How to Apply: Writing Sample

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:  

How to Apply: Test Scores  

How to Apply: Statement of Purpose 

How to Apply: Letters of Recommendation  

How to Apply: Reapplication 

How to Apply: Résumé 

This post was originally written in 2018 but has been updated to reflect accurate application information in October 2021.  

Please note that this post does not discuss the MRPL Project Proposal. Stay tuned for a separate blog post with Project Proposal tips later this Fall! 


To provide some additional insight into this section of the application, we’ve included a short video that was created by some of our former Graduate Assistants. In the video they share their experiences selecting their writing sample, and they highlight what we’re hoping to learn from your writing.  

Please note that this video, while still largely helpful, was recorded in 2020, so any dates or deadlines mentioned refer to the 2020-2021 application cycle. Please see our ‘Apply’ webpage for more information about the current year’s key dates and deadlines.  


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. 

If your writing sample is under 1,000 words, you are encouraged to expand it until it’s within the 1,000-1,5000-word range.  

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 may 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 pursue 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 your writing sample includes citations, you may use whichever style you prefer but make sure it is consistent. 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.   


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 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

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