Research Seminar: Benjamin Gebre-Medhin


Please join us this Friday for a Comp. Social Science and Comp. Humanities lunch & research seminar!

Friday, November 17, 12:00-1:30pm
Lederle Graduate Research Center (LGRC) A112

Ben Gebre-Medhin, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Mount Holyoke College

Fairness and Merit in College Admission Essays: Evidence from qualitative coding, topic modeling, and rule based analysis


There is substantial evidence of the relationship between household income and achievement on the standardized tests often required for college admissions, yet little comparable inquiry considers the essays typically required of applicants to selective U.S. colleges and universities. This talk presents evidence from a corpus of 240,000 admission essays to the University of California. Using correlated topic modeling and LIWC to quantify essay content and style, this analysis finds that essays in this sample have a stronger correlation between household income than do SAT scores.

Using the same corpus, this talk will also argue that the commission and production of essays extolling applicant worth and worthiness within holistic review is a ritual practice. Among other things, this practice instantiates an idea of merit that is broadly shared among those who submit applications to admissions-selective schools. Results indicate that prompts and essays encompass a broad but bounded range of activities and experiences that selective schools and applicants consider meritorious, and that the entire process helps to reify a national faith in a broad and inclusive conception of merit.


Ben Gebre-Medhin is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Mount Holyoke College whose research focuses on the relationship between universities, academics, and the development of modern states.

His work focuses on the role of higher education in shaping American Political Development, and more recently on how college application essays are substantially structured by social class, and how the annual ritual of self-narration reifies a uniquely American concept of merit for all.

His forthcoming book asks how a handful of wealthy, elite, private universities in the U.S. came to compete over free virtual courses during the MOOC movement. Prior to completing a postdoc at Stanford University, his work was supported by the U.S. Department of Education (Javits Fellowship) and the National Academy of Education (NAEd/Spencer Foundation). In addition to qualitative methods, his work uses machine learning on text data to unlock new insights into traditional social science questions.

Event information:

This meeting is held with the Computational Humanities Initiative, organized by faculty in CHFA and CICS interested in building new connections between our colleges in research and teaching; to hear more, please contact Joe Pater (  It is also jointly organized by the Computational Social Science Institute (CSSI); as always, please share this information with others who might be interested, and encourage them to email us if they want to get involved and become CSSI affiliates.  Upcoming events are listed at

Lunch will be provided. Lederle Graduate Research Center (LGRC) is located at 740 N. Pleasant Street.


Speaker Biography