How to Write a Research Paper for Grad School Application

28 FEB 2022

Most doctoral programs require applicants to submit a research sample and though they are not typically required for graduate school applications, they can help take your application from average to outstanding. 

I know the task of writing a research paper for this kind of application may seem intimidating at first. How can an undergraduate or masters student hope to submit work that will measure up to a PhD program’s standards? First, try to re-envision your research sample as a window on your curiosity: your chance to get professors genuinely excited about how you think. In this blog on how to write a research paper for graduate school applications, you’ll learn how to select, position, and revise your early-career ideas.


Selecting Your Draft

The form and function of your research sample will vary widely depending upon your field. Undergraduates in STEM are far more likely to have early-career publications and to be involved in group lab research than are humanities and social science students. If you are contributing to a research team or already have a publication of your own, consult with your supervising professor about if and how you might use this work as your research sample. Don’t submit any account or draft of an unpublished group project without your professor’s permission, and try to write at least one research paper that is entirely your own, as a back-up option. 


Writing a Research Sample 

Now, let's turn our attention to unpublished, single-author research papers, focusing on humanities research samples as a paradigm.

The first step to writing your research sample is to think realistically about what kind of paper you can edit to make a self-contained, insightful argument within the page limit. Use these questions to narrow down your options.

  1. Did you write an undergraduate thesis that you’re proud of? If not, skip to question 4.
  2. Was it divided into chapters around the same length as your research sample’s page limit? If so, choose your strongest chapter as your starting point for your research sample, and move on to learn about “Positioning Your Ideas.”
  3. If not, can you imagine making your writing more concise to fit the page limit? Or could you zoom in on one facet of your argument, to make a smaller paper out of your longer project? If so, consider isolating your main point and restructuring a portion of your paper to stand alone, as a research sample. This process may prove time consuming, so if your deadline is approaching, ditch this idea and go to question 4.
  4. Can you identify two or three strong (A-range or distinction) research papers around the length of the research sample’s page limit? Is at least one of these papers in the subfield that you hope to explore in graduate school? If so, move on to the next section on “Positioning Your Ideas.”
  5. If not, can you identify the beginnings of a research project or an idea worth expanding on in any of your undergraduate work? If so, consider working with a CRI Mentor (a professor or PhD student) to develop this idea into your sample.

Positioning Your Ideas

Once you have selected a handful of stand-alone essays or a portion of your thesis to revise, pause to position your ideas. What I mean by “positioning” is pairing your personal statement and research samples so that they point towards a consistent set of interests and methodological approaches within your field of study. 

If you’re applying to a program that only requires one research sample, then you should select a stand-alone essay or portion of your thesis that is solidly within your subfield of interest. Then, draft a paragraph of your personal statement clearly explaining how this research sample illustrates your engagement with this subfield. For guidance on how to begin this personal statement exercise, check out our previous post on How to Write a Personal Statement for Grad School. If you can’t write a paragraph making this connection, then you’re probably working with the wrong research sample draft—choose another, and move on to the process of revising your paper.

Suppose you’re applying to a program with two research samples (e.g., Harvard's English Department). In that case, you should select one sample solidly within your subfield and a second to demonstrate your interest in a different topic or methodology. Use your second sample to demonstrate the breadth of your curiosity but also to draw out subtle patterns in your ways of thinking. There should be something in common between your two papers for you to draw out in your personal statement: a method of research, a kind of primary source, an ideological agenda, etc. If you can make a clear connection between your research papers in your personal statement, then you’re on your way to positioning yourself as a coherent yet versatile scholar. And you’re ready to begin revising!


Revising Your Research

Once you’ve selected your research paper draft, you should begin the revision process by rereading it and taking notes in the margins: tracking where your argument is clearest and most exciting versus moments when it seems dull or loose. Then, reread any comments that your work has already received from professors. If you don’t have any comments, consider asking a professor mentor to review your work or signing up for a session with a CRI mentor. You might also ask a peer in your field to read your paper and tell you when they are most confused and/or most convinced by your writing. This combination of your own notes and other readers’ initial feedback will help you determine what parts of your essay to cut, rewrite, or expand.


Last Minute Advice

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to editing research, but I’ll conclude with some general advice to keep your revisions on track:

  • Make sure that you have a clear thesis—and that you coherently prove it within the word limit for your sample.
  • Engage with the kinds of secondary sources that you hope to one day write yourself. If you notice that your paper fails to engage with a range of secondary scholarship, hit the library and rework your argument to demonstrate your engagement with current criticism.
  • Signpost, signpost, signpost. In every transition, introductory, and concluding sentence of every paragraph, make sure that you announce what you are trying to prove—and how that mini-proof relates to your larger argument. Remember, admissions readers have to move quickly through an enormous stack of essays, so your argument must be clear.
  • Triple check your citations. You will not get into graduate school if you accidentally commit plagiarism. 
  • Have fun writing! If you’re not intellectually excited about your essay topic, no one will be.

If you ever feel stuck or bored of your revisions, then put down your paper for a day or two. Do not force yourself to slog through revisions—forced edits usually do more harm than good. Remember, you can always return to your work later, with guidance from a friend, colleague, or CRI mentor!