Choosing a writing sample (or samples) is a tricky part of applying for graduate school or positions in the writing and editing space. How do you choose the work that best shows your talents and matches the vibe of the program or position you are applying to? Even trickier, what if you have never written a writing sample before?
I’ve brainstormed a few steps and tips below. I would also recommend reaching out to your academic advisor or faculty advisor for assistance in identifying work that best establishes your talents.
Firstly, don’t panic. While you may think you do not have a writing sample to hand in, I can assure you that you most certainly have something you’ve written that shows your skills. Take a look at your coursework from the last semester or your most recent writing, and see which of those pieces best suits the place you are applying. You want your piece of writing to be up-to-date and not something you wrote several years ago.
TIP: Make sure your spelling and grammar are superb—there should be no errors in your writing sample. If submitting an academic paper, include your works cited.
TIP: If you are applying for a job in Journalism, it might be a good idea to pick a paper you wrote for a Journalism course on which you received high marks.
Secondly, you will want to ensure that whatever piece you submit is relevant to the place you are applying. I recommend not selecting work that could be considered “controversial,” such as pieces on religion, politics, or works that include personal information about yourself or someone else.
TIP: If you are applying for a position at a political organization, it may serve you to submit a piece that touches on the subject matter the organization believes in. However, your piece should be objective rather than subjective—you want the reader to know that you know your stuff.
Thirdly, if, for some reason, you don’t have a writing sample that you feel is appropriate for your application-–it’s time to sit down and write.
TIP: Look into the organization where you are applying and find out more about what they’re passionate about and what topics they cover or are interested in. Many editors at media companies (like the Rumpus or Vulture, to name a few) will have a detailed intro to what sort of work they or their editors are looking for in writing samples and pitches.
TIP: Many places will provide their expectations for a writing sample within their job posting or on their academic department’s graduate admissions page, so there’s usually no need to stress about the amount you are to submit for your application.
Finally, it’s time to submit. Follow the directions given within the application itself and let go.
TIP: You may want to make a note at the top of your writing sample, in the cover letter for the position, or in the email that you send along with your resume and cover letter, in which you include context such as what your sample is originally from (if you have selected an excerpt) or, in the case of applying for PR or advertising positions, what product you are discussing.
Then, once you’ve pressed submit—pat yourself on the back. Putting yourself out there is hard. Applying for jobs and postgraduate programs is, in its own way, a job. Make sure to practice self-care while applying. Learn that being in that space of ambiguity–that liminal space between where you stand now and the place you want to be–is not a bad thing; it just is.