uhhhhh grad school application: how do I do this when i feel bad
November 28, 2016 5:36 AM   Subscribe

I'm applying to grad programs in the humanities and I'm working on my writing sample and it's bad. I feel like a failure, and it's impeding my ability to get this shit done in time for December 8, my first deadline. How do I get over it?

It is very late in the semester to still be WRITING your writing sample. I know. I feel awful about it. I spent the first half of the semester prioritizing mental health stuff that delayed my application process, so this is what I'm working with. I also know that people are gonna be kinda eughhh about the "grad program in the humanities" thing. I'm only applying to funded programs, and this has been a decision 2-3 years in the making because nothing gives me more joy than this shit right here, unfortunately.

Except right now, when I'm struggling to crank out 15 excellent pages for my applications. The other stuff is in order: my recommenders are thrilled for me and almost done writing recs, my GRE scores were much better than anticipated, I've presented at two major conferences plus some other crap so my CV looks okay, and my statements of purpose for the two schools with the Dec 8 deadlines are in their second-to-last drafts. It's the writing sample that's waking me up at 4AM from anxiety and making me poop like six times a day.

The situation is that the same mental health stuff that delayed my apps also delayed my work on my thesis, which would have provided the ideal writing sample. My thesis most directly pertains to what I want to pursue in a grad program but I'm still in the research stage of that project and don't know that I can pump out a quality 15 pages given the time constraints. Instead, I'm working on a capstone paper in my discipline that I have to do anyway. I'm anxious because my stated interests don't align with this paper, and this anxiety has soured me on the paper as a whole, making it Very Difficult for me to write it.

I have a meeting with my advisor (who is like a parent to me, who reads everything I write, who really believes in me, who I am terrified of disappointing, and who is writing one of my recommendations) today to talk about this. I'm really really fortunate to have a network of people who completely support me, including academics in my discipline who are willing to read whatever crap I produce in these next five days. But I'm still hyperaware of the fact that I'm applying to almost a dozen grad programs with the hope to get into one, and I don't even have a writing sample ready to go 11 days before the first hard deadline. Imposter syndrome levels are kinda high right now.

So, my question to you: how can I pump out this paper? Or should I ditch it and dedicate my next week to producing 15 pages of thesis (which is kind of at a weird point right now, as I found a truly excellent article that articulates what I wanted to say much better than I ever will)? Should I cut my losses and look at other papers I've written--none of which pertain to my research interests more directly than the capstone paper--with the goal of workshopping them to be much better? Should I lengthen and heavily edit one of my conference papers?

I'm looking for concrete day-to-day advice on how to complete this in time as well as advice on how to whip myself into shape mentally. I really appreciate your help, as I feel very much like a helpless baby right now.

(Side note: I am working on self care. I'm eating well and going to my freaking exercise class and drinking good coffee and talking to friends and sleeping. But I also have classes with assignments that need doing and I'm involved with organizing and it feels really weird to me to put that involvement to the side for something as self-indulgent as grad school apps. I don't know. Everything feels weird.)
posted by anonymous to Education (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Should I cut my losses and look at other papers I've written--none of which pertain to my research interests more directly than the capstone paper--with the goal of a them to be much better? Should I lengthen and heavily edit one of my conference papers?

Yes. Either one of these is a better option than trying to churn something out under a time constraint. The point of the writing sample is to show that you can write and produce good quality writing products, well researched, cited, thoughtful - not whether you've been writing on the topic you're interested in. That's a nice bonus if you happen to have one, but absolutely not a reason you should be trying to write one from scratch.

Pick a previous paper close to the 15 page limit you were happy with, workshop and edit the hell out of it now. You don't need to hit the page max exactly, slightly shorter but good quality is fine too. You've got this.
posted by Karaage at 5:44 AM on November 28, 2016 [17 favorites]

I vote you use something you already have written. It just has to show that you can produce something worthwhile. It doesn't have to be on the exact thing you want to study.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:44 AM on November 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Jumping in to say-- dang, you sound stressed. You're gonna be okay! You're not being chased by lions or anything. You got this. I would show them your best work, whatever that is.
posted by athirstforsalt at 6:12 AM on November 28, 2016 [5 favorites]

If you've already got published work, just take something that's under 15 pages, stick it in the application uploader, and you're done. It's already been published so what are they gonna do, say it's not good enough? They literally can't.

You did right to ask us about this. I would never think of writing a sample from scratch when a publication makes a stronger case and is just lying around ready for use in a situation like this.

Other than that, stop whingeing about how awful it is that one or more of the dozen applications you're writing is likely to enable you to do research that brings you joy ;-) OH NO what a terrible position to be in!!!1!!!

I kid, I kid. Whinge, whine and agonize all you want about how awful your life is. Just know that no matter how much whingeing and self-doubting and handwringing you do, those 12 applications are still going out there on time.

Now get back to work!
posted by tel3path at 6:19 AM on November 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

Absolutely turn in something you've already written! Don't even worry about making it "that much" better - just fix anything obvious, get one or two people to look it over and make suggestions, and then submit your application and take a nap. I know it's hard to believe, but either you're basically at the point where you're ready for grad school - and given your adviser's support and your commitment to the field, it sounds like you are - or you need a few more years of percolating and thinking and reading in order for your work to improve. The work you can do in fifteen days won't change that one way or another, and you're way likely to allow stress and rush to make your work seem worse than it is than you are to improve under pressure in that time.

Good luck!!
posted by pretentious illiterate at 6:22 AM on November 28, 2016 [8 favorites]

Yep-- use something you've already written. My writing sample was very much not on the topic of my proposed research (and it's worth noting that my eventual dissertation was also not on the topic of my proposed research). What they're looking for is evidence of the relevant skillset, which it sounds like you have. That means both that they want you to be able to propose a reasonable-sounding research agenda, and that they want to know you can write a reasonable paper, but not that they want you to already have done the research you're proposing (because then what would be the point).

