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April CPR Newsletter: In Which I Tried ChatGPT To Write A College Essay

Hello fellow parent!

Sanity Saver…

An especially nutty “news flash” appears every year as seniors are finalizing their college decisions. I thought you might enjoy this year’s winner, a guy gunning for the Guinness Book of World Records (True story!):

High School Senior Graduating Two Years Early Offered Admission to 170 Colleges, $9M in Scholarships.

I hope that by comparison, you’ll feel good about your much saner approach to navigating this process.

What might be on your mind…

If you’re a parent of a senior, revel in the end of the purgatory of not knowing what will happen next! Now you may have encountered the new purgatory of waitlists. While waitlists have become obnoxiously long (a symptom of colleges not knowing what will happen next), they do move more than they did pre-pandemic. Still, my advice is to assume that your child will not be plucked from a waitlist. Focus on enthusiasm for the college where you’ve submitted a deposit.

If you’re a parent of a junior, welcome to the thick of the college admissions emotional rollercoaster! Here are some ideas to help you stay sane at especially trying moments:

  • Use sheer force of will to transform the giddy feeling of anxiety into its close cousin excitement. (When my oldest left for college, I channeled my nervous energy into excitement about writing College Admissions Cracked! Then when our youngest left, my husband and I took up guitar! We are not very good, but now we channel anxiety about our kids out there in the world into filling their vacated rooms with the (slightly off-key) sound of our favorite “oldies”.)
  • Resort to the rule of 5: If it won’t matter in 5 years, don’t waste 5 seconds stressing about it. (That innocent thing you said that set off your embarrassed teen at the info session will be long forgotten in 5 years.)
  • Find the humor anywhere and everywhere you can. (One family I know missed a tour of a rural college because an escaped cow caused a traffic jam. On the off chance this happens to you, enjoy the laugh and settle for a self-guided tour once you finally arrive on campus.)

What’s on my mind…

Will students REALLY write their personal essays for college applications using ChatGPT? And if they try, will those essays turn out any good?

I enjoyed this Inside Higher Education article Don’t Assume Students Are Eager AI Adopters by a professor who studies human-machine communication. She believes students are not as gung-ho as adults might think to use AI to cheat on essays of any kind.

Then I tried writing a college essay on ChatGPT and learned:

  • The output is only as good as the input. When I typed in generic information, the bot just tossed that generic information into sentence form.
  • Details help, but not enough to stand out. When I fed the bot some quite specific details, the computer could not compute emotional impact or insights. The “lessons learned” were generic and could be plugged into myriad topics.

Another thing I’ve learned in my line of work is to never underestimate the impact of fear on teenagers (or anyone else, for that matter). Fear might cause a student to try anything to write a good essay and get into college, including ChatGPT. But fear can also keep students in check. Teachers and administrators use AI detectors to assess the probability that text was generated by AI, not a human. I believe most students are ethical, plus the fear of getting caught—combined with the likeliness that the essay will turn out sub-par instead of the game-changer it could be—will deter students from using AI instead of writing college essays themselves.

A tech solution I’m excited about…

My big dream is to use technology for good, and I’m going for it!

Students are experiencing far too much pressure and anxiety (as you well know), so to eliminate at least one of their big stressors, I had the idea of capturing my entire private personal essay coaching process in an online, interactive mash-up between a course and a game. Then my techie husband’s brilliant team managed to create the stress-free virtual world I envisioned, where writing a college personal essay is easy, efficient, and fun for students, and affordable for their beleaguered parents!

I hope it will be ready in time for your kid to use it to write a knockout college essay, and you’ll be first to know when the platform launches! If our venture helps tamp down stress and make this one part of the college application process saner for you and your child, it will be 100% worth the effort.

Warmly,

Jill

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