Stanford Application Essay Tips Sat

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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, 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.

act, admissions essay, Brown, college application, college applications, Columbia University, Cornell, Dartmouth, essays, GPA, Harvard, SAT, Stanford, University of Pennsylvania, COLLEGE CHOICE, VOICES FROM CAMPUS 


About once a month, I get an email from a student in high school (and sometimes middle school) who wants advice about how to get accepted at Stanford.

They want to know what they should be doing to prepare for college applications - what clubs they should join, what sports they should play, and what activities they should get involved in. They want to learn the “secrets” that will make themselves appealing to admissions officers.

There is No Silver Bullet

The truth is that there are no “secrets” that will get you instantly accepted at your dream college, be it Stanford or any other college. The college admissions process is really, really random. I have friends who got into incredibly good schools but were rejected from much “easier” schools. College admissions depend on lots of details and circumstances that are just really out of your control.

However, all is not lost. I have a few tips (they are really just patterns that I’ve noticed) that should increase your chances of getting accepted at Stanford.

Stanford Admission Tips

It’s hard to say exactly what Stanford is looking for, but I’ve noticed that most Stanford students (especially techies and engineers) have several traits in common.

  1. Love of learning. Every Stanford student I know loves learning for the sake of learning. That is, they want to learn stuff not to make money, not to get a good job, not to impress teachers, but because they genuinely enjoy learning new things.

  2. Curiosity. If you don’t understand something, do you just accept it and move on? Or do you insist on finding out the answer, researching it online, and trying to teach yourself if necessary?

  3. Risk-taking and Entrepreneurial. Have you ever attempted something which seemed impossible? Or, have you put a substantial amount of time into a personal project that had a significant chance of failing? Even if your project ultimately fails, the fact that you frequently take risks and try to do stuff that’s innovative puts you in a whole different category than most people.

  4. Independent. Stanford students are generally independent thinkers. They read broadly and form their own opinions about politics, philosophy, and life. They aren’t bothered when their opinion differs from the majority’s. In fact, they often go out of their way to learn about the other sides' arguments.

  5. Passionate. What do you love to do? When I was in middle school, I wanted to know how websites and the Internet worked. So, I decided to teach myself. I learned by reading articles online, skimming chapters from programming books at Borders whenever my parents visited the store, and through trial-and-error. I got hooked. I’ve been obsessed with the Internet ever since. You should find a passion and become an expert at it.

  6. Highly motivated. It’s not enough to “want to change the world” or “bring about world peace” or whatever other lofty goals you can come up with. You have to actually do stuff. What have you done so far? If you’re an engineer, you should build stuff – websites, games, tech demos – on your own or at school.

  7. Athletic. You need to play sports. It’s okay if you’re not the next Michael Jordan or Steve Prefontaine. As long as you’re committed, passionate, and improving your game (or track times), then you’re a student-athlete, which means you can balance multiple commitments and manage your time well.

You can make yourself stand out by trying to develop these personality characteristics, or if you already have them, by emphasizing them in your application.

Essay Tips

The best advice I can give you about essays is to let your voice shine through in the essay. Don’t let your parents, teachers, or whoever else you get to proofread your essay edit out your personality. You want to be a little bit risky and edgy. Don’t try to be overly formal and academic.

Remember to make it interesting. You need to tell a story about your life. It should be compelling and genuine. The admissions officers need to feel like you are a real person that they would want to meet and even hang out with.

In my own essay, I talked about how I’ve always been fascinated by technology and computers ever since I was a kid. I give a lot of credit to my parents and talk a little bit about my childhood. I also talked about my goals and dreams.

Be careful here, though. If you spend too much time talking about your goals and dreams without justifying how you’ve already started taking steps to achieve these dreams, then you’ll seem like you’re all talk. For example, I wouldn’t say “I want to end world hunger and poverty” unless you’ve already done stuff in high school that works towards achieving these goals. If you’ve got the goods to back what you’re saying, then you’re in good shape.

What are my chances?

Lots of people I know thought that it would be impossible to get into Stanford – that they were not good enough, or that they wouldn’t be able to afford the tuition even if they got in, or lots of other excuses that they invented. So they didn’t apply.

It’s true, Stanford is really difficult to get into (the latest stats say that 7.2% of applicants get accepted - it was 9.5% when I applied). But that’s why it’s worth trying for!

You Miss 100% of the Shots You Don’t Take

Like I said before, the admissions process is really, really random. It’s worth applying just because of that fact alone. You’ll never know if you don’t apply.

In addition, a lot of the other issues like unaffordable tuition isn’t an issue anymore, because financial aid is so great these days. Stanford meets 100% of your “calculated need” – which is really awesome. 87% of Stanford students receive some type of financial aid.

Long story short, definitely apply.

Good luck!

So that’s it. Those are my Stanford admissions tips and other assorted ramblings. I wish you the best of luck in the admissions process. I know how scary this time can be, but it all works out in the end. Good luck!

Now that I’ve written this up, I’ll finally have a page to point people at when they ask for Stanford tips.

Update: Read sample college essays!

I built a database of college admissions essays for top schools like Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, MIT, and more. It has dozens of successful essays (including my own!) which I collected from my friends who go to top schools.

Here are the links to my essays:

Please check out the site and let me know if you find it useful in writing your own admissions essay. I wish you the best :)

(If you liked this, you might like Travels in Japan.)

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