What AI says about what makes successful Harvard and Yale admissions essays work.
With deadlines looming for college applications, as many as two million college applicants nationwide will spend the holiday season putting their final touches on that most important and feared aspect of the college admissions process: the college application essay.
Because of COVID, the essay is more important this year than ever before. Many applicants have been unable to sit for standardized tests like the SAT, placing an even greater emphasis on grades and essays in this admissions cycle.
Given my long-running interest in AI storytelling, I started with a simple question: can AI improve the college application essay?
The answer is a resounding YES, and not in years or decades, but right now. You should follow this advice before submitting your application essay in the coming weeks!
And I have the data to prove it.
I analyzed more than 100 successful application essays that I found online. The dataset includes 55 successful Harvard application essays, 50 successful Yale admissions essays, and more than 30 “before” and 30 “after” publicly-available essays submitted by actual applicants prior to any editing or coaching and the same essay post-coaching.
I ran each essay through Grammarly’s AI to compile helpful statistics and to look for commonalities. My questions included:
- Is there something different about successful Harvard and Yale admissions essays not shared by their less prestigious brethren?
- Are Harvard essays better scoring than Yale essays?
- Are there any actionable insights for applicants to improve their essays?
- Do paid essay coaches improve the score of the essays based on “before” and “after”?
While I have no connection to or relationship with Grammarly, I chose the platform because it is among the leading consumer writing AIs on the market, and it’s mostly free. According to TechCrunch, that company is valued at more than $1 billion, and it has invested at least $200 million in its technology, so I figured it was worth a shot. Additionally, I chose EssayMaster as the source of essays because they have many successful essays accepted by top schools and because I advised the founding editor there, who was a long-time head of admissions at a university.
But, maybe, the real reason I went down this rabbit hole is that I just had to know if my application essay, the one I wrote to get into Harvard, was as perfect as I imagined it was 25 years ago.
Twenty-five years ago, I submitted my essay to Harvard, and nobody but me edited it, no machine or human. I didn’t even show it to my parents, and it worked, I got in.
But based on my analysis, I would not have gotten in today. My essay scored atrociously on Grammarly, with an overall score of 83. When compared to modern successful examples, it is not even in the same league. If a similar applicant with my grades and test scores submitted the same trite, poor-scoring garbage to Harvard today, that poor soul would almost certainly be denied, and, based on the data, probably even Yale wouldn’t take her.
I still remember the name of my essay, and I even managed to find it: “Hiking to Understanding.” I’m afraid the essay did not improve from its cringe-worthy title, and today, I’m horrified by the adverb-laden text. After reading On Writing by Stephen King, I’ve learned to hate adverbs, although I fail to hate them enough apparently 😊.
But, that terrible score, that 83, would be fine, so long as my sister, Catherine, who is eleven years younger than me and went to Georgetown, had a worse score. So I asked her for her essay. When I saw her proud title, “The Four Corners of Me,” I thought I had a chance.
She scored a not particularly respectable 90. As it turned out, compared to modern Harvard and Yale goers we both stunk, but I stunk far worse. So now I have that to deal with at family get-togethers.
Needless to say, I would never have submitted an 83, because today I would not be foolish enough not to avail myself of AI-assisted editing. In fact, I would go so far as to say that submitting an application essay without any reference to an AI is an anachronism, like gas-powered automobiles.
The truth is AI can improve your admissions essay, and I will tell you how, but first, it’s important that you know this one thing about what the AI is doing: it is beyond your comprehension.
As it turns out, that’s not an insult.
For the purposes of the admissions essay and for this article, all you must know about deep-learning algorithms is this: the reason why the computer composes one sentence and not another or says one thing is wrong and not another is completely incomprehensible to a human seeking to deconstruct the algorithm, even in principle. That simply is the nature of machine-learning.
No less an authority than Wired Magazine has observed that the nature of the technology is that it “produces outcomes based on so many different conditions being transformed by so many layers of neural networks that humans simply cannot comprehend the model the computer has built for itself.”
Ok, so now that you know you can’t understand it, how can AI improve an admissions essay?
Here are the goods. Based on the data, you should do these 5 things to optimize your essay:
1. Score at least a 95 on Grammarly for “Overall score.”
The successful Harvard and Yale essays in the data set scored an average score of 97.4 and a median score of 98. Meanwhile, the average “before” for an essay in the EssayMaster dataset is an 88.1. This is a significant difference, but should surprise no one that applicants to Harvard and Yale generally write better than the average applicant; however, the data also shows this gap can be closed. Interestingly, the average “after” score for an essay is a 97.6 — a score in-line with what a student is expected to have for Harvard or Yale admission. Wise applicants should run their essays through Grammarly, it’s free for the basic service, to see how you score and to work to improve that score.
