Tag Archives: writing sample

Tips on Writing a Thesis or a Writing Sample

Writing a sample for graduate admissions or thesis can be a daunting task and much of what you do learn, you figure out in hindsight.  At what point do you graduate from writing a “good paper for your grade level” to the expectation that you will contribute something insightful and original to your field? Moreover, when do you stop writing to the preferences of one particular professor and start writing for an admissions committee, a conference session, a publication?

These questions are not easy to answer and part of the experience is figuring it out as you move forward. However, submitting a paper for graduate admissions or your department’s honors committee makes the stakes pretty high the first time around. Although things worked out in the sense that I got into a good English PhD program and have Distinction on my diploma, the process has humbled me with the realization of all the things I could have done better – and that others did do better than I did.

Here are a few nuggets of advice that I learned from writing a writing sample and honors thesis.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew.

A subject of inquiry that is too general starts as an open door for research and quickly turns into a thesis tidal wave that knocks you off your feet. Unless you are a leading scholar in the field, chances are that your knowledge of existing scholarship is not sufficient to tackle a big, philosophical question that has stumped your field for decades. Even if you are a brilliant super-genius prodigy, you still have to consider what you will have time accomplish AND what you can make a case for in the page limited allotted.  More likely, you would end up 1) with a “middle ground” thesis that is more contemplative than a direct, focused claim or 2) leave wide gaps in your research and your rationale. Think small scale, think specific, and think achievable based on time constraints.

Avoid the dreaded “compare/contrast” thesis.

I like to think my attraction to this type of paper was borne out of being compelled to pull multiple texts into one paper for literature survey courses just because they were written in the same time period. One thing that I really never realized until graduate school is that it’s hard to move beyond “useful observations” and into real criticism when you structure papers this way. Not only do you have to give a convincing context for comparing multiple primary texts, but you also have to come up with a more substantial claim than “hey look, I noticed this historical pattern.” Again, does the scope of your research really encompass enough to make that claim? Stay away from this by coming up with a specific argument that you can illustrate clearly – and choose texts based on their relevance to your argument, not because they might have once been a good combination for a survey course paper.

Peer review is your friend.

I’ve fallen prey to this logic many times: advice from your advisor is superior to that of your peers because your advisor > your peers. Well, for one, your advisor may be more a experienced researcher, but that does not mean her opinion is the only one that matters. Professors get busy during the semester and while many of them genuinely want to help their students, sometimes they do not have as much time to put into critiquing your work as you would hope. There are two very good reasons why you should peer review. 1) Getting a second opinion can never hurt, but too often writers tend to accept the advice of their academic superiors without question. Peer review allows for a more open discussion and equal exchange of ideas.  2) Reading your peer’s work offers perspective on your own. What are you doing less effectively than your peer? What are you doing more effectively? Answering these questions will help you as much as it will help your friend.

Ask critical questions.

Your advisor could give you anything from super-detailed criticism to general words of wisdom. To get the most out of working with your advisor, you have to come to meetings with her prepared. Comb your paper with a critical lens and come up with some direct and specific questions to ask. Stay away from, “is this section good?” or “do I need to revise my this part?”. Instead, come up with questions like, “I’m concerned that my reading of X doesn’t fit with my later interpretation of Y, do you think that point is effective?”. You are more likely to have a productive conversation with your advisor if you come in prepared.

Don’t become too attached to your writing at the expense of expanding your ideas.

Maybe it’s just me, but as soon as I’ve put the effort into writing a full paragraph or section out in complete, well-phrased sentences, I get lazy when it comes to revising them. And I don’t mean checking spelling and grammar – I mean revising at the structural and analytical levels. This can lead to what I call “Frankenpaper:” a paper that includes patches and fragments of writing and ideas that were part of an earlier draft but don’t flow with later, more developed ideas. The best way to avoid “Frankenpaper” from the start is to free-write by hand or make a detailed outline to get your ideas out before you starting actually parsing out a full draft. You’ll be more likely to amend your writing if it isn’t all typed up in neat little paragraphs. If you get a brilliant idea after you’ve done the bulk of your writing, don’t hesitate to annex entire paragraphs and sections and rewrite them. Rewriting is never as difficult as it seems and it may even save you time in the long run struggling to make a paragraph work that, in the end, just doesn’t fit.

20/20 Hindsight: What I would have done differently on my applications

They say hindsight is 20/20, but if we could go back and do it all again, would it really turn out perfectly?

road_not_takenAs far as graduate school applications go, it’s perfectly normal to go through multiple rounds of applications before getting into the right school (I just made that sound like dating, but it is kind of a learn-from experience deal). Seniors in high school go into the undergraduate application season armed with their GPA, ACT/SAT scores, and not much else other than a resume of extracurriculars. For graduate school, you truly have to sell yourself on paper. Your statement of purpose could make all the difference in whether you get that acceptance letter – and that leaves a lot of room for improvement on a second go-round.

I will not be participating in the 2014 application season, but looking back I could have made some improvements on my applications. All is well that ends well, but if you are applying this year here are some things I wish I would have known in hindsight.

