ChatGPT and College Essays

Sometimes the future surprises you in the present. This is one of those times. I was personally taken aback. Consider the essay written by the AI (artificial intelligence) bot called ChatGPT.

The prompt I wrote for ChatGPT:

Write a 637 word essay about why I want to study to become a teacher for special needs students. My brother has autism, and I love to volunteer to help children with special needs.

The college application essay ChatGPT wrote in under a minute:

I have always been drawn to the field of education, and specifically to the idea of becoming a teacher for special needs students. This interest stems from my personal experiences, including the fact that my younger brother has autism.

Growing up with my brother, I saw firsthand the challenges and difficulties that he faced on a daily basis. I also saw the incredible strength, determination, and resilience that he showed in the face of these challenges. Watching my brother navigate the world with autism sparked a deep admiration and compassion within me, and it also sparked a desire to help other children with special needs.

In addition to my personal experiences, I have also had the opportunity to volunteer with children who have special needs. This has included working in classrooms, participating in therapy sessions, and providing one-on-one support to children with a wide range of needs. Through these experiences, I have come to understand the unique challenges and obstacles that special needs students face, as well as the incredible progress and growth that they can make with the right support and guidance.

I have also seen how important it is for special needs students to have teachers who are knowledgeable, compassionate, and dedicated to their success. Teachers who have a deep understanding of the specific needs of their students, and who are committed to providing them with the support and resources that they need to thrive.

This is why I want to study to become a teacher for special needs students. I believe that I have the passion, compassion, and dedication that are necessary to be successful in this field. I also believe that I have the potential to make a real difference in the lives of my students, and to help them reach their full potential.

I know that becoming a teacher for special needs students is not an easy task. It requires a great deal of knowledge, skill, and dedication. But I am up to the challenge, and I am eager to learn and grow as a teacher in order to provide the best possible support and guidance to my students.

I also believe that studying to become a teacher for special needs students will be incredibly rewarding. The opportunity to work with students who have unique and special needs, and to help them overcome challenges and achieve success, is something that I find deeply fulfilling.

In conclusion, my desire to become a teacher for special needs students is rooted in my personal experiences, my volunteer work, and my passion for education. I believe that I have the potential to make a real difference in the lives of my students, and I am eager to study and learn in order to become the best teacher that I can be.

Quick Analysis

Is this an amazing college essay? No. Is it better than what the average student would submit on their own? Yes — definitely. It has a good structure, it is grammatically correct, it talks about rising to meet challenges, and demonstrates empathy and character.

And, maybe more importantly, it is far better than most students’ rough drafts. Add in some specifics, and the average student would be turning in a better essay than they would write on their own. For the most part, only students applying to highly selective schools would still need to improve their essays beyond what ChatGPT could provide (and those students probably shouldn’t even use ChatGPT for a rough draft because it writes essays that are too formulaic to help a student differentiate themselves to a highly competitive college).

Does This Change Anything?

Yes and no. First, the no: College essays were already extremely problematic. Type into Google “write my college essay” to see why. (Hint: there aren’t tons of companies and people advertising that they write essays because no one hires them.) Here is a post on Indeed advertising to pay people $5,000 per month to write college essays for students.

Indeed Job post for college application essay writer college essays Summit Prep

Granted, most students don’t employ essay “writers.” But virtually all students in our local area use a college essay editor — and what an “editor” might do is very, very broad. When I was writing my college essays, I thought an editor was basically just supposed to catch spelling and grammar mistakes.

But consider the recent and public statements by the current head of admissions and enrollment for Oregon State University:

Screenshot 2022 12 08 110515 3 college essays Summit Prep

When even heads of admission for state universities are advising students to hire an essay editor who goes very intentionally and significantly beyond correcting spelling and grammar mistakes, then how much use is the college essay, really? Colleges say that they want the “authentic self.” How can they get that when someone else might have dramatically revised the essay or written it entirely? They, of course, cannot get that.

And, even if a student writes the essay entirely by themselves, they could still be fabricating all of its content — there are no fact checks on whether they honestly presented themselves (see the fascinating case of Mackenzie Fierceton for more on that). But, even if a fully truthful essay is entirely written by the student themselves, there is still a problem: at most colleges (especially those that are not highly selective), essays are read by temporary, part-time admissions readers (UC Irivine hired 180 part-time readers last year), so even in the best of circumstances college essays are subjectively evaluated and introduce the potential for bias and mistakes in the admission process.

All those problems aside: Very, very ironically, ChatGPT could actually improve equity in admissions. Currently, families typically need to be able to afford to pay thousands of dollars for a “good, competent” essay editor. (A study by Stanford, unsurprisingly, found that essay quality correlates significantly more highly to familial wealth than SAT and ACT scores do.) Now, with ChatGPT, all students have access to a fairly decent essay writer — for free and one that writes the essay in under a minute. That is why an Atlantic article justifiably asked “Will ChatGPT Kill the Student Essay?” Maybe the college essay — in its current form — should be erased.

Should We Abandon the College Essay?

I hope not. But I hope we revise how it’s done.

College essays are the best opportunity that an applicant has to demonstrate their perseverance, compassion, integrity, drive, and every other quality that makes a human being a person. Colleges and society want people who not only have IQ but EQ — the combination of the two best prepares people to make a positive impact on the world. But, in the current form of the college essay, are colleges actually getting an accurate picture of the applicant? Sometimes, but how would they know when they are and when they aren’t? Despite what college admissions officers say, they absolutely cannot tell when an essay was written by a student and when it was written by an adult — some students write far better than the average essay editor or writer, and it would be unfair to distrust stellar essays just because they are stellar.

So the college essay is due for a change. Maybe students could do their Common App essay under a virtually proctored setting? Maybe colleges would go back to requiring the SAT and ACT essay so that they at least have an authentic sample of a student’s writing so they could compare that to the writing in the student’s application essays?

If colleges care at all about the “authentic self” and admitting students who deserve to get accepted in part because of their excellent personal (not just academic) qualities, then colleges need to revise how they assess college essays.

The world just changed. Colleges need to adapt to it. (Update: With the release of ChatGPT-4, yes, the college essay in its current form is already dead; see why here.)

Demo of ChatGPT

Bonus content: Wondering whether or not to submit your SAT or ACT scores to colleges? Here’s some guidance on what to do.


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