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How to Choose a Writing Sample for Graduate School

Dec 8, 2021
5 min Read

If you’re serious about pursuing a post-bachelor’s degree, it’s never too early to start gathering all the materials you’ll need. Most programs will ask you to submit one of the following: an essay response to a prompt or a writing sample. If you’re in need of guidance on these topics, keep reading for advice on how to select and prepare an impressive writing sample for graduate school.

We got expert insight from Dr. James R. Martin, an Associate Professor and Assistant Director of Interdisciplinary Leadership at Creighton University. Dr. Martin has reviewed hundreds of applications throughout his career, so consider his advice about what makes a great graduate school writing sample. But first, it’s important to understand the purpose of this application element.


What is a writing sample for grad school and why is it important?

Writing samples are a key part of your grad school application. It shows the admissions committee the quality of your academic work and demonstrates interest and proficiency in your chosen field.

According to Dr. Martin, reviewers are generally assessing samples for the following criteria:

  • Solid writing skills: Is all spelling and grammar accurate? Is it free of typos?
  • Organization and clarity: Is there a logical flow to the ideas presented? Is the purpose of the paper clearly identified and accomplished?
  • Critical thinking: Does it demonstrate a thorough understanding of the topic, including consideration of alternate theories or approaches? Are all claims backed by reliable research?
  • Consistent citations and references: Have sources been properly cited throughout the paper? Do all citations have a corresponding reference?


How to choose a writing sample for grad school

Some schools don’t specifically state what kind of sample they are seeking. In that case, it’s best to err on the side of academic work (e.g., an essay, dissertation, thesis, journal article, capstone project or research paper.) If possible, you want to submit a writing sample that demonstrates your proficiency in analyzing a topic in the same (or related) field as the program for which you are applying.

There are some professions and corresponding graduate school programs that accept work-related writing samples, such as white papers, policy briefs, news articles and grant applications. If you’re pursuing higher education in marketing, communications, public relations, public policy or other similar fields, this could be a good option.

However, Dr. Martin cautions prospective students to vet their choice carefully. If you do send in materials you wrote for work, make sure you’re the only author and write a secondary note explaining the context and authorship. After all, reviewers are evaluating YOU.


How long should a graduate school writing sample be?

There’s no simple answer for the question, as the target length depends on the program you’re applying for. The importance of reading and following all of the instructions carefully throughout your application cannot be overstated.

If your school doesn’t state specific requirements, Dr. Martin advises choosing an academic paper. Or better yet, you can take the initiative to reach out for clarification.

“Most departments have a director of graduate studies or admissions specialist who would be happy to have a conversation,” he says. “This interaction could end up working in your favor down the line.”


Components of a good graduate school writing sample

Now that you know how you will be evaluated and what kind of sample to submit, you need to make sure your work is as polished as possible. Whether you choose an academic paper or other professional work, you must do the following before submitting:

  • Have someone you trust read it and provide feedback that you can choose to implement or not. 
  • Run the entire paper through a spelling and grammar check multiple times. You could also consider using the free tool at Grammarly.
  • Make sure there are no typos, formatting discrepancies, comments or tracked changes, run-on sentences, repeated paragraphs, etc. 
  • Rename your document to include important information that will make it easier for busy admissions staff to find. (Try using the following example: Writing Sample_Name of applicant_Title of paper or project.)
  • Make sure your citation style is consistent and correct throughout the entire document.


If you are submitting an academic paper, make sure it contains all of the following sections at minimum:

  • Title page
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Body
  • Conclusion
  • List of references


Craft a solid grad school application

With the tips and advice stated above, you should have everything you need to begin choosing and refining your writing sample for graduate school. If you’re still not feeling confident, take the following advice to heart:

“Remember that the writing sample is just one piece of your application, and we evaluate it as a whole,” Dr. Martin shares. “As a Jesuit school we strive to meet people where they are. We want to help them succeed.”

Now that you have solid direction on your graduate school writing sample, you can focus on other important elements of your application. Check out our article “How to Secure the Best Letters of Recommendation for Grad School.”


If you’re looking for a high-quality and best value graduate school program, review the requirements for Creighton University by visiting our How to Apply page.

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