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anonymous admissions committee member

Important disclaimer: I don't think there is enough unity here for any of what I am about to say to be taken as representative.

My department's process works like this: we divide up the applicants by four (number of people on the admissions committee). Each member gets 'primarily' assigned to 1/4th of applications and 'secondarily' assigned to another 1/4th (so all applications get read by two people, initially).

In our first cut, we just look for anyone who seems remotely promising (so here, any mix of: good recommendations, high grades (though this is typically taken to be less of an indicator for us, more so that very low grades can be taken as a red flag), and interesting/well-written/thoughtful/careful writing sample. My department is, I think, unusually good at not caring about prestige of undergraduate department (but this may be because my department in general does not care too much about prestige and so gets most of our applications from less fancy undergrad programs and MA programs). However, we do have certain letter writers at MA programs whose judgments we tend to trust quite a bit and whose letters we thus take more seriously than other letters.

The second cut involves all of us individually going through everyone who made the first cut (usually roughly 60-ish out of about 200-250 applicants)and coming up with a "top 20-ish" list; then we meet and talk through all the applicants on each persons top 20-ish list (where here a lot of weight is put on overlap between committee members' list).

The third cut is to rank all of the candidates on everyone's top 20-ish list (which usually ends up being about 40 applicants with overlap), though we often stop ranking in about the twenties and just assign the rest of the candidates to rough groups, since we almost never end up admitting more than 20ish students even with wait listees etc.

From my perspective it is making the second cut that matters the most for applicants. And for me when I am deciding on second cut, I focus almost exclusively on writing sample, with letters probably coming in second and statement of purpose coming in third. Once an applicant has made the first cut, I rarely look at grades at all, but sometimes will if I am unsure what I think of the applicant. What I'm looking for in a writing sample varies depending on area. (E.g.: while I'm not a historian, in history writing samples I am looking mostly for careful textual analysis, engagement with secondary literature as well as primary, and some kind of original point--but I am open to the point being smaller than I am in, e.g., an applied ethics paper, since the other skills are really important here.) But I always care about charity in interpretation/careful reconstruction of others' arguments, clarity, decent writing, and above all originality and care in argumentation. (Clarity and decent writing issues can be more easily overcome, I think, in grad school than lack of originality or lack of care in argumentation or charity, though not having these things does not rule someone out if they seem very exciting in lots of other ways.)

In letters of recommendation, the most helpful ones are (sadly for us faculty!) the ones that discuss the applicant in a similar way to the way letters for job candidates do: rather than empty assessments, describing very specific strong points of their work, what kinds of contributions they have made or have the potential to make, describing their interests thus far in detail, etc. (many faculty at MA programs are very good at writing these letters).

While I don't care too much about grades and I would hope that I am not prestige-oriented, I often do look at someone's transcript just to see what courses they have taken and how prepared I think they are for a PhD program. Also, for example, if someone claims to be interested primarily in logic, or primarily in philosophy of physics, I will actually look at what mathematics/physics courses they have taken, respectively, and will also look at their grades (but unless those grades are in the B- or below range they rarely concern me).

I am also interested in students with unusual backgrounds or who have struggled in various ways but have turned things around or discovered a strong interest in philosophy. These students are often more "gambles" but they do often make it onto our admit or waitlists if their writing samples are strong. This is one of two ways in which statements of purpose are useful to me. However, the primary way is just in seeing whether the student is a good fit for our program, and whether they have specific reasons for wanting to be in our program. (Not having the latter basically never rules someone out, but having concrete reasons that don't sound hack-y to care specifically about being in our program can help someone.) The fit thing is the most important, though we try to keep an open mind since students' interests change a lot, especially students from undergrad programs with few faculty. That said, if someone e.g. has an MA and presents themselves as having fairly narrow interests that also do not fit well with our faculty, they have very little chance of getting into our program, even if their file is otherwise strong.

I think we generally prefer applicants who seem fairly open to different directions their work might take as opposed to having a very narrow research agenda, however, this varies depending on whether the student has an MA. We may admit a student with an MA with a very narrow research agenda if that agenda seems very interesting and if the student is a good match.

The admissions committee also often "farms out" certain applications (usually only in the first two cuts) to our colleagues if the writing sample is out of any of our area of expertise and we aren't confident in our assessment.

I hope this is helpful. Writing sample is the most important thing! Is the bottom line. For me and, I think, my colleagues. I suspect this is true at a lot of places but that people put different weights on different aspects of the writing sample.

Second anonymous admissions committee member

Like anonymous admissions committee member, I don't know if this is at all representative of how other committees work.

