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On College Admissions Essays, Even the Smallest Words Matter

Small words like ‘the’ and ‘a’ may say more than you think.New research from UT Austin finds they can tell us a lot – even predicting a student’s grades in college.

Researchers analyzed more than 50,000 college admissions essays, and they found that students who used words such as 'the’ and ‘a’ in their essays tended to have higher grade point averages. Students who used more personal pronouns, such as ‘I’ and ‘they,’ tended to have lower GPAs.

Researchers say these smaller words can show what people are thinking about and how they frame that thinking.

People who use personal pronouns such as ‘I’ tend to think more through personal stories. But David Beaver – one of the researchers on the study – said categorical or direct thinking is more conducive to an academic environment.

“That’s what really universities tend to focus on," Beaver said. "They tend to focus on ways of categorizing and organizing the world, and they tend to focus less on the stories we tell.”

Beaver said colleges shouldn’t necessarily use this to make admissions decisions. In fact, he says it could be a sign that colleges are not doing enough to help students improve their categorical thinking skills.

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