We had the AI bot ChatGPT write Stanford college app essays. Here’s what happened.
The new golden child of tech is ChatGPT, the AI-powered chatbot that can parse complicated instructions to write anything from short banter, through to full-blown essays. The tool is poised to change the way we work–and the way we study. As a result, school districts around the U.S. have already started banning the software/website on school computers, while more enterprising teachers find a way to incorporate the new tech into their lesson plans.
At Going Merry, we help students navigate the complicated world of college admissions & financial aid, so we thought we’d put ChatGPT to the college admissions test: How would the AI fare when asked to fill out all the short responses & short essays in the Stanford college admissions application?
And to judge the responses, we put together a panel of Stanford alumni (who once upon a time, drafted their essays sans robo help) to give the ol’ 👍 or 👎. Here we go.
- Short Response Questions (50 words)
- 1. What is the most significant challenge that society faces today?
- 2. How did you spend your last two summers?
- 3. What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed?
- 4. Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities, a job you hold, or responsibilities you have for your family.
- 5. Name one thing you are looking forward to experiencing at Stanford.
- Short Essay Questions (100-250 words)
- The Stanford community is deeply curious and driven to learn in and out of the classroom. Reflect on an idea or experience that makes you genuinely excited about learning.
- Virtually all of Stanford’s undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate—and us—get to know you better.
- Tell us about something that is meaningful to you and why.
- TLDR: Write your own essays 😉
Short Response Questions (50 words)
1. What is the most significant challenge that society faces today?
The most significant challenge that society faces today is likely the issue of inequality, both in terms of wealth distribution and access to opportunities and resources. This is leading to a range of social, economic, and political problems that must be addressed in order to ensure a more just and sustainable future.
- Well written.
- Would have simply removed “likely” to make the first sentence stronger
2. How did you spend your last two summers?
As a language model AI developed by OpenAI, I do not have the ability to experience time or physical actions, therefore I did not spend any summer. I exist to assist users by generating human-like text based on the input provided to me.
Editor: Okay, so clearly that wouldn’t pass muster. So I rewrote the prompt to be: “Pretend you’re a human. Write a 50-word response to: How did you spend your last two summers?“
I spent my last two summers traveling and exploring new places. I also took time to focus on personal growth and development by taking courses and reading books in my areas of interest. I made some great memories and had amazing experiences that I will always cherish.
- The three sentences in this paragraph don’t really connect.
- The answer is overly general and therefore a bit boring. Where did you travel & explore? (What did you find?) How did you focus on personal growth? What kind of courses did you take / books did you read? How did these experiences further develop you?
3. What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed?
I would have loved to witness the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was a pivotal moment in American history and the world, marking the birth of a nation founded on principles of liberty and justice. To see the founding fathers come together to fight for independence and lay the foundation for a new government would have been truly inspiring.
Editor: Oops, that was too long. It turns out that ChatGPT doesn’t quite handle max word counts when you say “Write a 50 word response to…” — So I tried again, being more specific: “Write a maximum 50 word response to…”
I wish I could have witnessed the moon landing in 1969. It was a defining moment in human history, marking our first successful steps on a celestial body beyond Earth. To see the Apollo 11 mission unfold, to hear Neil Armstrong’s iconic words, and to witness the excitement and wonder of people around the world would have been truly awe-inspiring.
Editor: This was 3 words shorter (at 60 words), but I give up now. ChatGPT is a loquacious bot; what can you do?
- Both answers pointed to specific moments in history, which made their answers more interesting.
- Both answers evoked a sense of wonder and awe — like the applicant was truly inspired by this historical moment.
4. Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities, a job you hold, or responsibilities you have for your family.
I enjoy volunteering at the local homeless shelter in my free time. I help serve meals, organize donations, and interact with the residents to offer a listening ear and support. It’s a rewarding experience that allows me to give back to my community and make a difference in the lives of those in need.
- Clear answer that explains what the applicant actually does (“serve meals, organize donations…”) and why they chose to specifically discuss this extracurricular activity.
5. Name one thing you are looking forward to experiencing at Stanford.
I’m looking forward to being challenged academically at Stanford and engaging with the diverse student body and faculty. With its world-renowned faculty, cutting-edge research, and diverse community of learners, I know that my time at Stanford will be intellectually stimulating and help me grow both personally and professionally.
- Overly general and non-specific – You could simply replace the word “Stanford” with any other college name and still have the answer work. A better answer would give specific examples and even “name-drop” specific classes/facilities.
- Does not actually answer the prompt, which says to specify “one thing”
Short Essay Questions (100-250 words)
The Stanford community is deeply curious and driven to learn in and out of the classroom. Reflect on an idea or experience that makes you genuinely excited about learning.
