Talking in code

Sometimes when we know what the person we’re listening to is going to say next, it can be very affirming. The two of you are like-minded souls! You’re sympatico! You’ve got “mind-meld!” However, being able to predict what will be said next can backfire when it comes to the college essay. There is no immediate connect with the writer and instead the feeling is “Oh no, not this essay again.”

Researchers have developed a way to distinguish text was generated by computer code from that written by a human. What gives it away? Its predictability. Certain words are more likely to follow one another than others and, if there is a significant number of predictable word sequences in a passage, there’s a good chance that text was “written” by a computer, not a human.

When an admissions reader can predict from the first paragraph—or even the opening sentence—the ultimate point the applicant is going to make, they might be more likely to skim the piece, anticipating where the writer is headed. And even if they were to read every word, how would this applicant stand out from any of the others who wrote similarly predictable essays?

Without question, these experiences can be very valuable and formative moments in students’ lives. But, in an of themselves, if the experience isn’t unique, the writing needs draw conclusions that are. So, if the varsity team lost the championship in the final seconds of the game, what else did the player learn other than the value of teamsmanship? If the student had an amazing service trip to a developing country, what else did they gain from that experience besides a deeper understanding of what they have to be grateful for?

The point of the college essay isn’t just to generate 650 words that tell a story—the point is to thoughtfully craft an essay that surprises the reader by the originality of the insights shared, the cleverness of the message conveyed, and the power of the ultimate observation that the writer makes. If the story is going to begin like many others, the ending should surprise.