How to Pick a Winning Grad School Writing Sample — The Admit Lab

Philippe Barr, PhD
9 min readMar 27, 2023

If you’re looking to take your academic career to the next level, no doubt you know that a key factor in getting into grad school is showcasing your writing abilities. Writing samples are arguably the most important part of showing off just how talented and capable you really are — but knowing how to choose the best sample for those applications can feel like an impossible task!

Don’t worry; this guide will walk you through every step necessary so that when it comes time to send in those applications, you’ll have confidence knowing that each sample you put forward is your absolute best work.

What is the point of the grad school writing sample and why does it matter?

An integral factor of your graduate school application is often the writing samples you provide; they give evidence to the admissions committee of your potential and enthusiasm for your target field. This reflects not only on your academic aptitude but also on how well-versed you are in that particular subject matter.

A writing sample is also a great way for admissions committees to get an idea of how you can contribute to the graduate program. It demonstrates your capacity to engage with innovative concepts, present your research clearly and concisely, build upon current trends within the field, and articulate compelling arguments or theories. By assessing your academic writing and critical thinking proficiency, the faculty seeks to select candidates who possess the necessary abilities to thrive academically. Moreover, they want assurance that you can be properly mentored throughout your educational journey.

When assessing samples, reviewers usually consider the following criteria:

  • Structure and clarity: Is the essay’s structure sensible and cohesive? Does it clearly articulate its purpose and successfully achieve it?
  • Critical outlook: Does the work display in-depth insight into the subject, including analysis of other theories or methods? Are all assertions supported with reliable evidence and research?
  • Methodological apparatus: Have all sources been accurately cited throughout the paper? Are there corresponding references attached to each citation?
  • Writing skills: Is every single word spelled correctly and are all the sentences grammatically flawless? Are there any oversights when it comes to typos or missed words?

How to pick the right grad school writing sample

Despite applying to several graduate programs within the same domain, various universities require different lengths when it comes to writing samples. Some may ask for as many as ten pages while others permit up to twenty. Before fine-tuning your writing samples and refining them, be sure that you have already carefully considered the places where you would like to apply. In certain cases, more than one sample may even be asked for. Put in the effort beforehand so you can save yourself time later! Taking the time to ensure you understand all of the expectations for your writing sample up front will save you loads of time down the line!

No need to write something new!

A writing sample for your application is usually taken from a paper or thesis you wrote and was evaluated by college professors, whether it be at the undergraduate or graduate level. Whether it is an excerpt from a master’s thesis or a senior capstone class, any publication that reflects thoughtful consideration of key concepts in the field and meets the maximum length requirement can make you stand out. If you earned a top grade for your paper, it is already in excellent shape and can be submitted as-is. However, to make the paper even better, you may want to incorporate feedback from your grader into its structure or answer any questions that were left unanswered. You should also take this opportunity to add new citations if necessary — just don’t go overboard with modifying the project!

Creating an entirely new writing sample specifically for your application can be a burden if you don’t have the luxury of getting feedback from a professor, or even worse — take away precious time that could otherwise be spent preparing other parts of your application like the statement of purpose. Therefore, it is best to avoid creating something from scratch unless absolutely necessary. As long as your paper is well-written (and graded accordingly), you can submit a piece from a different discipline or one with an out-of-date subject/conclusion. The selection committee’s primary focus is on evaluating your writing, research, and analytical capabilities rather than the topic of your upcoming degree program. Therefore, if your best paper fits this bill even if it doesn’t directly relate to what you’ll be studying — go ahead and send it in.

Pick a grad school writing sample that reflects the writing you will be required to do in your program

When a school fails to give clear instructions (and they often do!), it is advisable to present an academic writing sample such as an essay, dissertation, journal article, or research paper. The focus of your submission should be in line with the major you are applying for. Doing so will highlight your aptitude for analyzing and exploring ideas within that particular field.

If you want to be considered for a research-based graduate program, such as a Ph.D. or Master of Science, your writing sample should illustrate your aptitude for producing research papers. If you are applying for any program other than creative writing or journalism, you should demonstrate your academic abilities and engagement in ideas by submitting an appropriate piece of written work. Choose a paper that was assigned to you as part of coursework rather than essays, memoirs, blog posts, or newspaper articles. Consider the research you have done and your accomplishments in your field, then select an example that reveals how adeptly you can analyze a great deal of information as well as introduce innovative concepts.

Your writing sample should not simply reiterate the already established research. Instead, showcase your own ideas and arguments while maintaining awareness of where they fit in an existing conversation within your field. Provide sufficient context to show that you understand how academics can guide you as a researcher, writer, and scholar — but also demonstrate why you have what it takes to be an influential member of the research community.

