Students who are interested in applying to graduate school are often puzzled by the application process. This document1 is intended to provide some guidance. The best guidance will, however, be provided by a student's own undergraduate advisors and mentors. Every professor2 you have was once an undergraduate nervous about applying to graduate school, and most of them are happy to talk about their experience.
The Application Process
Application deadlines are typically in mid-January, but some departments, including Brown's, have deadlines at the beginning of January. It is really best to think, then, in terms of 1 January and, with the holidays being just before that, in terms of mid-December.
Applications usually requires GRE scores (the general part only), transcripts, three letters of recommendation, a 'statement of purpose', and a writing sample. We will try to say a few things about these parts of the application, and how generally one might prepare to apply to graduate school.
Departments make their admissions decisions based on all of the information available to them. It is very important that applicants have solid grades, and not just in philosophy. Most programs expect a student to have exposed h'erself to other areas of learning, especially when those other areas bear are relevant to the areas of philosophy in which s'he is interested. Thus, for example, students interested in political philosophy should strongly consider taking a course or two in political science; those interested in philosophy of language, in linguistics; in the history of philosophy, in relevant areas of history or history of science; and so on.
It is also important that students take a wide range of philosophy courses. It is natural to 'specialize' and take a large number of courses in a specific area of central interest. But it is equally important that to have a solid undergraduate education in philosophy generally and particularly—for most programs—in contemporary analytic philosophy, both on the 'metaphysics and epistemology' side and on the 'moral philosophy' side. (Breadth is as important as depth, here as elsewhere.) That one has satisfied the requirements for a concentration (or 'major') in philosophy does not guarantee that s'he has such a broad education: There are different ways one can satisfy those requirements, and some ways of doing so will leave gaping holes. Students interested in pursuing graduate study should therefore consult with the undergraduate advisor, or some other mentor, no later than the second semester of the junior year regarding selection of courses.
The Statement of Purpose
The 'statement of purpose' is intended to give the admissions committee some general information about why a particular applicant wants to go to graduate school and what s'he intends to do once s'he gets there. Do not tell a long story beginning, "Ever since my childhood, I've wondered about my dreams", although, if there are specific life-experiences which have sparked or sustained an interest in philosophy, these may be worth mentioning. And it is not expected that all applicants will be able to commit themselves to some very specific project for their dissertation. Indeed, many students find that, when they get to graduate school and are exposed to a wider range of philosophical thought, their interests change quite dramatically, and many programs will look down upon applicants who seem not to be interested in philosophy but only in some very small fragment of it.
What you should do in your statement of purpose is explain, as clearly and (nota bene) concisely as you are able, what it is about philosophy has so gripped you that you are considering graduate study. It is an odd way to spend one's life. What is it about philosophy that makes you want to spend the next five to ten years of your life studying it? To spend at least three years writing a dissertation on one, small topic? And to spend the rest of your life pursuing research, teaching philosophy to unsuspecting teenagers, and so on and so forth? Your statement should include a serious explanation of your interests, as you now find them to be. And it is worth also including a reasonable assessment of what you hope to accomplish when you enroll in graduate school: Are there specific areas of philosophy about which you would like to learn more? Are there specific areas which bear upon your main areas of interest which you think you need to know more about?
Letters of Recommendation
The letters of recommendation are one of the two most important parts of the application. It is typically these on which admission to the committee's shortlist will turn, and admission itself depends heavily upon the contents of these letters. Remember that the admissions commmittee has very little information available to it. It is therefore happy to rely upon colleagues who, presumably, have access to more.
Because the letters are so important, anyone who thinks s'he even might be interested in graduate study must work to develop close professional relationships with at least two members of the faculty before the senior year. The reason for this is that, given the large enrollment of most courses, it is difficult for any faculty member to get to know all of the students in any particular such course. And it is, as should be clear, impossible for a faculty member to write a cogent, informed letter for a student if s'he knows of that student only as one among many members of one large lecture course. The best letters of recommendation are detailed, speaking honestly and convincingly about both the student's strengths and weaknesses, and good letters say something interesting, and equally convincing, about h'er potential for further growth and development.