Things I would have done differently:

  • Done more to research my own fit for a program before I went ahead and applied.  I could have, in some cases, narrowed down my list and in others, broadened it.
  • Contacted persons of interest from the schools I was most interested in before I applied. I didn’t even know this was an option at the time. If the only faculty member who shares your interests isn’t taking on any new students, you have your answer about whether the school would be a good fit. Best case scenario, they are excited to work with you and even push for you during application season.
  • My statements of purpose(s) were in some ways too narrowly focused on a concentration within my discipline. I thought this might be an asset, but it may have closed some doors to me that may have been open to someone more versatile.
  • Finally, I would have looked more into funding opportunities at schools. I’m pleased with the PhD program I will be attending in a month and feel it is an excellent fit, but I can’t help but feel I could have had leverage to ask for a better funding offer if I would have gotten even better funding from other schools.

Things I would not have done differently:

  • Studied more for the Subject GRE. I didn’t crack open a single practice book or read about test strategies and my score was crap. However, less than half my schools required it and the one that gave me the best offer did require it. So go figure.
  • Apply to a “back-up” MA program. Not realizing how competitive the admissions process actually is, I resisted applying to a program that 1) was not in the top 20 and 2) was not direct-entry to the PhD.  I ended up applying and was really glad to have it as an option in the end cause it was a close call with the PhD programs.
  • forkDoing whatever it took to come up with the best writing sample. In the two weeks leading up to my first application deadline I sent my writing sample to a professor for him to read it over. I was expecting a few offhand comments, but he ended up sending me back pages of written advice and working with me on multiple new drafts. It took a lot of time and stress, but his help probably got me into the program I’m currently attending.
  • Make a spreadsheet to organize all my applications. Boy, did things get confusing in the end and I had multiple panic attacks that I had forgotten to send my transcripts. Referring back to my spreadsheet calmed me – and probably saved me from making some more dire mistakes.

If you are a graduate student, what would you have done differently on your applications and do you think the outcome would have been if you had the chance to improve your applications? If you are applying again, how much is “hindsight knowledge” will be an asset in a second round of applications? I’d love to hear other responses.

Grad Student Confessions: There was an embarrassing typo in my writing sample

While I’d like to preface this anecdote with a cautionary “here’s how to learn from my mistakes,” that is not what this post is about. The moral of this story is that you will check your writing over hundreds of times, you will do everything possible to make sure all of your of your materials are in order, and you will STILL inevitably make a mistake in some capacity.

When it came time to apply to graduate schools, I thought I was ahead of the game on my applications because I already had a 20-page research paper written from one of my advanced writing classes. The paper was from second semester my sophomore year and had received an A+ in a 300-level class, so I figured it was an excellent testimony to my writing skills. Ah, sophomoric hubris.

The alternative was, of course, to write a 20-page research paper from scratch in the fall of my senior year. Three months is already a tight squeeze to properly research and edit a paper of that depth, and to get it done in time to revise didn’t seem feasible. However, when I reread my A+ paper from a year and a half ago, I was shocked at how much my writing had changed. The aspect that had changed the most was my ability to engage scholarly articles and synthesize them with my own work. Looking back, this paper had been one of my first major research projects.

The good news: I had been steadily honing my research skills during my last two years of school. The bad news: “revising” my paper was now a task of epic proportions. It’s one thing to revise the wording on a few sentences and scour for typos. It’s another issue entirely to change the way you engage in the discourse of scholarly sources.

What happened next was a month-long rat-race between my old paper and a new one I was writing from scratch. I read scholarship furiously, waiting for that one piece of inspiration that would make everything come together.

While I eventually found that inspiration (for both papers in time, but the old refurbished paper became my writing sample), I kept many different drafts of my “final” writing sample. However, each time I labeled it final, I would get a new series of revisions at the advice of a professor, or decide to take it into the writing center for some last minute consulting. I had so many different files containing the words “final” and “writing sample” that they became difficult to keep track of.

Well, if you would have asked me back then, I would have told you I scoured my final final draft multiple times for typos before I turned it into a PDF – the computerized equivalent of writing it calligraphy on a leather-bound velum book. The deed was done, and I was pleased with the accomplishment.

It was not until I decided to apply to one more program last minute that I reread the PDF of my writing sample just for kicks. Previously, one of my professors who had made comments on my essay did so by writing his comments embedded in my paragraph and putting them in bold text. As I read, I suddenly realized one sentence was not my own – it was my professor remarking that I my auto-correct had turned “intentionalism” into “internationalism” in the middle of my paragraph. Ironically, I had corrected the typo itself, but somehow my professor’s comment had slipped in there. Not only was it a mistake, it was sure to be confusing to an admissions committee and horribly embarrassing.

I nearly died of embarrassment right there. Why, why hadn’t I read it over one last time??

In order to move on you have to accept one thing: no one can be perfect. It’s hard to proofread a paper that you’ve read 100 times over. You will realize 100 things you could have done better after you turn your applications in, and you will fret over it until the whole application season is over, acceptances, rejections and all. Some schools might let you turn another copy in, that’s worth inquiring. But in the end some probably won’t out of fairness to the other students. Accept this and move on, the only thing you can do is your best – mistakes and all.

Disclaimer: I have not proofread this post.