Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos:Getty
In January, I raised my hourly rate to $300 before wondering if I could get away with charging anything at all.
I teach high-schoolers how to write college essays, helping students claw their way out of hackneyed bildungsroman and into deftly tuned narratives. The clients (and their parents) can be a lot to handle, but my results ensure that I have a new cluster of rising seniors every summer. And the service I provide is in perpetually high demand among the moneyed and desperate private-school crowd.
Recently, though, the rise of ChatGPT had me questioning how much longer this comfortable arrangement could last. I started to fear obsolescence when I heard about uncannily passable AI-generated letters of recommendation and wedding toasts — forms of writing not a million miles away from my specialty. So, in an attempt to get to know my new enemy — and gauge whether I was still employable — I paid $20 for access to the “more creative” GPT4.
Nervously, I prompted ChatGPT with a series of bullet points and fed it what anyone who has applied to college in the past 15 years knows is the formula for the Common Application personal essay: “Write 600 words including a catchy hook to draw the reader in, a conflict, and a thoughtful self-reflection.”
ChatGPT didn’t even take a beat to process my outline; it spat out an essay as fast as I could read it. Its first draft (about a freak accident washing dishes leading to a lesson in the power of fear) was unsettlingly well-composed, but stiff in a way that kept it from resonating emotionally (often a problem with student-generated drafts, too). ChatGPT wrote, “I was horrified, not just at the sight of my own blood but also at the thought of needing stitches. In that moment, I was transported back to the time when I was a child and I got my first stitches.” Not bad, but not exactly transcendent, either.
The next big test: Could this thing incorporate feedback? I replied that the essay was “a little formal, can you make it more conversational?” Done. ChatGPT added a few “you see”s and began several sentences with “So.” The essay was suddenly more casual: “The experience taught me that fear, no matter how powerful it may seem, can be overcome with perseverance and determination” became “But eventually, I realized that this fear was holding me back and preventing me from enjoying something that brought me so much joy.”
With these small tweaks, ChatGPT’s effort was already significantly better than most first drafts I come across. I tried to throw it off with something random, adding, “My favorite comedian is Jon Stewart. Can you incorporate that into the essay?” ChatGPT wrote three new sentences that explained how Stewart “helped me see the lighter side of things and lifted my spirits.”
I told it to be funny. It tried. I corrected it, “No, that’s too corny, make it more sarcastic.” It revised, “And let’s face it, what’s a little scar compared to the joy of a rack of clean dishes?” Then I wrote, “Add in my high-achieving older brother who I always compare myself to a classic Common App essay character as a foil.” I specified that the brother breaks his collarbone around the same time the main character has to get stitches. ChatGPT came up with this: “And here I was, feeling guilty for even complaining about my measly scratch when his pain was so much worse. It was like a twisted game of ‘whose injury is more severe?’” I watched ChatGPT revise (in seconds) the amount of material it typically takes students (with my help) hours to get through. Intrusive thought: Even if I lower my rates, there won’t be any demand.
And then I slowed down, stopped panicking, and really read the essay.
I began noticing all the cracks in it. For one thing, ChatGPT was heavy on banal reflections (“Looking back on my experience…”) and empty-sounding conclusions (“I am grateful for the lessons it taught me”) that I would never let slide. I always advise students to get into specifics about how they’ve changed as people, but ChatGPT relied on anodyne generalities. Most importantly, it couldn’t go beyond a generic narrative into the realm of the highly specific. (A good student essay might have, say, detailed how Stewart’s Mark Twain Prize acceptance speech helped them overcome a fear of public speaking.)
AI is also just lazy. There’s nothing wrong with an occasional transitional phrase, but using “Slowly but surely,” “Over time,” “Looking back on my experience,” and “In conclusion” to lead off consecutive paragraphs is only okay if it’s your first time writing an essay. Leading off a conclusion with “In conclusion” means you’re either in sixth grade or satisfied with getting a C.
While the essay technically met every criterion I set (hook, conflict, self-reflection), it also failed the main test I pose to students: Have you ever read a version of this story? The answer here was most definitely “yes.” It’s uncanny how well ChatGPT mimicked the contrived essay that I’m paid to steer kids away from — the one you’d be shown as an example of what not to do in a college-essay seminar. It reads like a satire of one of those “the ability was inside me all along” or “all I needed to do was believe in myself/be true to myself/listen to my inner voice” narratives rife with clichés and half-baked epiphanies. ChatGPT’s basic competence led me to overlook the middling quality of its execution. It’s the same disbelief-to-disillusionment arc ChatGPT has inspired elsewhere — take the viral AI travel itinerary that seemed perfect until people pointed out some pretty glaring (and possibly dangerous) errors.
Credit where it’s due. I expend a lot of effort translating overwritten, clunky, and generally unclear student prose. ChatGPT excels in writing cleanly — if flatly. It’s great at producing simple, informational text from a set of data. Creating a rule book for Airbnb guests, writing a “help wanted” ad, drafting an email with details for a surprise party: These are perfect cases for ChatGPT right now. From this mess, ChatGPT would translate the raw information into a block of concise text that wouldn’t need style, voice, or flair to be successful. If you want to share facts in a digestible and clear way, ChatGPT is your guy.
