The content of students’ college application essays has an even stronger correlation to household income than SAT scores, according to a new working paper from researchers at the Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis. Noting the recent spotlight on SAT/ACT scores’ correlation with wealth, the researchers say their findings show how social class is encoded even in components of the college application “perceived as qualitative counterweights to standardized assessments.”
Class patterns woven throughout
For their report, the Stanford researchers used software to analyze 240,000 admissions essays submitted in 2016 by 60,000 students applying to the University of California. They assessed the relationship between the essay content and reported household income, as well as the applicants’ SAT scores. Essay content, they found, was not only strongly correlated with household income but also “explain[ed] much of the variance in SAT scores.”
Looking at word-choice patterns associated with certain topics, the software indicated that students from higher-income backgrounds tended to write about “more thematically abstract” topics such as “seeking answers” and “human nature.” Applicants from lower-income backgrounds were more likely to write about “interpersonal relationships” or “school issues like tutoring groups and time management.”
Researchers also examined the essays’ word count, punctuation, vocabulary, and stylistic characteristics. Scoring sentences based on the presence of certain qualities, they found a correlation between higher incomes and the use of longer words and more punctuation.
Awareness as a first step
The research team emphasizes that those are not necessarily markers of higher-quality writing—and that their analysis did not consider whether signs of higher socioeconomic status could affect how an essay would be evaluated by a college admissions office. The core takeaway: “class patterns are likely to be present across all the elements used to make admissions decisions,” study co-author Sonia Giebel told The New York Times.
Asked by Inside Higher Ed how colleges should use the study’s findings as they pursue more equitable admissions practices, the Stanford researchers acknowledged that it’s nearly impossible to “eliminate traces of applicants’ demographic characteristics” from their applications. However, they said, “admissions officers and other educational professionals have a responsibility to continuously review their practices in efforts to minimize bias in evaluation processes and protocols.”