I have come across this term at many places in graduate admissions, and I do not understand it.

For example, here, they want a writing sample that is "a recent scholarly or critical paper, 15 to 25 pages in length." And they do not explain more - which means they assume it is common knowledge what this means- but it is not obvious to me what this means.

Do they want a published paper/published review article? But then, it is likely to have co-authors so it is not my writing sample. If not, what do they mean by "paper"? A critique of a research paper is hardly a few pages, let alone ~20. For a scholarly paper I'll have my bachelor's thesis but it will be there towards the end of my bachelor's, much later than most admissions deadlines. What do such submissions expect?

When I mailed them, they replied the following which doesn't make it clear to me what is expected (or common):

The application requires a writing sample. For our program, there are no rules regarding the writing sample so it can be a piece your own choosing.

Note: Most of my work till now has been collaborative, and my background is a STEM subject.

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    Just a guess, but I suspect by "scholarly or critical paper" they mean a paper you wrote for a class, something fairly common for many non-STEM majors but not so much for STEM majors. In the U.S. these are often called term papers, although for some reason the Wikipedia article seems a bit inaccurate to me. It says "over an academic term", which suggests a paper one spends most of the quarter/semester course writing, but my (admittedly several decades ago) (continued) Oct 4, 2022 at 20:05
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    experience is that it is more accurate to say "during an academic term", since for many such courses one winds up writing several term papers in the course, and even when only one term paper is written for a course, it's usually at most a 2 to 3 week project for that course (not something one spends the majority of the course duration working on). Humanities and social science majors in particular write a lot of term papers during their college years, and I've known math majors (not me; I liked writing them) who avoided such courses when choosing required non-science elective courses. Oct 4, 2022 at 20:05
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    The example you gave is Department of Government. As @DaveLRenfro points out, it's common for Political Science students to write term papers when they take social science classes. STEM undergraduate students usually don't do that
    – Nobody
    Dec 5, 2022 at 4:05

1 Answer 1


The best way you find out what this means is to ask, which it sounds like you did, and the response you got:

The application requires a writing sample. For our program, there are no rules regarding the writing sample so it can be a piece your own choosing.

indicates they don't really care about the specifics, they just want to be able to judge your writing. Probably the people who are reading your sample are not the same people who came up with the "scholarly or critical" label.

I'd consider a paper for a course or a review or research paper you've primarily drafted to qualify. I would not consider an example of creative writing to be scholarly or critical, so don't submit the first chapter of the novel you are writing or your screenplay or the poetry you write as lyrics for your garage band. They're not expecting or wanting you to write something specific for this prompt, they're expecting you submit something you already have in hand, so they don't want to be too specific. The point is to see a sample of your writing, not to select candidates based on which specific sample they have available or choose.

Whatever the interpretation is, though, they've clarified for you: there are no rules that they care about, you can choose.

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