Monday, August 27, 2007

Writing Sample Question

any other tips on the writing sample? for those in grad school, how did you choose your sample? any specific comments from the selection committee about why it got you in? did you do revising specifically for the submission? or use something you had already worked over pretty hard and had confidence in? previously published material?

i personally chose my samples based on the page limits, but i wouldn't necessarily do that again if were to apply all over again. there are no hard and fast rules. first priority i feel is the quality of the work. if a piece of writing stands out to you significantly more than others, then that's the one you should use.

on the other hand, i feel like a certain amount of tailoring to programs can be done, as long as an applicant has relatively accurate information. if i were to do it over, i would probably send my most experimental pieces to brown, and my most character-driven work to cornell, for instance. but one should also be careful, because faculties and admissions committees change all the time.

i don't think publication matters that much. it may actually hurt in certain instances, if a committee feels that a writer doesn't have room to grow. i've heard faculty here talking about people here who were accepted based on their perceived potential, over candidates who had more polished work, but that faculty felt weren't as ambitious in their writing goals.

ultimately, i think it comes down to a matter of taste a lot of the time. by the time things get winnowed down, everyone's a fantastic writer and it's just the particular choices of the committee members. i think it's important to remember that humans are making these choices, and humans make many mistakes. so it's all a big crapshoot in the end...


Luke said...

As a follow-up, is it okay if your sample is a few pages over the requested amount?

Lincoln said...

I've found this to be a hard question when I was applying.

Tom Kealey's advice of simply sending the two best stories to every school makes sense to me, but only if you write traditional domestic realism stories around 15 pages. When I was applying I had one or two such stories I thought were pretty good and then a handful of shorter (one to 5 page) more experimental pieces. Saying "send the best work" makes loads of sense, but it wasn't easy for me to determine whether a one page weird prose poem was better than a 15 page domestic realism story of mine.

In the end I went largely by what the schools requested. If they asked for "two stories no exceeding 40 pages" I sent my two long stories. If their guidelines were looser ("up to 30 pages max" no story amount requirement) I sent one of the domestic realism stories and then a handful of other stories in different styles. I think I was trying to to showcase my range.... though I honestly have no idea if writing programs care about this. I could even see them looking down on a varied manuscript. I could see them loving it too though. I've never seen anyone say which is preferred.

Although I like TK's idea that sending the same pieces everywhere will make you not second guess yourself later, I think it again depends on the situation. Like I said, I couldn't easily call two of my stories the best given that they were all in different styles and about different things. And as has been pointed out on here recently, different programs quite clearly have different preferences. If I could do it over again I would probably tailer my submissions more, as M. said.

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