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Craig Agule

I am going to confess that I don't think things are all that bad.

First, I doubt that prestige is all that matters in applications, given the diversity of programs who 'supplied' my own UCSD cohort. Maybe you think UCSD isn't that great (it really is though, you should apply!). So I checked Rutgers right now, and their graduate students come from really diverse backgrounds. There are a bunch of people at Rutgers who went to neither Ivies nor schools with strong philosophy phd programs.

Certainly, I have met plenty of people there whose path to graduate school involved fancy stops. But they aren't a supermajority—far from it. And, I don't know that I have met a single person where I had good reason to think that they had prestige but not really anything else.

But I did meet people (including me) who had an optimistic sense of their writing sample. Was my writing sample good? Yes, I still think so. But it was good as the writing of someone who had not gone through a phd program. It was not as strikingly, obviously good as I had taken it to be. If your writing sample is RnRed by Mind, then I suspect things are different. But those cases are presumably vanishingly rare.

Second, I was never told "one can write a brilliant writing sample and get in anywhere." I was always told that it will be a combination of transcripts, letters, and writing sample. I was told that by my (non-'elite') advisors, by my outsider advisors, by my insider advisors, by what I read online (hey there reddit and xoxohth), etc. etc.


For what it's worth, I came from an unknown SLAC and was accepted into some well ranked PhD programs. I have reason to believe my writing sample was a major factor in this. But maybe I am an exception rather than the norm in this regard.

Keep in mind that everyone applying to grad programs has a very good writing sample compared to their peers in philosophy classes. For your writing sample to stand out it needs to be better than those of other applicants.

Among prestigious depts, there are some which are considerably better than others at "placing" their undergrads in grad programs. At some prestigious places the undergrads are an afterthought. I'd wager the extent of mentorship and feedback received by undergrads (or MA students - sorry if I'm assuming wrong) makes a difference on top of prestige per se.

I'd also observe that the data linked by Marcus is only for 3 schools. I have (anecdotal) reason to believe things could be better at some other top 10 programs including the one I graduated from.

All that being said: philosophy as a discipline is extremely prestige oriented. I think this is even more the case at the job market stage than at the stage of entering PhD programs (unfortunately). It's unfair and it's reasonable to be frustrated about it.

grad student at elite place

I agree that the data shows a general correlation between the eliteness of one's undergrad institution and gaining admission to an elite PhD program.

But I don't think that this shows that prestige simply matters more than anything else in applications. I take it that a good programme would likely choose someone from a non-elite school with a very good writing sample than someone from an elite school with an average writing sample.

One might also partially explain the correlation in terms of professors at elite programmes knowing how to advice students to write a sample in a way that is strong in the eyes of other professors at elite schools. So, it really is the sample doing the work rather than the school name.

I don't think we have evidence for the claim "People who get in everywhere are usually NOT people with brilliant samples." I might add that I do not come from an elite place but I had 9 accepts. My friend from the same institution had 11 accepts. Surely, our no-name prof's letters of rec and our no-name institution couldn't explain why around half the schools we applied to accepted people like us.

It definitely seems necessary to have a good writing sample.

Also, I do not think that the initial cut involves cutting out people from non-elite schools.

bad old days

My *sense* is that things have really changed in the last 5 years. Even 10 years ago the prestige effect was massive (some bitterness here, because that's when I was applying and I was coming from a low prestige background). But then again, that's only my sense. I wonder if anyone has up to date data on this...

