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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But before he was accepted to the prestigious Ivy League school, he had to first navigate the tricky aspect of writing a stellar admissions essay.
His hard work certainly paid off. In addition to Harvard, he gained acceptances at Yale, MIT, Columbia and the University of Virginia.
Rodriquez brilliantly merged two of his passions — music and math — to explain how each has shaped his life and improved his happiness.
Rodriguez' other impressive stats are included on his Admitsee profile. AdmitSee is an education startup that has 60,000 profiles of students who have been accepted into college. In addition to admissions essays, and test scores, the students list other data points for prospective students to browse.
Rodriquez graciously shared his admissions essay with Business Insider, which we've reprinted verbatim below.
I think about the converging waves of the notes I play, the standing waves being created by plucking a string, and the physics behind the air pockets being forged that eventually find a listening ear whenever I sit down to play my bass. Thus, my passions of math and music synergistically become more together than they could ever be apart. I started thinking about this when a former math teacher of mine approached me one afternoon and asked me if I was interested in giving the induction speech at the Mu Alpha Theta induction ceremony. Being a member of the honor society and recounting the memorable induction speech given the year prior at my own induction, I wholeheartedly agreed. I decided on the topic of music and math because I play upright bass in the orchestra and electric bass in the jazz ensemble and being a math enthusiast, it is impossible for me not to see the mathematics and physics present in music.
At music's core, math is present in the tempo and rhythm of a piece, with the time signature being represented as a fraction and the tempo being represented by a numerical value in beats per minute. The relationship between the two gets even more intriguing when applied to actual notes being played. The best sounding music is that which uses flawless mathematics. It is common knowledge that each note has a letter name—A through G—but also has a number value, measured in hertz. An A4 for instance is 440 hertz. In Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata," there exist triads in triplet form. These triads are made up of D, F#, and A. Since sound is a vibrational energy, notes can be graphed as sine functions. When the triad notes are graphed, they intersect at their starting point and at the point 0.042. At this point the D has gone through two full cycles, the F# two and a half, and the A three. This results in consonance, something that sounds naturally pleasant to the ear. Thinking about this opened my eyes to all the aspects of my life with which I utilize math to enhance.
There is also an incredible amount of unseen math present in football. At 5 foot 10 inches and 160 pounds with pads on, I fall short of the average player at my position who is usually at least 6 feet tall and well over 200 pounds, so applying math to football is intellectually stimulating, but is more importantly a survival mechanism. When I have to go up against an opponent who is over twice my size and looks like he eats freshmen for lunch, brute force is not on my side and it helps having equations for momentum and attack angle running through my head. Math not only helps me survive, but also thrive. As an opponent running back is darting down the sideline with seemingly cheetah-like speed, I can trust that my angles and velocity will allow me to make the play and possibly save a game-changing touchdown. Or when a ball is sailing through the air caught in the stadium lights, I can picture a projectile motion problem with constant acceleration downward and a near constant velocity in the x-direction, and know that I have a leg up on the player next to me who does not think about it the way I do. When I look at aspects of my life in a math context, they make more sense and make things that I love even better and more enjoyable.