By now, you have read and heard all about ChatGPT and fast-emerging successors. You may have experimented a bit to see what these AI-driven natural text processors. If so, you’ve probably been amazed at the quality of the content they churn out in a matter of minutes. You’re thinking about what tasks it can take over for you at work — and perhaps you’re wondering if it will replace part of your job.
But if you’re tempted to use this powerful tool to write your MBA application essay, think again. It will crank out a grammatically perfect (perhaps too perfect) response to the essay prompt in minutes. But will be flat, bland, and not an authentic reflection of the real you.
This was the consensus of Fortuna founder and Director Caroline Diarte Edwards and her fellow experts on a recent edition of Poets&Quants’ Business Casual podcast exploring the topic. They put the AI tool through its paces generating essays or improving drafts and concluded that while ChatGPT can do surprising and impressive things, it can’t produce what admissions directors are looking for.
“I would advise applicants to avoid the temptation to use it. The essay is going to sound so sanitized at best, at worst suspicious,” says Diarte Edwards. “I would avoid it, even for editing.
Maria Wich-Vila, founder of ApplicantLab, agreed. She asked ChatGPT to answer what is probably the hardest MBA essay question: Stanford GSB’s “What matters to you most and why?” At first, the bot declined to answer such a philosophical question, replying, “I am simply an AI tool.” But after revising her prompts a bit, Wich-Vial says, “I got back what I would call a cotton candy answer – very sweet but ultimately very empty.”
(Note: Actual humans wrote this article. We asked ChatGPT to draft it, but the bot missed the point we wanted to explore.)
Chat GPT can only work with what it’s given. Until an AI tool can scan our iris, tap into our soul, understand our aspirations, and synthesize our memories and life experiences, it’s going to need really good input to craft the authentic, personal essay MBA admissions directors are looking for.
“You have to have figured out the key elements of your story” and feed them to chatbot in your prompt, says Diarte Edwards. “I only got a sensible response once I started giving it more and more detail.”
While the output can be astonishingly good and draw connections from facts it has been given, Diarte Edwards says the tool is better at editing than writing from a few slim prompts. “I found it most useful when I fed it a rough draft and asked it to use a smoother style and reduce the word count. It did that very quickly,” she says. “I also found it sounds very bland and lacks individual personality; it’s not something I’d want to submit.”
An Editor, Not a Coach
The point of the essay is to let the admissions team get to know the real you. It takes some time and reflection to pinpoint your strengths, goals, values, and the unique facets you will bring to the admitted class – and make them shine through a short, strong essay. And that means you’ll still need to produce a solid first draft or tell the chatbot a great deal of relevant details, so it may not save much time.
AI “is not going to be able to tell you what you should be telling business schools, what is relevant about your past experiences, what are the key achievements HBS or INSEAD want to know about,” said Diarte Edwards. “That’s what experienced admissions coaches do: they delve into your background and help you showcase strengths and find ways to mitigate weakness.”
Rachel Erickson Hee, a Fortuna expert coach, agrees. After asking ChatGPT to improve some essays, she concludes, “I think there is still a really compelling argument to use a coach instead of AI, because what it can’t help with is the actual content – what someone should write about, what stories are going to resonate. Those have to come from the client, and then the coach can help guide the student in how to use those stories, how to tell them, and what message to convey with them. ‘
Podcast host John A. Byrne called ChatGPT “a worrisome tool” that will raise challenges for admissions teams. Indeed, the sudden wide-spread availability of easy-to-use AI tools set off alarm bells throughout higher education. And no wonder: a Wharton scholar reported in January that ChatGPT had successfully passed a Wharton final exam. Universities are scrambling to decide how to capture the efficiencies of AI without undermining student learning or accurate scholarship.
How and where to allow the use of these tools is an especially tricky issue for business schools. Their graduates will need to understand and use these tools to lead and manage competitive enterprises, so they will be hard-pressed to completely rule out their use. INSEAD asked its faculty to weigh in on the issue and they responded with diverse and nuanced views on how AI tools could help and hinder business education.
Fortuna asked several admissions directors at top US and European business schools how they are addressing the use of these tools and found that the topic remains under consideration.
David Simpson, admissions director for the MBA and Masters in Finance programs at London Business School, says that changes to the School’s admissions policy related to AI / ChatGPT are currently under discussion, but will be closely linked to those already in place for existing students.
