Ever since our early human ancestors first developed stone tools, we’ve turned to technology as a means of making daily life a little easier. (You can probably recall at least a few commercials for smartphones or other high-tech gadgets that purport to make life more convenient, less stressful, or more organized.)
Yet, is it possible for some technological innovations to actually make life more complicated? Consider ChatGPT, for example. This artificial intelligence (AI) tool is available to do your writing for you. But just because it can write for you, does that mean that it should? Specifically, should colleges accept students who use ChatGPT to write their college essays? And how do ChatGPT essays compete in a vast pool of applications at top colleges at the U.S.?
“ChatGPT will revolutionize many industries and fields. AI is a worthy educational and professional focus for many. Using it inappropriately during a college application process and potentially jeopardizing future college acceptance, college graduation, or career goals is NOT a wise decision,” says David Dillard, CEO of KD College Prep.
In this post, we explain what ChatGPT is, how it works, and the reasoning behind why it ought not be used to write your college application essays.
A Brief Overview of ChatGPT
Before considering the ethical implications of ChatGPT college essays, as well as the practical reasons why you shouldn’t go this route, it’s necessary to take a quick look at how ChatGPT works. Since its release in November 2022, ChatGPT has taken the world by storm. You’ve undoubtedly heard of this AI tool by now. But what is it, exactly, and how does it work?
What Is ChatGPT?
ChatGPT is an AI tool developed by OpenAI. (There are other AI tools similar to ChatGPT developed by other companies.) AI is any type of technology that can simulate or mimic human intelligence. Without further assistance from humans, AI technology is capable of learning from and adjusting to new information. ChatGPT is specifically trained to provide content based on writing prompts “fed” into it. The content takes many forms, from brief answers to long-form articles.
However, AI’s output is limited by its input. That is, ChatGPT and other AI tools can only provide information based on the datasets it has access to. ChatGPT and other AI tools can’t tell you what the meaning of life is, nor could it answer a question like, “What did I have for dinner last night?” or “What’s my Aunt Sally’s favorite color?”
How Does It Work?
ChatGPT wouldn’t be possible without the Internet. It relies on a mind-bogglingly large volume of data scraped from online publications. Any document or other type of content that is openly available is fair game for this AI tool—from scholarly journal articles to digitized books and beyond. Using this massive dataset, ChatGPT quickly combs through relevant sources to produce a response based on the prompt that a user types into it.
The tool can even mimic a certain style of writing, with limitations. For example, you could ask ChatGPT to describe being late to class in the style of a steakhouse menu. You might not receive the same response every time, even if you type in exactly the same prompt. ChatGPT doesn’t use pre-determined stock answers; rather, it combs through its continually growing dataset every time.
Can You Use ChatGPT for College Application Essays?
This question is perhaps best answered with another question: Can you (or should you) pay another human being to write your college application essay for you? Similarly, should you pay another human being to write an essay assignment for a class for you? It’s probably a safe bet that any student who is asked these questions would already know that doing so is typically considered highly unethical.
Not only are ChatGPT college essays unethical, but it’s a safe bet that if a college admissions officer identifies an application essay as having been written by ChatGPT, that student would be denied admission. Furthermore, one could argue that ChatGPT college essays are a two-fold form of cheating. That is, it’s a way of cheating the college admissions process, and it’s a way of cheating yourself.
Consider this: If you don’t do the work for your classes, have you really learned anything? Similarly, if you rely on AI for college admissions, have you earned the enrollment yourself? Or have you cheated yourself out of an opportunity to overcome obstacles and achieve your dreams?
What does ChatGPT have to say about the ethical implications of using it for college admissions essays? Take a look at its response:
“As an AI language model, I cannot make ethical judgments, but I can provide some information to help you make an informed decision. Using ChatGPT to generate content for your college admissions essay could be seen as unethical if it involves misrepresenting your own abilities and accomplishments. Admissions committees are interested in hearing about your unique perspectives and experiences, and they expect the essays to be written by the applicants themselves.”
We’ll explore this response further later on.
Can Admissions Officers Tell That You Used ChatGPT?
The short answer is yes, it’s possible for college admissions officers to determine if a piece of writing is a ChatGPT college essay. There are multiple tools available to detect AI-generated content, and many of them are surprisingly accurate (although false positives and false negatives can occur). OpenAI, the creators of ChatGPT, are unveiling their own AI-detection tool.
Humans can also sometimes determine whether something was written by AI or another human being. This is because AI-generated writing is typically generic and vague, with little variation in sentence structure. Furthermore, ChatGPT is not immune to what data researchers are calling “hallucinations.” In other words, the AI tool tends to fabricate information and make mistakes in other ways. Its error rate has been estimated at 15% to 20%. It’s also incapable of determining the difference between fiction and reality. Because of these shortcomings and limitations, it’s not all that difficult for college admissions officers to identify an AI-generated essay.
7 Reasons You Shouldn’t Rely on ChatGPT for College Application Essays
There is a slew of compelling reasons why it’s best to do your own work instead of turning in a ChatGPT college essay. Explore them below, and as you do so, ask yourself, “Do I really want my future to depend on a robot? Do I really want to risk my reputation for the sake of saving a little time?”
1. Essays Are an Important Opportunity
You may share most of the same DNA with every other human on the planet, but there’s still only one you. Only you have had your unique experiences, dreams, hopes, and passions. Everything that you’ve experienced since you were quite young has shaped your identity.
