January 12, 2024

Should You Use AI to Write Your Personal Statement? Pt. 2

In Part 1 of this series, I explored AI’s effectiveness in helping a student generate ideas and organize their personal statement (using medical school as an example).

I even asked ChatGPT to create an initial draft of the personal statement based on its advice.

Make sure to check out Part 1 to see how I graded AI’s performance for the brainstorming and outlining steps in the writing process.

Today, I want to move on to the challenge of writing introductory paragraphs, or “hooks,” to see how well AI can assist students with this challenge.

Part 2: Is AI Useful for Writing a Hook / Introduction
in a Personal Statement?

After reading the rough draft that the AI produced, I felt pretty unsatisfied with the introductory paragraph, which felt pretty generic and forgettable:

Title: A Journey Through Service and Science: My Path to Medicine

Introduction: The Spark of Inspiration

My journey into the world of medicine began in an unexpected place: the bustling emergency department of City Hospital. As an Emergency Department Scribe, I witnessed the confluence of science, empathy, and urgency. It was here, amidst the controlled chaos, that I discovered my calling to become a physician, one who not only heals but also connects with patients on a human level.

There are small problems, such as needlessly fancy diction like “confluence” and super cliche phrases like “my calling,” but the main issue here is the lack of an attention-grabbing story.

So, I figured I would try to prompt the AI again to see if it could improve the opener:

Can you revise the first paragraph to make it an attention-grabbing story about a specific patient I helped in the Emergency Department?

(NOTE: it’s funny that this was ChatGPT’s initial advice anyway in Part 1, but for some reason it failed to follow that advice without further prompting from me)

Introduction: A Moment of Clarity in the Emergency Department

My initiation into the world of medicine occurred not through textbooks or lectures, but in the bustling emergency department of City Hospital, amidst a night that I will never forget. I was working as a scribe when a young man, barely in his twenties, was rushed in following a severe motorbike accident. As I meticulously documented the medical team’s actions, something beyond the flurry of medical interventions caught my attention. It was the patient's eyes, wide with fear and confusion, silently pleading for understanding and reassurance amidst the chaos. In that critical moment, as I held his hand while the doctors worked to stabilize him, I realized my calling. Medicine, to me, became more than a profession; it was a commitment to being there for others in their most vulnerable moments, offering not just clinical skills but also compassion and hope.

This is definitely better than the original. And it’s technically sound. Pretty decent for not having a ton of information. But altogether it’s still pretty cliche.

The main issues here are a lack of memorability and a vagueness about how the student actually helped the patient (beyond mere documentation).

But perhaps this AI-generated hook would remind the student of some actual cases they encountered? Perhaps it could spark a memory of a specific patient interaction?

Let’s prompt the AI even more to try and make this better:

Can you revise the first paragraph again to include some dialogue between myself and the patient to show my empathy and my ability to use our common background to help him calm down? Can you also add a few sentences about how I helped the patient’s family? Can you also include details about the patient’s medical history to add more context and further dramatize the story?

Introduction: A Night of Compassion and Connection in the Emergency Department

On a particularly hectic night in the emergency department of City Hospital, as an Emergency Department Scribe, I encountered a situation that profoundly shaped my perspective on medicine. A young man, John, was wheeled in, severely injured from a motorbike accident. His medical history was complex, including a recent battle with pneumonia and a long-standing struggle with diabetes, which heightened the urgency of his condition. As doctors swirled around him, I noticed John's eyes flickering with fear and confusion.

“Hey John, I’m here to help,” I said gently, noting the motorcycle keychain in his hand – a small detail connecting us, as I too was an avid motorcyclist. “I’ve been on that road too, it can be tough, but you’re in good hands.”

His grip tightened around the keychain as he muttered, “It happened so fast. I'm scared.”

I stayed by his side, offering reassurances in a calm, steady voice, bridging the gap between a patient in distress and the medical team's focused urgency. This brief exchange not only helped calm John but also allowed the medical staff to work more effectively.

Meanwhile, John’s family arrived, visibly distressed. I stepped out to meet them, providing updates and answering their questions with sensitivity and clarity. My efforts to keep them informed and comforted during those tense moments were met with deep gratitude, further highlighting the integral role of empathy and communication in patient care.

The hook / introduction is getting a little bit better each time we prompt it, but I think most people would argue that this version is overly sentimental and a bit unbelievable.

