Writing Samples

Ah, admissions. One of my favorite times of year. All the hopeful, serious, energetic prospective students trying to decide if science writing is for them. And once they’ve come to that conclusion, craft their applications.

Today’s topic will hopefully give some direction to those applicants. Our application instructions are quite vague when it comes to writing samples. We don’t tell you how many pages, or words. We don’t even tell you what type. Only “arranged as you choose, that represent your writing at its best.”

Frustrating, isn’t it? To be given so much freedom?

But think about it – some of our applicants come from the sciences, where they’ve written primarily lab reports. Some come from English or Journalism backgrounds. Some have written for newspapers, some have not. Some have lots of samples to choose from, some have none.  So we’ve tried to make our application flexible enough to meet all needs.

When choosing your writing samples try to remember a few basic things.

1. Consider your audience. The admissions committee will be reading over fifty very wordy applications.  They’re trying to divine from this jumble of numbers, verbs, nouns, and modifiers who will get the most out of our program. Ensure that your samples will demonstrate that. Don’t try to make them go blind reading a one hundred page thesis on Jane Eyre when a perfectly good page on photosynthesis will do.

2. It’s okay to write something new, specifically for the application. Are you someone newly out of college? A scientist surrendering to a love of writing? Don’t have any published “clips” to submit? Take a scientific paper, lab report, or press release, and craft a news story or essay out of it. Write something as if it were to be published in your favorite science magazine. Just say so on the cover page.

3. Fiction is okay, but make sure it’s not the bulk of your sample. Fiction doesn’t tell the committee much about your ability to tackle technical and scientific concepts, but it might demonstrate your flair for narrative.

4. You may submit audio and video samples.  They should be accompanied by transcripts, if possible.  The current application does not have the capability to upload these, they’ll have to be sent separately to sciwrite-www@mit.edu.

I hope these suggestions help – please feel free ask more questions in the comments.