PrepWell Podcast


Ep. 163 | ChatGPT and The Future of the College Essay

ChatGPT is re-writing writing. How will this open AI application impact the future of college essays and the admissions process?

Show Notes:

In this episode, I share my thoughts on the emergence of ChatGPT - the cumbersome name of a new AI platform that is re-writing how we write. How will this new technology impact college admissions, college essays, and the future of writing itself?

Show Transcript:

[00:00:29] In today's episode, I want to discuss the latest potential challenge to the integrity and veracity of the college admissions process. Specifically the essay section of the college application. And yes, as you may have guessed, I'm talking about ChatGPT. ChatGPT for those of you who haven't caught wind of it yet is the name of a new piece of AI software that can crank out a machine generated college essay with minimal inputs that is nearly indistinguishable from a genuine essay written by an actual student. And believe me, I was skeptical at first until I saw it happen right before my eyes. And to make this a little less theoretical and more practical, I'm going to share with you right now the chat GPT college essay response that I just received on my computer seconds after I typed in what I wanted the program to do. Here is exactly what I typed into the search bar. Write me a 650 word essay following this common app essay 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. Mention that you live in New York, that your parents are divorced, and you do ocean research on coral reefs in Jamaica. Enter. Now, those last three details were completely made up by me off the top of my head. But they could be true. And within 30 seconds, this is what the computer spit out while I watched. Here we go.

[00:02:21] Growing up in New York, I've always been surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the city. But my true passion lies in the stillness of the ocean. My parents divorced when I was young, and I found solace in the ocean's embrace. It was my escape, my sanctuary. As I got older, I became more and more fascinated by the intricacies of marine life. And I knew I wanted to make a career out of studying it. I first got involved in Ocean Research through a program at my school that focused on coral reef conservation in Jamaica. I immediately fell in love with the work and the culture, and I knew I had found my calling. I have now been going to Jamaica every summer for the past three years to work on a research project that focuses on the impact of climate change on coral reefs. I have seen firsthand how devastating the effects of climate change can be on these delicate ecosystems. And I am dedicated to doing everything I can to protect and conserve them for future generations. Being a part of this research project has been one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. It has not only solidified my desire to pursue a career in marine biology, but has also helped me to understand the importance of taking action and using my passion to make a difference. I truly believe that my experience with ocean research in Jamaica is a vital aspect of who I am, and my application would be incomplete without it. I am grateful for the opportunity to share my story, and I look forward to continue this journey with more passion and dedication in the future.

[00:04:05] Now, that essay may not win a Pulitzer, but it's certainly not chopped liver either. In fact, I have never gotten anything remotely this good from a student as a first draft. And yes, there are plenty of cliches. Yes, it's pretty generic. Yes. It's 100% made up out of thin air. But you have to admit that the bones are not too bad. And a resourceful student could tweak some of these details in 10 minutes and have something that's probably better than what they would have produced on their own, sometimes a lot better. And it took under one minute to do. Pretty wild, huh? If you play around with this for a few minutes, it will blow your mind. This application can do just about anything. I'm talking thank you. Notes. Wedding vows, poems, workout routines, nutrition plans, original recipes, church sermons, keynote addresses, marketing copy, day trading protocols, obituaries, breakup notes, songs, best man speeches, Book reports. Movie Reviews. Dating app Profiles. I'm serious. It does all of this and more. And in most cases you wouldn't be able to tell the difference between human and computer generated. So what does this mean in the big scheme of things? Is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing? Is it a fad? Is it irrelevant? Is it dangerous? Now, I'm not going to comment on the larger cultural, educational and societal implications of this technology. I'm sure there will be books written about this and fortunes made by some cunning entrepreneur. But I will offer my thoughts on how it might impact college admissions essays. First off, if you're an avid listener to this podcast, you could probably rattle off several of the many ways that college applications have become, over time, less and less, shall we say, informative for college admissions officers.

[00:06:09] They have become so watered down and have so few objective measures left to assess, it's almost laughable. And with the prospect of computers now writing essays like the one I just read to you in 30 seconds, it's possible that the integrity and the value of college applications may get even worse. Let's do a quick review. Over the last few years. And by few, I mean 3 to 4 years, the following has happened. Number one. GPAs have become suspect due to rampant grade inflation these days, a 4.6 GPA. It's a yawner. It's not particularly special. Number two, submitting S.A.T. or ACT test scores is now optional at most schools and even prohibited at other schools. These are test blind schools. Number three, no more S.A.T. subject tests. These used to be 60 minute end of year exams that allowed students to show their proficiency in high school classes. And they were compared across the nation. No longer number four, no more S.A.T. essay section, which used to be the only way the colleges could evaluate an applicant's contemporaneous writing ability, meaning writing without editing, without help from a parent or a tutor or a teacher or a college advisor. Number five, not submitting app exam scores has become a thing that's not recommended, but it's happening. And for many AP classes, writing ability was often correlated with how well you did on your app exam score because it required contemporaneous writing in those blue books. And lastly, number six, some schools no longer even accept letters of recommendations from teachers. This is the way it is in University of California schools. This used to be one of the few ways that admissions officers could differentiate students from one another by soliciting the opinions of adults who've had a lot of exposure to the students.

