A prospective PhD student writes:
I'm a prospective philosophy PhD applicant preparing my applications, and I just have two questions about the writing sample that I hope you and/or readers of your blog could illuminate on.
1) There seems to be conflicting suggestions as to whether the writing sample(s) should match the applicant's interests. I wonder which suggestion is right.
On the one hand, Richard Heck writes on Brown University philosophy department's website: "the writing sample does not have to be connected, in any way, with the area or areas you think you most want to pursue in graduate school." (https://www.brown.edu/academics/philosophy/application-advice)
On the other hand, Paul Weirich commented in a post on your blog: "The writing sample, besides demonstrating qualifications, shows whether the student's interests fit the department well." (http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2010/10/ma-students-and-phd-applications.html)
The University of Chicago philosophy department's website seems to support Weirich's view: “Most often, [the writing sample is] a term paper written for a philosophy course -- one that reflects your interests, that you put a lot of work into, that you did well on, and, above all, that you're proud of.” (http://philosophy.uchicago.edu/prospective/admissions.html)
2) UChicago philosophy department website says that writing samples of successful applicants will have been read by as many as 8-9 faculty members before they are admitted. Is this also true at other schools? (Whether it's true directly affects the choice of one’s writing sample -- e.g. whether to submit a paper on a topic of general interest or a specialist topic; whether to avoid submitting a paper that makes an original contribution to a technical debate, whose originality may be overlooked by non-specialists; and so on.)
Heck's advice (surprise!) doesn't seem right to me--or it puts the point too strongly. The writing sample should bear some relationship to subjects that you are going to mention in your personal statement as ones you may want to pursue. The main evidence of a good "fit" with a department is how you describe your interests in the personal statement, but the writing sample should be related to one of those. At most programs, to my knowledge, writing samples are only read by the admissions committee, which usually consists of just 3 or 4 faculty. Chicago is unusual in circulating writing samples to faculty not on the committee but who work in the area.
It would be useful to hear from faculty who have recently done graduate admissions on these questions.