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.”
The Requirements: 11 essays and short answers of varying length.
Supplemental Essay Type(s): Why, Community, Oddball
Stanford University 2017-2018 Application Essay Question Explanations
Unshockingly, given that Stanford is the most difficult university to get into in the country, this supplement is a doozie. It puts both your writing and creativity to the test in a myriad ways. One of the most important things to remember about this supplement, as with all supplements that lob a host of essays and short answer questions at you, is that each response is an opportunity to reveal something new about yourself to admissions. Think about the tidbits you have to offer up as you pull together your package and make sure you distribute them across the supplement. Try as hard as you can not to be repetitive. And, as much as you can, have fun with these. If you embrace the challenge laid out in front of you, your answers will be instilled with that positive spirit as well. Trust us.
Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (150 words)
Like so many other universities, Stanford wants to get a feel for your commitments outside the classroom as well as in. Think about your application as a whole, reading through all of the Stanford prompts before you dig in, and figure out what you can detail here that hasn’t or will not be addressed in other essays. Also make sure the activity or experience you highlight is something you are clearly invested in. Don’t choose to elaborate on a fundraiser to which you contribute five hours of your time, twice a year. This is a good place to feature a “work experience” if you have one, as that is something that often feels less standard than an internship or activity in which many other students participate. For example, tell admissions about the summer you spent working at a hot dog stand and how it taught you about responsibility, organization, and portable fans. That said, even if you write about a national club or organization that other students may feature, the trick to nailing this essay is personalization. Why is this the activity or experience you have chosen to highlight? How were you a contributor and how will it impact your ability to be a contributor on campus? How has participation made you a more interesting, empathetic, or responsible person overall? And how will this experience impact your future? You don’t have a lot of space here, so make sure you focus on personal and powerful details that other people could not replicate.
What is the most significant challenge that society faces today? (50 word limit)
Fifty words is not a lot of words. This is going to be a recurring thought as you begin to tackle the Stanford app. How do you explain society’s most significant challenge in just fifty words? You boil it down to its essence and rely on the topic to speak volumes. Think about what nags at you on a daily basis. How would you like to improve the world? Where might we be going down the wrong path? What you choose to write about will give admissions an idea of what you truly care about and how you see the world. Are you concerned that as a species we will never achieve true gender equality? Does climate change keep you up at night? What activities have you participated in or books have you read to educate yourself about this issue? Maybe you even have a solution to offer up. Show admissions that you can turn passion into action.
How did you spend your last two summers? (50 word limit)
Fifty words is not a lot of words. For this response, that means you will likely have to add and prune, add again and prune again. Feel free to take a straightforward approach to this question. Stanford really wants to know what you did last summer (and the summer before)! Just make sure to include the unexpected commitments that will not appear anywhere else on the application, like your babysitting job, your road trip with your family, or your backyard photography habit. Anything you can do to add a layer of understanding to admissions picture of you will help.
What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed? (50 word limit)
Fifty words is not a lot of words. So this answer is really about creating an effective summary of the event in question, and concisely explaining the motivation behind your selection. This is another question in which your selection of topic tells a story. Maybe you want to witness the creation of Gutenberg’s printing press or the swearing in of the first African American president. Whatever you do, try to avoid subjects other students will likely flock to. MLK’s “I Had A Dream” speech is incredible, but it might not make for the best topic here — unless, of course, you have a highly personal story that connects to that moment that you can summarize in 50 words or less. (There are always exceptions to the rules!)
What five words best describe you? (10 word limit)
This is more of a puzzle than writing exercise. Think about five ways you define yourself. Ask friends and family what words they would use to describe you. You will likely hear things like “fun,” “caring” and hard-working.” Now try to find more interesting (and less common) ways of expressing these sentiments. (“Optimistic,” “empathetic” and “diligent”?) Make sure each word adds a new element to the mix. And don’t be afraid to come at this question from unexpected angles (Are you hungry, for example? We are.)
