Can ChatGPT Essays Get You Into an Ivy League School? We Asked an ex-Harvard Advisor

"I would give them a 'B' and that’s pretty generous," Adam Nguyen says of GPT-generated essays.

Adam Nguyen in a grey shirt.
Adam Nguyen, founder and CEO of Ivy Link. Courtesy of Adam Nguyen

OpenAI’s ChatGPT has taken higher education by storm this year. Faculty, administrators and students are stunned by the artificial intelligence chatbot’s ability in writing school assignments, passing difficult exams and even generating exams itself. One particularly tempting use of the technology is writing college application essays, often regarded a make-or-break component of an application as more and more schools eliminate standardized test scores as a requirement.

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Adam Nguyen, an entrepreneur with years of experience in both artificial intelligence and college admission, has mixed reviews on personal essays generated by ChatGPT.

A graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School, Nguyen is an expert on the admissions process of the country’s best schools. He previously worked as an admissions reader and interviewer in Columbia’s Office of Undergraduate Admission and as a graduate student advisor at Harvard.

Since 2008, Nguyen has run Ivy Link, a tutoring company advising high school students on how to get into colleges ranked among the top 80 in the U.S. Nguyen graduated from Harvard Law School in 2002 and worked in law and finance for nearly a decade after that. In 2011, he co-founded eBrevia, a legal tech company using natural language processing—the same technology behind ChatGPT—to extract and summarize information from legal documents. Nguyen sold the company in 2018 to focus on Ivy Link full-time.

In an interview with Observer earlier this month, Nguyen discussed his thoughts on the overall quality of essays generated by ChatGPT, common misconceptions around personal essays, and how A.I. tools should be best used in college applications.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity.

Have you looked at any ChatGPT-generated personal essays? How would you grade them? 

Yes, I have looked at a number of them. I have generated essays myself using ChatGPT and compared them with essays written by real students. On the whole, I would say they are pretty good. If you were an admissions officer, there’s no way you could tell these are A.I.-generated.

But they are also pretty average. I would give them a ‘B’ and that’s pretty generous.

What are the pros and cons of GPT-generated essays?

The good thing about A.I.-generated essays is they are free of grammatical errors. The spelling is almost always perfect. They always follow a structure, with an introduction and a conclusion, for example. And they always address the prompt—whatever the prompt is, they will answer it. ChatGPT will even try to provide some examples to support the writer’s thesis.

But the biggest problem is that GPT-generated essays lack personal details, like specific activities and accomplishments in high school. There are very few details that distinguish one student from others. Even when ChatGPT tries to provide some personal details, they tend to be generic.

How much of that is a result of the limitations of A.I. or the direction given by the user?  If I give ChatGPT a better prompt, asking it to write in a certain tone or include specific examples, for example, can it generate a better essay? 

With ChatGPT, what you tell it to write does matter. But if a student is mediocre anyway, they probably are not going to ask insightful questions. When I read GPT-generated essays, I find them boring and lacking layers of thought. This is the same mistake most students make, by the way. This is a human mistake.

Machine learning works by digesting huge amounts of textual data and generating responses based on that data. It’s mimicking human intelligence. In this case, it’s mimicking average, mediocre student intelligence. You can play around with different prompts, but it will only get you so far.

Can a GPT-generated essay get me into a good college? 

You are not going to get into a top-30 school, definitely not a top 20, with a GPT-generated essay.

How important is a personal essay in the college application process anyway? Can a student get into a top school with an excellent essay but average scores?

Essays are important, but they are not as important as students and their parents think. If you are applying to top-20 schools and you have mediocre grades, you are not likely to overcome those with an amazing essay. Are you 100 percent out? No. But your chance may be less than 5 percent.

Do top colleges automatically rule you out if your GPA or test scores don’t meet a certain threshold? 

They don’t rule you out if you have uneven grades or test scores. But it certainly decreases your probability of admission dramatically. When colleges say they look at things holistically, they really do—they look at the whole package.

Of course, if you have a bunch of ‘B’s on your transcripts, it’s kind of a red flag for an admissions reader. By the time they get to the essay, they may have already formed an opinion of you.

What are the most important components of a college application that students often overlook?

Aside from grades, extracurricular activities are the most important things on your resume. All colleges assess student records starting from grade nine. So, they are looking at three or 3.5 years of experience depending on whether you apply for early decision or regular decision.

Many students and parents make the mistake of putting all of their weight on the essay. You can write as much as you want in an essay, but you can’t fake three years of passion, dedication and accomplishments. And those things are supported by letters of recommendation, which are sent directly to the colleges.

How do you think ChatGPT could be useful in writing college application essays and, more broadly, in education? 

ChatGPT should be seen as an assistant who takes directions from you. I can see it being used to generate the first draft of an essay. It could get you 30 or 40 percent there, but you still need to do the rest of the work.

The debate over whether students should be allowed to use ChatGPT misses the point. The technology is there, and students are going to use it. Educators need to figure out a way to work with ChatGPT and teach students to be responsible for their work.

Are you worried about A.I. outsmarting humans? 

A.I. is good at processing large amounts of information quickly. We call it “at scale.” Humans cannot do things at scale. We are at a disadvantage there. But when it comes to creativity, nuance and individuality—at least for now with GPT-4—humans are still in control. In a few years or a decade, I don’t know.

Do you recommend your students use A.I. writing tools, such as ChatGPT and Grammarly?

We don’t recommend students use Grammarly unless they are very advanced. For most students, we teach them basic writing skills, because you need to know the skills before you use the tool. It’s like you wouldn’t put a student driver in a Tesla with Autopilot.

Can ChatGPT Essays Get You Into an Ivy League School? We Asked an ex-Harvard Advisor