Thursday, April 23, 2009

Feedback on Prospective Students' Writing Samples

I was recently struck by the thought: professors carefully read and assess the writing samples of (at least) those prospective graduate students to whom their department offers admission. So why do they not write up their assessments (including constructive suggestions for how to improve the paper), and offer this to the prospective student along with the offer of admission? What better way to signal your commitment to helping the student develop as a philosopher than to provide such help before they even arrive?

It seems individually rational for departments to start doing this, since it seems likely to give them an advantage in recruiting the top students, relative to departments that don't make such an effort. (At least, I imagine I would have been influenced in my grad school choice by receiving useful, detailed written feedback on my work -- it would make me look much more favourably upon the school in question. I assume other students would respond similarly.) Since professors care about attracting the best students, it seems likely to be well worth their while to write up such feedback, at least for the students they want most to recruit.

It also seems globally desirable that this become standard practice. Given plausible assumptions, it should help match up students with the professors/departments that are most likely to help them develop as philosophers. This is obviously good for the students, and what's good for grad students' development is good for the discipline. Further, it also seems good for the professors to be able to increase their chances of recruiting the students they want most among the admitted class (at the cost of reducing their chances of recruiting admitted students who are desired more strongly by competing institutions).

And, quite apart from the assortive benefits, it's just intrinsically desirable that all this reading and evaluation, on the part of some of the top minds in the field, not go to waste. I'm currently revising my old writing sample, since I rather like the paper, and I'm struck by the thought that I could have received helpful comments on it from experts at seven top schools. Moral philosophers at those institutions read the paper carefully enough to decide that they wanted me to spend the next five years studying with them, so presumably they also had various thoughts on how the paper might be improved. But this invaluable information was never communicated (at least in writing -- I can't remember my visits well enough to recall whether it came up much in discussion; I would have been too flustered to absorb it then anyhow). What a shame!

Has anyone had this idea before? Is there some reason why it isn't as desirable as it prima facie seems to me? (If not, here's hoping the idea starts to catch on!)


  1. When I applied to Ph.D. programs a few years back, I *did* receive comments and feedback on my writing sample from a few places. The departments that did this left a lasting impression; I'm surprised this isn't used as a recruiting tool more often, frankly.

  2. This would be a very cool thing; while my writing samples weren't much of anything, being by sheer accident of time on continental philosophy (one on Hegel, one on Schiller: they were the papers I had most recently polished up when I was applying), which I never, ever have done anything in; but I still would have been interested to get feedback on them.

    I suppose the chief difficulty in at least some places would be that it would be one more thing for the department to do and keep track of in bringing in grad students, and that might in some cases get some resistance.

  3. Yeah, that would have been nice, although I'm not sure if the benefits for the school would be worth the time spent on writing comments. I applied this year and my writing sample barely came up in discussion during my visits (partly because at some places the people I talked to weren't on the ad coms). But I also didn't attempt to steer any of the conversations towards my writing sample.

    In any case, I'm not sure that getting particularly helpful comments on my writing sample would have predisposed me positively towards the programs that provided them. It is quite possible that ad com members make an extra effort to provide such comments, to attract prospective students, while not exerting themselves so much when it comes to guiding their actual students. I suppose this is a problem in general about grad school visits --- you *are* being courted so schools are making a special effort to treat you well, which may not say anything about how well they treat their grad students. I found interacting with grad students much more helpful than interacting with faculty for this reason, because grad students are more likely to be honest about their respective programs. I was also told of certain professors who would be highly solicitous and friendly towards prospectives but would ignore them once they actually enrolled. I don't see why this kind of attitude shouldn't carry over into willingness to provide comments on students' work.

  4. It's a fallible sign, to be sure, but a promising sign nonetheless. (At the very least, if some professors are so indifferent that they cannot even be bothered to fake this effort for a prospective student, that's surely worth knowing!) And, psychologically, such efforts seem likely to make an impression even if we know they aren't entirely reliable. But I agree that checking with current grad students is very important.

  5. I'd also add: writing detailed and useful comments requires more significant effort than simply being "solicitous and friendly" in person, so that's a reason to think that lazy/disinterested faculty are less likely to try deceiving prospectives this way. So I think this would be a more reliable signal than one currently gets from interacting with faculty during visits.

  6. As someone who just got into grad school: I think this could be off-putting if only one school did it. My revisions of my writing sample stopped when every professor I consulted on it had different things to say and I got exhausted dealing with it all. If I had gotten even more comments back on my writing sample, my thought would have been "I really don't care anymore, why are they even doing this?"

    This doesn't mean it wouldn't be a good thing if every school did it. But there's a reason not to rock the boat.

  7. I just went through the application process this year. One professor telephoned me to discuss my previous work. He provided lots of feedback and also lots of ideas about how to make further progress in the problem I had been working on (the subtext was, of course, that this progress would be made at his school, under his supervision).

    I was really impressed (but I ended up choosing another school for a variety of reasons).

  8. I'd also add: writing detailed and useful comments requires more significant effort than simply being "solicitous and friendly" in person...I think that's the right point. Actually, I went through this point-counterpoint as I read the original post. First I figured that the comments provided in this context would not be accurately representative of comments in the context of actual graduate study. As I thought about it, however, it seems less and less likely that a professor could really efface their established framework for assessing papers and ideas. They may change their attitude, or be less harsh. But ultimately some of the points will be the same whether they are phrased kindly or aggressively. If someone is going to graduate school, one would hope that s/he could extricate the wisdom while being nonchalant about the attitude. I guess the main question has to do with whether the professor would pull any punches.

    On the whole, I think this idea should at least be experimented with by some schools. If nothing more, it adds a level of personal interaction to a process that is, for most people, entirely impersonal.

  9. That's a LOT of work for a very busy admissions committee.


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