When the choice is yours, what do you read, listen to, or watch? (50 word limit)
Luckily for you, this is another answer in which your topic selection drives the success of your response. You can approach this question in one of two ways, as a cross-section of the books/websites, music and television/film you consume, or as a chance to highlight some of the more important and enjoyable cultural offerings you have come across. Fifty words is not a lot of words, but if you choose the second approach and have a little space, can you give context to your answer? Did The Martian inspire you to pursue a career as an astronaut so you, too, can grow your own potatoes on Mars? Regardless of how you answer, your responses should say something about your thought processes, interests, and passions.
Name one thing you are looking forward to experiencing at Stanford. (50 word limit)
This is “Why Stanford” in its most distilled form. Your answer should be personal and, if possible, unexpected. This is not the place to detail your love of the campus or dining hall. Stanford already knows it has “world-class” professors. Are you looking forward to participating in a certain school tradition because it aligns with your interests? Maybe you can’t wait to start a chapter of a charity you created on campus. Or maybe there is a professor in your department who has done research you admire — are you dying to work alongside that person? Get specific. Let Stanford know what resources you will take advantage of that other might not think of.
Imagine you had an extra hour in the day — how would you spend that time? (50 word limit).
Admissions knows that, as a particularly ambitious human, you likely don’t have a lot of free time. If you were gifted with that extra hour in the day that we all dream about, how would you spend it? Would you do something productive and thoughtful (help your dad rake the leaves in the front yard while you catch up), or something more recreational (like watching all of “The Wire” from beginning to end because you’re obsessed with the intersection of journalism, social issues and entertainment). What do you really dream about doing with your time in an ideal world? Although you might be tempted to talk about hanging out with your friends or catching up on sleep (Why does school start so early?), you will be better off writing about how you wish you had more time to practice piano, write short stories, perfect your spanish speaking abilities, or invent an app for avid bird watchers.
The Stanford community is deeply curious and driven to learn in and out of the classroom. Reflect on an idea or experience that makes you genuinely excited about learning. (100 to 250 words)
How hungry for knowledge are you? That’s what Stanford really wants to know. Focus on a subject that stokes your curiosity, a specific concept that has infiltrated your browser history, or an experience that has burned itself into your brain. What homework assignments are you clamoring to complete first? Which topics want to make you open up a new book, google the definition of word you’re not familiar with or hit play on a podcast? Who challenges you to think of issues in new ways? Now consider what about the subject, activity, or experience itself is inspiring your pursuit of knowledge. Are you driven by the pursuit of the truth and nothing but the truth? Maybe more abstract and creative arenas are more interesting to you. Regardless of what floats your boat, Stanford University is aiming to bring self-motivated, deep thinkers into their student body. Admissions officers want to know that you’ll be eager to contribute to lively class discussion and maybe conduct research in your latter years on campus. Show them that you’ll be a valuable addition to any classroom setting.
Virtually all of Stanford’s undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate — and us — know you better. (100 to 250 words)
This, at its essence, is a creative writing exercise. All this time colleges have been asking you to write in a casual but professional voice — until now. Pretend you’re writing an email to a friend. Open your browser window and actually draft in a new message box if it helps you adjust your voice. You are now writing to your peer, not admissions. What might someone you are about to live with want to know about you? And, more importantly, what quirky personal information do you want to convey to admissions that might not be appropriate to reveal in response to a stuffier prompt? Are you a closet botanist who will be bringing 30 plants to your dorm room? Have you been practicing how to make your grandma’s special rice in a dorm room hot pot? This is a great place to inject a little humor in your application — if that’s your style. It is also a great opportunity for you to showcase what it would be like to be friends with you (without the use of emojis and with the addition of perfect grammar).
Tell us about something that is meaningful to you and why. (100 to 250 words)
This is one of those open-ended questions that can be answered in so many ways, it’s almost maddening. It does come at the end of the application, however, which will help you narrow down the subjects that are not up for contention — namely, anything you have written about already. Dig through your brainstorms for any subjects about which you feel passionately that you’ve left untouched thus far. Consider options across a wide spectrum. Which people are important to you? Which memories? Which objects? Which experiences? What general concepts? Do your white river rapids excursions with your family fill your life with excitement and joy? Does volunteering at the local soup kitchen infuse your life with love and gratitude? Does your religion dictate the way you live your life and make decisions? Again, your job here is to tell Admissions something about yourself that they wouldn’t already know.