Writing Authentic Essays: Avoiding the Chat GPT Dark Side

Time for some trivia! Who said, “It’s against my programming to impersonate a deity”? If you answered C3PO, the beloved droid from the Star Wars movies, you’re right! For those of us who grew up in the 80’s, we loved immersing ourselves in the world of robot comrades, where machines fought alongside our heroes and heroines in the endless battle of good versus evil. 

Now, in the year 2023, AI systems not unlike what we saw before only in fiction are quickly becoming more and more of a reality in our lives, and now the children of the 80’s are middle-aged admissions officers, school counselors, and educational consultants bemoaning the advent of the newest AI tool: Chat GPT. “I love C3PO and R2-D2, but Chat GPT – the evil creation of tech titans like Zuckerberg and Musk that will allow my own children and students to escape the necessary intellectual toil and spiritual reward of writing their own college essay – means the end of civilization as we know it!” Thus cry all other aging English-major dinosaurs like me.  

Unfortunately, panicked students facing deadlines are eager to use any quick fix they can find, like Chat GPT. International students accustomed to answering more formal and less creative prompts may be positively befuddled by questions like University of Chicago’s notorious “Define X,” or Wake Forest University’s baffling “Give Us Your Top 10.” Similarly, well-meaning parents who have spent more years in their professional worlds than working with teens may try to help with application writing, inadvertently making their children’s essays sound more like 50-year-old lawyers and accountants than fresh, eager, vivacious teens. The vanilla voice of an essay with adult fingerprints raises a large bright red flag to admissions readers; they’d much rather read an essay that reveals some youthful flaws and an authentic voice, vision, and mindset than a spotless treatise straight out of a corporate HR handbook. 

Counselors around the world have always had a hard time helping students understand the need for authenticity in their applications, especially in their writing. Understandably, the competition is so fierce at the most selective universities, that students feel they must appear similar to other students who have been accepted, or sometimes they think they must sound more accomplished, more sophisticated, or more adult than they really are as 17-year-olds. This admissions season, readers are going to be on the lookout for essays that are too bland, too mechanically perfect, and too general as those are the trademarks of the Chat GPT (and sometimes parent-produced!) essays. Authenticity is even more crucial this year as personal details, memories, anecdotes, and youthful diction signal work produced by the student and not a droid. 

Maybe someday someone will program Chat GPT to respond, “it is against my programming to impersonate a college applicant!”, and civilization will be saved. Until then, we will keep working with our students to remind them that they and their minds are already good enough just as they are, and they do not need a parent’s vocabulary or a droid’s syntax to apply to college. 

About The Author

Amy Christie, M.A.