Ultimately, I think this exercise is illustrating some of ChatGPT’s strengths and weaknesses:

Strengths: format, structure, transitions, exposition

Weaknesses: narrative, originality, voice

And this makes sense. The AI is drawing on every example of a personal statement it can find on the internet and synthesizing all those essays and associated advice into a single essay.

So, AI is going to thrive in organization/structure and more “telling statements” that summarize the main points. On the other hand, it’s going to flounder in the more creative tasks that make a personal statement original, authentic, and individualized.  

At best, these hooks/introductions the AI produced would give the student a template/structure they could further personalize themselves through more accurate details and authentic voice.

Harkening back to Part 1 of this series, I feel that the AI chose the wrong experience to focus on in the introduction. It took the most straightforward route in selecting the emergency department scribe position for the opener, which makes logical sense for a medical school essay but in this case was not the best way of showing this student’s unique strengths as a person.

The Human Advisor’s Version of a
Hook / Introduction

When advising this student, I pushed them to open the essay with a story about being a Resident Assistant because it’s a less common experience that could make them standout, while also highlighting their advocacy, compassion, and community investment.

If you’re interested, you can find the outline I created for them at the bottom of Part 1.

And as a contrast to the introductions / hooks the AI produced, I wanted to show the introductory paragraph that this student and I created together:

The static of my Resident Assistant (RA) walkie talkie roused me from my studying: “Noise complaint, room 767, can you check it out?”

I walked down the hall and knocked, ready to issue a quick warning, but then I saw “Julia” drenched in tears with countless beer cans and shot glasses scattered across the room. She had been binge drinking. Ensuring she was physically stable, I momentarily overlooked the alcohol violation and focused on calming Julia down and understanding what was wrong.

It took time for her to open up, but she eventually revealed that her father had passed away after a wildfire that consumed her home. She wanted to fly home, but she had finals and no home to return to. To numb her emotions, she had been drinking and experimenting with adderall. Over the next few hours, I let Julia vent her emotions, helped her clean up, and gave her the encouragement she needed to get through her final the next day. To ensure she wouldn’t relapse, I invited her to study in my room and kept her company for the remainder of the night. After our finals the next morning, I searched for natural disaster financial and housing assistance to help Julia find her way back home. I kept up with her every day over break and helped her establish alternative coping strategies to avoid binge drinking in the future.

I have a soft spot for students like Julia because I can relate to the fear, uncertainty, and isolation one feels during tough situations…

Why this Version is Better:

  • It focuses on an activity that is more unique for a pre-med (Resident Assistant) as opposed to one that is very common (ED Scribe) - something I was able to advise the student about based on my expertise
  • It doesn’t worry too much about answering “Why medicine?” or “Why physician?” in the first few paragraphs, which can come across as heavy-handed and obvious; instead, it focuses on highlighting the student’s values and impact on others (which we then used to transition into the student’s backstory and medical aspirations)
  • The events and voice come across as authentic, but also polished, because it’s written by a real human being and edited by a skilled expert
  • Showing the before-and-after of the character “Julia” and the student’s impact on her creates a much more memorable story, where the student is a major contributor/leader
  • It creates a nice balance of showing and telling, which allows for emotional resonance without becoming overly dramatic or sentimental

Key Takeaways for Using AI to Write

Hooks / Introductions

1.) As of now, AI isn’t very good at writing hooks that you can use verbatim, which is something I wouldn’t condone ethically anyway.

2.) However, AI is good at helping you brainstorm ideas for hooks.

3.) AI can potentially give you a helpful template to then personalize on your own.

4.) The text and tone still must match your voice (and that’s hard to do).

5.) Make sure you have an experienced (human) editor in your corner.

6.) Before prompting the AI, talk with a human advisor about which experience(s) would be best to use as the opener of your personal statement.

7.) Once you have chosen the right experience(s), make sure to give the AI a strong, thorough prompt to ensure you get the best results.

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!

- Ryan

Try Out Passport’s Hook Prompt on ChatGPT!

(fill in brackets yourself):

Write a unique, unexpected introductory paragraph for my [medical school] personal statement that tells a story about my role in helping [person/community] as a [job title/position]. Through the story told, the paragraph should show my impact in helping [person/community] achieve [goal/objective]. The story in the paragraph should also illustrate three key values–[value, value, and value]–and end by explaining how those values are at the core of my aspiration to become a [long-term career goal].

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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