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.”
Note: This is a guest post from Fred Tracy of FredTracy.com
If you’re like most people, you probably have a bad relationship with failure. You see it as an ending, as proof that your plan didn’t succeed or your ideas weren’t good enough. The truth is, failure happens to everyone. The only thing that separates people who succeed from those who don’t is a proper understanding of the power of failure. Success requires that you learn from mistakes and missteps along the way rather than falling into despair and giving up.
Pay attention to the information here, especially if you’re at a place where failure isn’t your friend, and you will find that opportunity lies in every defeat. Here are 3 reasons why failure is the key to success.
1. Failure is a Function of Trying
The best way to measure your progress at something is the number of setbacks and “failures” you’ve had. If you haven’t failed yet, chances are you aren’t trying very hard. Failure is the blacksmith’s hammer that tempers the sword of success. If you want to get really good at something, you have to fail at least a few times.
If you look at all the great men and women throughout history, you’ll notice that they had one main thing in common. They failed, and they failed often. Think of Thomas Edison. How many times did he fail to find the right filament for his light bulb? There are various estimates, but they all range in the ballpark of a whole heck of a lot. Henry Ford knew of failure intimately. So much so that he is quoted for saying the following: “Failure is the opportunity to begin again, more intelligently.”
Clearly, failure represents opportunity and growth, not deficit and loss.
2. Success Lies in Seeing Failure as a Tool
Just as all the greats have something in common, so too do the true “failures” of life: their inability to use failure as a tool. When you feel that sinking, desperate sensation known as failure and you take it to heart, you diminish yourself. You give your power away to an external event. Success is about learning how to recognize why you failed, and how you’re going to compensate for it.
I find it helpful to ask myself the following questions upon failures, big and small.
- What brought about the failure?
- How much of it is in my realm of influence?
- How can I use my influence to turn failure into success?
- What steps do I need to go through to try again?
- What can I do every day to ensure that my next try is done more intelligently?
You may want to get out a piece of paper and go through that list. Be completely open and honest as you ask yourself each question. Analyze your answers carefully and implement them – don’t procrastinate! Remember, failure is an opportunity, not a burden. Be grateful for a chance to grow.
3. Failure Builds Character
If you look at the events leading up to any significant victory, you’ll often discover failure as the biggest motivator. Just as the Colorado River created the Grand Canyon over a period of millions of years, success can also come in small chunks, and they’re part of any winning strategy. On the other hand, waiting years upon years for something to happen isn’t effective when you can take action now.
So what do you need to consistently test yourself and learn from failed attempts? Character.
Success occurs in leaps and bounds for people who are ready for it. To genuinely create value, day in and day out, requires determination, purpose, and most of all, that subtle yet all-important trait known as character. Failure is a far better character builder than any affirmation or fleeting goal. While each success will propel you by a small amount, failure will forge your career – and your personality – like nothing else will. It’s the difference between a natural lake being formed over thousands of years and a man-made lake coming into fruition in under a year.
Success takes willpower, intelligence, determination, and grit. But more than anything else, it requires failure. Use this is an opportunity to reassess your relationship to the true key to success that so many people fear.
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Fred Tracy runs a personal development website where he writes about his unique experiences and insights into growing yourself. He writes in a humorous, direct style, and aims at entertaining his readers as much as helping them better themselves.
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