For those of you writing college application essays right now, it turns out that how you write might be more important than what you write about, at least when it comes to your success in college. Applicants who used more pronouns, conjunctions, and adverbs generally received lower grades, while those who relied more on articles and prepositions got higher grades. That's likely because their writing reflected more categorical, formal thinking than others, whose style tended more toward personal narrative.
Past research suggests that there's a connection between writing, psychological states, and thinking style—not a surprise to anyone who's compared scientific journal articles to James Joyce—and thinking style is likely to have something to do with grades in college.
There's little shortage of debate on whatconstitutesgreatwriting, though James Pennebaker and colleagues at the University of Texas-Austin weren't interested in how application essays held up against Ulysses or Blood Meridian. "The ways we use words reflect how we think," the researchers write in PLoS One. "In trying to assess people’s intellectual potential, common sense might dictate that we should pay attention to their use of long words or obscure references." In fact, they report, short words reveal more, in part because they reflect an author's writing style. In turn, past research suggests that there's a connection between writing, psychological states, and thinking style—not a surprise to anyone who's compared scientific journal articles to James Joyce—and thinking style is likely to have something to do with grades in college.
To investigate the nexus of writing, thinking, and grades, the team constructed eight categories of function words—personal pronouns, impersonal pronouns, auxiliary verbs such as "to be," articles, prepositions, conjunctions, negations, and adverbs—and calculated how often 25,975 students used them in more than 50,000 real application essays. The researchers found that using articles and prepositions versus other function-word categories accounted for much of the variation in writing style: inspection of those with the most articles and prepositions "revealed relatively formal and precise descriptions of categories," such as objects, events, goals, and plans, they write. "Essays high in the use of pronouns, auxiliary verbs, and other function words were more likely to reveal changes over time, typically involving personal stories," suggesting a more dynamic, narrative thinking style. Beyond that, using more articles and prepositions, Pennebaker and team found, was correlated with a higher GPA across all four years of college.
"The most striking aspect of this project is that the most common and forgettable words in English can reveal the ways people think," the authors write. That doesn't mean that admissions officers should look to word frequencies to make decisions—that might just lead entrepreneurs to develop function-word training courses for students seeking another edge in the process. "Rather, it is important to explore what categorical thinking says both about the applicant and the university," including how much the American educational system actually values narrative thinking and writing.