Generative AI, including ChatGPT, has evolved rapidly and now has capabilities that may seem enticing to use for college applications—

from writing custom essays in seconds to proofreading your essays and short answers. And while there may be room to use AI programs to optimize your applications, there are some boundaries to consider and pros and cons to weigh.

The Case Against Using AI in your Essay and Application Materials

Anti-plagiarism technology is quickly catching up to AI-generated writing. Even if an essay could bypass plagiarism detection, experts say that AI-generated essays are missing a crucial element: You.

“I’ve seen Chat GPT–authored essays that surpass students’ essays in writing quality,” says Beth Kraemer, co-founder of In College Consulting, a college consulting firm based in the Chicago area. But remember that a college admissions officer knows what a high school student sounds like. They might not be able to pin an essay as being AI-generated, but they might be able to tell that it lacks sincerity. While your college essay should be polished, and you should absolutely get feedback from people you trust, make sure that what you write sounds authentic to you.

“It’s not about what’s been said before. It’s showing your unique voice and perspective,” explains Brandon Lewis, a tutor at Ivy Tutors Network. “That requires you to make something new in the world.” Lewis recommends using AI to research what not to do, including asking the bot about overused college essay themes.

Resources to Write the Best College Essay

Now that you know how to avoid AI when you sit down to write your first draft, there are many resources you can lean on to polish your own ideas. If you’re struggling to get started, here are some ways to brainstorm and work through your college essay.

  • Read successful past essays. You can ask your high school counselor for sample essays or you can find examples online. Seeing what has worked for others can help inspire you to find ways to make your own essay shine.
  • Think critically about what works in each essay. Some things to look for include evocative imagery, self-awareness, and taking a specific moment and applying it to a larger lesson.
  • Look through your photos from the past few years. They may spark memories and inspiration for an essay.
  • Take advantage of essay writing workshops. Ask your high school counselor or English teacher about local opportunities.
  • Don’t worry about the big stuff. Some of the most memorable essays for admissions officers are about everyday moments. Challenge yourself to think of smaller topics.
  • Give yourself time. A college essay requires a few rounds of revision. Don’t worry about your first shot being perfect. Instead, challenge yourself to get something written down quickly. This gives you something to work with, edit, and adapt.

How to Use AI as a College Search Tool

Instead of thinking of AI as a tool to create admissions materials, consider it a tool to help you focus your college search.

Here are some example prompts to play with that can help you see how AI can help in your admissions process. Once you receive answers, you can then ask follow-up questions based on the information you receive, which can help research further.  (Remember that you’ll need to double-check anything you find on ChatGPT, or any other AI platform, and that nothing should be considered fact.)

  • What sort of questions should I ask on a campus tour of the University of Pennsylvania?
  • I enjoy writing and science. What other majors should I consider besides psychology?
  • What are potential careers for an English major?
  • Which colleges are known for their intramural sports in Washington State?
  • I’m visiting colleges in and around Boston. What are some fun places to explore during my trip?

While ChatGPT and other AI tools can help you think about college and your path differently, be wary of using it for anything that will be read by an admissions officer. Even using it to craft thank-you notes might make you sound insincere or overly formal. Using your voice, even if it’s not perfect, is what makes you unique—and an asset to your prospective school.

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