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10/28/2019

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a philosopher

No one? I'm also curious about this, although not for practical reasons. I imagine that *a lot* is learned from a committee simply through the writing samples: e.g., you get a decent sense of philosophical development, maturity, and potential through them. But I imagine most people don't read carefully every sample, and the process is modulated through consideration of all the other evidence (e.g., letters, transcripts, etc), so I'm curious to hear how it all fits together, what catches good attention, and what is considered a red flag.

KZ

I'm also curious (and surprised that no one has offered a perspective yet).
Some time ago, I informally circulated a survey (https://forms.gle/SsMF9qd4yK4ZMYRaA) on admissions. Response rate wasn't super high (8 so far) but there were huge variations. E.g., for the question "How important is it to have the writing sample be on the same topic the applicant is trying to pursue?" one person said "Not very important actually"; one said "Not very, in my experience. Most important is to have the writing sample be the applicant's best work."; one said "Extremely important"; one said "It is pretty important, though not utterly vital".
If the letter writers don't appear to know the student well, one person declares "they won't get in if that's the case", while another is "against given much importance [to] letters of recommendation".

So, yeah, the small sample size suggests considerable variation, though a bigger sample might show some trends. (If any reader's interested in filling out the survey that'd be super helpful!)

I have no personal perspective to offer, though, as I'm still just a student.

current committee member.

I look most at GRE scores (yes, shocking, I know) and the writing sample. I don't care if it is on the same topic that they wan to work on. However, letters of rec and grades play a role. I care most that they have at least one, and probably two, years of top grades in philosophy, and if there are grade issues otherwise that it is explained in the cover letter. Lastly, I look for original thought. Lots of people I know did not do well in grade school because while they were great undergrads, they couldn't take the step to developing their own ideas.

For the people who are going to ask about GRE scores: I believe these sores (not counting the writing score, which I think is flawed) genuinely offer a strong representation of a student's ability. No, there is no study showing this. Nor is there a studies showing that writing samples, letters of recs, or grades are a strong representation of a student's abilities. Few people doubt this with the LSAT. If a student has poor GRE scores, they can over come it on my account, but everything else would have to be great.

anon

I was under the impression that my reasons to be skeptical of the value of the GRE generalized to all popular standardized tests, for what it's worth. The attitude towards the LSAT that 'current committee member' describes above is unfamiliar to me.

ccm2

I didn't answer this question because, like the question about tenure, it doesn't really make sense to try to generalize from anecdotal data here. Every committee is different; some departments have a rough guide to what they do, but lots don't (my department recently "officially decided" not to look at the GRE, but we have to ask for it per the graduate school, and nothing can stop a member of a committee from looking at it). Committees are constantly rotating people in and out. There's not going to be any consensus about how applications are evaluated. For what it's worth, I suspect current committee member is in the minority in focusing on GRE scores. But: what do I know? All I know is what I do, what my colleagues do, and on the occasions where I happen to discuss admissions with faculty in other departments, what they tell me they do. All that out of the way, I look at writing samples primarily, followed by letters and then personal statement (to just get a sense of whether the candidate's interests match our department). I care not that much about grades but it depends what the candidate wants to do (e.g. if they want to do something technical, getting a C in an introductory logic course is probably going to rule them out unless there is some compelling explanation of what happened in the file). I don't look at GREs. For what it's worth, in case other admissions committee members are reading this, my department made the decision to officially stop looking at GREs after some committee members ruled out multiple black and latinx candidates in the first round of admissions based on GREs--candidates who went on to be admitted to much more prestigious departments than ours.

current committee member

LSAT scores have long been taken very seriously in law school applications, and still are. Most people see the LSAT score as really the decision factor for what schools you should bother sending your apps. There is a tiny handful of law schools that very recently made the LSAT optional, but most students still submit it at these schools.

There are reason to criticize standardized tests. It is not fair to look at all students the same, as those with money can get training to improve scores, and those from foreign countries are way less familiar with this kind of thing. BUT this is why, (1) the most important thing is really passing a bar with the GRE, and scores above this bar are not as important, (2) I will expect more from someone from Harvard than a state university, (3) I consider the LSAT scores of foreign students in-light of the extra difficulties, and (4) problems with standardized tests mentioned above are really problems with all parts of the admissions process. Rich students, those with connections, ect., have a huge advantage with grades, letters, writing samples, etc.

