Writing samples are required for entrance into many graduate programs, as well as for jobs and internships where writing is an integral part of the position. Often these positions are in research, media, advertising or public relations.
Written communication is one of the top skills valued by both graduate schools and employers. If they request a writing sample, it is required! They are committed to hiring students who can write well, and are looking for proof of this skill.
If there is a length, word count or subject matter requirement, abide by it. If no instructions are given, and you cannot tell from the position description what type of sample would be most relevant, consider contacting the program or employer to ask about their preferences.
Select your writing sample based on quality and relevance.
Above all else, select a piece that you and others who you trust think is well-written. Have multiple audiences proofread your writing sample so that it is completely free of spelling and grammatical errors.
If no specific instructions are given, make the sample as relevant to the position or program–and the writing you will do in that position or program–as possible. If you are applying for a job writing brief news stories for an online newspaper, send in clips from your time on the Davidsonian, not your ten-page analysis of a Russian novel. Similarly, if you are applying for a summer research position, you will want to submit a research-focused writing sample; if you are applying for a business analyst position, you could submit a case study that you wrote in an economics course.
There may be times when you will not be able to use a sample that you have already written. If you are applying for a position in PR, for example, but have never written press releases, you may have to create one from scratch.
If you have to submit a writing sample for a discipline-specific graduate program, then use a strong paper that you wrote in a course related to that discipline. Faculty often can assist you in selecting a sample for these applications.