Why you shouldn’t use ChatGPT to write your college essay, according to an expert who has been advising applicants for 20 years – Fortune

One of the occupational hazards of working in the college admissions landscape is confronting endless identical essays. One of its great pleasures is stumbling upon a distinctive signal within the noise. As an application essay coach, I’ve spent nearly two decades encouraging applicants from all walks of life and fields of study to unearth their originality through a process that is much more painstaking and purposeful than prompt engineering.
Yet over that time, I’ve seen anxieties around getting into college make such introspection and candor increasingly scarce. The higher the perceived stakes, the greater the invitation for puffery, melodrama, and influence from helicoptering authority figures. Admission officials have long lamented, well before artificial intelligence (AI) stepped into the ring, that the essays students submit had become a lousy predictor of who would turn up at freshman orientation. Now the risks of presenting an over-polished stump speech have never been greater.
The floodgates will open in November for nearly five million college applications. For the first time, many students’ personal statements will have been co-authored or outright written by generative AI. While AI’s use as a proofreading tool promises to help level the playing field for non-native speakers and those facing educational inequities, its tendency to spew pitch-perfect prattle will simply amplify the worst instincts already infecting the college essay. 
A machine trained on a corpus of forgettable personal statements will simply generate polished, inauthentic essays. One needs no crystal ball to envision admission offices soon overrun with the kinds of derivative statements already generated by the essay improvement industry’s 10-easy-step formulas. The over-engineered posturing offered by admission consultants has now become available to all.
Here’s my advice to the first generation of post-GPT applicants: Beat the machine by signaling that there’s a human on the other end of the line. The personal statements that will most stand out are the ones that tell uncommonly self-aware stories in unprecedented ways. They’ll be written by young adults willing to do the hard work of looking inward in order to go off script. These outliers won’t be threatened by AI’s improvement curve: if anything, their value will only grow.
To tell a story no admission officer has read before, draw from your private experiences, candid insights, and untidy contradictions. Explore what lies inside you but falls outside the Large Language Model’s training data. The rare essays that still read as undeniably human, even when buried amidst exquisitely polished impostership, offer a vital roadmap for achieving this human watermark.
Where AI generates admission essay-ish prose with blistering speed, your process should be optimized for circumspection. Lay out on the table all that you could conceivably share, starting with the subtle cracks between these imperfect puzzle pieces. Remember that unforgettable essays are, by definition, single-use. Avoid the temptation to reach for the stock Hallmark card instead of personalizing your own handwritten letter. The only formula is to forget every formula and attempt the untested.
Pursue what is messy in your data set, rather than what is cleanest. The versions of yourself that you are with your parents, friends, teachers, and in your dreams coexist in ways that should not be oversimplified. Being multifaceted means giving permission for many selves to speak. AI models have been engineered to explain such messiness away–but being human means embracing the nuance of the unresolved.
Students who are programmed to write like robots make the same risk-averse calculations as the machines they’re competing against. Remember that the personal statement isn’t a writing test, but an empathy test.
Admission readers are already on information overload. The best way to keep your audience and help the school you’re applying to imagine you in a research lab, around a conference table, or leading activities on a quad, is to look deeper and more honestly in the mirror than the savviest prompt engineer. If you airbrush out all the blemishes, you will have made yourself and your aspirations invisible.
The essay offers applicants a vital provocation to look inward through a laborious process of inspiration, perspiration, and revision. Unflinching soul-searchers emerge with clearer purpose and re-appraised self-worth.
When candidates believe a robot might tell their story better than they can, they risk far more than a mediocre essay. They’ll have offloaded the task of finding themselves to the same technology recommending which show to watch, what song to listen to, or what product to buy next.
By clicking submit on an AI-augmented application essay, applicants would be surrendering agency over the only admission variable truly in their control. Only those who have put in the work to uncover their indelible watermark can prove to readers that they possess a neural network powered not by electricity, but by a heartbeat.
Dan Lichterman is a writing and college admissions essay coach.
The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.
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