Surprising New Way that Colleges Can Use College Application Essays

February 6, 2015  What can a psychology professor interested in the use of language find out when he runs 50,000 college admissions essays through a computer-programmed study?

I was curious to learn the answer after reading a USA Today article about a University of Texas study, “When Small Words Foretell Academic Success: The Case of College Admissions Essays.” The author of the study, Dr. James W. Pennebaker, is not new to me.  I’ve been interested in Dr. Pennebaker’s work for years, because he has discovered that writing can improve health, or as he puts in his latest book, The Secret Life of Pronouns:  “The mere act of translating emotional upheavals into words is consistently associated with improvements in mental and physical health.”

Dr. Pennebaker has divided up all of the English language into two types of words: function words and content words. Dr. Pennebaker only studies one type.  Interestingly, he studies the type of words that most of us ignore: function words.

Function words: These words connect, shape, and organize content words. They include:

  • Pronouns e.g., I, she, i
  • Articles e.g.,  a, an, the
  • Prepositions e.g.,  up, with, in, for
  • Auxiliary verbs e.g.,  is, don’t, have
  • Negations e.g.,  no, not, never
  • Conjunctions e.g.,  but, and, because
  • Quantifiers e.g.,  few, some, most
  • Common adverbs e.g.,  very, really

Content words:  These label an object or action. They include:

  • Nouns e.g., table, uncle, justice, Fido Regular
  • Action verbs e.g., to love, to walk, to hide
  • Most modifiers e.g., adjectives (blue, fast, mouthwatering) and adverbs (sadly, hungrily)

Dr. Pennebaker sometimes labels the function words as “stealth words,” because they are almost invisible to readers.  He says in The Secret Life of Pronouns:

“Pronouns, articles, prepositions, and a handful of other small, stealthy words reveal parts of your personality, thinking style, emotional state, and connections with others. These words, typically called function words, account for less than one-tenth of 1 percent of your vocabulary but make up almost 60 percent of the words you use. Your brain is not wired to notice them but if you pay close attention, you will start to see their subtle power.”

For example, function words are highlighted in the following two examples:

PERSON 1: In the aforementioned picture an elderly woman is about to speak to a middle aged woman who looks condescending and calculating.

PERSON 2: I see an old woman looking back on her years
remembering how it was to be beautiful and young.

Interview between Debbie Merion from Essay Coaching (Q)  and University of Texas Professor James Pennebaker (A)–Conducted January 28, 2015 via Skype and follow-up email

Q1: Dr. Pennebaker, what was your motivation for doing the study?

A: The real motivation was that I had been developing these new tools to analyze language, and I wanted to take a big data set and I was curious, could I predict something important? The something important would be how people do in college, and there’s nothing more perfect than a giant set of admissions essays. So I was going fishing more than anything else.


Q2.  How is your study, “When Small Words Foretell Academic Success: The Case of College Admissions Essays” different from your book, The Secret Life of Pronouns ?

A: Actually it’s the same study that was written about in the book. At the time the book was published, we were just starting to send out the study to be accepted.  We had difficulty getting it accepted by a journal.  Every place we sent it, there was a completely different set of whining.   In my mind, those editors failed to appreciate the big picture—this remarkable finding that looking at the most trivial words in text reliably predicts performance years later.  We are able to predict people’s behavior–important behaviors, that is, grades in  school over the next four years–based on a set of small, forgettable words in their essays.


Q3:  Do you think this study’s information is something that colleges should use to evaluate essays ?

A: The party line from the admissions officer we worked with is that we can’t use this to evaluate incoming essays, because people can game the system, and that would defeat the purpose of the essays.  But I do think that high schools should pay attention to this, because it shows us how they are training students to think.  High schools should be aimed at training people to think more analytically and formally, because that’s what colleges value.

[How Pie Can Lead to a Great College Application Essay]

Q4. Is this study the Moneyball of college?

A: I hadn’t actually thought of it that way, but it’s certainly not inconsistent.


Q5.  Although in this article your co-author Dr. Beaver advised high school students to “focus on expressing interesting ideas” in their admissions essay, do you think it’s also advisable that they also focus on their experiences involving those interesting ideas? (For example, the experiences involving those interesting ideas might be about a book in which encountered the idea, a person that they learned this idea from, a sibling they shared their idea/passion with, a club they joined to share the idea with others, etc.)

A: Ideas, experiences, examples, it really doesn’t matter.  [What matters is] how is the writer putting them together in a way that demonstrates that he or she is thinking deeply about it. [Note from Debbie Merion:  This seems like the most controversial aspect of this interview.  In my experience in Essay Coaching, colleges want to know what students do, as well as what they think. What do you think?  Please weigh in by commenting on this post.]

Q6: Have you thought about the fact that your study is creating a meaning (admissions essay words can predict GPA) out of words that in themselves don’t carry meaning (function words-“stealth words”)? What do you think about this?

A: Of course.  It’s like saying that we are corresponding and finding meaning based on the organization of electrons that appear on both of our computers.  The function words have meaning if you stand back and appreciate that they reflect how the authors are thinking about their topics (and themselves).  And that’s why I love them so.

My gratitude to Dr. James W. Pennebaker for this interview. — Debbie Merion, MSW, MFA.

[Need more assistance with writing your story or your college application essay?  Would you like to work with an award-winning writer who helps businesses, authors and students tell their story in a compelling, meaningful way?  Write Debbie ]