2. All college admissions essays should score “Very Engaging.”
This is an important baseline. Every single successful college admissions essay accepted by Harvard or Yale in the dataset was “very engaging” based on Grammarly’s score. You have all the time in the world to write your essay. If your essay is not scoring “Very engaging” you should consider why and see if you can improve it. Needless to say, my essay did not score at that level. My 1995-written essay was a bit bland by Grammarly’s metric, apparently, the kiss of death given every single essay in our dataset accepted by Harvard and Yale scored “very engaging.” My sister’s successful Georgetown essay, unfortunately, also achieved this bar, scoring “very engaging.” Kudos Catherine!
3. Get the delivery “Just Right”
About 87% of accepted Harvard and Yale essays had a delivery that scored “Just Right,” the rest were “Slightly Off.” Though less important than being engaging, getting the delivery correct and tonally accurate is important for a successful essay. With that said, the 13% of the essays that were “slightly off” still got into Harvard and Yale. Not surprisingly, a higher proportion, nearly one-third, of the “before” essays were “slightly off.” To improve your delivery, there are free resources, like this admissions essay help course, to learn how to improve an essay’s delivery yourself.
4. Use 50–55% unique words and ~33% rare words but don’t thesaurus-ize!
The percent of unique words is a measure of how many total words are in the essay just once over the total number of words. The percent of rare words is words that are less frequently used in English. The Harvard and Yale essays had an average of 54% unique words compared to the other essays’ 48%. The minimum number of unique words in the Harvard and Yale essays was 40% versus 34% for the other essays. Rare words told a similar story. The percent of rare words used in a Harvard or Yale admissions essay was 33% versus 31% for the “before” essays.
But do NOT thesaurus-ize.
Stephen King’s advice is more true today than ever before:
“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” — Stephen King
If the word doesn’t come naturally to you, you could be committing a horrific error in language and make it the easiest possible “No” for an admissions officer.
5. Be at least “clear.” 66% of Harvard and Yale essays scored “very clear.”
Of Harvard and Yale essays, 66% scored “Very clear” on Grammarly’s clarity metric, while 11% were “mostly clear,” and 23% were “clear.” That being said, this appears to be the least useful metric reported by Grammarly, given that a greater percentage of the “before” essays were very clear. The takeaway is this: So long as you are “clear” or better, then you are in good company.
We started this journey with a few urgent questions. Here are the answers:
- Successful Harvard and Yale essays score better than other applicants’ essays by about 10 points on Grammarly. They use more unique and rare words, and they have “just right” delivery.
- On the question of whether Harvard essays score better than Yale essays, Harvard beats Yale 98 to 98. That is, Harvard essays are NOT better scoring than Yale essays. The medians of both were 98. Yale has slightly more unique words and Harvard slightly more rare words.
- There are some pretty obvious things applicants can do to improve their essays. Most importantly, have an overall score of at least a 95 on Grammarly, and aim for a “very engaging” score and a “just right” delivery score. Don’t sweat the clarity score, so long as it is “clear” or better.
- On the question of whether paid essay coaches improved essays, it was self-evident that they did, at least by the measure of Grammarly AI. The before set scored an 88 and the after set scored a 98 for the essays in the dataset.
As far as the role of AI in the practice of writing, it appears we are in a goldilocks zone, prior to the ultimate ascendancy of automated storytelling, where the best writers will not only be skilled at their craft but also proficient masters of AI.
I’d expect that for the next decade or two, the state-of-the-art in storytelling will consist of an AI-assisted human edit. In no more than five to ten years, computers will reliably suggest reasonable next sentences and topics for future paragraphs, and, it will end in the singularity of Deep Story AI, where human-produced writing is clearly inferior to machine-produced creativity.
In a future where sophisticated machines are producing stellar admissions essays, then the only capable scorer of such nuance will be other machines. At that point, the audience for machine writing will be machine scoring.
If the perception is that admissions committees operate in a star chamber today, just wait until AI renders their candidate decisions incomprehensible, even in principle. Perhaps that day has already arrived.
P.S. — Grammarly scored this article an 84 with an engagement score of a bit bland. Sorry about that. I guess not much has changed in 25 years. 🤦