A computer user delves into the depths of AI-generated content.

Unveiling the Secrets Behind ChatGPT's College Admissions Essay Success – Are You Making These 4 Mistakes?

June 2, 2024

In the domain of artificial intelligence, ChatGPT by OpenAI has made significant strides. Its prowess in understanding and generating human-like text is astounding. Yet, how does it fare when faced with the nuanced task of college admissions essay writing? The objective of our experiment was to test ChatGPT's ability to compose a compelling college admissions essay which requires a deep level of personal insight, self-reflection, and the ability to narrate a cohesive story.

ChatGPT's response

When examining the capabilities of an AI model, it's essential to lay down a precise challenge. The task for ChatGPT was to respond to a standard college application prompt, to gauge its effectiveness in replicating the depth and nuance of human response.

1. The prompt given to ChatGPT

We provided ChatGPT with a prompt you might recognize from many college applications: “Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.” This prompt, often used by colleges, seeks insight into the writer's character, values, and maturity. It is designed to give the writer an opportunity to showcase their depth, learning, and personal evolution.

2. ChatGPT's college admission essay

In response, ChatGPT generated an essay that revolved around a hypothetical student's experience with volunteering at a local community center. The AI described how this experience offered a new perspective on community, teamwork, and the value of giving back. The narrative detailed the student's initial hesitation, the challenges faced while volunteering, and the eventual realization of the importance of community service.

However, while the structure and flow of the essay were coherent, it lacked the personal touch and authenticity that such prompts demand. The narrative was more of a general overview than an intimate dive into personal growth. The emotions described felt programmed rather than genuinely felt, and the journey, while logical, lacked the heartfelt nuances and reflections that come with genuine human experiences.

🚀 Example

ChatGPT wrote: “The experience at the community center taught me the value of community and teamwork.” While this sentence is grammatically correct and structurally sound, it's quite generic.

A more personal and effective response might have detailed a specific interaction with an individual at the community center, the challenges they faced, and how that reshaped the writer's worldview. But these detailed personal touches were missing in the AI-generated essay.

Analysis of ChatGPT's essay

Focused student with glasses engrossed in writing an essay on a computer screen
Closely examining ChatGPT's essay for insights and inspiration.

Writing a good essay is like telling a compelling story. It should grab the reader's attention and take them on a journey, where they can learn something new or think in a different way by the end of it. When we asked ChatGPT to write an essay, we got to see what a machine, loaded with heaps of information, could come up with. While it did a good job in some areas, there were four main mistakes it made. By looking closer at these mistakes, we can learn a lot about how to make our own writing better. This analysis will help us dive into these errors, understand why they happened, and learn how to avoid them in our own essays.

Mistake #1: telling instead of showing

One of the most common pieces of advice given to writers, especially those drafting personal statements or essays, is "show, don't tell." This advice underscores the importance of using descriptive and engaging writing to convey emotions, experiences, and growth, rather than just stating them flatly. Let's delve into how this error manifested in ChatGPT's response and why it's crucial for you to avoid this pitfall.

Lack of storytelling techniques

ChatGPT's essay showcased a fundamental flaw in its approach: it often opted to state emotions and realizations directly rather than leading the reader through the journey of arriving at those feelings. While the AI's response was coherent and well-structured, it lacked the layers of depth and introspection achieved through storytelling.In personal essays, readers look for the sensory details, the small anecdotes, and the reflective moments that paint a vivid picture. These storytelling elements provide a window into the writer's soul, letting the reader feel the emotions rather than just reading about them. In ChatGPT's essay, these finer layers of human storytelling were noticeably absent.

🚀 Example of ineffective storytelling

Consider this line from ChatGPT's essay: “The experience at the community center taught me the value of community and teamwork.” While this statement is clear, it merely tells the reader the conclusion without sharing the journey. It's akin to revealing the end of a story without delving into its plot.Instead, a more effective approach would have been to narrate a specific event or interaction at the community center. Perhaps describe a day when the hypothetical student collaborated with others on a challenging project or when they witnessed the profound impact of their efforts on a community member. Such an approach would not just state the lesson learned but would make the reader feel the challenges, the efforts, and the eventual epiphanies, offering a much more engaging and compelling narrative.

Mistake #2: vague and impersonal language

A personal essay's strength lies in its authenticity, the ability to resonate with readers by offering a unique perspective rooted in individual experiences. When the language becomes generic, the essay loses its potency. ChatGPT's response, though proficient in grammar and structure, fell into the trap of employing vague and impersonal language. Let's dissect this mistake and understand why it's vital for you to steer clear of such pitfalls.

Lack of specificity and individuality

ChatGPT's essay at times sounded more like an informational piece than a personal narrative. This resulted from the use of general statements and descriptions that could be applicable to virtually anyone. For a college admissions essay, which serves as a platform for applicants to distinguish themselves from thousands of other candidates, this lack of specificity can be a critical flaw.

