Do College Application Essays Favor the Wealthy?

New research says they correlate with family wealth -- even more than the SAT. What should colleges do?

June 1, 2021
 
ArtistGNDphotography/Getty Images

Everyone has heard that the SAT and ACT correlate with family wealth. Wealthier students generally attend high schools that are focused on the college application process, and many offer special programs for students to stretch their skills. Wealthier students can afford to hire SAT or ACT tutors and to take the tests as many times as possible.

In the last year, many colleges have gone test optional or test blind (where they won't even look at a test score) as a result of the pandemic. Some colleges are reporting that they are admitting more low-income students and more students who are members of minority groups. Colleges are also paying more attention to everything but an ACT or SAT score -- grades, obviously, but also activities (although they have been limited by the pandemic) and the application essay.

New research from Stanford University is among the latest to note this relationship between wealth and doing well on the SAT. But the research goes further: it says there is something that correlates more strongly with family income than the SAT. And that is the application essay.

The news is only surprising to some observers. After all, in recent years, many wealthy applicants have been paying thousands of dollars for help on their essays (in addition to the money they spend on other parts of admissions). They pay for help brainstorming about the ideas, for critiques of drafts and for help polishing up the final version.

The new study -- published as a working paper by the Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis -- is based on 60,000 applications submitted to campuses of the University of California in November 2016. Each student wrote four short essays to apply. The applicants were limited to 350 words per essay. Students submitted an average of 1,395 words across the four essays.

The researchers then linked the subjects to SAT scores and family income. For example, "essays with more content on 'human nature' and 'seeking answers' tended to be written by applicants with higher SAT scores; in contrast, essays with more content about 'time management' and family relationships tended to be written by students with lower SAT scores."

Then, using software, the researchers analyzed "simple word and punctuation counts, grammatical categories such as pronouns and verbs, sentiment analysis, specific vocabularies such as family or health words, and stylistic measures such as narrative writing." And further, they analyzed the words and style used. "For example, sentences using more personal pronouns like I, you and she score lower in the analytic category than sentences using more articles like a, an and the." (That is their conclusion based on experience with actual essays being judged.)

They find that wealthier students write essays with the "better" qualities. "Given longstanding concern about the strength of the relationship between SAT scores and socioeconomic background, it is noteworthy to find a similar pattern across essay topics and dictionary features," the paper says.

The paper concludes by noting a real problem -- that essays have become another tool of wealth advantage.

"Our results not only confirm previous research illustrating how social class manifests in standardized tests such as the SAT, but show further that class is present in aspects of the file that are often perceived as qualitative counterweights to standardized assessments," the paper says. "Standardized tests are designed to produce a concise ranking among applicants; by contrast, essays have no inherent hierarchical relation with each other and instead provide readers with contextual and non-cognitive information for evaluating applicants. Essays are intended to provide information about an applicant’s resources, conditions for learning, and personal characteristics such as motivation, resilience, leadership, and self-confidence. Indeed the expressed purpose of application essays, and of holistic review more generally, is to enable consideration of applicant attributes beyond what is captured in a few easily comparable numbers."

Further, the paper says, "Yet however its constituent parts are conceptualized, the entire evaluation process is ultimately an effort to sort applicants along a single dimension: accept or reject. While it may not be anyone’s intention to strictly rank application essays, they ultimately are one component of a process that is inherently simplifying applicant fitness through a binary evaluation. Idealistically, the essays allow applicants to present their case for admission through idiosyncratic narratives. These narratives then help admissions officers consider the entire profile of the applicant as they make admission decisions and try to construct a class filled with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. But our findings suggest that such holistic review may be redundant in an unanticipated way: Household income, test scores, and essay content are highly interrelated. Future studies might investigate if and how this relationship is detected or understood by the admissions professionals who read and evaluate application essays."

And the paper concludes, "If computational readings consistently find that essay content is largely a reflection of socioeconomic resources, then essay requirements may be worthy of the same level of critical scrutiny that standardized testing has heretofore received."

So what are colleges to do?

Inside Higher Ed posed that question to the authors of the paper, AJ Alvero, Sonia Giebel, anthony lising antonio, Mitchell L. Stevens and Benjamin W. Domingue of Stanford and Ben Gebre-Medhin of Mount Holyoke College. They provided a joint answer:

"While individual lab members necessarily have their own points of view, we all agree on the following:

"1. The mechanics of holistic review were developed in an era of paper records and before the development of computational technologies to analyze written text at scale. The ubiquity of these technologies raise new and still unresolved questions about the appropriate relationship between human and computational evaluation of college applications.

"2. As social scientists, we suspect that there likely is no way to completely eliminate traces of applicants’ demographic characteristics from the kinds of information that are routinely considered under systems of holistic review.

"3. Nevertheless, admissions officers and other educational professionals have a responsibility to continuously review their practices in efforts to minimize bias in evaluation processes and protocols. Systematic empirical inquiry in the tradition of open science can inform such work, and the iterative development of best practice as technology, knowledge and wisdom evolve."

Others differ from the authors.

Robert J. Massa, principal and co-founder of Enrollment Intelligence Now, said via email that college admissions officers can be trained to look for differences in essays from people of different classes, and not to punish the poor. "As I understand it, essay topics and syntax correlate with family income, but that doesn’t mean that admission officers look favorably on topics written by students of privilege versus those from low income families. In fact, the work that we do in the Character Collaborative, whose non-profit board I chair, seeks to train admission officers on how to detect character attributes in letters of recommendation and essays -- attributes such as persistence, caring for others, overcoming obstacles, integrity, curiosity, creativity and the like. These characteristics are generally not monopolized by students in any one socio-economic class or race."

He added, "When admission officers read beyond the particular topic and the taught structure of the essay, and when they purposefully search for these character attributes, a more holistic view of the candidate emerges which can help craft a class that an institution desires from a large group of qualified applicants."

Read more by

We have retired comments and introduced Letters to the Editor. Letters may be sent to [email protected].

Read the Letters to the Editor  »

Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed

Inside Higher Ed’s Quick Takes

Back to Top