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.”
Recent Harvard University graduate Soa Andrian used one of her childhood memories as a jumping-off point on her college admissions essay.
She told the story of a visit to Antananarivo, Madagascar, where she has relatives, and of an impending incident of bullying. A deeply personal story, at first she was going to write about something a little less private.
"My original common app essay was about a poster presentation I made at a summer program and what I learned about being less shy," Andrian said via email to Business Insider. "But it felt disingenuous. I think it felt disingenuous because I wrote what I thought admissions committees would want to see — a little humility by sharing an insecurity, but a small one that ultimately was easy to overcome."
Ultimately, she wrote about her more personal experience, and it certainly paid off. In addition to Harvard, she gained acceptances to Brown University, UChicago, Columbia, The University of Florida, Johns Hopkins, the University of Miami, MIT, Northwestern, UPenn, Princeton, Rice University, Stanford, and WashU.
Andrian's other impressive stats are included on her Admitsee profile. AdmitSee is an education startup that has 60,000 profiles of students who have been accepted into college with their test scores and other data points for prospective students to browse.
Andrian graciously shared her admissions essay with Business Insider, which we've reprinted verbatim below.
Four boys stood above me on a pile of garbage. Their words, "Bota, bota, matava" — "chubby", "fatty" suffocated me:
A familiar sensation of frustration and hurt gripped me. Looking for defense I only saw a cinderblock at my feet, impossible for my eight year old body to heave, so, I screamed in English:
"You are just jealous that you are poor and I am American!"
As the words flew out of my mouth, I knew I was wrong — there was no sense of triumphant satisfaction. I abruptly turned and ran into the refuge of my aunt's home.
Upon finishing a tearful narrative to my aunt and father, I preferred the comfort of the former's arms. I avoided my father's disappointment: I knew as well as he did, that I was not the victim.
Later, my hysteria subdued and guilt temporarily forgotten, I ventured outside to explore the crevices of Antananarivo. The boys were still playing atop the rubbish, then seeing me, scrambled off their mountain and ran in the opposite direction.
It's okay, I thought, I wouldn't be a fan of me either.
As I began walking up the street, I heard shouts:
The boys caught up to me and proudly waved hundred ariary bills in my face. In their broken English, they said in earnest and without malice,
"Look! We are not poor! We have money! We are Amreekan too!"
I agreed they were right and smiled sadly: one US dollar was the equivalent to seven thousand Malagasy ariary.
I was made sharply aware of what separated me from these children: oceans, experience, money. Politics, ignorance, the apathy of millions. Ironically, it was also the first time I belonged to my "motherland". I could share in the simple joy of relishing what "is", be proud of the sense of resourcefulness engendered by scarcity.
This memory has woven itself into my philosophy and my dreams. The very personal knowledge that millions live in a way such that electric toothbrushes are an unfathomable luxury (my cousin, Aina), has given me the following personal rules:
- Education is an opportunity, not a burden;
- You always have enough to share.
While I may not be certain of my future, I know for certain that I want to serve. I realize that service is as important an aspect of education as is academic work. I know this passion will follow me throughout my life and manifest itself in my actions at Harvard. This memory is a mandate to serve indiscriminately and without prejudice towards those I work with. I am all the more willing to cooperate to bring improvement to the community within the College and beyond the campus. I can bring innovation in problem solving born out of the deep desire to help others. I work for these boys, for all the proud Malagasy (and even those who are not proud to be Malagasy), and the children who cherish "what is" instead of mourning "what could be".