For instance, statements like “I learned the importance of hard work” or “Volunteering made me appreciate the value of giving back” are so universal that they fail to provide any insights into the writer's unique journey or character. Almost everyone can make these statements; what admissions committees are looking for is the unique lens through which you view these experiences.

🚀 Example of generic statement

“I learned the importance of hard work.”

A more personal narrative“In my sophomore year, I struggled with calculus, consistently scoring below the class average. Refusing to give up, I committed to rigorous practice, staying up till 2 AM every night working on problem sets. One night, as rain tapped softly against my window and everyone else was asleep, I finally cracked a concept that had eluded me for weeks. That moment was not just an academic victory but a testament to my relentless drive.”
🚀 Example of generic statement

“Volunteering made me appreciate the value of giving back.”

A more personal narrative“During a volunteering session at the local homeless shelter, I met Jake, a bright-eyed 7-year-old with dreams of becoming an astronaut. Despite his circumstances, his optimism was infectious. One day, using some scrap materials, I helped him build a makeshift rocket. The joy in his eyes reminded me that even small acts can have a profound impact. It was not just about giving back, but about forging connections and inspiring dreams.”

By providing these personal anecdotes, it becomes evident how individual experiences can offer richer, more detailed insights compared to generic statements. Delving into specific moments or incidents not only paints a clearer picture of the narrative but also brings out the unique lens through which the writer has viewed these experiences.

A step-by-step approach to avoid vague language

  • Reflect deeply: before writing, spend time reminiscing about the moments that truly shaped your experiences and beliefs.
  • Avoid overused phrases: commonly used phrases or clichés dilute the individuality of your essay. Make a conscious effort to express yourself in a fresh and genuine manner.
  • Seek feedback: sometimes, we may not recognize the vagueness in our writing. Having a trusted friend or mentor review your essay can help pinpoint areas that need more specificity.

By ensuring that every statement you make is rooted in your own journey and experiences, you can craft an essay that not only stands out but also offers a genuine glimpse into who you are.

Mistake #3: lack of thematic cohesion and depth

An engaging and impactful essay is held together by a clear, cohesive theme and is enriched by a deeper, underlying message. Both these elements work in tandem to provide structure, progression, and depth to the narrative, guiding the reader through a purposeful journey. ChatGPT's essay, unfortunately, displayed a deficiency in both these areas, offering a valuable learning opportunity for prospective essay writers.

Absence of a cohesive theme

A clear theme acts as the backbone of an essay, weaving the narrative together and giving it direction. Without this, a story can appear disjointed and lack focus.

🚀 Example of a fragmented narrative

"I excelled in my biology class during my sophomore year, learning about the intricacies of plant cells. Last summer, I volunteered at an animal shelter and learned the value of empathy. I also enjoy painting landscapes during my free time."This narrative feels disjointed and lacks a clear theme.

A cohesive theme applied
"My love for biology, nurtured during my sophomore year, drove my curiosity beyond textbooks. This led me to volunteer at an animal shelter last summer, where I not only learned about animal care but also connected it to the broader web of life. My passion also finds an outlet in painting landscapes, capturing the interconnectedness of all living things."

ChatGPT's essay frequently jumped between topics without clear transitions, making it feel more like a collection of random musings than a coherent story. To ensure thematic cohesion:

  • Define your central message: what primary message or insight do you want to convey?
  • Outline your essay: create a roadmap to ensure each section reinforces your main theme.
  • Smooth transitions: ensure a logical flow from one paragraph to the next, maintaining thematic consistency.

Absence of an underlying theme

Beyond a clear theme, an essay should also possess depth, achieved through an underlying message that offers deeper insights into the writer's beliefs, motivations, or values.

🚀 Example without underlying theme

"I've been part of the school's debate team, where I learned to voice my opinions confidently. Additionally, I enjoyed my time as the lead in our school's annual play, which helped me break out of my shell."While these experiences are valuable, they seem unrelated and lack depth.

Incorporating an underlying theme
"From my position on the debate team to my role as the lead in our school play, the underpinning drive has always been my journey from reticence to self-expression. Debate taught me the power of words and the importance of voicing my opinions. Drama, on the other hand, showed me how actions, even those on stage, can resonate deeply, reflecting our hidden fears and aspirations. Together, they shaped my belief that every individual has a unique voice waiting to be discovered and amplified."

In ChatGPT's essay, points often felt flat, failing to build on previous sections and lacking in introspective depth. To infuse your essay with depth:

  • Understand your core message: what deeper insight or value do you wish to convey?
  • Structure with purpose: ensure each paragraph not only stands independently but also complements and deepens the preceding one.
  • Draw connections: tie new points or experiences back to the underlying theme or previously discussed topics to emphasize interconnectedness.

By ensuring your essay is bound by a cohesive theme and enriched by an underlying message, you craft a narrative that is both structured and layered, compelling the reader to engage deeply with your story.

Mistake #4: uninsightful conclusion

An uninsightful conclusion is like a still ocean, lacking the waves of fresh perspective to inspire new journeys of thought.