At my University there's an admissions committee of about 5 faculty. There's an initial cull of applications (maybe 10 to 20%) that are really bad fits (we don't have anyone here who works on Heidegger, and yet that's what you want to specialize in?), incomplete (no writing sample or grades) or have a problematic background (consistently bad grades in philosophy courses or the random PhD student in comp sci who has never taken any philosophy courses but has "read a lot on their own" - maybe OK for other programs but not ours).

After this initial cull, each remaining file is then sent ("farmed out") to the two faculty members who the committee thinks are closest to the area of the student in question (sometimes based on the student's writing sample, sometimes on what the student says they want to work on).

The faculty member then reads the file and sends their views about each student back to the committee.

We have a large-ish faculty and don't get that many PhD applicants - so each faculty has maybe 5 to 10 files to review. My sense is that most of my colleagues focus primarily on the writing sample, but some put weight on fit or grades in philosophy classes.

Just considering writing samples: my colleagues focus on different things - some like to see polished arguments; others are more focused on originality. Sometimes a file can look really good - good grades, letters, etc. but the sample doesn't seem to have much original argumentation. Sometimes the writing is super-polished or even published but the faculty in the area doesn't find the paper or the sub-area the student wants to work in of interest. Sometimes the writing sample looks good but isn't in the area the student says they want to work in. This creates challenges for the committee.

There are some areas that get more applicants than others, because we have more famous faculty in that area or their area is trendy. It can be especially hard for applications in that area - even if there are 10 really strong applicants that all want to do philosophy of trendy topic X with famous professor Y, we're not going to admit a whole class of people who want to work with one professor. This means that many faculty will rank the files in their particular area.

The committee then has to make sense of all these reports and rankings from the individual faculty and figure out who to admit keeping in mind a balance of areas, etc.

anonymous prospective graduate applicant

@anonymous admissions committee member, thank you for the detailed response. I am a prospective graduate applicant. After reading your comment, I am wondering if it would be beneficial for me to just write a writing sample in the core area rather than utilizing the best paper that I have for now (which is on the metaphysics of gender) given that there are not many faculty members working on feminist philosophy but there will be more faculty members working on core areas (I think this is generally true in any given department -- correct me if I am wrong). My personal interests include metaphysics and feminist philosophy, and I am not entirely sure which one I would like to focus on yet. As of now, the best paper I have is on feminist philosophy so I was planning on using that as a springboard to polishing it to use it as a writing sample, but now I am wondering if it would be better if I just write a new paper from the scratch (or utilize a paper that I will write for the upcoming fall semester). What would be the best strategy for me?

I guess the TL;DR version of my question is... do I just write a paper that has a higher possibility of appealing to any given faculty member or just use the paper that I already have which might not appeal to that many faculty members (simply because not many people are working on that area)? Does it matter, or not?

Thank you.

Second anonymous admissions committee member

@anonymous prospective graduate applicant:

Your question is directed to the first anonymous committee member, not me, but in our case your file would be sent to the people who work closest to metaphysics/feminist philosophy if those are the areas you say you're interested in. So a paper on the metaphysics of gender would be a good choice - it doesn't matter if only a couple faculty work in these areas - their opinion will count the most in our admissions.

Additionally, it is risky to "write a paper from scratch" - make sure any paper you're thinking of using as a writing sample has had some faculty member look at it as a potential writing sample.

But: I also think that "there is no one best strategy" - different committees will proceed in different ways. There may be large chance elements in what people find interesting, etc.

In general, in my view you should go with your best paper.

Marcus Arvan

Anonymous prospective graduate applicant: I’ve never served on an admissions committee, but I just want to quickly follow up on the previous commenter’s suggestion to send your best paper, whatever it is. There’s a saying among baseball pitchers: if you’re going to get beat, get beat on your best pitch. The thought here is that If someone is going to hit a home run off you to win the game, you’re likely to regret it if you throw your second or third best pitch “trying to outguess the hitter." At least if you throw your best pitch, you’ll know you gave it your very best no matter what happens.

I’ve always thought this to be good advice in general, including for things like grad admissions. Send your best work. If it’s really good, chances are someone will notice—and even if it’s in a niche area, if it’s good and someone notices, chances are you will stand out. Conversely, if you just send something that's sorta good because someone in the program works in the area, chances are another applicant will have a better writing sample in the area, you won’t stand out, and you may not get admitted. And again, whatever happens, you'll know that you at least sent your best work.

An anecdote: when applying to Arizona, I initially sent a piece in epistemology because Alvin Goldman was a big name in epistemology who worked there--despite thinking in the back of my mind that a paper I did on vagueness was better (an area that no one in that program worked in). Several months later, an admissions committee member at Arizona asked if I had a better writing sample. I sent my vagueness paper and was accepted into the program later that day. Send your best work.


