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The words used in college essays may be more important than applicants expect.

According to a study recently released on the Public Library of Science website, entitled "When Small Words Foretell Academic Success: The Case of College Admissions Essays," a correlation exists between the types of words applicants use in their college application essays and their future academic success.

The study, which analyzed over 50,000 essays from more than 25,000 students, looked specifically at the usage of function words. Function words carry little grammatical meaning independently, but express relationships with other words in a sentence. Examples include pronouns, articles and conjunctions. But, as the study illustrated, not all function words are created equal. 

Applicants who used categorical function words — which express complex and abstract thought — in their essays were more likely to receive higher grades in college, while applicants who used dynamic function words — typical of personal narrative — were more likely to experience less academic success, the study reported.

The findings suggest that colleges reward students whose writing expresses intricate and intellectual thought. However, Penn's Office of Admissions does not assess applications for these specific uses of language.

Office of Admissions Associate Director Lara Grieco said that the admissions department looks for essays that are written genuinely, regardless of vocabulary.

“It’s the student who is able to achieve their most authentic self,” Grieco said. “Now for some people, that’s going to be extremely abstract, theoretical and intellectual. For other students it’s going to be almost informal in nature.”

Dean of Admissions Eric Furda added that he hopes students will not feel the need to complicate their essays with unnecessarily advanced vocabulary. “What I’d be concerned about is that this becomes a thesaurus type of activity,” he said.

Despite the relationship indicated in the study, the researchers reported in the paper that admissions offices should not let the findings seriously sway admissions decisions. “Should future admissions offices rely on word counts to decide who should come to college? Probably not,” the study said.

The researchers added that making such changes would only add another unnecessary level to student preparation for the college application process.

“As soon as word got out, enterprising students would soon be taking function word training courses to game the system," the researchers wrote in the study. "Rather, it is important to explore what categorical thinking says both about the applicant and the university.”

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