How can one develop such relationships? By attending professors' office hours to discuss the material from lecture. Do not feel as though you have to have a question fully worked out before going to office hours. It's fine simply to want to talk about something you don't quite understand or something from the reading that is bothering you. Office hours are for just such things. (You would perhaps be surprised how often some faculty sit in their office hours wishing a student would come talk to them.)
The Writing Sample
The writing sample is perhaps the single most important part of the application. It, almost always, is what will decide an application's fate. An application with a poor writing sample, but stellar letters and grades, will gain acceptance almost nowhere, since the poor quality of the writing tends to undermine one's confidence in the letters; but one with middling letters and and an excellent writing sample might still stand a chance. It is, therefore, not a good idea simply to select some paper that got an 'A' amd submit it unchanged. You should, rather, look upon the task of producing a writing sample as if it were an additional course and plan to devote a fair amount of time just to the task.
It is, for this reason, then, also rarely a good idea to submit a paper one is writing for a course taught in the fall of the senior year (if that is when one is preparing the application). There is just not enough time to polish such a piece for inclusion as a writing sample. A better idea is to use a successful paper written in the junior year as the foundation for your writing sample, and then to work on it further, doing additional reading, polishing the arguments, getting feedback on drafts, and so on and so forth. You can begin this process by discussing the comments you received on the paper with your instructor. Note that this is also a good way to strengthen your relationship with that instructor and so to give h'er a solid basis for a letter of recommendation.
A good writing sample addresses a substantial philosophical problem, whether it amounts to a critical evaluation of an argument or a serious attempt to interpret difficult philosophical texts. Mere reports of what some philosopher or other thinks—or mere 'compare and contrast' efforts—are not likely to impress. Do not, however, think that you have to make an original contribution to the area about which you are writing to produce a solid writing sample. Vanishingly few undergraduates are capable of writing such a paper. Admissions committees are looking for two things: promise and for a solid basis from which a student can start learning to do original philosophical work. What the writing sample should display, then, is that you have acquired the basic skills needed for the serious study of philosophy: An ability to read and write philosophy and to think critically about philosophical problems.
The writing sample needs, as was said, to be a substantial piece of work. It should therefore be at least 12–15 pages long, as it is hard to do anything serious in less space. It should not be excessively long: The members of admissions committees, being human, have been known to get annoyed by overly long writing samples; they simply do not have the time to read 40 pages from every applicant. A rough maximum length would be about 25 pages. Rarely should you submit a longer piece of work, such as a senior thesis, even if you indicate to the committee that there is some portion of it that you would really like them to read. It is far better to re-work the relevant material so that you can be sure it is self-contained.
It is permissible to submit more than one sample of writing, but you should not do so unless you have some very good reason to do so. (An example of a good reason: You have serious interests both in the philosophy of language and in Aristotle.) If you do submit more than one sample of work, you should indicate which of the pieces you intend as primary and which as supplemental, in case the committee deems itself unable to read everything.
You should be absolutely certain to proof-read thoroughly: Do not trust spell-checkers and the like to do this for you. It is a good idea, too, to have friends read through the paper and comment upon your style, grammar, and so forth. The paper needs to be well-written: Being able to write is an absolutely fundamental prerequisite for graduate study. Make sure, too, that your citations are in good order, that quotations and footnotes are properly formatted, and so on and so forth: You want your paper to look as if you've spent real time with it—and as if you are proud of it.
Finally, the writing sample does not have to be connected, in any way, with the area or areas you think you most want to pursue in graduate school. So long as your record shows a sufficient foundation to pursue those areas, a writing sample in some other area might even impress the committee as a demonstration of your philosophical breadth. Your faculty advisors can help you choose a paper that would be appropriate for a writing sample.
2OK, not every professor. It used to be quite common for people to become professors without having a doctorate. In philosophy, two salient examples are Michael Dummett (BA, Oxford) and Saul Kripke (AB, Harvard). But this is very rare nowadays.