Douglas W. Portmore

I agree with grad student at elite place. Neither the data that Marcus links to nor the data displayed on programs' grad student lists show "that prestige simply matters more than anything else in applications." I spent several years teaching in the Cal State System, and I also spent a year at Princeton on a fellowship. While at Princeton, I participated in a course for undergraduates and had several other opportunities to interact with undergraduate students there. And, from my experience, it's clear that undergraduate students at elite universities like Princeton have many advantages over undergraduate students coming out of, say, the Cal State System. And these advantages go well beyond any advantage one might get simply from the associated prestige of the institution. Applicants graduating from universities such as Princeton will likely have more renowned letter writers, they will have received a better education for the most part, they will have had a far greater number of opportunities to interact and learn from internationally renowned scholars from across the globe, they were, on average, better prepared for college when they entered, they were, on average, more serious about their education, they were less likely to have had to work as much during college, they will have had, on average, better and/or less overworked instructors, they will have likely been more integrated into on campus life, etc. Consider that if you're an undergraduate in the Cal State System, you might get taught by a tenure-track professor but you are almost equally likely to get taught by an exploited adjunct instructor who is teaching at three or more different colleges and who spends many hours each week commuting between them. And even the tenure-track professor will be carrying something like a 4/4 teaching load with an average of 45 or more students per class and no TA or grading support. By contrast, your instructor at Princeton will likely be someone like Michael Smith, Peter Singer, or Liz Harman. It will be a small class. The instructor will not be overworked with a 4/4 teaching load. They will have a budget that allows them to bring in speakers from across the globe to speak to their class. Is it any wonder, then, that undergraduates at such elite universities fare vastly better when it comes to gaining admission to graduate programs at such elite colleges? (And note that I'm not denying that there is some prestige bias. I'm denying only that we can know from the sort of data that's been eluded to here that prestige matters more than all these other factors that contribute to the disproportionate representation of graduates from elite undergraduate programs in elite graduate programs.)

Prof L

The OP seems to assume that the students from prestigious institutions *aren't* writing excellent writing samples, or perhaps that the excellence of writing samples is evenly distributed across students from all institutions. And I wonder how they have access to *that* data.
From my merely anecdotal experience, the quality of the writing sample tends to correlate with the quality of the undergraduate institution, whether that's a great public institution or a well-known private one. And that shouldn't be shocking---better students go to better schools, and they (generally speaking, not as a rule) receive a better education there.
Of course, often there are students who are excellent coming from obscure places. And they often make it in. My cohort in graduate school had people from random public universities I'd never heard of, as well as from Yale, etc. I went to a fairly obscure private Christian college. To be frank, I felt underprepared for the level of graduate coursework and a little jealous of my fellow students who clearly were better prepared than I was by their undergraduate coursework in philosophy. I don't think the fact that my friend from Yale got in means that the admission committee was biased in favor of prestige. He's just really smart, got into Yale, and got a great education at Yale, and I'm sure wrote a fantastic writing sample--better than mine, I'm sure!

on admissions

This is just anecdotal information, but from someone currently serving on an admissions committee at a Leiter top 20 program, for us the writing sample is the most important thing. If the writing sample is not really good, nothing else in the file can make up for it, but if something else in the file is a bit weak, a great writing sample can absolutely make up for that.

*It's me, hi, I'm the problem it's me

Even more anecdotal information, but I know first-hand of at least one case (admittedly about a decade ago now, but still) where someone* with several pretty significant weaknesses in their application (including a hit-or-miss undergrad record from multiple non-"elite" schools) got into an extremely good MA program and then an extremely good PhD program almost certainly primarily on the basis of the writing sample (perhaps plus some sincere letters of rec — from non-famous people — that put the aforementioned weaknesses in context). I don't think this is necessary commonplace, but I do know other now-faculty who have similar stories.


Just another anecdote. I am in a top 25 program with a very good placement rate (is that "elite"?) I came from an entirely unknown regional college, letter writers had no name recognition. I was told that my writing sample was a major factor in my admission.

I suppose applicants can look at the graduate student bios on department websites to try to get a sense of whether it's mostly people with "elite" backgrounds or whether folks are accepted to those programs from more modest backgrounds. Then use that information to narrow down your list of schools.


If even some philosophers find publication to be a gamified system, there’s no reason to think the application process isn’t a compartmentalized and gamified system. Providing anecdotal evidence is just that.

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