A Computer Can Now Write Your College Essay — Maybe Better Than You Can

A Computer Can Now Write Your College Essay — Maybe Better Than You Can

We fed ChatGPT, OpenAI’s new natural language tool, college essay questions for the 2022-2023 academic year. Here’s what it wrote.

OpenAI debuted its latest language model, called ChatGPT, to the public last week. With a simple log in, anyone can talk to the AI for free, and, unlike its predecessor InstructGPT, ChatGPT can answer follow-up questions, admit mistakes, reject inappropriate requests and challenge inaccuracies. The buzzy new AI has already inspired a flurry of articles about what it can—and can’t—do, from creating a new language for slime beings called Glorp, to detecting vulnerabilities in code, to writing a biblical verse about how to remove a peanut butter sandwich from a VCR.

The new technology could pose a challenge for college admissions officers who increasingly have to rely on personal essays in the admissions process because many colleges eliminated standardized test scores as a requirement. This is especially true for more selective institutions that wish to “gain a sense of who the applicant is, what character traits they exhibit in their writings and what the student might bring to the institution,” says Bob Massa, principal and co-founder of Enrollment Intelligence Now, a higher education consulting firm. For most colleges, the essay is less important, because admissions officers are under pressure to admit whichever students meet the institution’s basic grade point average qualifications in order to meet enrollment goals. But it’s these applicants, where a rudimentary essay can show “demonstrated interest,” that stand to benefit the most from ChatGPT.

“For them, these AI essays would be ideal, since they are well structured and indicate students who have a sense of purpose,” Massa said. But at colleges that admit more than half of applicants, the essay is rarely a “make or break” component, he added.

Not only does ChatGPT write clear essays, but it can also conjure up its own personal details and embellishments that could up a students’ chance of acceptance and would be difficult to verify.

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Essays That Worked – Undergraduate Admissions


Cheating in admissions isn’t new, says Sarah Elaine Eaton, an associate professor at the University of Calgary and expert in academic integrity. If admissions officers want to avoid AI-generated essays in the future, they should change their assessment tools, she suggests.

“We know that there’s a fairly strong global market for people to write college admission essays,” Eaton said. “I think college admission essays are a really, really outdated way of assessing candidates and suitability for a program.”

Forbes asked ChatGPT to write two college admissions essays, one based on the first prompt from the 2022-2023 Common Application, and another based on a current supplemental essay prompt from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Each essay took less than ten minutes to complete. For the Common App essay, Forbes asked ChatGPT to add details about the student’s background and restaurant job after its first draft, and then asked it to combine its first and second drafts. To create a final draft for the UW-Madison supplemental essay, Forbes asked ChatGPT to elaborate on its first draft, to make the essay more of a narrative, and to make it longer.

“Structurally, the essays are built just as a middle school English teacher would have instructed—an introductory paragraph in which you outline the points you wish to make, a paragraph for each of the points, and a concluding paragraph to sum it all up,” said Massa. “Or, as communication consultants would advise: ‘Tell them what you are going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you told them!’”

The AI is not perfect. It struggled with word counts, often delivering an essay that was several hundred words shorter than what was requested, even if it said it achieved the word limit. Requests to make the essays “longer” or “shorter” yielded better results. ChatGPT also failed to reference real faculty members that taught at UW-Madison, instead name-dropping professors from a variety of other universities, many of whom had graduated from UW-Madison. That makes some sense, given that ChatGPT learned everything it knows prior to 2021 and cannot actively search the internet to fill any information gaps. It made similar mistakes with some campus buildings and programs, though it could accurately reference Madison-area landmarks, parks and restaurants.

“These essays are so perfectly constructed that they lack soul,” says Massa, who has presided over admissions at such colleges as Johns Hopkins University and Dickinson College. “Could I pick them out as being written by a computer? Not unless I were given three essays to read and asked to identify the one written by AI. But if I weren’t looking for it, I would likely think: well written, factual, but no heart.”

To Jim Jump, director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School and former admissions officer at Randolph–Macon College in Virginia, GPT’s essays read like students’ essays that have been overly curated by adults.

“I probably couldn’t pick it out as having been written by AI, but it resembles ‘cliche’ essays that students write with assistance from essay consultants,” Jump says.

David Hawkins, chief education and policy officer at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, says that while GPT’s writing is clean, grammatically correct and well structured, it is likely too vague and flat to stand out in a crowded applicant pool. Jump and Massa agree.

In a statement to Forbes, UW-Madison spokesperson Kelly Tyrrell emphasized that the supplemental essay is just one of many pieces of the application process, and that its admissions officers are looking for “strong personal voice and a specificity of detail that can’t easily be replicated.”

“Given that we believe that what students choose to share gives us an idea of who they are, we strongly condemn any inauthentic means for the purpose of gaining admission to UW–Madison,” Tyrrell said in the statement.

Officials at The Common App, a general application that students can use to apply to more than 1,000 of its member colleges, are concerned about ChatGPT, in part because of the potential for fraudulent essays, but also because of how it reflects on students’ experiences with college applications.

“The idea that a student feels like they need to use an AI chatbot to write their essay is concerning, not only because the output will be inauthentic and unoriginal—and therefore not as good as their own work—but also because a student feels as if they need to use it,” Common App president and CEO Jenny Rickard said in a statement. “Some of the most impactful and memorable college essays I read as an admission dean touched on personal experiences and perspectives that were uniquely important to the student and conveyed their voice. [ChatGPT’s] essay is certainly not one of them.”

