Getting into an elite college has never been more cutthroat. Last year, Harvard’s admissions rate dipped to a record low, with only 5.3% of applicants getting an acceptance letter. Stanford’s rate was even lower, at 5.05%.
These days, it takes more than impressive grades, a full roster of extracurriculars, and a deep commitment to community service to get into a well-ranked school. Experts say that a stellar essay is the linchpin that will win the admissions department over. But what is less well known is that different colleges favor particular topics and even specific words used in essays.
This is a key finding from AdmitSee, a startup that invites verified college students to share their application materials with potential applicants. High school students can pay to access AdmitSee’s repository of successful college essays, while college students who share their materials receive a small payment every time someone accesses their data. “The biggest differentiator for our site is that college students who share their information are compensated for their time,” Stephanie Shyu, cofounder of AdmitSee, tells Fast Company. “This allows them to monetize materials that they have sitting around. They can upload their file and when they check back in a few months later, they might have made several hundred dollars.”
Shyu says that this model has allowed AdmitSee to collect a lot of data very rapidly. The company is only a year old and just landed $1.5 million in seed funding from investors such asFounder.org and The Social + Capital Partnership. But in this short time, AdmitSee has already gathered 15,000 college essays in their system. Many are from people who got into well-ranked colleges, since they targeted these students first. The vast majority of these essays come from current college students who were admitted within the last two or three years.
AdmitSee has a team that analyzes all of these materials, gathering both qualitative and quantitative findings. And they’ve found some juicy insights about what different elite colleges are looking for in essays. One of the most striking differences was between successful Harvard and Stanford essays. (AdmitSee had 539 essays from Stanford and 393 from Harvard at the time of this interview, but more trickle in every day.) High-achieving high schoolers frequently apply to both schools—often with the very same essay—but there are stark differences between what their respective admissions departments seem to want.
What Do You Call Your Parents?
The terms “father” and “mother” appeared more frequently in successful Harvard essays, while the term “mom” and “dad” appeared more frequently in successful Stanford essays.
Harvard Likes Downer Essays
AdmitSee found that negative words tended to show up more on essays accepted to Harvard than essays accepted to Stanford. For example, Shyu says that “cancer,” “difficult,” “hard,” and “tough” appeared more frequently on Harvard essays, while “happy,” “passion,” “better,” and “improve” appeared more frequently in Stanford essays.
This also had to do with the content of the essays. At Harvard, admitted students tended to write about challenges they had overcome in their life or academic career, while Stanford tended to prefer creative personal stories, or essays about family background or issues that the student cares about. “Extrapolating from this qualitative data, it seems like Stanford is more interested in the student’s personality, while Harvard appears to be more interested in the student’s track record of accomplishment,” Shyu says.
With further linguistic analysis, AdmitSee found that the most common words on Harvard essays were “experience,” “society,” “world,” “success,” “opportunity.” At Stanford, they were “research,” “community,” “knowledge,” “future” and “skill.”
What the Other Ivies Care About
It turns out, Brown favors essays about volunteer and public interest work, while these topics rank low among successful Yale essays. In addition to Harvard, successful Princeton essays often tackle experiences with failure. Meanwhile, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania tend to accept students who write about their career aspirations. Essays about diversity—race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation—tend to be more popular at Stanford, Yale, and Brown.
Based on the AdmitSee’s data, Dartmouth and Columbia don’t appear to have strong biases toward particular essay topics. This means that essays on many subjects were seen favorably by the admissions departments at those schools. However, Shyu says that writing about a moment that changed the student’s life showed up frequently in essays of successful applicants to those schools.
Risk-Taking Pays Off
One general insight is that students who take risks with the content and the structure of their college essays tend to be more successful across the board. One student who was admitted to several top colleges wrote about his father’s addiction to pornography and another wrote about a grandparent who was incarcerated, forcing her mother to get food stamps illegally. Weird formats also tend to do well. One successful student wrote an essay tracking how his credit card was stolen, making each point of the credit card’s journey a separate section on the essay and analyzing what each transaction meant. Another’s essay was a list of her favorite books and focused on where each book was purchased.
“One of the big questions our users have is whether they should take a risk with their essay, writing about something that reveals very intimate details about themselves or that takes an unconventional format,” Shyu says. “What we’re finding is that successful essays are not ones that talk about an accomplishment or regurgitate that student’s résumé . The most compelling essays are those that touch on surprising personal topics.”
Of course, one caveat here is that taking a risk only makes sense if the essay is well-executed. Shyu says that the content and structure of the story must make a larger point about the applicant, otherwise it does not serve a purpose. And it goes without saying that the essay must be well-written, with careful attention paid to flow and style.
Shyu says that there are two major takeaways that can be taken from the company’s data. The first is that it is very valuable for applicants to tailor their essays for different schools, rather than perfecting one essay and using it to apply to every single school. The second is that these essays can offer insight into the culture of the school. “The essays of admitted students are also a reflection of the community at these institutions,” Shyu says. “It can provide insight into whether or not the school is a good fit for that student.”
A final tip? If you want to go to Harvard and write about your parents, make sure to address them as “mother” and “father.”
Violent staccatos of the jackhammer coupled with rhythmic pounding of nails and muffled obscenities comprise the symphony of the construction site that has been my father’s accompaniment more than half of his life. While initially a position as a laborer seemed appealing to a junior in high school, strenuous physical labor loses its glamour to a man eclipsing fifty with a son about to enter college. As I battled through high school, I always found myself using my father as a blueprint to build me into the person I am today. If I could have only one friend for the rest of my life, I would choose my father; he has taught me lessons that I will never forget as long as I live.
My father will be the first one to admit that he regrets postponing college and has always instilled in me the importance of education. I see the importance of education every night in the scratches and calluses on his hands and the ache in his knees. After every scholarship or award I receive, my father firmly shakes my hand and I tacitly promise to ease his pain. As I fill out my college applications, I officially become the first member of my family to apply to college immediately after high school. I broke the chain because while my friends spent summer at the beach, I worked to save money for my future. While my friends honed their wakeboarding skills, I discovered my passion for politics on the campaign trail. I never faltered because every night I gazed into a set of the proudest eyes before I went to bed.
I remember that several weeks after my parents attended my middle school graduation, I had the enormous honor of congratulating my father after he realized his dream and got a college diploma, albeit 30 years overdue. My father’s college diploma reminds me that, no matter how bleak a situation may appear, I have the power to better it through diligence. As a freshman, my school resembled more accurately a 3 year-old construction site with tradition and identity yet to be established. However, rather than become discouraged, I took the initiative to pioneer Mock Trial, Speech and Debate and Junior State of America—things of which my father nor my school had never heard. In a school stained with prejudice, I co-founded Unity Through Diversity to advocate tolerance of all races, sexual orientations and faiths. In a community bitterly divided by political affiliation and marred by apathy, I spearheaded the Junior State of America to promote intelligent political discourse and activism. In a school with zero football victories, our freshman Mock Trial team gave the school championship trophies and pride.
My father is not only a member of my family; he is a friend who I can talk to after a tough day. With the clock ticking down until I leave home for college and my father working longer days and weeks, I relish every moment with him. However, I also realize that I must stand on my own. It is not my father’s responsibility to make sure that I get what I want out of life; I must do this independently. As I say my final farewell to my father, I will forever remember that he has given me tools, but it is my job to use them to craft my future.
Huber, Nick. "Describe a Person Who’s Had an Influence on You - "Dad"" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 07 Oct. 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2018. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/harvard/dad/>.