Applying to Grad School Part 4 – The Sample Paper
Well, its only been 2 months, but I will finally finish my series on applying to grad school in Biblical Studies and related programs. If you want to be an academic, then the rest of your life is going to be spent writing papers. It only makes sense then that your sample paper should show some promise. That doesn’t mean that you are expected to submit a groundbreaking thesis, but you should have some aptitude for writing.
So what makes a good paper? Well, it is not sheer length nor is it the number of footnotes. In fact, it is much more difficult to write a shorter paper with fewer gratuitous footnotes. Journals and publishers are going to give you word and page limits, so it is important to learn how to express yourself clearly and succinctly. As for footnotes, I personally find it to be poor writing when half of your argument is in your footnotes. I know other people may disagree, but I was taught that the main body of your paper needs to stand on its own in case someone reading quickly is skipping your footnotes (and extended quotations).1
There are a few things to keep in mind when picking a sample paper. First, it should be relevant to your area of study, and the closer to your planned area of specialization the better. This way the committee can get a feel for your grasp of the field. Of course, if your paper is extremely specific, make sure you mention your broader interests in your personal statement lest you be pigeonholed. Second, the bibliography is as important as the paper itself. Research is all about bibliography. Make sure you are familiar with the most important works in the field and have interacted with these ideas. The professors on the committee will certainly notice glaring omissions.
This is an area where students coming from a biblical studies program may have an advantage over those coming from a seminary. I had a very hard time picking a sample paper since most of my assignments were theological in nature, and I wasn’t familiar with many of the scholars in the field. In the end, I took a translation paper on Proverbs 16 and re-worked it the best I could. Had I spent just 1 year in a masters program somewhere I think I would have had a much better paper. It seems like many seminary students who applied to HUC did something similar – I had to read many structural analyses of psalms. A few applicants sent in seminary papers without reworking them. This is a bad idea. A paper that only interacts with a few commentaries and includes a lengthy application section is really not relevant to the type of research you will do in a PhD program.
So keep it short and clear, put time into compiling a good bibliography, and make it relevant to your future doctoral work. This is the type of thing you will spend the next three years doing so good luck and have fun!
1. Of course all this discussion of footnotes is pulling me away from my main topic. Certainly there is a place for an extended aside in your footnotes, but if it is relevant to your argument then I think it is better to try and rework the flow of thought of your paper or save it for a future paper.