Standardized tests are not just something people make up at random. They are made up by very smart people who have training in these types of systems. A number of philosophy Phds have jobs writing these tests.

I mostly agree with ccm2 that it varies too much to make general claims. I replied because there are rumors that GRE scores don't matter, but they still do for a lot of people. How many? I have no idea. But I do know I am far from the only one. My advice: just try to do your best on every aspect of the application. There is not another way.

a philosopher

"Standardized tests are not just something people make up at random. They are made up by very smart people who have training in these types of systems. A number of philosophy Phds have jobs writing these tests."

Having had a tiny glimpse into how these tests are written, they may not be made up at random, but it's much more a making-it-up-as-we-go sort of thing than a principled exercise grounded in any deep theory of intelligence, ability, or testing. I'm mostly on your side, but if I were you I wouldn't be staking the usefulness of these tests on the methods that go into making them. Instead, just point out that if you throw a bunch of questions at students the answering of which requires some competence with reading and reasoning, then of course the resulting scores are going to give you at least a rough sorting of those students by their competence in reading and reasoning. Acknowledging all the limitations and looking at other information as well, I would use this information too.

Brad

James B. Conant, the former president of Harvard, was a real advocate of standardized tests for university admission. He believed it was a way to ensure that very capable students from across America could be admitted to Harvard, for example, rather than just the New England elite. Such tests probably had that effect at first. But then the elite got their act together, and created the whole practice test game, the costs of which help keep out many people.

EU committee member

I did my own education in the US and have been involved in masters and PhD admissions in an analytically-oriented English-speaking department in Europe. My experience (in Europe) has been as follows:

Regarding PhDs: Even though some European PhD programs (including ours) involve coursework, the student is expected to have a well-developed thesis proposal at the time of application. For this reason, although a masters degree is not officially required, it is rare to admit a student who hasn't done one. It is usual to contact the proposed supervisor and discuss the thesis proposal before formal application. The very first thing we are looking for is a viable thesis proposal that aligns with the expertise and interests of the proposed supervisor. If the application passes that hurdle, we look for evidence that the student is well-prepared to complete the proposed thesis. Here writing samples, transcripts, and letters of recommendation all figure in. We receive applications (and admit students) from all over the world. If none of the student's previous degrees were taught in English then we will be looking very carefully at language competency, and the writing sample will be examined with this in mind (in addition to TOEFL scores).

In practice, the committee almost always follows the recommendation of the proposed adviser on admissions decisions (though the committee may point out any concerns raised by the application), so the committee's main job is actually to recommend students for competitive funding opportunities within the university. Here our main goal is (unfortunately) not to nominate the student we think is best, but to nominate the student we think is most likely to receive the funding. (We're a small department and graduate student funding is scarce in our university, so it is often the case that no philosophy students get university funding in a given year. Many students have some form of outside funding.) Also unfortunately, it appears that having high marks from a prestigious US or UK (or perhaps German) university is the thing most likely to make an applicant competitive for university funding, so those are typically the folks we nominate.

Regarding masters: The personal statement should show that our program is a good fit for you, that you have some idea what studying philosophy at this level would actually look like, and that your interests align at least a bit with our department's strengths. There doesn't need to be exact alignment, and broad interests are great at this level. I look pretty carefully at transcripts and letters. Even though our program doesn't require an undergraduate major in philosophy, I really like to see formal logic on the transcript, and I'd rather see a mediocre grade in logic than not see that course at all. (This might be an idiosyncracy of mine.) I'm also inclined to make very significant allowances for students who got mediocre grades in difficult classes that most philosophy students don't take (e.g., calculus or physics). How closely the writing sample is read depends on these other factors—reading writing samples is a lot of work, so if I'm already pretty sure one way or another I won't look at it very closely, but if I'm not sure then I will. In the writing sample, I'm basically looking for evidence that you know how to write philosophy papers. Topic doesn't matter. Finally, just like at the PhD level, if your previous degrees were not taught in English, we're going to be looking at the whole application for evidence of English competency.

One more thing for both masters and PhD: the best thing letters of recommendation could do is help us to interpret the rest of the application. This is especially true if there's anything unusual about your academic history (e.g., transferring between different undergrad programs), or if your undergraduate institution did not use an American or British grading scale and we're not sure how to interpret it.

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