I have been on a grad admission committee and here are some short and sweet tips:

1.Read UC Riversid's Eric Schwitzgebel's advice on this topic. I think most of it's spot on. I read it before applying to grad school myself, and I still think it's great advice.

2. Don't be sappy or melodramatic in your personal statement. Be straightforward, clear, and to the point. It should sound like something a business professional would write. Include what you have studied in the past (philosophy classes, classes outside of philosophy that might be relevant) what you hope to study in grad school, any particular impressive accomplishments, and why you want to go to that school. This is also the place to explain any issues in your application package, i.e. low grades or low gre scores, etc.
3. In the cover letter, include work you may have done related to diversity and inclusion, and how you might help the department become more diverse and inclusive. Include diversity info on the CV too.

3. If at all possible, get a trusted person to read your letters of rec and make sure that no letter (intentionally or otherwise) does more harm than good.

4.If GRE is optional, include the scores if you got say, 95% range or above in reading and 70% or above in math. The writing score doesn't really matter. Lower than the above it's probably best to not include it at all. (unless maybe math is 98 and reading 90, something like that.)

5. While far from necessary, I think it is best to have a writing sample in the area that you want to pursue in graduate school.

6. Have others look at your material and make sure you don't come across as immature, obnoxious, or arrogant. Those are the biggest "personal" issues I notice in graduate school apps.

7. If you have unusual life experiences or skill sets (languages, served in the military, had a career before this, have training in another discipline, did teaching or tutoring, etc.) include that information on your CV an in your cover letter.

8. I don't know if this is true everywhere, but my guess is it will get more and more true each year, anyway, I and some of my colleagues wanted to see that the student had a plan of what they might do if academia didn't work out. We don't want students who are so anxious about the market they can't think straight. And these days, anyone without a plan will probably be that kind of anxious. It is also good for the department to have successful students outside of the ivory towers. Lastly, it shows humility and maturity, given the circumstances.


I don't know about the "send your best work." It depends how much better it is than other work and how far off it is from what you want to study. I come from a specialized department, and if an applicant doesn't work in our speciality areas, we are very unlikely to accept. If they say they do but don't have a sample in that area, that is a mark against them. If a student say they want to work in area X, often a faculty from area X will evaluate their application. But if the sample is not in area X, the evaluator, in my experience, is less likely to be impressed.

I have seen faculty that exclude an applicant because they claim that their area of expertise is, say, philosophy of science but then their writing sample is a history paper on Plato.

Also anon grad admissions committee member

Our process is similar to anonymous admissions committee member—2 people read each application. We all get together and come up with a list of 20 top people or so before culling it down.

On the initial cut, people are eliminated, typically, because they have low grades in philosophy, a low gpa overall with middling grades in philosophy, come from a unremarkable undergraduate (or graduate) institution but didn't appear to stand out there, appear to have very poor english skills, have a bad writing sample. Also some have (this one I should stress) an unprofessional, weird, or otherwise poorly written statement of purpose. It might, actually, be a good idea to have an independent thread on writing a good statement of purpose. I've seen so many bad ones, and I think a lot of people get very bad advice on this. Some pitfalls: oversharing (for no particular reason); saying how ever since you were a kid you've been asking questions or some other very generic origin story; poorly written or ungrammatical; extremely conversational. Some mention retired faculty or faculty who are not at all research active. This is more understandable, but you should generally do your research, because if you say "I want to work with X" and X is retired or not the kind of faculty member who should be working with graduate students, your statement is not very compelling. My preference is that if you don't know the someone's work at all, don't mention them. You might look through our roster and notice a strength in a certain area—just mention that strength rather than saying you want to work with specific people. Like "Your department has strengths in X and Y, this is attractive to me because ... I am particularly intrigued at the prospect of working with Professor A. Her work in area X has had a strong influence on my own studies and trajectory ..." etc. If you say "I'm interested in working with professors A, B, and C" when B is retired and C hasn't published in 20 years, it's pretty clear you just read through our faculty website and listed everyone with an AOS in your area.

After the initial culling, cuts are made based primarily on the writing samples, area of interest and departmental strengths, and balancing students between advisors, and other similar considerations. One word of advice—if you spend your statement telling us how much you want to do ancient philosophy, but your writing sample is on closure principles in epistemology, that's not great. It's not a big deal if it's in the same *general* area, like LEMM, or ethics/soc-pol, or history, but generally, send something in that shows your philosophical competence in that type of philosophy, broadly construed. (I take it this is consistent with Marcus's advice above).

I was surprised at how strong the applicant field was, and how many excellent applicants we ended up rejecting. It's competitive.

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