Who Are You? The Most Important Question in College Admissions!
At my first college admissions meetings with students, I ask parents to identify nouns, adjectives, phrases, and short stories that will help me know something about their son or daughter. Usually, one parent takes the lead, calling out a rapid-fire list of words: "Brilliant, tough as nails in sports, hard-working, a team player." Then the other parent chimes in with more adjectives: "Caring, respectful, great with children." I like to hear from both parents because moms and dads often have unique perspectives on their kids. To get a little deeper, I might also ask, "What was your son (or daughter) like when he (she) was a little boy (girl)?" Or, "How do you think your daughter's (son's) friends would describe her (him)?"
I take notes on what the parents say, and when they are finished with their verbal offerings, I ask students if they want to add anything. After the meeting, I email the list of the words to the student and parents, so they can keep adding words.
This exercise is the beginning of a process to come up with word messages students want colleges to "get" about them as they fill-out applications, write essays and have interviews. Figuring out how to communicate about what makes you "you" is one of the most important parts of applying to college.
Why do this? Well, last year's Stanford application asked, "What five words best describe you?" As they complete the application School Report and Teacher Evaluation forms, high school counselors and teachers appreciate word lists to help them write about what makes students stand out. Just so you know, research suggests that knowing who you are is a first step in becoming a confident, effective adult.
A Word List Starting Point
Since I always encourage students to develop word lists, many ask me to provide examples of words that other applicant families have come up with. To give you some idea, here is a list of descriptive words and phrases I have collected over the years:
A: Academic, adventurous, an advocate, analytical, animal-lover, animated, articulate, artistic, assertive, astute, athletic, autonomous
B: Balanced, brilliant, business-oriented
C: Can-do attitude, capable, caring, cerebral, good with children, class clown, community service oriented, compassionate, competent, concerned about others, confident, conscientious, considerate, courageous, creative, curious
D: Daring, dependable, detail-oriented, diligent, disciplined, down-to-earth, driven
E: Empathetic, enthusiastic, an entrepreneur, ethical, an explorer
F: Fearless, a finisher, fitness-oriented, flexible, focused, a foodie, friendly, doesn't suffer fools, fun, funny
G: Generous, gentle, genuine, never gives up, goal-oriented, goes beyond what is expected, good natured, good with the elderly, gracious, grounded
H: Happy, hard-working, health-oriented, honest, humble, GREAT sense of humor
I: Imaginative, fiercely independent, inspirational, an intellectual, intelligent, interpersonal, involved
J: Jovial, joyful
K: Kind, has real know-how, knowledge-seeking
L: Good with languages, a leader, a fast learner, logical, loyal
M: Mature, mechanically oriented, methodical, modest, motivated, multi-lingual, musical
N: Natural, nonconformist
O: An "old-soul," optimistic, organized, original, outdoorsy, outgoing, his or her own person
P: Passionate, patient, persistent, poised, polite, popular, positive, has stage presence, a problem solver
Q: Quick, quirky
R: A reader, reliable, a researcher, resilient, resourceful, respected, respectful, responsible, a risk-taker
S: Scholarly, scientific, a self-starter, science-oriented, sensitive to others, sincere, sparkling, spiritual, a sponge for ideas, a sports nut, stands out from the crowd, social, strong-willed, studious, supportive
T: Take-charge person, talented, a natural teacher, a team player, techy, tenacious, deep thinker, thirsty for knowledge, loves to travel, trustworthy
U: Unafraid, unique, unpretentious, upfront
W: Willing to step up, worldly, beautiful writer
X: A xenophile (love of foreigners)
I encourage you to take a look at the words above and circle any that apply to you. If other words or phrases pop into your mind, write them down! Keep the list in an accessible place so that you can refer back to them summer/fall of your senior year, when you begin working on college application materials.
By the way, if you want to share your own special words with others, put them in the Comments Section below, or send them to my Twitter (@admissposs) or Facebook pages. I'll then post a running list on my website, www.adMISSIONPOSSIBLE.com
Follow Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz on Twitter: www.twitter.com/admissposs
A study conducted by AdmitSee, an undergraduate and graduate application-sharing platform created by University of Pennsylvania students, found students who used certain words, wrote about certain topics or even just wrote with a certain tone in their application essays were more likely to get accepted to one Ivy League school over another.
Upon analyzing its application archives, AdmitSee found students who referred to their parents as “mom and dad” in their application essays were more likely to get accepted to Stanford, while students who called them “mother and father” were more likely to receive a Harvard admission offer.
These findings, which were published by Fast Company, are based on essays — 539 of which were from students who were accepted to Stanford and 393 of which were from students who were accepted to Harvard — uploaded to the site at the time the study was conducted.
