Tips for Your Writing Sample
Most humanities and social science PhD programs require you to submit a "writing sample" with your application. Professors ask for writing samples in order to get a sense of your interests and to assess your strengths as a writer, specifically your ability to form, support, and articulate an argument. That said, your writing sample doesn't have to be related to your potential dissertation topic. Because, after all, your research interests can change while you're in grad school.
However, it is smart to submit something that is still related to the discipline that you're applying to. For example, if you're applying to English Literature PhD programs, you should submit something pertaining to literature. The same is true if you're applying to sociology or history programs.
The application struggle is real, though. It takes time and money! And after worrying about the personal statement and the GRE test, I understand that it might be tough to find the energy to write the writing sample. So here are a few tips to help you out.
Start with the old.
It's important to recognize that the "writing sample" is really a research paper. You'll need a title, a clear thesis statement, and a bibliography. So unless you absolutely have to (because you're looking to switch disciplines), there's no point in starting from scratch. Instead, start with some of your old work. If you don't know where to start, I tell many prospective grad students to use a paper that they wrote in college. This is helpful because you already finished it and, ideally, you already received feedback on it. And if it's a well-written paper, you can just focus a lot of your time on meeting the page count and editing. The goal is to avoid having to come up with something completely new while you're already stressing about the other parts of the application.
Or, start fresh.
Let's say that you majored in Psychology in college, but you'd like to apply for PhD programs in Religious studies. In this case, you might want to start from scratch. Because the goal is to show grad school admissions committees that you can do scholarly work in Religious studies, even though you didn't major in it in college. Another reason for starting fresh is if you're no longer invested in any of the paper topics that you previously wrote.
If you find yourself in this boat, then you should take a shot at writing something related to your potential dissertation topic. Because, clearly, you have reasons for changing disciplines and/or moving away from your previous interests. Why not show the admissions committee (and yourself) what you're capable of producing over the next few years? Just keep in mind that it's a "writing sample," not a dissertation.
Whether you pulled a paper from your own "archives," or you started from scratch, you need to get feedback on it. If you're applying straight out of college, you could ask the professor you submitted the paper to for feedback. Meet with them during office hours and ask them how you can improve it and/or add to it to meet the page count for your applications. If you're no longer in college, then you should consider sending it to one of the individuals who agreed to write you a recommendation letter. This will allow you to get another set of eyes on your writing sample, and will give your recommender a better sense of your strengths as a writer (which they can later discuss in their letter). But you should definitely make sure that this person is someone who is in, or very familiar with, the discipline that you're applying to. That way, they can tell you how to make the paper relevant and compelling to the admissions committee.
Update your sources.
As you revise your paper, you need to do some research and figure out if any new books or academic articles have been written about your topic in the past 3-5 years. By updating your sources with the latest work, you make the writing sample "current," and you demonstrate that you're knowledgable about the field that you're applying to. If you're writing it from scratch, you should start by doing this research. Google Scholar is a good search database, and if you have access to a university library, you should see if they have any books related to your topic. Just make sure that you're citing all of your sources!
But Don't disappear.
Often, I find that my thoughts and arguments disappear whenever I add too many scholarly perspectives to my papers. But don't let this happen to you with your writing sample. You'll need to update the sources in your research paper, but it's important that you don't lose your voice. You're submitting a research paper to highlight your arguments. So it shouldn't look like an annotated bibliography. Make sure that your voice is prominent throughout the paper. Make sure that you are driving the narrative.
Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.
Give yourself plenty of time to write a strong writing sample. Trust me, this process takes longer than you think. You'll need time to conduct preliminary research on new scholarship in the field, time to get feedback from trusted individuals, and time to write (and rewrite) the paper. Everyone works differently, but it could be a good idea to tackle the writing sample first. Because unlike the personal statement, which has its own challenges, the writing sample is a 20+ page research paper. Every piece of your PhD application matters, and it takes time to write a good paper. You don't want to save the writing sample until the end, and potentially run out of time.
I should also note that every PhD program doesn't require applicants to submit writing samples. So you might not even need to write one. But if a program states that a writing sample is "desirable but not required" or "recommended," then you need to submit one. Don't fall into the trap! Because if they really didn't want one, it wouldn't have been listed with the application materials. If anything, by submitting one, you'll show that you're serious about applying and willing to go the extra mile. That's definitely not a bad thing!
I mean, think about it. Some PhD programs get hundreds of applications every year. Who knows if every single one of them are thoroughly read. Some admissions committees might read every application, but others might not. I know that if I had 300 applications sitting on my desk I'd try to eliminate some of them, at least initially, by discarding the ones that didn't take the time to submit the "desirable" or "recommended" materials. Don't make the admission committee's job easy. Send them everything that they ask for, even the writing sample.