When small words foretell academic success: the case of college admissions essays

PLoS One. 2014 Dec 31;9(12):e115844. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0115844. eCollection 2014.


The smallest and most commonly used words in English are pronouns, articles, and other function words. Almost invisible to the reader or writer, function words can reveal ways people think and approach topics. A computerized text analysis of over 50,000 college admissions essays from more than 25,000 entering students found a coherent dimension of language use based on eight standard function word categories. The dimension, which reflected the degree students used categorical versus dynamic language, was analyzed to track college grades over students' four years of college. Higher grades were associated with greater article and preposition use, indicating categorical language (i.e., references to complexly organized objects and concepts). Lower grades were associated with greater use of auxiliary verbs, pronouns, adverbs, conjunctions, and negations, indicating more dynamic language (i.e., personal narratives). The links between the categorical-dynamic index (CDI) and academic performance hint at the cognitive styles rewarded by higher education institutions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • College Admission Test*
  • Educational Status
  • Humans
  • Language
  • Linguistics / methods*
  • Psychometrics
  • Students / psychology
  • Universities
  • Writing*

Grant support

Preparation of this manuscript was aided in part by grants from the Army Research Institute (W5J9CQ12C0043) and the National Science Foundation (IIS-1344257). The views, opinions, and/or findings contained in this report are those of the authors and should not be construed as official positions, policies, or decisions of the National Science Foundation or the Department of the Army, unless so designated by other documents. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.