For students of color hoping to get into the nation’s most elite colleges, college application essays are more important than ever.
The Supreme Court’s decision on June 29 reversing affirmative action wiped out most race-conscious admission practices, but left a crucial loophole by permitting applicant-led discussion. “Nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life,” Justice John Roberts wrote in the court’s majority opinion for the case.
Now, selective colleges are encouraging students to share experiences from their upbringings and backgrounds by emphasizing “identity” and “life experience” in the essay prompts. But students who rely on ChatGPT to write their papers, which data suggest is most of them, will need to put in the work themselves if they want to stand out.
This year’s prompt for Johns Hopkins University reads: “Tell us about an aspect of your identity (e.g. race, gender, sexuality, religion, community, etc.) or a life experience that has shaped you as an individual and how that influenced what you’d like to pursue in college at Hopkins.” The prompt also acknowledges the Supreme Court’s ruling point-blank, citing Justice Roberts’ opinion in telling applicants that “any part of your background, including but not limited to your race, may be discussed” but that it would be considered “based solely on how it has affected… your experiences as an individual.”
The change is notable from last year, when prompts asked students about more mundane topics like books they’ve read, volunteering experience, and how they spent their summers, the New York Times reported.
Naturally, students stumped for essay ideas are turning to the hottest new tech to help them through their block: OpenAI’s ChatGPT.
The chatbot has upended higher education since it went viral at the end of 2022, with students using it to cheat and teachers scrambling to “ChatGPT-proof” their classrooms. More than half of students admit to using ChatGPT for an essay, according to a study.com survey, but it remains to be seen whether the A.I. will really be the death of the college essay.
Sure, the bot can spit out an analysis of Plato’s Republic, but can it successfully write a compelling, heartfelt essay—and write on the complicated and nuanced subject of race?
On that front, the news isn’t good for essay-writers. The A.I. seems to make the same mistakes as many high school students who are taking their first stab at narrative writing.
ChatGPT’s essays “tell” rather than “show,” education consultant Christopher Rim wrote, meaning it spells out the takeaway of the story rather than utilizing literary techniques, like characterization and imagery, to allow the reader to glean their own takeaway—the exact opposite of the golden rule for effective narrative writing: “Show, don’t tell.”
That’s not entirely surprising: As a large-language generative AI model, ChatGPT is trained to mimic speech patterns on large quantities of existing text, putting it at a disadvantage when creating original thoughts and self-reflection needed for these essays.
Admissions essays ask that students stand out and highlight the creativity and experiences that make them suited for a particular school, but ChatGPT’s essays are stale, lack a unique voice, and fail to show who the student actually is, according to Rim.
Of course, the more the user edits and critiques ChatGPT, the better the end result will be. Asking the bot to be more conversational in its response or asking it to add a sarcastic joke can go a long way, but its essays still seem to be missing the wow factor.
“ChatGPT failed hardest at the most important part of the college essay: self-reflection,” Sanibel Chai, a college-essay tutor who tested the A.I., wrote for New York Magazine.
“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,” Chai wrote. “Crucially, ChatGPT can’t do one major thing that all my clients can: have a random thought.”
Asking ChatGPT to include the subject of race in an essay invites a whole new swath of deficiencies. Off the bat, the A.I. can offer run-of-the-mill anecdotes describing experiences with racism, but it doesn’t accurately convey the complexity of someone who’s actually experienced it. Rather, it forms a simplified caricature of a student of color that lacks emotional depth.
After this reporter spent 45 minutes prompting ChatGPT to write an essay addressing racism, and even after repeatedly instructing it to stop using cliches, the bot continued to generate cringey sentences like the following: “As I think about the path ahead, I know that embracing my heritage and sharing my story is the best way I can contribute to a world that’s colorful, diverse, and united by the stories we tell.”
Those who have experimented with ChatGPT all seem to come to the same conclusion: sure, it can write an okay essay after multiple prompts and editing, but it certainly won’t be a standout that the college admissions committee will remember. Only a human student can do that—for now.