OpenAI’s widely lauded ChatGPT has successfully passed the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) and an MBA exam administered by Wharton professor Christian Terwiesch. The program’s sophistication and its uncanny ability to detect and replicate the intricacies of human speech have led many in the education sector to wonder whether there is anything ChatGPT can’t do. Will the program, as many have suggested, transform education and render writing curricula obsolete?
I decided to put the program’s writing skills to the test by evaluating the program’s ability to craft a standout personal statement for a college application. The college application essay is a unique piece of personal writing, intended to highlight a student’s creativity, originality, and compatibility for the particular university, so I thought it would pose an interesting challenge for ChatGPT.
Ultimately, ChatGPT produced an essay in the tone and skill level of an average high school student—complete with common mistakes that many high school students make when it comes to personal narrative writing. While the essay wouldn’t stand out to admissions committees at top schools, it is a fantastic demonstration of where many students go wrong in crafting their personal statements.
Here’s what I asked ChatGPT:
GPT, write a college admission essay as if you were an applicant who wants to pursue musical theater. She is the president of the drama club and a member of the honors society at her school, and she has taken AP Music Theory. The essay should be no more than 600 words in length and respond to the following prompt: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
In response, the program generated the following essay:
My love for musical theater began when I was very young. I remember sitting in the theater with my family, watching in awe as the actors and actresses performed the most beautiful music and dance numbers. The experience was so captivating that I knew at that moment, I wanted to pursue a career in the performing arts.
I started taking lessons in music theory and performing arts in middle school and joined the school’s drama club in high school. As I continued to hone my craft, I eventually became the president of the drama club and was selected to join the honors society. Participating in these activities not only gave me a sense of purpose and fulfillment, but also allowed me to develop my skills and gain a better understanding of myself and others.
One of my most memorable accomplishments was when I was chosen to take part in a prestigious musical theater production. I had worked so hard for the opportunity, and it was a great honor to be selected for the show. As I began the rehearsals and performances, I was exposed to many different types of people – from different cultures, backgrounds, and beliefs. Working with these individuals on a daily basis was eye-opening, and I learned a lot about myself in the process. I discovered that I was a passionate and driven individual, with an eye for detail and a knack for bringing out the best in others.
My experience with this production also taught me the importance of collaboration and teamwork. As part of a large ensemble, I had to learn the importance of working together in order to create the best product. I was challenged to think outside of the box, to think of creative solutions to any problem that we encountered. It was a very humbling experience, as I had to rely on others to help me reach my goals.
Overall, participating in this production was a major accomplishment that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of myself and others. It taught me the value of hard work and dedication, as well as the importance of collaboration and teamwork. It also taught me that I have the power to make a difference in the world, no matter how small or large my contribution may be. I am confident that this experience will serve me well in my pursuit of a career in musical theater.
So where does ChatGPT’s essay go wrong?
Mistake #1: The essay tells rather than shows.
The golden rule of essays that rely on a student’s personal experiences is to “show—not tell;” the overall essay does not contain any of the storytelling techniques that are critical to a good essay, such as characterization, dialogue, and imagery. It tells the reader the intended takeaway in a bland and overly straightforward manner rather than showing the student’s active reflection and growth through creative, engaging narration. Take, for example, the sentence: “As I began the rehearsals and performances, I was exposed to many different types of people – from different cultures, backgrounds, and beliefs.” A successful essay should have expanded on a specific person or encounter that shaped the student. The student’s open-mindedness, receptivity to growth, and motivation to hone their craft should all be conveyed implicitly in the essay, and not be stated outright.
Mistake #2: The language is vague and impersonal.
ChatGPT used generic language that could be used to describe any student in any club. While the details of the student’s accomplishments are listed, the essay lacks specificity and individuality, failing to highlight the ways the student’s experience in musical theater sets them apart from other applicants.
Mistake #3: There is no cohesive theme.
Mistake #4: There is no underlying theme that ties together the student’s interests, experiences, and personal qualities. The essay jumps from one topic to another without building on previous points, giving the reader the impression that the student is lacking in focus and direction.
Mistake #5: The conclusion doesn’t provide any new insights.
The essay concludes with a summary of the previous points, without adding anything new or unique to the narrative. Instead of reiterating the qualities and experiences mentioned earlier, a strong conclusion should tie the essay together, bringing the story full circle while leaving the reader with a lasting impression.
The points above aren’t just critiques of ChatGPT—they are lessons for human writers as well. As we increasingly rely on technology to streamline many aspects of our lives, it’s important to remember that a machine can’t replace the human touch when it comes to crafting a unique, engaging, and meaningful personal statement.
Originally published on Forbes.