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.”
There is no question that leading other people is not easy. Whether it means taking charge in a group project for school, putting together a fundraiser or a volunteer event, or even coordinating social plans on a Friday night, it can be at times difficult and time-consuming to try to get people to listen to you and work together to benefit the group as a whole.
This being said, for all the trials and tribulations that one might have to go through in a leadership position, there are usually many benefits as well. This is certainly the case in high school sports. Becoming a team captain for your high school sports team can be a fulfilling experience that offers many professional and personal benefits. Read on to find out more about how you can set a model for leadership as a sports captain.
Introduction to Leadership in Sports
Every sport is different in the amount of teamwork it requires, but even more individual sports teams (like wrestling and tennis) train together and have a certain team dynamic. Whether it is an individualized or a team sport, all sports can benefit from having a student leader, and so high school sports teams usually have a student captain.
Many high school sports teams have a captain in addition to a professional coach because student athletes might have a better rapport with their teammates than an adult coach. Although a coach might be able to relate to students more than a teacher or another authority figure, there is no question that student captains will obviously have more common ground with other students.
For students who are chosen to be captains, taking on a leadership position can also be helpful for college applications—admissions committees want to see students who are able to take on responsibility and work well with others. For more information about taking on leadership roles, check out this CollegeVine blog post.
Becoming Captain of Your Sports Team
Typically, the process of becoming captain of your high school sports team will vary from school to school. Usually, the process will depend upon some combination of the opinion of your peers and the opinion of your coaches. For example, the team might have a vote to determine candidates, and the coach might make the final designation. For clarification of your specific school and team’s procedures, you should ask your coach.
If you’re seeking out a leadership position on your team, it is in your best interest to make sure you are well-respected and well-liked by your team members. Show up to events on time and make an effort to engage with all members of the team (not just the members who might happen to be your friends). Offer to help others on your team out, and be sure that you’re not a show-off or a ball hog.
You should also make sure that you are an experienced and solid performer in your sport—although this doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be the very top player on the team.
In addition, it will be helpful if you display dedication and visibly work hard towards team goals. If the team is looking to improve its strategy, you should be helping to make these changes. If there are conflicts within your team that need to get resolved, get involved and help your team members talk it out. You should also be trustworthy and work well with your coach—if you do end up becoming captain, you’ll be working hard alongside him or her, so you want to demonstrate that you can handle the responsibility and helpful to both your team members and your coach.