The Robots Are Coming

It may be that the most personal aspect of a student’s application will soon be outsourced to algorithms. For decades, students who have struggled with the hard numbers of their application – GPA, test scores, curriculum – have been able to win advocates on admission committees with a stellar essay. Now, it seems, they may need to win the “heart” of a computer-based algorithm instead of a compassionate humanoid.

Earlier this month, Inside Higher Ed noted a study published in December 2014, “When Small Words Foretell Academic Success: The Case of College Admissions Essays.” The study used 50,000 college admissions essays from over 25,000 students to assess which essays correlated with higher college GPAs. The study found that “higher grades were associated with greater article and preposition use, indicating categorical language” while “lower grades were associated with greater use of auxiliary verbs, pronouns, adverbs, conjunctions, and negations, indicating more dynamic language.” Students who wrote about “complexly organized objects and concepts” in their application essays went on to receive higher grades in college than students whose essays were more personal in nature.

This article shows that small words matter in admissions essays. Words like “is, are, did, very, you, I, and, but, not” are more often filler words that don’t themselves contribute to the structure or complexity of an essay. By contrast, articles and prepositions can indicate a categorical thinking that is reflected in a higher college GPA. As the paper noted, “ At one end of the distribution are essays that use high rates of articles and prepositions and, at the other end, essays that tend to have high rates of pronouns, auxiliary verbs, conjunctions, adverbs, and negations.”

It may be a while before colleges and universities employ such automated essay graders in the admissions process, but necessity might be the mother of this innovation. The 2012 Report on the State of College Admissions, published by the National Association of College Admissions Counselors, reported that the average ratio of applications to admissions officers 662:1 in 2011. There is a tremendous potential for human error and bias in the essay-reading process (not to mention time drain!) and colleges and universities could rein in their budgets by employing a simple algorithm that evaluated a student’s essay and predicted his/her freshman year GPA based on his/her essay and other pieces of “hard data” – GPA, SAT/ACT scores, etc. The Educational Testing Service (ETS) is already employing such an “automated scoring engine” in combination with human raters to score the writing sections of the TOEFL and GRE tests. We may see similar reading assistants using essays to quantify what has been, for now, the most qualitative assessment in college applications.

For now, what can students do to improve the effectiveness of their college essays? The study points to the importance not only of what a student says, but how he/she says it. Mark Twain once said, “Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.” Students should be sure to have thoughtful, complex ideas at the heart of their essay rather than shallow narrative that doesn’t extend beyond the events themselves, but they should also strive to “tighten up” their writing by avoiding “dynamic language” – helping verbs, pronouns, adverbs, and negations. Paying attention to the big ideas as well as the tiniest words will be sure to impress your reader, whether human or automated.


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