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.