ChatGPT for MBA admissions essays: the not good, not bad and not ugly

The big question for this year’s MBA admissions is not whether but how to use ChatGPT in writing admissions essays. Or which part of the writing process do you do, and what can AI do better than you.

ChatGPT / large language models (LLMs) will spit out credible text. And the more you tell it about you and the question you are answering, the better it will give out. In a flash you’ll have something really not-bad, that you can submit.

But there’s a but.

Which is, that not good, not bad, not ugly essay won’t get you admitted. The text will lack personality and individuality. It will be vague and general rather than specific and personal. If you don’t believe me, see this.

Your essay shouldn’t be ugly, of course, but it should have a “rawness” to it. It should be a bowl of fruit rather than warmed-over porridge.

Success in an MBA admissions essay is never guaranteed. But experience suggests it is more likely when you communication is personal, authentic and self-reflective while also communicating experiences and growth towards the MBA admissions value you now represent, particularly the parts that make you stand out.

Yes, you can feed the bot your experiences, memories, aspirations, values etc., and ask it to make text. But you will get back porridge, not fruit.

And this also begs the question: do you know what to feed it? Do you know the MBA admissions value points in your biography are?

ChatGPT most certainty doesn’t know this.

LLMs can’t generate what doesn’t exist. Only you can do the work of delving into your motivations, analysing your profile, figuring out how to frame yourself, which topics to bring up, which stories will resonate, and how to tell them.

Which is to say, the pre-writing phase is as critical as it ever was, maybe more so because it is the part of the process that is not GPT-able. This is where the good applicants will now stand out even more starkly.

The test of a good MBA admissions essay is not what it says about your achievements, but what is says about you. Even a well-fed bot knows effectively nothing about you. But you do.

1. So write that.

2. Read it back after 24hrs. Is attention focused on the right things? Do the stories matter? Are all the parts of you coming together behind your motivation? Add. Subtract. Rethink. Rewrite.

3. When you have text, the content of which will get you noticed by Adcom, THEN feed it to ChatGPT for polishing (if you even need to.)

What MBA Adcoms Want is an Authentic Expression of Self

There is an old post from Business Week that I find as current as ever, about how MBA Adcoms set about thinking up MBA admissions essay questions.

The context is, increasingly over time, business schools are asking fewer essay questions in total, often swapping text questions for multimedia input.

Part of the reason b-school Adcoms are asking for fewer questions is they don’t get what they want from the answers.

What they very often get is a generic “promo-style” answer from the applicant, telling the admissions committee what they think the committee wants to hear.

If an essay prompt results in thousands of formulaic responses it will be pulled when Adcoms sit down to refine their questions based on the quality of answers they got the previous year.

There’s a lot MBA applicants can learn from knowing what Adcom’s task themselves to achieve (or more specifically, what they try to avoid getting back) when they compose a good admissions question.

Liz Riley Hargrove, Associate Dean for admissions at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, told Business Week how admissions officers pass boardroom hours lobbing edits back and forth to craft the perfect question.

They answer each other’s questions. If Adcom members themselves answer the question generically, it is back to the drawing board.

What they don’t want is your elegantly varnished cookie-cutter answer that takes no risks about who you are and the choices you have made so far in life, and how those have worked out. What they do want is an authentic expression of self, something that reveals at least a part of who you really are and what has shaped you.

Taking risks doesn’t mean you are welcome make mistakes in grammar or tone or style, or you may discuss inappropriate topics or waste words capturing little admissions value. That’s taking a bad risk.

It does mean you can be yourself. Really, truly. Being who you really are, and saying what your really want is a good risk.

How can you “be yourself?” By saying things about you that are honest, that are specific in time and place, and unique only to you. This is the way to achieve an authentic voice and intimate tone in your communications.

If what you say could just as easily be in the next applicant’s essay, you’ve failed an important test in MBA admissions essay writing.

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