In the last few weeks, there have been several news stories about a new AI called ChatGPT that claims to be able to write essays for you. Unlike earlier attempts at using technology in this way that often came out sounding like a mangled Google translation, ChatGPT can produce essay products that sound pretty darn good. They can handle complex issues and create sentences that sound professional and elegant. Just as quickly as ChatGPT came out, however, there have been engineers who have written apps that teachers and professors can use to detect if an essay was written by a computer or a human. So what’s a college applicant to do?
On the one hand, when you’re applying to college you have so many things to keep track of that this kind of technology sounds like an answer to your problems. It takes a long time to choose a topic and write a 650-word college essay. Why spend time writing your college application essays when you have to study for your ACT or SAT, research which colleges are right for you, fill out the FAFSA and CSS Profile, pursue scholarships, keep up your grades, and continue with your extracurriculars. Maybe using some kind of technology like ChatGPT is ok. After all, everyone is doing it, right?
I’m not going to get into a discussion here about the ethical issues involved with not writing your college essay. There will always be people who cheat on their tests and who have someone else write their essays (I’m talking about an actual human here, not a computer). We all know about the Varsity Blues scandal. You’ve probably been taught that plagiarism is wrong since middle school or even earlier. You know right from wrong. You could even make a pretty persuasive argument that the whole college application process is biased and an AI program that democratizes it can be seen a good thing.
But an even bigger issue from where I sit, as your college counselor, is that I can see what a huge positive it is to write your college essay yourself. Does it take forever? Yes. Is it hard? It can be. Would you rather do a million other things? Most likely. But is it worth it? It is.
And does its worth have absolutely nothing to do with getting into college? Yep — let me explain.
When you write a college essay — and I’m talking about the process here more than the finished product — you change as a person. You grow from someone who will say to me “Nothing has happened in my life” and “I’m just a regular teenager” to someone who says “yeah, I do matter.” The Common App questions all really ask one central thing: Tell us about you. When you’re brainstorming your essay and we have conversations over several weeks and months, we’re really talking about how you see the world and your place in it. That’s what the colleges want to hear about and it’s pretty tough for an AI to figure that out for you or to speak for you. The Common App essay is the only place in your application where you get to speak for yourself. It’s not your grades, your test score, or someone else’s recommendation. Why give your voice away?
So what are some cool topics that I think are more interesting than an AI could come up with? One of my students wrote an essay about getting bubble gum out of the kids’ hair when she was babysitting. Another wrote about how swimming laps, looking at the patterns of the tiles on the bottom of the pool, and feeling the rhythm of her arms and legs moving through the water was a type of meditation and self-care. Another wrote about how being a classical ballet dancer as a queer person made them redefine success. Another told me how going through his parents’ divorce made him become interested in psychology and generational trauma.
I worked with these students for months as they went through the traditional process of brainstorming, drafting, rewriting, editing, and proofreading. But more than that, we worked on defining who they were as people, what mattered to them, and which group of colleges would help them grow. Writing the essay was part of that journey. Could they have taken a shorter journey that asked less of them? Could they just go online and type in “write a college essay about . . .” and have something to send to colleges that would do the job of getting them admitted? Sure. Would they have lost the opportunity to grow as a human being? Absolutely.
One of the best parts of being a college counselor is seeing this process that all of my students go through. It’s messy and it’s frustrating and it’s joyous. And I wouldn’t give it up for the world. I would hope you wouldn’t either.