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Producing a "Winning" Grad School Writing Sample
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grad school writing sample

Some schools ask you to include a writing sample that showcases your ability to think critically and articulate your ideas in writing. Most people submit a paper that they wrote in college, retouching it for content and style. If you don't have a paper that you can dust off the shelf, you'll have to write one from scratch. Length requirements vary but schools normally ask for 10 to 20 pages, double spaced. You'll want to submit a piece of writing that demonstrates your ability to analyze a topic in the same (or related) field to which you are applying. It's always better to write a brand new paper that fits the task than submit an existing paper from an unrelated field. Don't take shortcuts. Really.

So what makes a strong grad school writing sample? In three words: content, style, and structure. Below is a list of qualities that (we believe) distinguish an "outstanding" paper from a merely "good one". Grade yourself against these dimensions. Or, better yet, ask a professor to provide you with honest feedback. Producing the perfect paper requires iteration upon iteration. Nobody said writing was easy!


content Content: Haven't You Heard, "Content is King"

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Length: If you're asked to submit a writing sample of a certain length, you'd best make sure to meet the requirement. No one's going to complain about a missing or extra page, but don't push it.

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Topic Choice: It's hard to overstate the importance of choosing a good topic. By this, we mean a topic that's (a) relevant to your field and (b) interesting, original, and thought provoking. Nobody wants to read a boring paper, especially an admissions committee that is pouring through hundreds of essays. Stand out of the crowd.

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Critical Thinking: Your paper is a reflection of your mind. Each sentence you write should convey a full, rich, and nuanced appreciation of the topic. Nothing should be assumed. Naivete be banished.

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Sources: Citing sources is an integral part of an academic paper. It demonstrates that you've considered the work that's been done before you. Your paper shouldn't be written in a vacuum – it should build on others' work, or refute it.


style Style: "The Dress of Thoughts"

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Word Choice: Diction, or word choice, is the essence of style. A strong paper demonstrates that you've chosen each word carefully and judiciously.

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Punctuation: There's something to be said about using appropriate, effective, and varied punctuation. Proper use of punctuation results in a well paced paper that gets your message across effectively.

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Metaphors and similes: Nothing captivates a reader's attention as much as figurative speech. Use metaphors and similes. Be creative.


structure Structure: Without It, You're Lost

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Introduction, Body, Conclusion: You've probably heard this a million times, but many applicants don't get it right. To be cogent, your paper needs three parts: an introduction, body, and conclusion. The introduction presents the topic that you'll discuss and (potentially) previews the conclusion. The body contains all of your supporting ideas and arguments. And the conclusion summarizes your ideas and offers further reflections. It's not that hard.

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Flow of Ideas: Strong papers are characterized by the natural flow of ideas. The secret is to sequence your ideas intelligently, and make use of logical transitions in the right places. These act as signposts to the reader and ensure that his/her comprehension is complete. There aren't hard and fast rules about this, so this is where great writers distinguish themselves.

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Format: A professionally formatted document tells the reader to take you seriously. Most disciplines follow special rules that you should adhere to. For example, Anthropology uses the AAA style and English the MLA style. By looking at a website that represents your discipline, you'll learn how to cite sources, whether to include footnotes, and other characteristics into your grad school writing sample.

 

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