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Post by: Kate Hoeting, MTS ‘21, Graduate Assistant in the HDS Office of Admissions 

This article is part of our “How to Apply” series, which answers common questions about the application process and includes these articles:  

Since the writing sample is a new component of the application this year, I’m adding this article to the series to walk you through guidelines and best practices. We know that the writing sample can be an intimidating part of the application process, but remember that the requirements are open-ended on purpose, and always feel free to reach out to us with any questions you may have. 

What does the admissions committee look for in a writing sample? 

The writing sample serves to demonstrate your academic writing ability. You may choose to submit:  

  • An excerpt of an academic paper in any subject area within the humanities or social sciences 
  • An adapted piece of professional writing 
  • An original work that is based upon a topic that you are interested in studying here at HDS 

The writing sample should be 1,000-1,500 words long and give the admissions committee a sense of your strengths in writing, research, and/or critical analysis. 

If I use an academic paper or a piece of professional writing, can I edit the paper before submitting? 

Absolutely! We encourage everyone to at least review and refresh their writing sample before submitting. You can do anything from checking for typos to re-writing the entire piece (if that’s what you want to do). Don’t forget that you can also write a new essay from scratch. You are encouraged to write a short introduction to your writing sample to help contextualize it.  

What if I don’t have any writing samples that are 1,000-1,500 words? 

You are welcome to take an excerpt from a larger work as your writing sample. If you choose to do that, it may be helpful for you to modify the piece and/or provide a short introduction to contextualize the work. You can also take a piece that is shorter than 1,000 words and expand it until it’s within the 1,000-1,500 word range. 

What if my writing sample is over or under the 1,000-1,500 word range 

The absolute maximum for the writing sample is 1,500 words, and all applicants must stay below this limit. Citations are not part of the word count. Remember that you can edit your writing sample as much as you need to in order to make sure that it fits. 

Does my writing sample need to relate to what I want to study at HDS? 

No! Your writing sample can align with what you hope to study at HDS, but it certainly does not need to. Each year, we have many applicants who did not study religion at the undergraduate level. For example, if you were a political science major in undergrad but this does not reflect what you plan to study at HDS, you are still welcome to submit work from your political science courses. At the end of the day, we want to see a piece that best reflects your writing abilities. 

I’ve been out of school for a long time, and do not have any recent examples of academic writing. What should I do? 

You’re not alone in asking this question! You are welcome to provide a piece of professional writing, and remember that you’re welcome to edit the piece as much as you’d like. You can also choose to write an essay from scratch on a topic you’d like to pursue at HDS—you can even create a prompt for yourself if that’s helpful. It may be helpful to write a short introduction to contextualize the piece. Just make sure that what you submit showcases your strengths in writing, research, and/or critical analysis. Remember that we practice holistic review at HDS, which means that we consider all parts of the application within the context of the applicant’s background. Each year, we have a number of applicants who have been out of school for a long time and/or did not peruse the study of religion at the undergraduate level. Please do not feel discouraged by the writing sample—we want you to apply! 

What citation style should I use? 

If you choose to site outside sources, you can use whatever citation style that you’d like. You can also choose not to engage with outside sources. Citations are not part of the word count, and we have no required format other than that the writing sample be legible and double spaced. 

Editor’s note: Don’t stress out! We’ve left the requirements open-ended so that you can provide us with a writing sample that makes sense for your history and interests. As always, if you have any further questions you can contact us at admissions@hds.harvard.edu.