[00:08:17] Not anymore. And by the way, for the colleges that still do require letters of recommendation, how long do you think it will be before teachers start using chat GPT to write letters of recommendation for students? We'll talk a little bit more on that later. Like many controversial things, whether chat is good or bad often depends on the context in which it's being used. Is it all bad? Probably not. Is it all good? Certainly not. So let's explore the differences. Let's start out with some pros. What good might come out of chat as it relates to the college admissions process, in particular essay writing. Let me rephrase that so I won't get in trouble with my wife. What good will students perceive there to be by using chat? In other words, I'm not advocating that students should use this, but I do want you to know what your child might be thinking and why your child might be tempted to go down this path. Pro Number one. In my experience, many students are poor writers. In fact, some are dismally poor writers. As I've suggested many times on this podcast, and I'm talking about students who get A's in every English class from the beginning of time, including AP language and composition. And from what I've seen, a chat essay absolutely blows away the majority of what I would see from the first draft of one of my private students. Not all, but many. Specifically, when it comes to grammar and punctuation, organization, coherence and flow. That doesn't mean the chat GPT essay is particularly compelling. It just means that it blows away what most students are producing on their own these days. And this fact will not be lost on many students. So I would not be surprised if your child became chat.

[00:10:17] Curious. Pro number two. If your child is applying to a college that has an essay requirement, but the essay doesn't count very much and it's waiting. This is often the case at big state schools where they don't have the time or the manpower to read that many essays. Why should they waste their time trying to craft a perfect essay that will probably not even be read? Why not crank out a chat? GPT essay edited for accuracy and send it there. Time might be better spent elsewhere. Again, I'm not advocating for this. Rather, I'm trying to get you in the head of your child so that you know what's going on. Pro number three. What if your child is a super STEM student and all they care about is math and physics or engineering, And they're not a particularly strong writer, nor are they claiming to be a reading and writing type on their applications. But they know they have to be at least a respectable writer. Well chat GPT might get them there in pretty short order. I'm talking in 30 seconds. So if your child finds themselves staring at a blank page with no idea where to even start, or how to organize their essay or their thoughts and their grammar isn't so good. Chat GPT might be very tempting. Because sometimes it takes a student like this, something in writing to get them going. And once they have a framework, an example, they can make some tweaks and end up in a much better place versus banging their head against the wall with no starting point. Now, the risk, of course, is that the student changes one or two words and submits it as their own work. Is this ethical? Probably not. And beyond the ethical question, I'm not sure this is a sustainable plan.

[00:12:08] But maybe it gets them through some of their applications. Let's get into some of the cons to using chat. Con number one chat GPT may generate an essay with things that are factually incorrect. And if your child doesn't care to check, they could be outed. Con number two If there is a suspicion that your child's essay was artificially engineered, it may taint the reader and paint them in a bad light. Do they want to take that risk? Card number three if your child is such a bad writer or so lazy that they feel like they need to use chat. Even if it's widely thought to be unethical and they're willing to roll the dice, then they may have bigger problems than just essay writing. Con number four, What if your child theoretically gets into a college based in part on their fake chat GPT essays? What happens when they get to the college and they really don't know how to write? Do they keep this facade going indefinitely? At some point the gigs are going to be up. Do they really want to live like this? Will this eat away at them? You know, it may have been more worth it to learn how to write from the beginning and not have to live with this lie. Con number five. What if chat becomes a crutch? What if they begin to use it for everything? So much so that they even begin to lose their ability to write at all? And then what would happen if chat got shut down or censored, or it was put behind a paywall or made illegal and your child is then left to his or her own devices? There's a high risk for impostor syndrome here. Com number six.

[00:13:59] What if an application comes out which can detect whether or not chat was used and your child gets called out and has to prove that they're capable of such writing and they're given a writing test. Would they fall apart? This happens when students claim to be fluent in a foreign language when they're really not, and then they're asked to conduct an interview in that foreign language. Con number seven What about the ethics of the issue? The coming up asks you if your essay represents your own work. Is your child comfortable answering? Yes. If a computer generated ad for them? Com number eight. Would your child want their teachers to use chat GPT to write their letters of recommendation? If not, why not? What would be missing. They should keep this in mind when deciding whether or not to use the app for their personal statement when trying to communicate their life's most profound perspectives and values and insights. Com Number nine. As impressive as chat appears to be at first blush, especially when the alternative is staring at a blank page, it still writes, at least for now, pretty generic, staid and unadventurous prose. And this is the opposite of what the best college essays will do. Writing generically can be the death knell for an essay. At the more selective schools. So if your child wants to be competitive at those types of schools, I would be very wary about using chat. The last thing they want to do is submit an essay that lacks soul. Conn number ten writing equals thinking. That's why writing is not easy. It requires your child to sit and think and concentrate and work things out in their mind. If they begin to outsource their writing, they are, for all intents and purposes, outsourcing their thinking.

