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.”
ACADEMIC TITLES AND DEGREES
Dr. and Professor
Don't use these in writing before people's names, as a rule. Not all faculty members hold a doctoral degree, and not all hold the rank of full professor. Instead, use the styles below:
Jane Smith, Ph.D., biology
Jane Smith, biology faculty Jane Smith (biology)
To authoritatively confirm a faculty member's official title and degree(s), contact that faculty member directly, or Cathy Thiele, assistant to the provost and academic dean. (The GO site [people tab] is a handy reference for current faculty job titles, but occasionally a posted title is out of date.)
Formal College communications occasionally use Dr. before a person's name—particularly when referring to speakers visiting the campus. We also occasionally use "Professor" (never "Prof.") as a courtesy title before the name of an established faculty member who does not have a Ph.D.
Our goal is to be courteous and appropriate, and these guidelines are flexible. They apply to the College's more formal written communications. They don't apply to the many forms of less formal writing that occur in the course of College life—departmental newsletters, on-campus posters, et al. When speaking, many of us routinely use "Dr." and "Professor" as titles, and these guidelines are not intended to criticize this.
First and second references
In a formal first reference to a faculty or staff member, use the person's formal first name and last name followed by degree (if applicable) and lowercased job title. If the individual routinely uses his or her middle name, include it. If the individual is widely known by a shortened name or nickname, include it in parentheses.
Margaret DeWeese-Boyd, Ph.D., associate professor of social work
If the faculty member holds an endowed chair, include and capitalize all honorifics.
Bruce Herman, M.F.A., Lothlórien Distinguished Chair of Visual Arts
In formal and informational College communications, use the person's last name only in references that follow. However, it's fine to use first names when that style better suits the tone of a feature article.
Spelling out and abbreviating academic degrees
When writing about one of the five degrees the College grants, spell out the name of the degree on first reference and use the abbreviation thereafter. Spell, space and abbreviate like this:
Bachelor of Arts / B.A. Bachelor of Music / B.M. Bachelor of Science / B.S.
Master of Education / M.Ed. Master of Music Education / M.M.E.
In general reference to a type of degree, lowercase the name/level of the degree, and in some cases, use the possessive (not plural) form.
doctorate master's degree bachelor's degree
In a sentence that mentions a degree earned by an individual, spell out and lowercase the name of the degree on first reference; abbreviate it thereafter.
Dr. DeWeese-Boyd earned a doctorate in political science from the University of Missouri–St. Louis, and a master's degree in social work at Washington University. Her M.S.W. focused on social and economic development.
Some publications omit periods from the abbreviations of academic degrees. It is Gordon College style to include periods.
Capitalize the first letter of the abbreviation for each word the abbreviation represents, and follow each with a period. Don't space between them. Common abbreviations appear below; find others on the Internet, and adjust the style to match the guidelines above.
Emeritus versus retired
Refer to retired faculty in one of two ways. Sequence the words as shown below; do not capitalize or italicize.
Niles Logue, retired professor of economics and business
Russell Bishop, professor emeritus of history and Stephen Phillips Chair of History
Emeritus is the masculine form, emerita is the feminine form, and emeriti is the plural form of an official honorific. At Gordon the trustees confer these titles on faculty members who retire after 10 or more years of service at Gordon College. This occurs one year after the individual retires. A list of professors emeriti appears near the end of the academic catalog as the last subsection of the list of faculty; use the boldfaced Latin words above only in reference to individuals listed there.
Always refer to former members of the board of trustees as emeritus, emerita or emeriti.
James H. Roberts '66B, trustee emeritus
Capitalize and spell out in their entirety Gordon College job titles that precede names. If you wish to make an exception to the rule of thumb above and use "Professor" before a faculty member's name, spell it out, and omit the name of the academic department.
President D. Michael Lindsay
Vice President for Marketing and Strategic Communications Rick Sweeney
Professor Elaine Phillips
Lowercase and spell out job titles that follow names or stand alone.
D. Michael Lindsay, president of Gordon College
Rick Sweeney, vice president for marketing and strategic communications
Elaine Phillips, professor of biblical studies
An admissions counselor will present an overview of the application process.
Lowercase words that identify jobs, but are not official job titles.
groundskeeper member of the design staff librarian lecturer
PERSONAL NAMES AND TITLES
Use a person's full name on first reference. Thereafter, in formal and informational College communications use the last name only. However, it's fine to use first names when that style better suits the tone of a feature article.
Use the style above, and on first reference, follow the name with the person's abbreviated class year, spaced, punctuated and abbreviated as shown below. For a Barrington alumnus, follow the year with a capital B. To refer to an individual who spent just one year at Gordon or Barrington, follow the name with an abbreviation of that academic year, and precede it with a lowercase x.
On this web page, the apostrophe before the class year appears as a "straight quote," but for other media type an apostrophe that is a "smart quote" —a curved single closing quotation mark that points to the left.
If an alumna's last name is different than it was at the time she attended Gordon, use the style shown below: position the class year after the person's "Gordon era last name" and then follow it with the last name she uses now. If a couple's names appear together in sequence, put parentheses around the wife's Gordon-era last name to make it clear this is not the name she uses at present as her surname; place their common last name after the husband's name only.
For Jessica Hansmeier '07, serving and working are wrapped in one package. Hansmeier moved to Palestine in August without a return ticket.
Odell Grooms '78B
Ruth-Marie Bratt x'49 Goff
Sasha (Massand) '01 and Dan Moen '04
Exception: In STILLPOINTAlumni Notes and in some Alumni Office communications, use first names on second/subsequent reference.
Daughter Hannah Charin to Sasha (Massand) '01 and Dan Moen '04, November 8, 2011. Dan is an active duty chaplain serving at Fort Drum, NY in the 10th Mountain Division.
When an alumnus also is the parent of a Gordon student (or more recent alumnus), add a capital P and the son or daughter's class year, in this format:
Conventions for how to refer to a member of the clergy differ among denominations. If written communication from the individual is on hand or can be viewed online, let that be your guide. Consult on-campus sponsors about the correct title to use when writing about a member of the clergy who will be participating in a campus event.
Some denominations still use phrases such as the Most Reverend in clerical titles. On this point it is the College's policy to err on the side of respectfulness. Use the when the honorific is spelled out and the individual's full name is used; with abbreviations, or on second reference with the person's last name only, it is not necessary. Consult the Chicago Manual of Style 8.29, 15.18, and 15.22 for additional style points regarding abbreviation, capitalization and word sequence.
Abbreviate some clergy titles before names; spell others out.
Rev. Dr. Pastor Rabbi Sister Father
The rules above apply. Capitalize Coach or Assistant Coach before a name (and any other major words in the coach's official job title if you wish to state it in full). Lowercase them when they follow a name. On subsequent references, use the person's last name only in College communications for a broad audience. Never refer to a person just as "Coach," except in a direct quotation. As a rule, Gordon communications do not include degrees after coaches' names.
Coach Peter Amadon Peter Amadon, tennis coach Amadon
Exception: In Gordon Athletics communications, second references may include the title.
Jr., Sr., III, IV
Don't use a comma between a name and Jr., Sr., III, and so on.
Mr., Ms. and other personal titles
In some formal College communications, it is appropriate to use a title before an individual's last name on second and subsequent references. Use abbreviations: Mr., Ms., Mrs., Miss, Dr., Rev.
Ms. works for married and unmarried women. Some women prefer it; if possible, ask. If it’s not feasible to inquire about a woman’s preference, use Ms. It is the safest term to use when marital status is unknown (in the same way Mr. is used).