1) Strong philosophy undergraduate background
2) Strong philosophy based writing sample
3) Recommendation from philosophy professor(s)
This is greatly discouraging. I don't have a strong philosophy background, which is why I am going into the philosophy of science because my strength lies there. The website says they take people from all backgrounds, but the email has upset me. I should again stress that the Prof was really cool and in no way outright discouraging, but it still unnerved me. As for point 2, the writing sample, I think I did a good job. I got an "A" on the paper at Oberlin that I submitted to them and I expanded it in all the places my Obie prof said it was weak and also in the areas I thought were lacking. I was pleased with my writing sample, but (because I haven't read a lot of philosophy formally) I'm not sure how it really stacks up. And finally none of my recommendations come from a philosophy professor. So (at best) I pass 1 out of 3. Troubling.
I'm trying to keep an open mind. First, my strength is in other areas. I'll likely have the strongest science background of the applicants and (thanks to Oberlin) have a pretty large base of knowledge. I've taken a lot of religion and history courses which could be considered at least quasi-philosophical in nature. My writing and composition minor will hopefully sway them that I got at least some game when it comes to the written word. Next, this was just this prof's opinion and he was very upfront that his three criteria are not absolute requirements just what he tends to look for. The Berkeley philosophy department is large, so hopefully another prof may have differently weighted values on what makes a strong candidate that just so happen to coincide with my strengths. Next, living in Japan shows that I am willing to work hard in foreign environments and as my man Sneakypeteiii hypothesized sometimes people that are shown to be able to work hard and show the ability to make long commitments and high level of being interested are chosen over the people that may technically the stronger candidate. Here's hoping I look like a hard worker!