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How much you say “the” can predict how well you’ll do in college

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have found that tiny, common words in college application essays — whether writers rely more, for example, on words like "and" versus "I" — can predict how students will score in college classes.

The researchers took 50,000 admissions essays and connected the language choices in them to their college GPAs. Students who use the word "I" often in their essays did worse in class than students who use the word "a" and the word "the" frequently.

Prepositions, articles, and conjunctions are what researchers call function words, and they make up nearly 60 percent of the text in college admissions essays. A high use of prepositions and articles showed a strong level of categorical thinking, as people sort and describe objects and ideas. It shows a strong ability to think abstractly.

Other function word types such as pronouns, conjunctions and adverbs, more dynamic word choices found in personal narratives, are predictors of a lower college GPA. Students who relied on pronouns and other function words were less likely to use articles and prepositions, and vice versa.

Those in the top 20 percent of categorical thinkers had an average GPA of 3.2, whereas those in the lowest 20 percent (with the high use of pronouns, adverbs, and other function words) had an average GPA of 2.8.