The right way to use ChatGPT to help you write your college essays

We’re getting down to the wire when it comes to writing college admissions essays, and this year, high school seniors are undoubtedly (tempted to) lean on AI writing tools. Here’s my best advice for the right way to use ChatGPT to help you write your college essays.

  1. Understand what the essay is NOT about
  2. The college essay should not be a regurgitation of your resume, grades or awards. Those are already covered elsewhere in the application. Rather, the essay is your one opportunity to convey your character, personality, and sense of humor. The goal of the rest of these steps is to, with the help of AI, project that “you-ness” onto the page.

  3. Conduct a general-purpose “oral history” interview
    1. Ideally, you can have a friend or a parent give you the interview. But the key to this is to NOT ask the questions that the universities are asking you on the application form. Those questions are stilted and difficult to answer. Record this interview, using a transcription tool like or

      If you don’t know how to conduct an interview, refer to the oral history interviews put up by the Computer History Museum.

      Some questions that you might ask include:

    2. What was your upbringing/family like? What about your family dynamics? Did your values line up with your parents’ values?
    3. What is your cultural background - and what are some ways that cultural background manifests in your life/upbringing?
    4. What is the town that you grew up in/currently live in like? Do you eventually want to live in a town that is the same, or different?
    5. How do you think your best friend would describe you? (You can ask your best friend to describe you if that’s easier).
    6. If you don’t have a best friend, why do you think that is?
    7. What activities make you the happiest? What activities do you find frustrating?
    8. Are you introverted or extroverted? Diligent or lazy? Sensitive or robust? Neurotic? Why do you think you are the way you are?
    9. Do you think of yourself as a good person? Do you have an obligation to try to be a good person?
    10. What types of social media/media content do you find yourself attracted to?
    11. What, if anything, excites you about this world?

You should tailor the questions to yourself. Think of it as a way to get to know your friend on a deeper level. You can use ChatGPT to help you brainstorm questions, or crib from “getting to know each other” question lists like The New York Times’s 36 questions for falling in love.

BE HONEST in this interview - this is not a time to fudge - you will have a chance to scrub out details that universities probably shouldn’t know about later.

  1. Think about passages of writing that you have admired from writers.

Even if you’re not a big reader, you can think of stand-up comics, journalists, lines from movies and tv shows, and even pieces of music that you have admired. Collect these artifacts, which may include:

  • quotes from books
  • quotes from movies
  • writing styles that you admire, for example, Maureen Dowd, or James Baldwin, or Rumi.
  1. Review your oral history transcript, and cross-reference that against the essay prompts.

For example, here are this year’s common app prompts:

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

As you can see, these are very flexible prompts, so really you can make what is in your oral history transcript fit in any prompt.

  1. Brainstorm a single scene
  2. The best college essays follow the old adage, “show, don’t tell.” The best way to do this is to pick a single scene. Get inspiration for which scene this should be from your oral history transcript.

    For illustration purposes, let’s use Pat Gelsinger (CEO of Intel’s) Computer History Museum oral history interview transcript as an example. These are the first two pages of the transcript:


So even in these two short pages, there are already a ton of details that stand out

  • He grew up in a closed, insular Amish family where everyone was expected to be a farmer, but he wasn’t in line to inherit a farm.
  • He remembers everything about the first time he touched a computer - and how it was a magical experience for him.
  • What did it mean to be career “ambitious” in these environs? Being an electrician!
  • It took his parents a long time to understand what exactly he did in the software industry.

If I were going to craft a college admissions essay for Pat Gelsinger, given the two pages above, I would pick the scene of him trying to explain to his parents how a silicon chip works. That scene would bridge the Amish farmboy of his past and the tech CEO of his future, as well as highlighting his own love and knowledge of science and computers. Of course, not everyone has as

  1. Once you have settled on a scene, conduct a second interview that covers what happened in that “scene.” Again, transcribe the interview.
  2. This interview should include as much detail as possible, from the setting, to the dialogue, to descriptions of the different participants involved. This should be written almost as a movie script.

  3. Feed transcript # 1 and # 2 as context into ChatGPT, asking the AI to “recreate” the scene that you’ve specified in detail. See the prompt in detail below:

As you can see, ChatGPT’s first attempt is heavy-handed in its literariness, but by giving it some feedback, you can end up with something pretty reasonable. Of course, you will have to further edit the essay, removing incorrect details and rewriting things in your own words, but already, this is better than 80% of college essays, and it’s highly personal.

  1. Use ChatGPT to add appropriate detail to the essay.

In the process of editing, one way to use ChatGPT is to ask it to describe settings or characters in detail. While you shouldn’t use the whole response, bits of it can serve as inspiration or be used in your essay. You can also fiddle around with the “in the style of” to get to something that seems close to your voice.


By following the steps above, you should end up with a highly personalized, punchy story from your own life/