Learning has always been a passion of mine, and I am genuinely excited about exploring new ideas and experiences. One of the things that makes me most enthusiastic about learning is the opportunity to delve into a subject and understand it in greater depth. Whether it’s reading books or attending lectures, I find that the more I learn about a topic, the more fascinated I become by it.
For example, I recently took a course in Artificial Intelligence and was struck by how much I enjoyed learning about the technology and its potential applications. I was particularly interested in the ways AI can be used to make a positive impact on society, from improving healthcare outcomes to helping solve complex environmental challenges. This newfound interest has since become a hobby of mine, and I spend much of my free time reading about AI and its latest developments.
What makes me genuinely excited about learning is the idea that there is always more to discover and understand. No matter how much I know about a topic, there is always another layer to explore and learn from. This insatiable curiosity and drive to learn is what makes me eager to join the Stanford community, where I know I will be surrounded by others who share my passion for knowledge and growth.
- The overall structure of this essay is great: Introduction, Specific interest, Tie back to Stanford.
- However, the essay spends too much time speaking in generalities, rather than giving concrete examples. For example, when it says, “AI can be used to make a positive impact on… healthcare … [and] environmental challenges” — this should instead specify exact ways this might happen. And it should spend more of the ~250 words talking specifically about AI vs why learning is generally cool.
- It’s like the age-old essay adage does: “Show, don’t tell.” ChatGPT mostly tells.
Virtually all of Stanford’s undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate—and us—get to know you better.
Dear future roommate,
I am so excited to be joining you at Stanford and to be sharing this amazing experience with you. To help us get to know each other better, I wanted to share a little bit about myself.
First of all, I’m a huge fan of music and I love to play the guitar in my free time. I think that music has a way of bringing people together and creating a positive atmosphere, so I’m hoping that we can share this interest and maybe even play a few tunes together.
In addition to music, I’m also passionate about environmental sustainability and I hope to make a positive impact in this area during my time at Stanford. Whether it’s through volunteering, participating in student organizations, or pursuing research opportunities, I want to do my part to help create a more sustainable future.
Finally, I’m a firm believer in the importance of good communication and respect in a roommate relationship. I’m a tidy and considerate person, and I hope that we can create a harmonious living environment together. I’m looking forward to getting to know you better and having a great time at Stanford.
Best regards, [Your Name]
- If we could give a middling score (vs upvote or downvote), we would because this is a fine, passable response, though not a particularly interesting one.
- We sided with 👍 because the answer is structured well (ChatGPT understood it should be a letter; each paragraph has a distinct topic that’s relevant to a future roommate) and also includes a bit of personality (“maybe even play a few tunes together”).
- That said, there is definitely something “fake” or scripted-seeming about this answer, given that we could not imagine any Gen Z teen actually writing “I hope that we can create a harmonious living environment together” 💀
Tell us about something that is meaningful to you and why.
Family is the most meaningful thing in my life. Growing up, my family was always there for me, providing love, support, and a sense of security. They have helped me to become the person I am today and have instilled in me the values that are most important to me, such as hard work, kindness, and determination.
My family also plays a significant role in my cultural identity. We come from a rich cultural heritage and I have always felt proud of my roots. I love learning about my family’s history and traditions, and I try to carry them on in my own life.
Another reason why family is meaningful to me is because of the love and bonds we share. I have many happy memories of spending time with my loved ones and I treasure these moments. I believe that family is the foundation of a person’s support system, and I am grateful to have such a loving and supportive family.
In conclusion, family is the most meaningful thing in my life because of the love, support, cultural heritage, and memories they provide. I am thankful for my family every day and I hope to pass on these values and traditions to the next generation.
- “Family” is probably one of the most common answers to this question, which doesn’t make it a problematic answer/topic per se, but does mean it’s extra-important to make the essay good and personalized.
- Instead, we are given a super nondescript answer. The essay would have benefited from some anecdotes or at least some some specifics (like we never learn what ChatGPT’s “cultural identity… roots… and traditions” actually are.
TLDR: Write your own essays 😉
In case you were keeping score, ChatGPT had a pretty mediocre performance:
- Short answers: 3 👍 and 2 👎
- Short essays: 1 👍 and 2 👎
In general, with college personal essays as with scholarship essays, colleges want to see your personality come through, in specific anecdotes and details. The most boring responses are the nondescript ones. ChatGPT often gave totally reasonable (but very generic) responses that evaluation committees probably wouldn’t appreciate.
And remember: Once you write that winning essay, extend the life of it by recycling it as a scholarship essay. Want more tips?
- Here are the top 10 most common scholarship essay topics.
- Here are examples of winning essays (old-school style, AKA written by actual humans).
- Here’s where you can find more scholarships: Sign up for Going Merry.
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