As you start browsing different graduate programs that interest you, you’ll notice that a common requirement for your application is a writing sample. Some programs will require you to submit a 10-page sample while others will want to see as many as 40 pages. Another item you will notice is whether the application states that “partial submissions are permissible” (meaning that if they ask for 10 pages, you can just submit a section of a longer work) or “complete submissions required” (meaning the committee will want to see a completed paper that fits the page limit guideline [intro, body, conclusion]).
You should meet the page-length guideline stated in the application AND hit a subject that is pertinent (at least tangentially) to the department. Is it sufficient to submit a course paper that got you an “A” but is not relevant to your field? Probably not. The point of a writing sample is not just to show that you can string a series of words and sentences together; a writing sample is meant to illustrate your critical acumen and ability to analyze materials. Do some research into your field and find out what is important. An easy way to do this is to look at the most prominent journals in your field to see what has recently been published. What approaches do the authors use? Are they using specific types of sources that you should use? Are there theories or methodologies that they cite that might be useful to you? Your sample doesn’t need to read as if it’s ready for publication, but you do want it to read as if you have a sense that you’re tuned in and have a sense of your field.
Another item you should consider when choosing your writing sample is what the program requirements are and how you can show that you’ve already mastered some of those requirements. For example, let’s say you know French because your mom forced you to learn it in high school (not that she was living vicariously or anything…). And the department you’ve chosen to apply to has a language requirement (i.e. when you start the program, they will require you to learn a foreign language). You might take it upon yourself to cite some French sources in your writing sample. A couple of articles, a book, maybe a primary source. By virtue of having French sources in your writing sample, you’ve illustrated to the committee that you have the ability to do research in a foreign language AND you show that what you wrote in you CV is accurate.
What do you do if you don’t have any papers that show your capabilities? Write one. I know, I know, it’s yet another thing to do, but writing samples are not something you want to neglect! Yes, everything in your application is a reflection of you and of your abilities, so make sure you’re presenting something worthy! And once you’re done, you can head over to The Shop for an editing service!