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.”
Application Essay Guidelines
We aspire to develop engineers and managers who can be leaders in our industry. To help ground so broad a term, the Past President of the SANS Technology Institute, Stephen Northcutt, wrote a Leadership Essay to help characterize and expand upon our definition of leadership. Please read his essay and explore some of the resources he suggests. Then, write two to three single-spaced pages in your own words about your own preferred definition(s) of leadership, some competencies where you believe you have strengths, and also the competencies you would most like to develop. Relate each competency to personal and/or professional experience, or discuss how you intend to use the master's program and your work experience over the next three years to further your leadership goals. Include a discussion of why 'leadership', rather than just 'engineering' or 'management', is particularly important in the information security field at this time.
By Stephen Northcutt
AbstractLeadership is a broad term, open to interpretation. However, it is the core focus of the SANS Technology Institute's mission. The purpose of this essay is to define what we mean by leadership, express the core compencies you will be exposed to in the program, and discuss what leadership means in the context of information security.
Definition of Leadership
A leader is a person who guides or inspires others within an organization or community to achieve a goal. Leadership development begins with the simple realization that you want to be a leader. Life has many opportunities to press forward and take charge of a situation, or conversely, to shrink into the background. This is why we ask prospective students to write an essay about demonstrated leadership when they apply to our school.
Leadership and Competencies
What does leadership mean, how do you measure leadership? One approach is through management and leadership competencies. We define competencies as measurable skills, knowledge, and abilities that identify successful managers in the information security discipline. In your graduate program, you will be exposed to core competencies. They are covered in your required course, ISE 5600: IT Security Leadership Competencies or ISM 5400: IT Security Planning, Policy, and Leadership. Some of the competencies that you will be taught are reinforced by specific course work and exercises:
- Team Development and Relationship Building: This will occur when you attend a SANS conference and interact with fellow students, and as a result of both of your group projects.
- Importance of Communication: The presentation skills course, ISE/ISM 5000 (SANS MGT 305), will help you develop your oral and written communication skills.
- Self-Direction: We will monitor your progress throughout the program, but it will be up to you to register for and complete courses within the allowed time at a proper level of quality.
- Coaching and Training: One of your final degree requirements will be to teach a Security Awareness course in your own community.
- Leadership Qualities: The faculty you will work with are leaders in the field of information security. Look to them to model leadership in the information security field.
- Vision Development: As a graduate student, you will be required to present original, creative work through the research papers.
- Project Planning: You will learn about Project Management Planning in ISE/ISM 5800 (SANS MGT 525) and a project plan is a requirement of one of the group projects.
Other competencies listed below will be taught in your required courses:
- Conflict Resolution
- Employee Involvement
- Change Management
- Motivation of Employees and Teammates
- Leadership Development
- Leading Tribes
- Leading Change
Two competencies are more important than all the others. How does a leader guide or inspire? They have to be great communicators. Therefore, two of the most important skills you will work on are:
- Ability to communicate well orally
- Ability to communicate well in writing
Leaders in information assurance often have different goals. Some leadership roles in information security are similar to other disciplines, others are unique. A few examples of security leadership roles are listed below:
- Manager, team leader or project manager
- The technical "go to" person
- Thought leader, often through writing and speaking
- Instructor, mentor
- Tribe leader, someone that can build a large following to accomplish a goal
- Change Agent, someone who uses their thought leadership position to alter the way we look at technology or process
- Technical tool author who creates or leads the team that develops a security tool whether open source or commercial
What is the difference between a manager and a leader? A successful leader needs all of the same competencies as a manager, but some of the competencies must be more developed. For instance, vision. You can be a successful manager with a minimal capability for vision. In fact, that is something Human Resources may look for in an industry that is based on repeatable tasks. However, you cannot lead without vision. The Security Thought Leaders interview series introduces a number of visionary leaders in the information assurance industry. In addition, you must have power beyond your positional power, the authority that comes with your role or job description. For many students in the MSISE program, this will lead to something called expert power  people will want to be on your team partly because of your knowledge of technical security. Our goal is for you to be able to work at the highest technical level in your organization. The students in the MSISM program will also receive courses and assignments to develop expert power, people will want to work with you because they feel that you have both programmatic skills and a strong understanding of technical issues. They will look for you to be a bridge between management and technical groups in your organization.
Senior Leadership and Statesmanship
One reason to start focusing on your leadership skills today is that leadership is learned over years, not months. The best way to become a senior leader is by studying competencies and having the discipline to make them become habits and tools in your life. We can define a senior leader as someone who attains a highly respected rank, examples include:
- CEO, CTO, CSO, CISO
- Board member, Chairman of the Board
- President, Vice President
- Bishop, Cardinal
- Mayor, Senator, Representative
Perhaps the highest level of leadership is the statesman, a respected leader in national or international affairs, a person that devotes some or all of their energy to public service and to improve the common good. They have mastered the management, leadership and governance competencies and use the experience from a long and respected career to benefit others.
References1.http://resource.udallas.edu/132/bases_of_social_power.pdf link was visited 9/14/2011
Leadership Essay Version 1.8
Other Related Articles in Leadership Lab: Management Competencies
- Leadership Essay - Feb 7th, 2012