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So how does AdmitSee gain access to these application essays? The site invites college students, who are identified and verified by their official school IDs, to upload their application materials. Once uploaded, their application materials can then be accessed by high school students who are preparing for the college application process. Every time a high school student views a college student’s application materials, that college student is paid a stipend by AdmitSee.
AdmitSee found students whose application essays had a sad tone were more likely to be accepted to Harvard than Stanford. Specifically, essays written by students who were later admitted to Harvard focused on overcoming challenging moments in life. These essays frequently included words such as “cancer,” “difficult,” “hard” and “tough.”
This finding proved to be almost the exact opposite of what admissions officers from Stanford were looking for. Essays featuring a creative personal story or an issue the student was passionate about were among those accepted to the California-based school as opposed to Harvard, according to AdmitSee. These acceptance-winning essays often featured words like “happy,” “passion,” “better,” and “improve.”
AdmitSee also found surprising differences in the way Harvard and Stanford handle legacy applicants.
AdmitSee cofounder Lydia Fayal said that these differences play out primarily in the SAT scores and grade point averages of legacy versus non-legacy candidates.
“Harvard gives more preferential treatment to legacy candidates than Stanford,” Fayal said in an email interview. “Based on our preliminary data, the average SAT score at Harvard is 2150 for legacy students and 2240 for non-legacy; meanwhile at Stanford it’s 2260 for both legacy and non-legacy.”
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Fayal also said based on AdmitSee’s data, she found that the average GPA is three-tenths of a point lower for Harvard’s legacy students than it is for non-legacies. At Stanford, the average GPA of legacy students versus non-legacy students is just one-tenth of a point lower.
“If you take out diversity candidates and student athletes, the difference between legacy and non-legacy students gets really scary,” Fayal said.
Fayal was unable to provide exact numbers on this data – she said AdmitSee needs to wait to receive more applications containing this type of information.
Upon further quantitative analysis, AdmitSee found the most common words used in Harvard and Stanford essays have similar themes but are nonetheless different. For the Massachusetts-based Ivy, these words were “experience,” “society,” “world,” success” and opportunity.” For Stanford, they were “research,” “community,” “knowledge,” “future” and “skill.”
College admissions counselor Katherine Cohen didn’t find the differences between the application essays written by students admitted to Harvard and those admitted to Stanford surprising.
“Stanford and Harvard, while both extremely prestigious universities, actually don’t have that much in common when it comes to the feel on campus, their under-lying values, etc,” Cohen, who is also the founder and CEO of college admissions counseling company IvyWise, said in an email interview. “So it makes sense that they would be looking for different types of students, and therefore different kinds of essays.”
While the data collected from students admitted to Harvard and Stanford is the most specific, AdmitSee also collected interesting information on other Ivy League schools.
“There are 745 colleges with at least 1 application file on AdmitSee.com, and 286 colleges with 10+ application files on the site,” Fayal said.
For example, AdmitSee’s data indicates the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell favor essays about a student’s career goals. Like Harvard, Princeton tends to admit students who write about overcoming adversity. Essays that discuss a student’s experience with race, ethnicity or sexual orientation are well-received by Stanford, Yale and Brown.
Further, when looking specifically between Yale and Brown, AdmitSee found that Brown admitted more students who wrote about their volunteer experience, whereas there was no conclusive data that confirmed Yale favored essays of this type.
While AdmitSee’s findings focused specifically on applications submitted by students who were accepted to Ivy League institutions, the site has application materials for a wide variety of schools on its site.
AdmitSee co-founder Stephanie Shyu said, according to Fast Company, students who are gearing up to apply to college can learn two major lessons from the company’s data. One of these lessons: it is a good idea to craft unique essays for each school.
Fayal said that she wasn’t surprised that AdmitSee’s data reflected this tactic. It was a lesson she also learned during her time as a college consultant.
“I’ve worked with enough students to know that students should customize their application essay by university,” Fayal said. “I hope that, by releasing AdmitSee data, we’re leveling the playing field for students who can’t afford private college consultants.”
And Cohen agreed.
“Each school has slightly different values and focuses on different attributes, so the words, attitudes and themes expressed in a student’s application and college essays do matter when it comes to their chances of admission at one college vs. another,” Cohen said. “That’s why it is usually rare for a student to get accepted to every single Ivy League even if they have straight A’s, perfect SAT/ACT scores and 5’s across all their AP exams.”
The second lesson: students should aim to make their essays reflect the culture of the school they are applying to.
“The essays of admitted students are also a reflection of the community at these institutions,” Shyu told Fast Company. “It can provide insight into whether or not the school is a good fit for that student.”
Lea Giotto is a student at the University of Michigan and a summer 2015 USA TODAY Collegiate Correspondent.
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