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.”
No doubt all our readers in the education field are well aware of the explosion of iPads and tablets in the classroom and their ability to make learning easier and more interactive. But we suspect at least some of you are still reluctant to turn the new tech loose on grading, an area where you could be needlessly wasting hours assessing students with an antiquated system. We know change can be daunting, but we promise that within this list of apps teachers love, you’ll find something you love, too.
If you’re a teacher who’s been hanging on to a hard-copy gradebook, this app is your invitation to see what all the fuss over grading apps is about. For $10 the app comes packed with features like automatic grade calculation, status report notification emails for students or parents, attendance reports on PDF, and more.
Teacher’s Assistant Pro: Track Student Behavior:
For elementary teachers, this app is a great option for recording behavior infractions and easily contacting parents and administrators with all the details if need be. Tardiness, forgetting books, being disruptive, all this and more will never go unrecorded or unpunished again.
Ah, the dreaded essay. We’re not teachers, but we have to assume the joy you get out of torturing kids with essay assignments has to be somewhat tampered by having to grade them. iAnnotate takes the pain out of it, letting you ink, highlight, underline, stamp, make notes, and more on a PDF version of your kids’ essays via your iPad.
For an app specifically designed for grading essays, try … Essay Grader. The standout feature is the wide variety of stock comments, including praise, grammar and style critiques, and organization and documentation notes it comes loaded with. Or you can import your own customized database of your own patented phrases, so you can pick one and go.
Not every assignment is as easily graded as making a check or X mark on each number. Tasks like oral presentations have to be graded on the fly, and that’s where this app shines. Use sliders to add or subtract points during a speech on things like delivery and tone, then let the app add the scores. It even lets you record video for playback later if you want to review the performance before assigning a grade.
Like A+ Grade Calculator for Android (see below), Groovy Grader is a simple, no-charge app for inputting the number of quiz or test questions and getting back a chart of scores based on the number missed. The iPhone version can handle 150 questions and the iPad 300, but both get the helpful ability to either round off numbers or display them with either one or two decimal places.
Grades are just a part of this app that’s like a social network for teachers and students. If it would save you time to have an easy way to communicate with students about their grades, send them assignments, and hear back from them on what they need help on, this free app is worth a look.
We have to dock some points for the high cost ($31), but if you’re serious about a grading app this is one to consider. It will give you suggestions for mid-term and final grades, know based on your calendar what you’re teaching when and adapt accordingly, and of course keep copious grade and attendance records.
Anything you used to do with your grades on a spreadsheet program — compiling averages, producing class reports for the principal, using weighted formulas to determine grades — you can now do quickly and easily on your iDevice, be it an iPhone or iPad.
It’s got a downright iClunky title, but iTeacherBook is a scheduling, attendance tracker, assignment allocator, and grade recorder and reporter all rolled into one. For $5 and compatibility with both iPhone and iPad, you can’t go wrong.
Teacher Aide Pro:
Winner of 2011’s Best App Ever award in the teacher category, Teacher Aide Pro can handle 90 students per class and makes communicating with students a cinch via text, mass emailing, and CSV compatibility. This version runs $8 but the lite version is free.
The self-proclaimed “smart app for busy teachers” (redundant, are we right?), Teacher’s Pet has a solid if somewhat quirky array of features, like the ability to record a student’s attitude with just the right emoticon. But with a clean interface, calendar integration, and add-ons like student photo uploading for easy recognition, this app’s well worth the $1.99.
The developer claims a Boston high school math teacher said (s)he saves 80 minutes a week in grading time thanks to this free app. That alone is reason enough to take a flyer on it. Socrative Learner requires each student has the tech to run the app, but it turns multiple choice, true false, and “quick quiz” answers digital for instantaneous grading.
On multi-page exams, many teachers find it necessary to write the number of points deducted per page at the bottom of each page, then they have to go back through at the end to add it all up. Streamline that process with Grade Ticker, which lets you see what you’ve deducted as you go and adds it all up for you at the end.
There may be a bit of a learning curve before you get the hang of this app, but once you do you’ll appreciate its customizability and intuitiveness. Break grades down into homework, classwork, test, participation, or other divisions, track attendance, and even get reminders of students’ birthdays.
A+ Grade Calculator:
We’re sure you know that shaving just seconds off the grade time per test adds up to hours by the end of the school year, hours of your life you’ll never get back. Protect the time you have left with this app that lets you input the number of questions and see percentage and letter grades.
The developer obviously didn’t sink too much time into naming this bad boy, or into creating this hilariously brief user guide. No matter. Here’s what you need to know: you can use it to create grade point systems, it works, and it’s free.
It’s not strictly a grading app, but if you’re going to be saving a lot of graded papers and tests it will be nice to be able to access them from anywhere. Also available on iTunes, Dropbox for Android is a free service that lets you upload 2 GBs worth of data for retrieval from any device with the app.
For a standalone attendance tracker, this app is a clean solution. Present, late, and absent students can be seen at a glance with color-coded labels for each. And if you make the list a Google Spreadsheet at the start of the semester, at the end of the year just check it through Google Docs and Attendance will have calculated all tardies and absences for you automatically.
It requires a free blog with UK site PrimaryBlogger, but teachers ‘cross the pond are loving Classdroid. It lets them take a picture of a student’s work, grade it, and upload it to the web for the students and their parents to view. It may not save time in the actual process of grading, but it could prevent many of your time-sucking parent-teacher conferences by improving kids’ grades.