December 29, 2023

Should You Use AI to Write Your Personal Statement? Part 1

In one of my favorite stories by Roald Dahl, “The Great Automatic Grammatizator” (1996), an inventor creates a machine that can write prize-winning novels in roughly 15 minutes.

The story has a depressing conclusion, as the world's greatest writers are gradually forced into licensing their names—and all human creativity—to the machine.

Some people argue that Dahl’s story predicted the rise of ChatGPT nearly 30 years in advance.

But is that a fair assessment? Is ChatGPT really akin to Dahl’s Grammatizator, or rather, is it really a threat to nullify all human creativity?

Ever since ChatGPT came onto the scene, I have gotten many questions from students and colleagues about its role in admissions essays. And those questions led to this article series, where I’ll be exploring the usefulness of AI in creating personal statements.

As someone who’s helped students write personal statements for 11+ years, I know the ins and outs from start to finish, and I want to see how useful AI can be in each step of the process.

That way, you can decide for yourself whether and how much you want to use AI to aid you in your admissions writing.

Part I: Is AI Useful for Personal Statement Organization and Idea Generation?

For our purposes here, let’s use medical school personal statements as our model, although I think our findings will apply across the board.

When students show up to work with me, they come with a resume of experiences (sometimes upwards of 15-20) and a boat-load of questions:

  • Which of my experiences should I use in my personal statement?
  • How many experiences should I put in my personal statement?
  • How can I organize the personal statement to make these experiences work together?
  • Should I save any of these experiences for other essays in my application?

And that’s just a few of their initial challenges. Based on my years of experience, I am able to help them find common trends/themes in their experiences, while also guiding them in how to properly allocate the experiences across the application.

But that’s a careful art I’ve honed through hundreds of applicants. Would ChatGPT be able to do something similar?

Below, I’ve listed a hypothetical outline of a candidate’s experiences (ranked by the candidate based on its importance), including category, name, duration, and total hours.

This is what I’d typically see when initially reviewing an applicant’s profile. How effective would AI be in helping this student with idea generation and organization for their personal statement?

Let’s start by seeing how ChatGPT responds to the following prompt:

Do you see any important common themes across the experiences?

Here’s what ChatGPT gave me:

If you were this student, would you find this assessment helpful?

Eh, probably not.

  • It’s a long-winded, vague explanation without much of real value
  • It’s unhelpful to suggest 6 different themes for the essay, which is far too many for one personal statement
  • By analyzing ALL of the experiences, the AI isn’t being discerning about which activities are more important to prioritize in the personal statement
  • It’s essentially just regrouping the activities with the same categories as the list I gave it, merely adding generic explanations of those categories

OK, what about organization? Let’s see what happens if I prompt AI like this:

How would you suggest organizing their personal statement?

Here’s what ChatGPT gave me:

Again, I don’t think most students would find this particularly useful. Or worse, it could send them down the wrong path.

What’s missing?

  • For some paragraphs, it suggests possible activities to include, but in others, it leaves that vague and unclarified
  • It completely lacks examples of how opening lines, topic sentences, and transitions could look and sound
  • It’s covering too much in one single personal statement
  • It’s suggesting a rather cliche opening paragraph
  • It’s focusing too much on the preparation/interest in the field, and not enough on what makes the candidate unique

OK, maybe things will get better if I ask the AI for a rough draft:

Could you write me an example personal statement for medical school that would utilize these themes and organization?

Here’s what ChatGPT gave me:

As you can see, if you ask ChatGPT to write a personal statement (even informed with some specific information), you will be given a technically sound but generic essay.

And that’s because there’s a lot more that goes into a personal statement beyond exposition.

Let’s break down all the issues with ChatGPT’s advice and initial rough draft:

  • Titles and subtitles are unnecessary and amateur-looking, but ChatGPT would have no way of knowing that unless you prompt it with all the formatting specifications that are typical of a medical school personal statement
  • The AI decided to incorporate all of the experiences at once, at only a shallow level, rather than choosing fewer experiences and giving them more depth
  • There are potentially many other aspects the student may want to include in their personal statement (early struggles with grades in college, autobiographical components like family illness, etc), which may only come to light through a conversation with an admissions advisor who understands the application process    
  • Both the student and the AI typically lack the knowledge to understand what’s important to include and prioritize, whereas an advisor knows which brainstorming and organizational questions to ask the student
  • Repeatedly prompting the AI with more information will only give you marginally better advice or drafts; the amount of time it would take the student to experiment with new ways of prompting the AI would be better used towards conversing with an advisor and actually writing the essay itself

AI’s Final Grade for Organization and
Idea Generation: C-

If you’re going to use AI for this step of the personal statement writing process, here are my biggest pieces of advice:

  • Make sure that you specifically prompt the AI with the necessary formatting information (word/character limit, no subtitles, etc)
  • Whether on your own or through a conversation with an advisor, try to narrow down your experiences and feed the AI fewer experiences at once
  • Experiment with using AI to generate smaller portions of the essay, like paragraphs or transitional sentences, one at a time, which will give you better information as you further prompt it and build out the essay

I don’t think these strategies will solve all of the fundamental issues, but they’ll certainly help.

When assessing AI’s usefulness, I think it’s important to compare it to a human advisor, which I attempted to do succinctly below:

AI Advisor vs. Human Advisor: A Breakdown

Want to see the outline and advice I gave this student about their personal statement?

Check out this Free Download.

Stay tuned for my future articles in this series, where I will continue examining AI’s usefulness in other stages of the personal statement process!

Next up: AI’s ability to write hooks / introductory paragraphs

- Ryan

For over 11 years, Ryan Kelly has guided hundreds of students towards acceptance into top colleges and graduate schools, with an emphasis on standing out while also staying true to themselves. Read more about Ryan here. Or book a free intro meeting with him here.

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