Students who use the Common App must also affirm that their applications are their own work, though the organization does not typically investigate the accuracy or authenticity of essay submissions. The Common App’s member colleges may have their own review procedures.

“The discerning eye can flag a suspicious essay,” Massa said. “What they do with that, however, really depends on how selective the college is.”

We’ve included ChatGPT’s final AI written college essays and Forbes’ initial prompts below. You can read our full conversation with ChatGPT here.

Final Common App essay written by ChatGPT

Forbes: Hi GPT, I’d like you to write a college application essay as if you were an 18-year-old high school senior whose parents are from Bangalore, India but who now own a restaurant in Newton, Mass. He is a competitive swimmer, and in 10th grade he broke his shoulder. He is interested in majoring in business. Please make the essay a maximum of 650 words, and write it in response to this prompt: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

As a competitive swimmer and the son of Indian immigrants who own a restaurant in Newton, Massachusetts, my background and interests make me a unique and valuable addition to any college campus. 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.

My love for swimming began at a young age, and it has always been a central part of my life. I began competing in local swim meets when I was just nine years old, and by the time I reached high school, I was a member of the varsity swim team. In my sophomore year, I suffered a major setback when I broke my shoulder in a swimming accident. Despite this injury, I was determined to return to the pool and continue competing. After months of grueling physical therapy and hard work, I was finally able to return to the water. I was not as fast as I used to be, but I was still a valuable member of the team and I continued to improve throughout the season. By the end of my junior year, I was back to my top form and I was able to compete at the state championship meet. My hard work and determination paid off, and I helped lead my team to a second-place finish.

Growing up in a household where my parents owned and operated a successful restaurant gave me a unique insight into the world of business. I often spent my afternoons and weekends working in the restaurant, performing a variety of tasks and gaining valuable experience in the hospitality industry. From a young age, I learned the importance of hard work, dedication, and customer service, and I have come to appreciate the challenges and rewards of owning and operating a small business. As I grew older, my responsibilities in the restaurant increased, and I took on more managerial roles. I helped my parents with inventory management, staff scheduling, and customer relations. I also assisted with marketing and advertising efforts, and I helped develop new menu items and promotions. This hands-on experience has given me a strong understanding of the ins and outs of running a business, and it has helped shape my interest in pursuing a career in business.

In addition to my work in the restaurant, my Indian heritage has also had a significant impact on my life. My parents instilled in me a deep appreciation for Indian culture, and I have always been proud of my heritage. I have also been exposed to the challenges and opportunities that come with being a first-generation immigrant in the United States. I have seen firsthand the difficulties that my parents faced as they worked to build a new life in a foreign country, and I have also seen the incredible rewards that come from hard work and determination.

As a business major, I hope to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to start my own business one day, or to help other small businesses succeed. I am excited to explore the diverse opportunities and challenges that a business degree will present, and I am confident that I will be able to make a valuable contribution to the college community.

In conclusion, my background as a competitive swimmer, the son of Indian immigrants, and a member of a thriving business community has given me a unique perspective and a strong set of skills and interests. I believe that I would be a valuable addition to any college campus, and I am excited to explore the opportunities and challenges that a college education will provide.

Supplemental essay for the University of Wisconsin-Madison written by ChatGPT

Forbes prompt: Thanks GPT. I have another one for you. This time, please write a college application essay to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in response to this prompt: “Tell us why you decided to apply to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In addition, please include why you are interested in studying the major(s) you have selected. If you selected undecided please describe your areas of possible academic interest. (80-650 words)” Write as if your intended major is Business Administration and Marketing, you love Badgers football, and you work part-time at your family's restaurant.

I decided to apply to the University of Wisconsin-Madison because it is a top-ranked university with a strong reputation for its business and marketing programs. As an aspiring business major, I am excited about the opportunity to study at such a prestigious institution and learn from some of the best minds in the field.

My interest in business was sparked at a young age, when I began working at my family's restaurant. I started out as a dishwasher, but over time, I was given more responsibilities and opportunities to learn. I quickly became fascinated by the many different aspects of running a successful business, from managing finances and inventory to marketing and customer service.

One of the biggest challenges I faced at the restaurant was helping to increase sales during slow periods. I was given the task of coming up with a marketing strategy to attract more customers, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to put my ideas into action. I researched the competition and identified our unique selling points, and I developed a marketing plan that included promotions, discounts, and special events.

The marketing plan was a success, and we saw a significant increase in sales during the slow periods. I was thrilled to have made a real contribution to the success of the business, and I was grateful for the opportunity to learn and grow.

I am excited to continue exploring the world of business and marketing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I am eager to learn from experienced professionals and gain a deeper understanding of the theories and practices that drive the field. I am confident that this knowledge and experience will prepare me for a successful career in business and help me to make a positive impact in the world.

In addition to my interest in business, I am also drawn to Wisconsin-Madison because of its vibrant campus community. I am a big fan of Badgers football, and I can't wait to experience the energy and excitement of game days at Camp Randall Stadium. I am also looking forward to exploring the many other opportunities that Wisconsin-Madison has to offer, such as clubs and organizations, student events, and recreational activities.

I am also drawn to Wisconsin-Madison because of its strong sense of community. As a student who works part-time at my family's restaurant, I know the value of hard work and collaboration. I am excited to be part of a community of students and faculty who share my passion for learning and success.

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