People often ask me what I did to get into my graduate program and assume that I must have scored very well on the GRE and probably worked with a GRE tutor. What they don’t know, and what every potential PhD applicant in the humanities should know, is that top GRE scores are not usually the most important component of a successful application.
In philosophy (and I’ve been told the same goes for the other disciplines in the humanities), the two most important parts of one’s graduate school application are the writing sample and faculty recommendations. I’ll focus on the former today and I’ll speak from my own experience in philosophy with the understanding that analogous points hold for the other humanities.
Performance on standardized exams is not always the most reliable guide to whether one can excel at philosophy.
Thankfully, good graduate programs know this. Even getting a perfect score on the writing portion of the GRE is neither enough, nor even necessary, for a successful philosophy application. Far more indicative of one’s philosophical abilities is an extended piece of writing on a philosophical topic, and every good graduate program requires one in their applications. An excellent piece of philosophical writing is the sine qua non for a competitive application.
The earlier that aspiring philosophy PhD students understand this, the better.
But this is not because, say, sophomore philosophy majors ought to immediately begin crafting an essay specifically for an application and then spend the rest of their undergraduate lives perfecting it. That strategy is more likely to make one miserable than to improve one’s chances of being accepted to the program one dreams of. Rather, one should become aware of the importance of good philosophical writing in the life of academic philosophy and begin to orient oneself toward general development of one’s philosophical writing abilities. But how does one do that?
To begin, one obviously needs to take one’s writing assignments in philosophy classes very seriously. But not only those. For while there are standards and conventions peculiar to philosophical writing, there are ones common to most disciplines as well. Take every writing assignment in every class as an opportunity to improve.
A great way to improve your PhD admissions chances would be to spend time during a summer improving your best philosophical paper to date.
For this is exactly what developing your writing sample will turn into, and it is best for it not to be the first time you have gone through the process. Every paper that has ever been written could be improved. So don’t rest on the A that you received on the final paper in your upper division meta-ethics course as a sophomore, thinking it is a sure sign of acceptance to your favored program. Bug your professor to give you more advice on how it can be improved. Stretch yourself to edit it for mistakes and to ponder ways it could be made better. Spend some time over the summer trying to make it the best paper you can. Finally, see if your professor will look at the improved version again in the fall and give you yet more feedback.
What you read is nearly as important as what you write.
While practicing writing is the most important part of developing your writing, the proper kind of reading is of enormous importance as well. One learns to write like a philosopher through being exposed to lots and lots of philosophical writing. This means that you need to read philosophical works not only for their philosophical content, but also for their writing style. You need to ask yourself questions about how a paper is written. Why is the overall structure as it is? Why did the author put this particular point this way? What are common stylistic themes across the different papers I read? Another good exercise that one of my undergraduate professors recommended to me is to actually copy out extended passages from famous works and arguments in the philosophical canon. Among other things, when done with proper focus, this can force you to confront and answer the above questions for the best writing available.
An important caveat applies to the above, though. Reading Plato’s dialogues or Descartes’ meditations (classic examples of excellent philosophical writing) over and over will not be sufficient to help you write a good sample essay. Your writing sample needs to show that you have the ability to write the kind of essays that get published in academic journals today, and that is a very different style from some of the great works of history. So you need to read a lot of contemporary journal articles, ask for some guidance from professors, and, for some of the best ones, look beyond what they assign in class. However, this does not mean that, even here, there is nothing to learn from the masters of the past. It just means you need a well-balanced meal of classic and contemporary philosophical writing.
So the most important thing is not only to be aware of the importance of your writing sample, but to start doing the kinds of things that will make you well prepared for developing it. Writing samples are almost always extended improvements on a final class paper or a piece of one’s senior thesis.
Finally, in order to produce the best sample you can, you need to develop the kind of relationship with one of your professors such that he or she can help you select your most promising work, and then work with you to help you whip it into application-ready shape.
Developing such a relationship goes hand in hand with improving your prospects for the other most important part of the application—faculty recommendations—but that's a topic for another post.