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When Small Words Foretell Academic Success: The Case of College Admissions Essays

In their research, the authors delved into the power of function words - the small yet significant building blocks of language. Through analysis of over 50,000 college admissions essays, they discovered a coherent dimension of language use based on eight function word categories. This dimension reflected the extent to which students used categorical versus dynamic language in their writing.

By tracking college grades over the course of four years, the researchers found that higher grades were associated with greater use of articles and prepositions, indicating categorical language use that references complexly organized objects and concepts. On the other hand, lower grades were associated with increased use of auxiliary verbs, pronouns, adverbs, conjunctions, and negations, indicating more dynamic language use that centers around personal narratives. These findings suggest that the cognitive styles rewarded by higher education institutions may be linked to the way students use function words in their writing.​


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