You can learn more about how a person thinks by looking at the small words they use rather than the big ones, according to a massive study of college admission essays conducted by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin.
According to USA Today, the researchers "performed computerized analysis of the language in 50,000 admissions essays from 27,975 prospective college students who, according to the report, “enrolled into a large, state university as first year students from the years 2004 and 2007.” They statistically analyzed how that language is related to the later college GPA of the students.
The authors of the report note that certain types of function words are known to say different things about a person. They note that "high rates of pronoun use have been associated with greater focus on one's self or on one's social world, auxiliary verb use has been associated with a narrative language style, article use has been associated with concrete and formal writing, and preposition and conjunction use has been associated with cognitive complexity."
These "function words," the authors write, can reveal indications of "potential success in ways that are 'invisible' to a human judge reading and coding admissions essays for higher-level constructs (such as achievement orientation, goal strivings, etc.). That is, function words allow us to assess how people are thinking more than what they are thinking about."
To be clear, the authors did not find that using more smaller words produced better GPAs. It was the kind of words that mattered.
Using articles and prepositions were both correlated to higher grades. But using lots of auxiliary verbs, impersonal pronouns, personal pronouns, adverbs and negations were negatively correlated.
“Admissions offices are looking for people who exhibit intellectual maturity, for students who are able to go beyond the immediate personal narrative,” David Beaver, one of the study's coauthors, told USA Today. “When I was very young, my great aunt was fond of saying that when washing, clean the back of your hands, and the fronts will take care of themselves. Likewise, students should not worry about function words. If you focus on expressing interesting ideas, the function words will take care of themselves."
But it all may be for naught, if Mitchell Stevens is right. Stevens spent 18 months embedded in the admissions office of a prominent liberal arts college. His conclusion? Essays almost never have any impact on admissions.
"But during the hundreds of deliberations I sat in on over two admission cycles," Stevens wrote in The New Republic last November, "I literally never heard a decision made on the basis of a personal essay alone."
Even in close-call cases, Stevens found, "personal essays rarely got even cursory attention from admissions officers. There were simply too many files to consider in too small a time frame, and too many other evaluative factors that mattered much more."