A Word of Caution on Application Essays and AI

A former Director of Graduate Admissions at Stanford addresses the advantages and dangers of using ChatGPT and other AI software for graduate school application essays.

Debby C.

By Debby C.

Posted May 4, 2023

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In the past few months, ChatGPT and other AI text-generators have risen to positions of infamy within the world of school applications. When writing essays, in particular, they can be very helpful in generating ideas; but, they should be used with immense caution.

These kinds of software should not be used as a substitute for demonstrating your expertise in a subject area. The key word here is "expertise." To effectively convey an understanding of a specific topic, there must be an accurate grasp of its complexities. Whereas you, with firsthand experience and a sense of its nuances, will have no problem conveying this, any kind of artificial intelligence will not be able to replicate it. Application essays are, at their core, an argument for why a program should let you in because of what you bring to the table. If you're not able to effectively make this argument for your expertise, the school will have no reason to offer you a seat in its class.

As you put together your applications, here a few other things to consider when it comes to the use of artificial intelligence.

1. Originality

AI software can generate text based on patterns it has learned from the data it was trained on, but it cannot truly understand the context and meaning behind that text. This can lead to information that is not original and does not accurately reflect the writer's unique thoughts and experiences.

Your statement of purpose is an opportunity to clearly show who you are related to your experiences and goals. It should showcase your problem-solving skills, how you connect theory to practice, and how your academic and related experiences have shaped your reasons for applying to graduate school. It should also be based on real-life anecdotes that demonstrate these characteristics. Any kind of third party will not have access to the depth of experience and examples that only exist within you.

2. Creativity

The essays that stand out are creative and unique. AI software cannot generate creative ideas, and it won’t help the writer think outside the box. It also lacks the ability to provide an applicant's perspective on a given topic, which is important to showcase in any application essay. In your statement of purpose, you want to pose a question, define a problem, or indicate a theme you would like to address while in graduate school. Each applicant has different reasons for applying and the essay is an opportunity to showcase that uniqueness. It also makes a case for the contributions that you will bring to the department. This is how you will stand out in the review process. Be creative and authentic!

3. Understanding Prompts

An essay prompt is a set of instructions and questions that the writer should answer; AI software might need help understanding the instructions or the tone of the prompt and may generate text that is not aligned with what it’s really asking. There are meanings behind many admission essay prompts that are especially important for applicants to recognize and work through as they compose their essays.

For example, if you are asked about your leadership skills, and you discuss a group project you worked on, not only will admission committees want to learn about how you led in this situation, but, through your answer, they will also assess your organizational, time management, and problem-solving skills. These kinds of multi-level responses are almost impossible for any AI to reproduce.

4. Understanding the Intended Audience

A good essay is tailored to its intended audience. AI software may have difficulty understanding who the intended audience is and may generate text that is not appropriate for it. For example, many admission committee members are professors. As such, your essay should reflect your understanding of the field, including any current trends and issues. They will also want you to write your essay using technical terms. The AI will not know these parameters and will keep your essay from impressing this kind of admissions representative.

5. Communication Skills

Essays are often used to evaluate students' writing and communication skills. AI software may not be able to mimic a student's writing style accurately. Admissions documents are reviewed holistically and often include emails you sent to the department and short answer questions in the online application form. If there is a mismatch between the writing styles, your application will likely be flagged.

6. Ethical Issues

With the rise in the use of AI-generated text, many have voiced their concern about its ethicality. While it is not necessarily "wrong" to use AI-generated text, it is important to ensure that a person writes their application documents to avoid confusion or questions about their authenticity. When you apply to a university, you should be careful to read the fine print before you submit your application since, in many cases, you are certifying that, by clicking the “submit” button, the documents you’re submitting have been produced solely by you, the applicant.

Similar to how we use spell check and auto-correct, AI text-generators should be considered a tool rather than something writers rely exclusively on to produce their essays. While AI software may assist with research, proofreading, and generating ideas, it is not a replacement for the creativity, originality, and understanding a human writer brings to the essay-writing process to create a truly great admission essay.

If you’d like to get personalized advice and (human) feedback on your application essays, work with me on Leland. Message me on my profile to book a free intro call and we’ll get started on helping you achieve your goals.

Interested in AI and admissions? Read this next: Why ChatGPT Can't Write Your Personal Statement

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