framework, arguments are valid/invalid, sound/unsound and propositions are true/false. Try to avoid that mistake in a writing sample.

2. You should certainly make sure your arguments are valid (especially if you present them in premise/conclusion form) and do everything you can to demonstrate the truth of your premises. I'm not quite sure what you mean by "can easily be shown to be objectively true or false" but if it's anything stronger than giving valid arguments and arguing for the soundness of the premises, then I'm not sure this occurs all that often in philosophy.

3 hours ago, Xia1 said:

Lastly, and this is definitely subjective, but successful samples are interesting. And by interesting, I do not mean novel, unorthodox, or about popular topics. I mean they grip the reader by making them invested in the arguments success, which presupposes that the reader thinks the argument even can be successful (or that there is an argument at all, don't take this for granted).

This is probably the single most important factor when it comes to graduate admissions (assuming everything else is in order). What it takes for you to get admitted is for someone on the admissions committee to get excited about your writing sample, hopefully multiple someones. This is also where fit comes in. Fit can occur in straightforward ways (applying with a writing sample on Aristotle is problematic if nobody in the department publishes on Aristotle) but also more complicated ways (if you reject a two-objects view of Kant in favor of a two-aspects view, then your odds of getting accepted at Brown to work with Guyer on the first critique are probably pretty low). 

Edited by Glasperlenspieler
Fixed the strikethroughs
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1 hour ago, Glasperlenspieler said:

I think the analytic-continental distinction is largely unhelpful and this is no different in the case of writing samples. What you need is clear, compelling prose that makes a coherent argument. This applies whether you're writing on Heidegger or David Lewis. If you're going to write on Heidegger, your prose better be closer to that of Dreyfus, Kelly, Carman, Wrathall, et al. than it is to Heidegger's.

I suppose I meant having analytic (in the strictest sense) characteristics rather than the "school of thought" distinction. That is to say, successful samples emphasize clear definitions, carefully constructed premises, and deal in rigorous argumentation; rather than being arcane, imprecise, and needlessly wordy. That these respectively appear to characterize "analytic" and "continental" philosophy is my own interpretation and opinion, I'll gladly admit, and certainly not a necessary set of features for either. Like I said, a paper on mental supervenience that looks like it was written by Heidegger would be less preferable than a paper on phenomenology that looks like it was written by Peter van Inwagen. And I'm certainly not trying to provide any hard and fast rules myself, just reporting trends from what I've noticed in successful samples.

1 hour ago, Glasperlenspieler said:

1. On most framework, arguments are valid/invalid, sound/unsound and propositions are true/false. Try to avoid that mistake in a writing sample.

2. You should certainly make sure your arguments are valid (especially if you present them in premise/conclusion form) and do everything you can to demonstrate the truth of your premises. I'm not quite sure what you mean by "can easily be shown to be objectively true or false" but if it's anything stronger than giving valid arguments and arguing for the soundness of the premises, then I'm not sure this occurs all that often in philosophy.

In that case my sentiment is more appropriately expressed by "shown to be objectively sound or unsound." Not to imply that anyone does in fact do this in their samples, but it should at least be within the realm of possibility, which, again, as a general trend, isn't particularly endemic to many samples.

Thanks for your input! I appreciate it

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My two cents: I applied with a WS on Hegel, and I applied to analytic schools (though exclusively ones with at least a few people working on Kant and German idealism). Glasperlenspieler is right in saying that it matters for history writing samples that they engage with the contemporary literature; I was navigating a dispute between two major interpreters, and my bibliography was filled with people at the places to which I applied. And while I think Xia1 is right to say that making negative points is easier than good positive proposals, I'm not sure that means it's more beneficial to go for the former, since adcoms are aware of this. For what it's worth, I argued that the two interpretations on offer were compatible (primarily negative), and that the reading that held both theses is a correct reading of the text (primarily positive).

My biggest piece of advice is to make your WS look as close to the best papers you're reading as possible. If everyone cites Professor S when talking about a certain issue, then cite Professor S. Even more aesthetic things: if everyone writing on topic x fills the majority of the first page with a list of 75 citations in which they explicitly attribute the target view to everyone who ever held it, then you should do the same. The professors reading your WS know what good work in your area looks like (unless your WS is on a really rare topic, perhaps), so it's helpful to make your paper look like the good papers you're reading and citing.

(It's of course also helpful to make your arguments as good as those in the good papers you're reading and citing, but this is almost always an unachievable goal for people just applying to graduate school. Making one's paper look professional in non-argumentative ways is, on the other hand, achievable.)

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On 10/27/2017 at 10:57 AM, Glasperlenspieler said:

(if you reject a two-objects view of Kant in favor of a two-aspects view, then your odds of getting accepted at Brown to work with Guyer on the first critique are probably pretty low). 

This is false. You can absolutely disagree with faculty in your area. The only thing that matters is that you do it well. Straw man them and you're in a bad place. But disagree politely, rigorously, and uniquely and you're arguably in a better position than any number of sycophants.

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