“In terms of admissions, we will be led by research and output from our senior faculty who are considering what AI such as ChatGPT means for our students, and how much we can, and indeed should, control,” Simpson says. “Our students are already required to reference if and when they have used AI, providing further details on usage, as they would with any resources.”
“We know that many applicants already seek advice and guidance on their essays, and that’s fine,” he continues. “They ask friends to review their work, and some use reputable consulting firms to help best position their personal and professional experiences for admission to top MBA programmes. But use of AI to generate answers to essays raises the question about when that line is crossed – about the difference between being the best you can be in your application essays, and plagiarizing.”
The Essay Isn’t Everything
MBA admissions directors assure applicants that they are more than their GMAT or GRE scores. Likewise, a perfect, riveting essay won’t necessarily win a spot in your dream school. Schools look at all components of an application and assess candidates holistically.
“One of the reasons applications have different elements is that they are pieces of puzzle all coming together to build a full picture,” says Diarte Edwards. “There needs to be some coherence. If essays are perfectly written but the GMAT verbal is very poor, or the interviewer mentions that the applicant is less fluent in expression, schools will be looking at how that cross-checks.” It’s unfortunate that the new version of the GMAT exam dropped the essay component, she adds. A scored sample of how an applicant thinks and writes under time pressure “could have been a useful cross-check.”
Chatbots can do an impressive job of cleaning up grammar, punctuation, and style, but perfection is not the point. Admissions officers will overlook a few flaws in favor of authenticity. Will Torres, director of outreach for MBA admissions at Stanford Graduate School of Business, stressed this point in a chat with Fortuna founder and director Matt Symonds at Centre Court in early 2023. “We want to hear your voice and see your way of writing. We don’t expect there to be any specific type of formatting or syntax or style. That really gives you a lot of freedom.”
“It’s not an essay writing contest,” adds Diarte Edwards.” Admission goes to the person who has accomplished the most impressive things in the best way and shows the greatest potential. Whether or not we can tell whether the essay was written by the candidate, their cousin, or by ChatGPT, at the end of the day it’s going to be what they accomplished that matters the most in making that assessment.”
The easy availability of powerful essay-writing tools may mean schools place more emphasis on interviews. In the podcast, Poets&Quants founder John A. Byrne reported hearing that some schools may put more emphasis on video elements, which will be harder to fake.
Simpson is confident that even if students use ChatGPT to write their essays, the many stages of LBS selection process ensure that a clear view of the applicant is considered. “Our selection process combines the written application with a one-to-one interview with alumni or senior staff, a video submission and on certain programmes, an impromptu presentation. So even with the challenges that AI presents, our holistic approach means I’m satisfied our admissions process is rigorous enough that we will continue to select and bring in the very best talent.”
AI is Still Artificial
Generative AI will only continue to get better, and it will be hard to resist using such a powerful aid while pulling together your MBA application. It may be a useful tool to plug in at some point in your drafting process.
But in the end, you will only get out of a chatbot what you put into it — the details you feed it and the time you invest revising the output to make it sound fresh and personal. And AI doesn’t know what admissions officers are thinking.
Fortuna’s expert coaches do. If you aren’t feeling confident about your essay, a coach can be your very personalized ChatGPT. They are experienced “prompt engineers” who ask you all the right questions to reveal your strengths, accomplishments, experiences, motivations, and goals. They help you refine all this raw material into your true, authentic story. In the same way ChatGPT applies the rules of grammar and syntax, coaches apply their insider intelligence on just what schools are looking for to focus your essay and make the real you shine through. And they do it for all components of the application that can’t be glossed up via AI, like the interview.
They just don’t do it in three minutes. Neither should you.
Getting an MBA is a major investment in your future. It matters.
AI has its flaws and inaccuracies, and will give you canned, bland content that sounds, well, mechanical. If the admissions officer detects the use of AI (and you don’t reveal it), you’re sending a message that you’re looking for shortcuts and not willing to put in the work to develop your self-knowledge and earn a place in the class.
As John A. Byrne concludes, “Don’t ask it to determine whether you’ll get into your dream school.”
Caroline Diarte Edwards is co-founder and director of Fortuna Admissions and former director of admissions, marketing, and financial aid for the INSEAD MBA program. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation
Comments or questions about this article? Email us.