But ChatGPT failed hardest at the most important part of the college essay: self-reflection. Literary agent Jamie Carr of the Book Group describes great storytelling as something that makes “connections between things and ideas that are totally nonsensical — which is something only humans can do.” Can ChatGPT bring together disparate parts of your life and use a summer job to illuminate a fraught friendship? Can it link a favorite song to an identity crisis? So far, nope. Crucially, ChatGPT can’t do one major thing that all my clients can: have a random thought. “I’m not sure why I’m telling you this” is something I love to hear from students, because it means I’m about to go on a wild ride that only the teenage brain can offer. It’s frequently in these tangents about collecting cologne or not paying it forward at the Starbucks drive-thru that we discover the key to the essay. I often describe my main task as helping students turn over stones they didn’t know existed, or stones they assumed were off-limits. ChatGPT can’t tap into the unpredictable because it can only turn over the precise stones you tell it to — and if you’re issuing these orders, chances are you already know what’s under the stone.
In the South Park episode “Deep Learning,” Clyde and Stan use AI to compose thoughtful, emotionally mature text messages to their girlfriends. When Bebe asks if she should cut her hair, Clyde (via ChatGPT) replies, “You would look great with any length of hair. Trying a new look could be fun.” Only a fourth-grader (no offense, Bebe) would buy that the message is authentic. When Stan’s girlfriend Wendy wants to repair their relationship, Stan responds, “We can work things out if you’re willing. I still believe we can make this work. Let’s not give up on each other.” ChatGPT is credited as a writer in this episode, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the messages were punched up to reach this level of dullness. But the style speaks to something I noticed when I asked ChatGPT to write a short story: It makes everything sound like an unfunny parody. A parody of an attentive boyfriend. A parody of a short story. A parody of a college essay.
AI may supplant me one day, but for now, ChatGPT isn’t an admissions-essay quick fix. It’s not even a moderate threat to the service I offer. And while there are plenty of problems with a system in which the ultra-elite pay someone like me to help package insight into a few hundred words, ChatGPT doesn’t solve any of them. Perhaps one day, we’ll figure out a fairer way forward. For now, I’m quite relieved to report that my expertise is still definitely worth something — maybe even more than $300 an hour.
- artificial intelligence
- college admissions
+Comments Leave a Comment
ChatGPT is a machine that doesn't know and can't understand your experiences. That means using ChatGPT to write your admissions essays isn't just unethical. It actually puts you at a disadvantage because ChatGPT can't adequately showcase what it means to be you.Can I use ChatGPT for college essays? ›
College admissions officers are not blind to recent tech developments; therefore, they know very well that some students are using ChatGPT to generate their college essays.Do college admissions officers read your whole essay? ›
Yes, every college essay is read if the college has asked for it (and often even if they did not ask for it). The number of readers depends on the college's review process. It will be anywhere from one reader to four readers.How do you use ChatGPT for essay writing? ›
To use Chat GPT for essays, you simply provide a prompt or topic for the model to generate text around. The model will then use its understanding of language and context to generate a response that is relevant to the prompt.Is it hard to write a good college essay? ›
First, writing is inherently difficult. Even for the best writers, putting thoughts down on paper in a cogent, coherent way takes a lot of energy, patience and time. Second, as I mentioned earlier, the college essay requires a completely different sort of writing than most high school students are used to.Can colleges tell if I use ChatGPT? ›
As it currently stands, your university may be able to detect ChatGPT. Despite the model being relatively new, some AI detection software has already caught up. GPTZero is probably the most common detection tool around and boasts impressive accuracy.What are universities doing about ChatGPT? ›
Across universities, professors have been looking into ways to engage students so cheating with ChatGPT is not as attractive, such as making assignments more personalized to students' interests and requiring students to complete brainstorming assignments and essay drafts instead of just one final paper.Can a bad essay ruin your college application? ›
If a student's essay isn't great OR good, the admission officer will probably just skim past the essay and move right on to your transcript and your test scores to evaluate your candidacy for admission. Bad essays don't get read.Can you write a good college essay in one day? ›
Absolutely! It's possible to write an essay in one day. All you need to do is prepare and do the research in advance.How many hours does it take to write a college essay? ›
Good essays are deeply personal and show how you think, solve problems, make decisions, and what you're passionate about. These essays can take anywhere from 20-30 hours as you need to carefully choose a prompt, brainstorm ideas, organize your thoughts, draft, edit, re-draft, edit again, and so on.