[00:15:59] And that's a very slippery slope. And lastly, con number 11. And this might be the biggest carnival using chat GPT will short circuit one of the most important parts of the college admissions process, the part where your child sits down and reflects on their life. They review important milestones, anecdotes, ups, downs, good times and bad traumas, celebrations, stresses, struggles, victories, big wins, all in an effort to distill down a few of their life's most important values and insights. For all of the private students that I work with on college essays, This is a fundamental part of their growth curve, their maturation, their development. They are, for lack of a better word, forced to think about their lives, their opinions, their worldviews. They're forced to consider what they've learned over the last 17 years, and they're challenged to turn some of these findings into a compelling piece of prose that communicates to the reader what they care about, what they value, what they've learned. Not only Will Chet missed the mark on this, but using this bot as a way to avoid that deep introspection, in my opinion, is a bad idea. Do we really want to take away one of the few times that your child has to think about their life? I can't tell you how many students I've worked with who were so grateful for all of the brainstorming sessions and debates and ideas leading up to that final product that they submitted their personal statement. It's an important milestone for a 17 year old and not one that I would outsource to an AI machine. I've had many students tell me that our work together on their essays was the first time that anyone ever gave them actual real time feedback on their writing.

[00:18:03] They've told me that during our work together, that they've learned more about grammar and spelling and punctuation and sentence structure and subject verb agreement and style and outlining and organization than they did in all of their English classes combined. Because these days, whether we like it or not, one on one work with an English teacher is pretty rare. In my experience, students are just not getting the type of instruction that they need or they deserve. And to give up all of that learning and growth so that a bot can crank out a generic sounding essay in 30 seconds seems like a pretty big lost opportunity. So on balance, I hope it's come across loud and clear that I'm not in love with the idea of using chat GPT for college essays. It's fraught with risk and I would proceed with caution, especially at the more selective schools where your child will be fighting for every inch of differentiation and the essay readers at those schools are particularly astute. Some of them have read tens of thousands of college essays, and it's likely that they'll be able to see a chat GB essay from a mile away. Does your child want to take that chance? Now, to be a devil's advocate, some people might argue that using chat is just a tool. It's no different from using a calculator or grammarly or a dictionary or a thesaurus or Wikipedia. I'm not so sure about that. A calculator, for example, helps you to find an objective answer a black and white indisputable answer. The truth. That's not the same as your child, attempting to convey ideas and opinions and feelings and nuance and subtlety. Even when you use a calculator on math problems, the teacher typically also wants to see your work.

[00:19:59] How you got to your final answer. Because the teacher wants to see the thought process you went through to make sure you understand the concept so that you can repeat that process or apply that process in a different scenario. If you just come up with the answer. Who's to say that you didn't get the answer from a friend or a group text or online, or by looking at your neighbors paper? The teacher wants to see your work. The same goes for writing, except instead of show your work, the mantra is do the work and it will show. Now, will there be backlash? Will colleges be inundated with these bot generated essays that all look the same? I don't know if they do. Will they care to do anything about it? I don't know. The way things have been trending, I would guess not. They could bring back the essay section of the SAT or some other type of contemporaneous writing evaluation. They could build software that detects chat content and flags it as inauthentic. In fact, someone has already done that. They could start requesting writing samples from one of your child's high school classes. I know Princeton does this. My two older sons had to submit a graded writing sample from their English class as part of their Princeton application. I'm not sure that there's an appetite to turn back the clocks on this one, but we shall see. So how should your child handle this? I know this won't be popular with most students, but my suggestion is for them to ignore chat, at least for now. Strive to become a good writer the old fashioned way by doing the hard work, by brainstorming and outlining and writing drafts and getting feedback and starting all over and writing another draft and so on.

[00:21:57] Have them find someone in their life, be it an older sibling, a parent, an English teacher, a mentor, an essay specialist like me, and get feedback. And of course, they should read, read, read, read and read some more, which will make them a much better writer. So that when they become a good writer in their own right, through hard work and diligence and chat, he eventually becomes more mainstream. At least they'll know how to edit and pick out errors and maybe even inject some soul into the final product. That's all I've got for you today, folks. Thank you for tuning in. Thank you for your continued support. Case you did know. This podcast supports prep academies online mentoring program where high schoolers and their parents receive weekly videos from me, where I break down important topics like this one and give timely advice about college admissions, particularly for top tier colleges, service academies, and for ROTC and athletic scholarships. Many parents who listen to this podcast already have their high schoolers enrolled in PrepWell Academy, which is great. If you don't yet, please consider enrolling them. Registration is only open during freshman and sophomore year. After that, it's no longer open to new students at 11th and 12th grade. So if you have a freshman or sophomore in high school and you like what you're hearing in these podcasts and you'd like to get more content like this tailored specifically for your child, for their specific grade and with their specific goals in mind, go to and enroll today. If you know a parent with a middle school or high schooler that might find this helpful, please share the episode with them and give us a rating. Word of mouth and positive ratings help our podcast reach a much wider audience.

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