For professional programs like an MBA or MPA degree, an ideal paper would demonstrate skills like crafting business case studies and policy analysis respectively. When submitting your application for a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, make sure to include the best creative writing sample you have. For those applying to Journalism programs, it would be most beneficial to send along a long-form journalistic article that accurately reflects the type of work expected during graduate studies; don’t submit anything that isn’t reflective of what will be taught and is required!

If you are seeking to obtain a graduate school degree in marketing, communications, public relations, public policy, or other related areas of study and have work-related writing samples such as white papers, policy briefs, news articles, and grant applications submitted then this could be an excellent option for you. However, exercise caution when creating your portfolio. If you choose to include content that was written for work purposes, ensure it is solely authored by you and accompany the piece with a separate explanation regarding its origin and authorship. Keep in mind that reviewers are judging and assessing you as an individual!

How long should my grad school writing sample be?

There’s no simple answer to the question, as the target length depends on the program you’re applying for. The importance of reading and following all of the instructions carefully throughout your application cannot be overstated.

If your institution doesn’t provide specific instructions, opt for a scholarly essay. Even better, get in touch with the department to ensure you’re on track! Most departments have experienced directors of graduate studies and admissions specialists who are more than willing to help guide you through this process. Moreover, this experience could prove an invaluable asset when you apply for the program later on.

Don’t exceed the maximum word limit

When submitting a writing sample as part of your graduate school application, it is important to respect the word limit specified by the institution. This is because admissions officers often have hundreds or even thousands of applications to read and evaluate. Sticking to the word limit demonstrates that you can follow instructions, work within constraints, and present yourself clearly and concisely — all important skills for success as a graduate student. Furthermore, if you go over the word count, this could make it difficult for someone who has limited time to review your entire piece. By respecting the word limit given and crafting a concise yet meaningful piece of writing, you are more likely to stand out in the minds of admissions committee members!

Which part of your honors thesis or master’s thesis should you send as a sample if you have a word limit?

When selecting a sample from a long piece of writing, such as a thesis, to send for graduate school admissions, it is important to carefully consider the kind of content you are sending. Your sample should reflect your writing abilities, research interests, and expertise in a specific field. Choose a section of your writing that you are particularly proud of and that demonstrates both your knowledge and writing skills in a meaningful way. It is also beneficial to include a short introduction that outlines the focus, purpose, and aims of your writing to help the admissions team gain a better understanding of the context and scope of your writing.

Depending on the program, you may want to select a part of your thesis that specifically pertains to the focus of the graduate school. For example, if you are applying to a program in literature, you may want to submit an analysis of a text or a comparison between two texts. When selecting the content, be sure to pick something that demonstrates your knowledge of the subject and your ability to think critically about it.

Tips Before Sending

Before submitting your work, whether it be an academic paper or other form of professional sample, make sure that you put in the necessary effort to ensure that your final result is as polished and perfected as possible. To do this effectively, follow these steps:

  • Invite a person you trust to review your work and offer their thoughts, which you can then choose whether or not to incorporate.
  • Thoroughly proofread your paper several times to ensure all spelling and grammar are correct.
  • To ensure your writing is flawless, check for any typos, formatting errors, comments or tracked changes, run-on sentences and duplicated paragraphs.
  • Optimize your document by renaming it with essential details that make it easier for busy admissions personnel to locate. For instance, you can use a format such as: Writing Sample_Name of applicant_Title of paper/project.
  • Ensure that you utilize a consistent and accurate citation style throughout your document for optimal results.

Ensure your academic paper is comprehensive by including all of the following sections as a minimum: an introduction that set the topic, a cohesive body, a clear conclusion, and references.

Conclusion

After taking the time to find the best grad school writing sample for grad school, you are now ready to take your next step and apply with confidence. You should feel incredibly proud of yourself for reaching this milestone. This process takes hard work, dedication, and a willingness to evolve and improve your writing. As you continue through this journey, remember that you are always capable of infinite growth- and often there is great comfort in seeking guidance from an expert who can provide valuable insight and direction. If you’re looking for supportive advice or a professional opinion on any part of the application process, consider signing up for a free admissions consultation today. It’s never too late to take steps toward realizing your dreams; congratulations on embarking on this amazing journey!

Originally published at https://admit-lab.com on March 27, 2023.

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Philippe Barr, PhD

I am Philippe Barr, founder of The Admit Lab, a graduate school admissions consultancy that helps students get admitted into grad school: https://admit-lab.com/