An undergraduate student writes:
I have a question that I would love to see addressed on your blog, if you think it would be appropriate. I'm preparing to apply to philosophy graduate programs, and I'm wondering how important it is that my writing sample be about a topic of current interest to philosophers. I have one paper about the effects that shifts in visual attention have on the phenomenology and intentional content of visual experience (a topic that has gotten a lot of attention in journals lately), and another paper evaluating the efforts of John Rawls and HLA Hart to reconcile retributivist and consequentialist justifications of criminal punishment. The latter paper involves more nitty-gritty analysis of arguments, and so I'd otherwise favor it, but it considers papers by Rawls and by Hart that were published decades ago. Does this matter?
My own view is that either of the proposed papers would be fine, and that the fact that a debate is au courant, as opposed to older, is of little significance. The key thing is to submit a writing sample that demonstrates the clarity and intelligence of your written and dialectical skills well, and that is on some topic that is a reasonable fit for the department you are applying to. Don't submit a paper in philosophical logic to a department with no one working in that area. Don't submit a paper on phenomenology to a department with no one interested in that philosophical movement. And so on.
What do readers think? Signed comments will be strongly preferred. Submit your comment only once, they may take awhile to appear.