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.”
The art of communication is not mastered by just knowing what to say and how to say it.
A big factor is knowing when to say it. So often people sit back and say nothing when something really needs to be said. It could be an idea, a suggestion, an observation, a criticism...but for some reason they don't want to speak up.
They may be afraid of hurting another person, looking mean or foolish, or opening a can of worms that will make a mess in everyone's lives. Sometimes it seems like staying silent is the wiser choice. But here are five reasons why despite the risk, standing up and saying your peace is best.
1. Silence is deemed approval. You may think that staying silent keeps you from being involved in any conflict, but quite the opposite. Silence is as much an active form of communication as talking. Anytime you are involved in a situation, people are aware of all the input and lack of it. If you disapprove and don't say anything it will not make you seem easy going. If the problem persists and you did nothing people may consider it as enabling and think the issue is as much your fault as the person who actually caused the problem. You may destroy trust and create resentment. People rarely thank you for withholding information down the line.
2. The greater good should be the priority. I like to believe most people are good hearted by nature. And many stay silent because they don't want to do any harm by offending or criticizing someone. But when a person or the team is headed down a dangerous path it's selfish to put your own need to be comfortable above the needs of the others. Worse, by staying silent, you may be harming the very people you hope to help. The worst case scenario if you speak up is that someone may disagree, but at least the issue is at the forefront and an active decision can be made. The best case scenario is that everyone benefits and you are hailed as a powerful leader.
3. Demonstrate you are invested. Why are you in the conversation in the first place? Someone invited you into the dynamic. If you truly don't have a stake then find a better use of your time. But if you are there for a reason you need to show your commitment to the process and the people involved by being active and vocal. Speaking up is an important form of honesty. Honesty actually builds trust, especially when combined with tact and empathy. Demonstrate that you will be truthful with people, that you care about them, and that you give good advice, and you will never lack for trusting friends and followers.
4. No one else may know. You can't assume the obvious is obvious. Your experience and knowledge has value in a given situation. No one else has your unique perspective. That doesn't mean that everything in your brain is worth communicating, but with a little discretion and thought, you should be able to bring value in most situations. And your piece of the puzzle may be the most important finisher. You're also not doing yourself any favors by not sharing your expertise. People don't automatically recognize your skills, values, ambitions, and desires when you are quiet. If you wait around for people to notice or read your mind, you will likely end up on many paths that are not of your own choosing. You may end up with projects you don't want, missing promotions you do, or accepting tasks you don't have time or ability to complete. Gather up your confidence and share.
5. You may not be alone in your thinking. It's entirely possible that your insightful observations and conclusions have surfaced in the minds of others. Others may share your thoughts and opinions, but may be also unwilling to speak up. By speaking your mind you encourage them to voice their opinions as well. If everyone holds back, the bus may silently head over a cliff. In my organization we believe so strongly that everything should be voiced in some manner that we have a core value of Bring It Up. We would sooner celebrate somebody saying something irrelevant and unimportant than lose ground or have massive failure due to group silence.
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