A philosopher at a top twenty department writes:
I am reading graduate applications this winter with a few other faculty in our department, and we are all noticing two trends that are both heartening and disturbing, and both of which make the job of graduate admissions even harder.
The first trend is that an increasing number of applicants are applying with an MA in Philosophy either in hand or in progress. It's very close to 50% of our applicants now.
The second trend is that the writing samples are getting better. As a general rule, they are on more up-to-date, focused topics; they cover the literature more successfully; they show greater dialectical skill in responding to moves in the literature; and they are far more polished in prose and presentation. They are, as a group, far closer to what I expect to see at the level of decent journal-submissions.
That's great! Lots of young people are doing better work! Hurray!
The problem, however, is this: we have to decide which 20 out of 400 applicants should be given slots in our program. We want to accept the most promising students from every possible background: all we care about is that they have the potential to be really good philosophers.
And with the new, more professionalized writing samples, it is getting harder and harder to tell which students are capable of doing good work, and which are simply getting the advantage of a lot of preparation.
Again, there are two problems: first, we are having to decide between students with BAs and now a *very* large number of students with MAs, most of whose WS's are, on average, better than the WS's of senior undergrads.
Secondly, it is very hard to know which polished, professional WS's are the result of a student with uncommon ability, and which are the result of intensive cultivation by faculty (a problem not restricted to MA programs, but exacerbated by them).
I don't want to bash MA programs: they have an important role to play in the profession and in the world. But in the eyes of many students, what they are selling is an increased shot at entry into a top PhD program. That means that the faculty of the MA program may face pressures to help the student improve their dossiers and writing samples, in ways that do not wholly reflect the student's own abilities.
Every one of us has had a moderately good student who responds well to suggestions for revision, but does not add anything beyond what was suggested. You look at the revised paper and it is better, but it is better exactly because of comments that you, the professor, made in writing or in conversation. When you work with such a student on successive revisions of a paper over an entire semester or a year, the proportion of the paper that reflects their abilities continues to shrink. It's becoming a better paper because it is being written by you, not them. We have all seen it happen.
What is especially vexing about this problem is that, ten or twenty years ago, it felt as though the WS was the last untainted credential. What, after all, can we base our decisions on? GRE scores reflect all sorts of distracting socio-economic factors, as well as being unavailable for many foreign applicants. The pedigree of the institution is a better index of family wealth than of the student's ability. Grades vary a bit, but most applications feature good grades. The recommendations must be taken seriously, but we also know that "the best student I have taught in my career" at one school is not as good as "the best student I have taught in my career" at another school.
So my attitude has always been that there is no substitute for putting your head down and plowing through the writing samples, attentively. There, finally (I used to think) you are getting an unfiltered view of the student's own abilities. A really good writing sample should outweigh an obscure third-rate institution, or a bad day on the standardized tests, or a faculty member who didn't like your attitude.
That's what I used to think. But this year I am coming to think that the rot has set in with the writing samples as well. If I voted to admit the best 20 writing samples, they would nearly all come from MA programs. That means that they would nearly all come from people with the family wealth to allow them to take two more years of unpaid leave to polish their writing samples with the help of faculty.
I don't have any good answers here, beyond the obvious: I try to look for holistic patterns of writing, letters, grades, scores, and institution that make a coherent picture of a student who deserves admission. But at the very least, I would be curious to hear from other old-timers whether they too feel that the writing samples have become more professional.
And has anyone taken the step of actually *discounting* their weighting of writing samples that come from MA programs? I.e., giving more credit for an inferior WS coming from a BA student, than for a better WS coming from an MA student?
I must admit my reaction to this phenomenon is a bit different: it's quite clear that PhD programs were, in the past, rejecting lots of students who, in fact, would have excelled had they had the benefit of more philosophical education and guidance. That students are submitting better writing samples is a credit to the rise of terminal MA programs (if they are populated only by the wealthy, I have yet to see the evidence of that--some of them, like Tufts, provide too little financial aid, but many others provide a fair bit).
In any case, it would be useful to know how many readers share my correspondent's sense of the situation, and how many share mine, or have a different take altogether. Signed comments will be preferred, but I understand that philosophers may not want their comments to prejudice their department, so as long as there is a valid e-mail address, comments without a full name in the signature line will be considered.