One of the most crucial parts of any essay is its conclusion. This is where you have the chance to leave a lasting impression on your readers, be it an admissions officer or anyone else. A conclusion should not merely be a summary of what was discussed but should offer fresh insights, reflections, and perhaps even pose thought-provoking questions. Unfortunately, in the essay crafted by ChatGPT, the conclusion fell short of these expectations.

Reiteration instead of offering new insights

It's a common pitfall to merely restate the main points made in the body of the essay. While a degree of summarization is helpful, merely echoing what's already been said can make the essay feel repetitive and stale.

🚀 Example

Original conclusion (reiteration)
"During my junior year, I took up a challenging research project on renewable energy. This project taught me the importance of perseverance, as I faced many setbacks. I also learned the value of teamwork, as I collaborated with fellow students and mentors."While this conclusion summarizes the main points from the essay, it essentially echoes what was probably covered in the body, adding no new insights.

Revised conclusion (offering new insights)
"Embracing the challenges of my junior year research on renewable energy has, on the surface, underscored the importance of perseverance and collaboration. But in the grand tapestry of life, it has also made me ponder: if a single research project can face so many hurdles, what complexities must professionals in the renewable energy sector grapple with daily? As I look to the future, I'm motivated not just by the lessons from this project, but by a newfound determination to be part of those pioneering solutions for a greener tomorrow."

To ensure your conclusion offers new insights:

  • Reflect on the bigger picture: think about how your personal experiences tie into broader life lessons or societal observations. For instance, a personal challenge might speak to broader themes of resilience, adaptability, or the human spirit's indomitable nature.
  • Pose a thoughtful question: sometimes, ending with a question can leave a lasting impression. It invites the reader to ponder and engage with your essay even after they've finished reading.
  • Look to the future: discuss how the experiences or lessons you've talked about will influence your future endeavors. This not only demonstrates growth but also showcases forward-thinking.

The importance of a strong conclusion

Why does having a robust conclusion matter so much? Well, think of it as the aftertaste of a meal. It's the flavor that lingers, shaping your overall impression of what you've just consumed.

  • Lasting impression: the conclusion is often what readers remember most. By ending on a strong note, you increase the chances of your essay being memorable.
  • Demonstrates thoughtfulness: a well-crafted conclusion showcases your ability to think deeply and reflect, traits that educational institutions value highly.
  • Encapsulates your message: it ties everything together, driving home the core message or theme of your essay.

In summary, while it's essential to start your essay strong, it's equally vital to end it with depth and insight. As you finalize your own essays, ensure that your conclusions provide fresh perspectives, encapsulating the essence of your narrative while leaving your readers with something profound to ponder. It's this depth and thoughtfulness that can set you apart in the admissions process.


1. Is it safe to use ChatGPT for college essays?

Using ChatGPT as a tool to help structure, edit, or generate ideas for your college essays can be beneficial. However, it's essential to maintain originality and authenticity in your writing. Admissions officers look for essays that reflect the applicant's unique voice, experiences, and perspective. If you solely rely on ChatGPT or any other tool to write your essay, it may lack personal touch and genuine reflections, which can be detected by experienced readers. Always ensure that the final essay genuinely represents you and your experiences.

2. How do you get feedback on a college essay?

  • Peers and teachers: share your essay with trusted friends or teachers who have experience with college essays. They can provide valuable feedback on clarity, structure, and content.
  • College counseling centers: many high schools have counseling centers that offer resources, including essay review services.
  • Professional editing services: there are professional services specifically designed for college essay reviews. They can provide expert feedback, but they might come with a fee.
  • Online communities: platforms like Reddit or College Confidential have communities where students share and critique each other's essays. However, be cautious about sharing personal or identifiable information on public platforms.
  • Mentors or alumni: if you know anyone who has recently gone through the college application process or understands what colleges look for, they can be invaluable in providing feedback.

3. What point of view should my college essay be?

College essays are personal narratives, so they are typically written in the first person point of view, using pronouns such as "I", "me", "my", and "mine". This allows the writer to convey personal experiences, reflections, and insights in an intimate and direct manner. The essay should provide insight into who you are, your values, and how you perceive the world. It's not just about narrating events, but also about showcasing introspection, growth, and self-awareness. Remember to maintain consistency in the point of view throughout the essay to ensure clarity and coherence.


The endeavor demonstrated that while AI, like ChatGPT, can mimic the structure of an essay, the human touch is irreplaceable when it comes to crafting personal, insightful, and compelling narratives required for college admissions essays. The essence of individuality, authenticity, and meaningful storytelling are realms yet untouched by artificial intelligence.

As aspiring college students, your narrative is unique and it's crucial to articulate it in a manner that showcases your personality, experiences, and aspirations. This analysis affirms the invaluable place of human touch in personal statements. While AI can be a tool, your own voice is the essence that will make your application resonate with admissions officers. For further assistance on crafting a compelling personal narrative, consider subscribing to Aha, your go-to platform for personalized college admissions guidance and resources tailored just for you.

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