What do many successful Harvard essays have in common? Four words.

Big data takes on college essays

A startup analytics company is breaking down what institutions want in college essays, Elizabeth Segran reports for Fast Company.

Founded just a year ago, AdmitSee recently raised $1.5 million in seed funding and collected 15,000 college essays from students accepted into various colleges. High school students then pay to access the texts. Each time an essay is viewed, the writer earns money.

Additionally, a team of researchers gather quantitative and qualitative information from the materials. They found that what admissions offices look for varies based on the school—although all colleges seem to like students who get creative with the content and structure of their essays.

"What we're finding is that successful essays are not ones that talk about an accomplishment or regurgitate that student's resume. The most compelling essays are those that touch on surprising personal topics," says Stephanie Shyu, company co-founder.

When comparing essays of students accepted at Harvard University with those of students accepted to Stanford University, they found several trends.

Essays of students accepted at Stanford:

  • Referred to parents as "mom" and "dad;"
  • Had more positive words, such as "happy," "passion," "better," and "improve;"
  • Told creative personal stories or ones about family backgrounds.

The most common words for these students were "community," "research," "skill," "future," and "knowledge."

Essays of students accepted to Harvard:

  • Referred to parents as "mother" and "father;"
  • Had more negative words, such as "cancer," "hard," "tough," and "difficult;"
  • Told stories of overcoming personal or academic challenges.

The words most commonly used by these students were "experience," "world," "society," and "opportunity."

More 2015 enrollment trends from our partners at Royall & Company

Meanwhile, Brown University seems to favor essays that focus on public interest and volunteering. And essays about career aspirations are common for students accepted to the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University (Segran, Fast Company, 8/3).

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