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.”
I blinked myself out of a hazy snooze and squinted at my vibrating phone. It was the call I had been waiting for, but secretly dreading.
I had applied for the job of my dreams, but contrary to everything I had been working toward, I found myself praying that I wouldn’t get it. Counterintuitively, the job that I wanted was actually the job I was hoping not to get. I was about to make a major life decision, and I didn’t know what to do.
Just a Backpack and a Dream
Six months ago, in the scorching heat of summer, I arrived in New York City with nothing more than a backpack. I had just completed a six-month stint in Asheville, NC, where I spent the strangest time of my life reacclimatizing to the United States after three-and-a-half years of travel around Asia Pacific.
Following 13 months in Asia, the transition into the isolated culture of the South was unnecessarily harsh. And as a world-traveling cocktail bartender, Asheville simply wasn't the place for me. The way I saw it, if I could travel the world, I could handle New York.
So off I went.
Within a week of touching down in NYC, I hit the streets with my resume, stopping in at all the best cocktail bars in the city. It took a solid month, but I found a bartending job at one of the city’s most notable speakeasies. I was beside myself. I found my way to New York and I landed on my feet.
The Brooklyn Bridge, New York City
An Interview with Google…Basically
Five months later, I received an offer to bartend at a luxury hotel in Beijing. Though I had already traveled to China, and though I love it there, I had my sights set on new locales. I wanted to see South America and Europe.
The offer was for six months, and the money was better than good. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that taking this offer would allow me to visit the places that I wanted. I could work for a pre-determined amount of time and then take off with a bulging wallet to anywhere else in the world. This was shaping up to be a pretty spectacular plan.
Until one particular email caught my attention…
Jeremy, It's been a bit since we last chatted, but I wanted to reach out to see if you were still interested and available for consideration for a newly-opened position…I would love to set up interviews for this week and training not long afterward…Please let me know if this sounds like something you might be interested in. Hope all is well with you and looking forward to hearing back from you at your nearest convenience.
It was a message from the manager at another one of New York City’s best cocktail bars. One of those places that release those bespoke coffee table books. One of those places that is an industry leader and that everybody knows by name. One of those places with street cred and invaluable industry perks.
Honestly, it’s like working for Google: once you’re in, you never leave.
I responded with no hesitation, and two days later I was sitting down for an interview. Our dialogue quickly turned into an in-depth character analysis. They wanted to be sure that whoever they brought on board would be the type of person they could grow with. They were serious about finding the right talent with the right personality and the right attitude. They were looking for someone to be a part of their family.
And they were looking for a 1-2 year commitment.
New York City Skyline
The Phone Call From Hell
A little bit of dribble had caked itself onto the corner of my mouth as my head hung backward over the headrest. I was dead asleep in the backseat of an undersized VW on the way to my mother’s house when my phone yanked me from my slumber. I looked at the caller ID and, when the blood finally rushed out of my face, I answered the call.
“Hi, this is Jeremy,” I mumbled, still not fully in control of my vocal chords. To be honest, all I wanted to do was ignore the call. I never wanted to know the answer because, as soon as I did, and as soon as I heard the words “good news” through the speakerphone, I realized that I was going to have to make the hardest decision of my life.
The offer was, indeed, a good one. I would make mediocre money but I would be doing something I loved. I would be living in New York City and I would be learning and working with some of the best in the industry. I could have been a relative success story—the type you hear about where you show up homeless in New York and actually make something half-decent of yourself. I could envision the next two years of my life and I could see them taking me to some very exciting places in my career.
On the other hand, Beijing was calling. I would be living in a luxury hotel, expenses covered, working at a brand new bar with an up-and-coming consulting group. It was a six-month contract and I would get to travel back to one of my favorite places on earth.
And I would make enough money to be able to travel even more extensively after that.
Jinshanling, Great Wall of China
How to Make Hard Decisions
I was given three days to decide, but before I had even hung up the phone, I already knew my answer. Despite that, I banged my head against the wall for the next 72 hours. I wrote pros and cons lists. I talked incessantly about my options. By the time the second day rolled around, I was convinced everybody had stopped listening to me.
The job in New York would be difficult to walk away from. As a traveling cocktail bartender, it was exactly the type of job I had in mind for myself. I came to NYC with my sights set high, and this was one of the first venues that I walked into when I arrived in the city. If they had offered me the job six months earlier, I would have snatched it up in a heartbeat, and I would never have second-guessed my decision.
But now it felt a little too late and my mind was already beginning to wander.
Hiking in the Mountains of Southwestern China
Both were excellent opportunities and I was incredibly lucky to have them. I could have taken either and done well for myself. Neither one of them was wrong.
This was the first time in my life that I was presented with two open doors and I would be the one who got to decide which to walk through. But up until this point, I don’t think I knew how. I had always been the one seeking a single opportunity, never deciding which of many to take. But now, I had two unbelievable options and this decision was going to be harder than any I ever had to make.
Should I stay in New York, pursue a career and make a name for myself? Or should I fly to a different continent, travel, and pursue my personal goals and a less traditional career path? It was a classic case of having to choose between long-term and short-term benefits.
I did a lot of reflection and, what I concluded was that, down the line, some late night at work, when my head begins to wander, it won’t be New York that I’m dreaming of. It will be the bright hues of Palawan, yurts in Mongolia, and Yacht Week in Croatia. It will be bowls of Indian curries, French cheeses, and Peruvian ceviche. It will be the sleepy mornings in crowded airports and the sweaty chicken buses in Mexico.
It will be the adventures that were never had.
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