Colleges look for three things in your admission essay: a unique perspective, strong writing, and an authentic voice. People in admissions often say that a great essay is one where it feels like the student is right there in the room, talking authentically to the admissions committee!Who actually reads your college essay? ›
The person who reads your application in a college admissions office might be a dedicated admissions officer, a faculty member, or a student or part-time essay reader. They are reading your essay in the context of your application overall.What do admissions counselors look for in essays? ›
In your application essay, admissions officers are looking for particular features: they want to see context on your background, positive traits that you could bring to campus, and examples of you demonstrating those qualities.How do you use ChatGPT and not get caught? ›
- Don't have ChatGPT write your whole assignment. ...
- Check your work in an AI detection tool before turning it in. ...
- Try a paraphrasing tool (with caution). ...
- Use GPT-4, not GPT-3.5. ...
- Rearrange words manually.
OpenAI's ChatGPT is free to use, and anyone can do so. This free version does come with some drawbacks for now.Can you use QuillBot to write an essay? ›
Another way to accomplish your essay editing is to write your essay directly in QuillBot. Our handy formatting tools let you add headings, bold text, italics, and other details so you can compose an essay that's neatly formatted while correcting errors in real time.Does ChatGPT give the same answer to everyone? ›
No, ChatGPT does not give the exact same answer and wording to everyone who asks the same question. While it may generate similar responses for identical or similar queries, it can also produce different responses based on the specific context, phrasing, and quality of input provided by each user.Can universities detect ChatGPT and Quillbot? ›
The current Instructor version of Turnitin can detect both the chatGPT and Quillbot with 98% accuracy.Can colleges see your private browser? ›
Can schools see incognito? Incognito mode does not hide your browsing history from school administrators. They can still see the sites you visit and when just as they would in normal browser viewing modes.What is the issue with ChatGPT? ›
ChatGPT has been shown to produce some terrible answers that discriminate against gender, race, and minority groups, which the company is trying to mitigate. One way to explain this issue is to point to the data as the problem, blaming humanity for the biases embedded on the internet and beyond.
43% of college students have used ChatGPT or a similar AI application. Of those who have used AI tools, 50% say they have used them to help complete assignments or exams. That's 22% of all college students in our survey.Do professors use ChatGPT? ›
Professors can use ChatGPT to generate syllabi or suggest readings that are relevant to a precise subject matter.What do colleges not want in an essay? ›
College essay topics to avoid also include anything that's highly personal or a delicate subject. For example, avoid doing an essay that provides too much detail on an illness, disability, or injury, especially a severe one.What 3 things should never be included in a college essay? ›
Many essays included things that you should not do in your college admissions essay including: Never rehash your academic and extracurricular accomplishments. Never write about a "topic" Never start with a preamble.What should you not write your college essay on at least 5 topics? ›
- Inappropriate Topics.
- A Rehash of Your Activities List and Transcripts.
- Relationships, Romance, and Breakups.
- Writing About Your Hero.
- The Sports Story.
- Highly Personal Topics.
- Controversial Topics: Politics, Religion, and More.
While timelines will differ depending on the student, plan on spending at least 1–3 weeks brainstorming and writing the first draft of your college admissions essay, and at least 2–4 weeks revising across multiple drafts.Does word count matter for college essays? ›
If your institution doesn't provide a specific word count, it's best to keep your essay between the length established by the longer college admissions essay format: 250 to 650 words. Word count is just one factor to consider as you craft your college admissions essay.How do you write a college essay fast? ›
- Organize: Set yourself deadlines with breaks.
- Brainstorm: Your values and related stories.
- Outline: Choose a montage or narrative essay structure.
- Write: Be specific, personal, and unique.
- Revise: Content, clarity, and grammar.
- Frequently asked questions about college application essays.
Using an AI system like ChatGPT to write your personal statement for you is considered to be plagiarism. Companies such as the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) have begun taking steps to ensure that AI writing systems are not used to write personal statements.Can I use ChatGPT to write scholarship essays? ›
Ultimately it's up to you if you want to use ChatGPT for your college application essay – or any of your school work. However, we highly recommend against it. You won't learn much by having AI do the work for you, and that's why you're in school – to learn!
MLA citation style requires that writers cite a source within the text of their essay at the end of the sentence in which the source is used. The parenthetical reference should be inserted after the last quotation mark but before the period at the end of the sentence.What fonts are acceptable for college essays? ›
Use a standard font such as Times New Roman or Arial to avoid distracting the reader from your college essay's content.Can I use chatbot for my personal statement? ›
It's Plagiarism (and ChatGPT Makes Stuff Up)
Just like if you asked your friend to write your admissions essay or statement of purpose, having OpenAI's ChatGPT program write your essay for you is considered plagiarism.
ChatGPT is an artificial-intelligence chatbot developed by AI research company OpenAI. Released in November 2022, it can have conversations on topics from history to philosophy, generate lyrics in the style of Taylor Swift or Billy Joel, and suggest edits to computer programming code.Is 450 words enough for personal statement? ›
Dr Adrian Bell, Admissions Tutor, Engineering, UMIST Page 2 2 Your Personal Statement should be between 350 and 500 words in length and contain a number of paragraphs that link together in a logical, well-written style.