Much of your college application is comprised of raw data—your test scores and GPA, for instance. Your admissions essay is your main opportunity to demonstrate to the admissions committee who you truly are as a person, what your personality is like, what inspires you, and what your dreams are for the future. (And with the increasing popularity of test-optional admissions, the essay is gaining even more weight for admissions decisions.) It’s simply not possible for an AI tool to fully demonstrate who you are as a person—only you can do that.
2. AI-Generated Essays Sound Robotic
If you read a sampling of ChatGPT college essays, you’ll quickly realize that they sound robotic (probably because a robot wrote them). What exactly does this mean? It means that the writing is formulaic and generic. There is a distinct lack of imagery—the writing “tells,” rather than “shows.” There is a lack of unique words and sentence structure/length, as well. Furthermore, ChatGPT college essays tend to overuse first-person pronouns like “I” and “my.” Not only does this mean that it’s likely college admissions officers will identify these essays as AI-generated, but it also means that the content isn’t enabling you to put your best foot forward.
3. Only You Can Tell Your Story
College application essays are an opportunity for you to share your own personal story, including your background, experiences, and hopes for the future. As an essay generator, ChatGPT has significant limitations. It cannot take a dive inside your mind and unearth those seemingly minute, yet significant details that can lead to a highly compelling essay.
Hypothetically, for instance, the AI tool wouldn’t know that, as an aspiring art major, you worked after school every day at your uncle’s print shop so you could purchase art supplies. Sometimes, the most compelling college essays are the ones that draw on little details to paint a picture of the whole student.
4. Not a Strong Starting Point
Earlier, we asked ChatGPT whether it would be ethical to use the tool to write a college admissions essay. ChatGPT responded that using it would be a misrepresentation of the student’s abilities and accomplishments, and ChatGPT implied that AI-generated content would be misleading to the admissions committee. Although we didn’t include this portion of the response, ChatGPT went on to suggest that students use the tool to generate ideas or to improve their own writing skills.
Is this really a good idea? Consider this: College admissions officers want to experience each student’s unique, authentic voice. Every person writes with a unique voice and style, and that voice is often influenced by external factors. For example, if you spend two weeks in London, you’re apt to subconsciously begin mimicking a British accent and using words like “lorry” and “lift” instead of “truck” and “elevator.” Humans are hardwired to absorb external stimuli and learn from them.
In the same way, it’s quite likely that using ChatGPT to generate ideas or to provide a starting point for your college essay will compromise your own unique voice. For the same reason, we here at KD College Prep advise students against looking at essay samples. We find that students who do so begin modeling other people’s work, whether intentional or not. Kimberly, an advisor and college essay editor at KD College Prep, explains this more in her blog about college essay writing tips.
5. Generic Is Not the Goal
Yet another reason why ChatGPT college essays are not a good idea is their generic nature. ChatGPT is vague and generic by design. Consider this snippet of an AI-generated college essay:
“Growing up in a culturally diverse and economically vibrant community has given me a unique perspective on life and a desire to explore and understand different cultures and industries.”
At first glance, this might seem acceptable. But it doesn’t actually say much of anything; it conveys very little authentic meaning. An admissions officer reading this would likely do little more than scan it quickly and move on to the next application. Your college essay should offer specific details about your unique story, not generic summations.
6. Some Tools Can Detect ChatGPT
There is a growing number of high-tech tools that are designed specifically to detect ChatGPT-generated content, and content developed by other AI content tools. 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. It’s quite likely that it will become standard practice for admissions officers to run submitted essays through AI detectors, if it hasn’t already.
7. Authenticity Matters to Colleges
Your authentic voice is what counts in college admissions. Submitting a ChatGPT college essay is akin to providing fabricated application materials, and admissions officers are on high alert for anything that looks fabricated. Trying to game the system rarely works for students. Consider the long list of college admissions cheating and bribery scandals in recent memory, such as the Harvard fencing coach scandal or the Operation Varsity Blues scandal. In short, it’s best not to risk it.
How Will ChatGPT Affect College Admissions?
ChatGPT was released in November 2022. It’s too early to say for sure exactly how it will affect college admissions. One issue that may concern students is the possibility that they’ll be falsely accused of submitting a ChatGPT college essay. Although this could potentially happen, it shouldn’t concern students who have strong creative writing skills, which ChatGPT lacks.
However, this might be problematic for students whose strengths lie elsewhere. It may be more difficult for admissions officers to tell the difference between a ChatGPT college essay and one written by a student whose strength isn’t creative writing. If you’re worried that your writing skills might not be up to the task, consider working with a college admissions essay coach, who can help you improve your writing.
ChatGPT is capable of learning not only from the vast (and still growing) volume of content available on the Internet, but also from its experiences interacting with users. As its programmers and the users themselves continue to fine-tune ChatGPT, it’s entirely possible that it will begin developing more human-like responses. This can create new difficulties when determining the difference between AI content and human-generated content.
“No doubt, change is coming. College admissions departments have continuously evolved since inception to identify truly quality students to come to their institutions and learn how to solve the world’s problems. It’s a constant striving to find the authentic student candidate. That changing landscape is why there is no magic formula for college admission,” says Dillard.
It’s quite possible that admissions officers will need to adjust their evaluation criteria in order to make admissions decisions. Time will tell how the admissions processes evolve.
Need Help Preparing for College?
Writing an authentic college admissions essay that emulates your unique voice and shares your story effectively isn’t always easy. Sign up today for college admissions essay help from the college counseling team at KD College Prep. We’ll help you with everything from choosing the right topic to providing honest feedback and improvement suggestions. For comprehensive, concierge-style college counseling, sign up for our full-service Pinnacle™ Program. We look forward to helping you plan and prepare for your future.