A study conducted by AdmitSee, an undergraduate and graduate application-sharing platform created by University of Pennsylvania students, found students who used certain words, wrote about certain topics or even just wrote with a certain tone in their application essays were more likely to get accepted to one Ivy League school over another.
Upon analyzing its application archives, AdmitSee found students who referred to their parents as “mom and dad” in their application essays were more likely to get accepted to Stanford, while students who called them “mother and father” were more likely to receive a Harvard admission offer.
These findings, which were published by Fast Company, are based on essays — 539 of which were from students who were accepted to Stanford and 393 of which were from students who were accepted to Harvard — uploaded to the site at the time the study was conducted.
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So how does AdmitSee gain access to these application essays? The site invites college students, who are identified and verified by their official school IDs, to upload their application materials. Once uploaded, their application materials can then be accessed by high school students who are preparing for the college application process. Every time a high school student views a college student’s application materials, that college student is paid a stipend by AdmitSee.
AdmitSee found students whose application essays had a sad tone were more likely to be accepted to Harvard than Stanford. Specifically, essays written by students who were later admitted to Harvard focused on overcoming challenging moments in life. These essays frequently included words such as “cancer,” “difficult,” “hard” and “tough.”
This finding proved to be almost the exact opposite of what admissions officers from Stanford were looking for. Essays featuring a creative personal story or an issue the student was passionate about were among those accepted to the California-based school as opposed to Harvard, according to AdmitSee. These acceptance-winning essays often featured words like “happy,” “passion,” “better,” and “improve.”
AdmitSee also found surprising differences in the way Harvard and Stanford handle legacy applicants.
AdmitSee cofounder Lydia Fayal said that these differences play out primarily in the SAT scores and grade point averages of legacy versus non-legacy candidates.
“Harvard gives more preferential treatment to legacy candidates than Stanford,” Fayal said in an email interview. “Based on our preliminary data, the average SAT score at Harvard is 2150 for legacy students and 2240 for non-legacy; meanwhile at Stanford it’s 2260 for both legacy and non-legacy.”
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Fayal also said based on AdmitSee’s data, she found that the average GPA is three-tenths of a point lower for Harvard’s legacy students than it is for non-legacies. At Stanford, the average GPA of legacy students versus non-legacy students is just one-tenth of a point lower.
“If you take out diversity candidates and student athletes, the difference between legacy and non-legacy students gets really scary,” Fayal said.
Fayal was unable to provide exact numbers on this data – she said AdmitSee needs to wait to receive more applications containing this type of information.
Upon further quantitative analysis, AdmitSee found the most common words used in Harvard and Stanford essays have similar themes but are nonetheless different. For the Massachusetts-based Ivy, these words were “experience,” “society,” “world,” success” and opportunity.” For Stanford, they were “research,” “community,” “knowledge,” “future” and “skill.”
College admissions counselor Katherine Cohen didn’t find the differences between the application essays written by students admitted to Harvard and those admitted to Stanford surprising.
“Stanford and Harvard, while both extremely prestigious universities, actually don’t have that much in common when it comes to the feel on campus, their under-lying values, etc,” Cohen, who is also the founder and CEO of college admissions counseling company IvyWise, said in an email interview. “So it makes sense that they would be looking for different types of students, and therefore different kinds of essays.”
While the data collected from students admitted to Harvard and Stanford is the most specific, AdmitSee also collected interesting information on other Ivy League schools.
“There are 745 colleges with at least 1 application file on AdmitSee.com, and 286 colleges with 10+ application files on the site,” Fayal said.
For example, AdmitSee’s data indicates the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell favor essays about a student’s career goals. Like Harvard, Princeton tends to admit students who write about overcoming adversity. Essays that discuss a student’s experience with race, ethnicity or sexual orientation are well-received by Stanford, Yale and Brown.
Further, when looking specifically between Yale and Brown, AdmitSee found that Brown admitted more students who wrote about their volunteer experience, whereas there was no conclusive data that confirmed Yale favored essays of this type.
While AdmitSee’s findings focused specifically on applications submitted by students who were accepted to Ivy League institutions, the site has application materials for a wide variety of schools on its site.
AdmitSee co-founder Stephanie Shyu said, according to Fast Company, students who are gearing up to apply to college can learn two major lessons from the company’s data. One of these lessons: it is a good idea to craft unique essays for each school.
Fayal said that she wasn’t surprised that AdmitSee’s data reflected this tactic. It was a lesson she also learned during her time as a college consultant.
“I’ve worked with enough students to know that students should customize their application essay by university,” Fayal said. “I hope that, by releasing AdmitSee data, we’re leveling the playing field for students who can’t afford private college consultants.”
And Cohen agreed.
“Each school has slightly different values and focuses on different attributes, so the words, attitudes and themes expressed in a student’s application and college essays do matter when it comes to their chances of admission at one college vs. another,” Cohen said. “That’s why it is usually rare for a student to get accepted to every single Ivy League even if they have straight A’s, perfect SAT/ACT scores and 5’s across all their AP exams.”
The second lesson: students should aim to make their essays reflect the culture of the school they are applying to.
“The essays of admitted students are also a reflection of the community at these institutions,” Shyu told Fast Company. “It can provide insight into whether or not the school is a good fit for that student.”
Lea Giotto is a student at the University of Michigan and a summer 2015 USA TODAY Collegiate Correspondent.
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This prompt should tell you that Harvard holds leaders in high regard. Here, they test your self-knowledge as to where and how you can help fit society’s needs. In a similar way to Prompt 5, they are trying to see the type of graduate you will become.
If leadership has been central to your life experiences, be sure to make note of those roles here. Be picky when deciding what roles to highlight, though! Make sure the group you led has something to show for your leadership (whether that thing be tangible or intangible).
For example, if you helped a club on campus better the culture of its membership, talk about how your leadership contributed to that. If you helped a diverse set of teammates come together for a common goal, discuss what aspects of your citizenship helped bring everyone together. Your goal here is in two parts: create an assessment for your personal leadership skills, and address how your community or society has benefited from it (more than simply pointing to trophies or awards, this is intended to show how society itself can change because of you.)
Make sure you showcase your leadership style, and how you believe it was effective. More importantly, make sure to show why you think it will be effective in the future. Remember, this essay should relay back to you as a graduate of Harvard!
One strategy could be to build up your leadership skills, then direct them to a specific area where you feel inspired to change society. If you choose this route, be specific in terms of the needs you can fill. Ask yourself: What qualities of a leader does a good lawyer need to have? How does citizenship help you be a good engineer? Most importantly: How do those necessities in those positions lead back to who you are?
Remember to answer the other aspect of the question. Besides being a good citizen-leader, how will you be a good citizen? Admissions officers want you to discuss how you would be an important part of something greater than yourself. You could use an example of something you did as a part of an extracurricular activity of which you were not the president or the de facto leader. For example, if you built an app for a conference your town was hosting, helped organize logistics for a school recital, or even volunteered at a food bank throughout high school, this prompt would fit your experiences well.
Harvard finds it very important that the citizens of their learning community come from diverse backgrounds, allowing students to learn from one another. Think about how you can add to this environment of diversity, or discuss your experience in a diverse environment in relation to your citizenship within it. Essays about discrimination or inequality in your community, and your development as a citizen-leader as a result, could fit well to this prompt.