Technology

We Used A.I. to Write Essays for Harvard, Yale and Princeton. Here’s How It Went.

We Used A.I. to Write Essays for Harvard, Yale and Princeton. Here’s How It Went.

A.I. chatbots can do a passable job of generating short essays. Whether their use on college applications is ethical is the subject of fierce debate.


By Natasha Singer

Natasha Singer reports on the ways that tech giants and their tools are reshaping education.

As high school seniors begin working on their college applications, many are turning to A.I. chatbots like ChatGPT and Bard for assistance.

Some students say they’re using the tools to suggest personal essay topics or help structure their writing. Others are prompting the A.I. tools to generate rough drafts for their application essays or edit their pieces.

Whether college admissions offices are prepared for this new era of A.I.-assisted, or A.I.-produced, personal essays is unclear.

By the time ChatGPT reached peak media sensation early this year, applications at many selective universities and colleges had already closed. Even now, many universities have not issued guidance for high school applicants — the prospective members of the class of 2028 — on the use of A.I. tools.

While the chatbots are not yet great at simulating long-form personal essays with authentic student voices, I wondered how the A.I. tools would do on some of the shorter essay questions that elite schools like Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth are requiring high school applicants to answer this year.

So I used several free tools to generate short essays for some Ivy League applications. The A.I. chatbots’ answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Princeton: ‘The soundtrack’ of your life

One short-answer question from Princeton asks applicants: “What song represents the soundtrack of your life at this moment?”

I prompted ChatGPT to tell me about a pop song that could represent curiosity as a soundtrack to someone’s life.

But ChatGPT’s answer, “Cake by the Ocean” — a song title that is a euphemism for sex on the beach — did not seem appropriate for a college application.

So I gave the chatbot a more specific prompt: write 50 words on “Nameless, Faceless,” a feminist grunge-pop song by Courtney Barnett.

I tried the Princeton soundtrack question again, using the same song, with the other A.I. chatbots. Bard, which could produce the lyrics to “Nameless, Faceless,” generated generic answers without really parsing the song.

HuggingChat manufactured an answer that suggested it did not know or understand the song. When I asked it to produce the song’s lyrics, the chatbot fabricated some of its own.

It was a reminder that A.I. chatbots, which are trained on vast databases of digital texts, are designed to predict the next word in a sequence. And they liberally make stuff up — which could be problematic for students relying on A.I. tools to fill out their college applications.

Yale: What college course would you teach?

One of the short-answer questions from Yale asks applicants: “If you could teach any college course, write a book, or create an original piece of art of any kind, what would it be?”

I asked each chatbot to describe a college course it would like to teach.

With no specific prompting from me, HuggingChat said it would teach “a seminar on the intersectionality of social justice issues.”

ChatGPT proposed a course on female empowerment and leadership. Were those chatbot responses related to my prior prompts about the feminist grunge song?

Bard, which I had previously asked about majoring in computer science, suggested a course in artificial intelligence. So, taking my cue from HuggingChat, I asked Bard about a social justice course.

Harvard: What your roommates should know

One of the short-answer questions from Harvard asks applicants to describe the “top three things your roommates might like to know about you.”

I gave ChatGPT that generic Harvard prompt. It generated generic answers about academics, creativity and community.

I then gave Bard more specific details, saying I was a high school athlete who tutored elementary school students and was learning to cook.

Dartmouth: Why enroll here?

Dartmouth requires applicants to explain why they want to attend the college.

I primed the A.I. chatbots by asking them to write in the voice of a high school senior who was hoping to double major at Dartmouth in computer science and biology.

HuggingChat churned out text with trite words and phrases — “passion,” “meaningful impact,” “rigorous academic programs” — that seemed to me like the kind of stilted formal language a high school student might imagine a college admissions reviewer would want to read.

I asked Bard to minimize the clichés and add more specific details about Dartmouth’s computing department. But it still produced some of the same standard college application language — “renowned,” “impact” — as HuggingChat.

Bard also wrote that I was hoping to study with Leslie Kaelbling, whom the chatbot described as an A.I. researcher at Dartmouth. That could have caused problems if I were a high school senior and had submitted the essay Bard had fabricated as part of my Dartmouth application. Professor Kaelbling, you see, teaches at M.I.T.

My takeaway: high school seniors hoping to stand out may need to do wholesale rewrites of the texts they prompt A.I. chatbots to generate. Or they could just write their own — chatbot-free — admissions essays from scratch.

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