I'll add one caveat (esp since this question is tagged "English"): do make sure the paper you choose is within the purview of the relevant humanities program. By which I mean, don't submit a paper on literature in a language other than English, even if you wrote about it in translation, to an English program.

(Also maybe try probiotics/ good luck/ don't beat yourself up over wanting to do this!)
posted by dizziest at 6:27 AM on November 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

Deep breaths, you can do this. It sounds a little like you're starting to spiral. Funded grad school program in your passion is a great thing! Having a great support network is a great thing!

Yes to using a writing sample you've already done. Talk this over with your advisor today with the top candidates of your samples to pick the best. And always, always researchers find papers that seem to have done what they're trying to do when they're close to writing results up. That's the nature of the beast; it's okay.

You've got this. One step at a time.
posted by umwhat at 6:32 AM on November 28, 2016

Yes--it's impressive to submit a publication as your writing sample. I am periodically on the grad admissions committee in my humanities dept. A published work would make us sit up and take note. (Unless it indicates that the applicant doesn't understand the department. For example, if it's in a social science journal and contains a section entitled "discussion of the data.").

Bear in mind also that the sample is only one of many things the committee looks at. As a reader, the statement of purpose is the most important for me, then the writing sample, and lastly the letters. But no single element by itself will make or break the application. Think about the overall feel of the file you're submitting: does it look like the portfolio of someone who is ready to enter the academic profession? Does it indicate awareness of your field, and of current conversations within a particular subdiscipline? If so, that's very good.

It helps also to remind yourself that regardless of the institutional rhetoric, academia is not a meritocracy.
posted by Morpeth at 7:12 AM on November 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Should I lengthen and heavily edit one of my conference papers?
Personally, this is the route I would take. You've already written it (and most importantly, thought through it already); it's an efficient use of existing materials; and it won't require extra research.

EDIT: If you have an actual, discipline-appropriate published article in hand, then it's an absolute no-brainer that that would be the writing sample for this particular application.
posted by Sonny Jim at 7:17 AM on November 28, 2016

A quick sidebar:

I'm involved with organizing and it feels really weird to me to put that involvement to the side for something as self-indulgent as grad school apps.

Organizing work is important, but sidelining it for less than two weeks to take care of other stuff in your life is not self-indulgent in the slightest. You have this Internet stranger's permission to do so.
posted by Itaxpica at 7:51 AM on November 28, 2016 [5 favorites]

As someone who has read easily several thousand humanities PhD applications in 23 years of PhD teaching, I concur. Send your best writing that is even remotely relevant to the discipline. We read those to see if you can write well and make a well supported argument. Your personal statement is where you project your developing interests.

You'll be fine.
posted by spitbull at 8:08 AM on November 28, 2016 [7 favorites]

Earlier this year, I applied to a competitive Master's program (in Education) and submitted a sample of writing from an undergraduate history course. I got in.

Like you, I was very worried about exactly what to submit, but I e-mailed the program coordinator to ask because I finished my undergrad 7 years ago and haven't done any academic writing since. The response indicated that they just want to see that you know how to organize your thoughts, cite sources, and write coherently. I dug up an old paper I wrote and submitted that, and it was fine.

Good luck!
posted by gursky at 9:39 AM on November 28, 2016

A quote that's genuinely helped me get through some of the hardest times in my life goes something to the effect of "get going and good feelings will follow".

I gig as a jazz musician and sometimes find I'm too tired to perform or just not in the mood. Once I make the commitment to start, I always find that momentum builds and by the second or third song, I'm deep into it.

I also used to write for a newspaper with some really demanding editors (one time I had to write five drafts for a single article) and would often get overwhelmed and bogged down. Once I started writing and committed to continue writing, the process not only became more natural but also FUN!
posted by defmute at 9:46 AM on November 28, 2016

I agree with those above who say the writing sample is to judge whether you have the skill set to do graduate work, not that you've already written on the topic you hope to pursue in graduate school. (If you have already done the research you're planning to do in graduate school, you wouldn't need to go, right?!) My writing sample when I applied ended up being on a topic only very very tangentially related to the research I ended up doing later, and I think this is pretty typical. If you've already presented at conferences, I'd say you're a step ahead of many people and I would send one of these papers.
posted by rainbowbrite at 10:47 AM on November 28, 2016

Another humanities prof chiming in who serves on the occasional grad admissions committee: I read your personal statement to think about how your research interests fit with various faculty specializations and needs. I read your writing sample to see if a) you're a really good writer, b) you can come up with and support a really good argument, and c) you appear to have a really good sense of the conventions of the discipline (what questions are timely, what evidence is most convincing, tone, purpose, etc.). When I'm reading your writing sample, I'm assessing how much guidance (hardly any, a medium amount, a lot) I think you'll need when it comes to writing seminar papers and then, later, diss chapters and other sorts of things.

Re: those recommending you submit a publication as a writing sample: this depends completely on the publication in question. If that publication isn't in your intended field of study, and/or if is in any way "weird" in terms of its venue, and/or if it is pay to play, it will most certainly hurt your chances rather than help.

A conference paper is a good bet, but again, this is only the case so long as the topic is relevant to the field you're applying to study and the paper itself is flush with the kind of well-sourced critical engagements that suggest you will take on the work of writing advanced seminar papers with little difficulty.
posted by pinkacademic at 1:03 PM on November 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Is there a mental health center on your campus? Mine offers free counseling, and it's perfect for times like this.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:53 PM on November 28, 2016

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