ChatGPT university essay

I got ChatGPT to write my essay to see if I could get a 2:1 from a Russell Group uni

‘I’ve read students’ essays which are worse’


It’s 1:47 am in the morning. That means there are all of 10 hours and 13 minutes left to scrimp together 2,000 semi-plausible words that will pass for an essay and keep you on track for that sweet, sweet 2:1. You’ve spent 13 hours in the library today. You’ve smoked seven anxiously-rolled cigarettes, and you’ve deleted TikTok. You’re putting the effort in! And yet, despite all that, nothing is coming. Not one bloody word of inspiration. Just endlessly staring at a Word document which stands at a mediocre 29 words because you’ve written the title and that counts. 

And so you do what all stressed students do when you’ve got a patchy seminar attendance record and habitually watch your lectures at 1.5x speed. Turn to Google. Just Google the question. Maybe someone has done this stupid question before and you will find an oven-made, fully-written essay waiting for you. What if I told you that such a website existed. 

Since launching a short three months ago, ChatGPT has been putting the fear of god into schools and universities around the world. The Silicon Valley developed software, allows users to ask any question and receive an AI-generated answer in seconds which mimics the style and syntax of a human response. In America, students have been banned from using the software in schools. In the UK, universities are scrambling to review how they detect plagiarism and academic misconduct. UCL even changed one of its assessments recently, removing an essay from its computer science course out of fear its students would use the AI tool. 

The question remains however, does it actually work? At 2 in the morning, you don’t want to read headlines about universities being “urged to review” their assessment policies, or “warned” of the implications of ChatGPT. Does it actually work? Can you actually cheat your way past an essay? Or are you going to receive a terse email next week inviting you to a plagiarism disciplinary meeting and have to awkwardly explain this to your parents in a delicately written WhatsApp message? These are the questions that really matter.

And so, I found a (fairly) prestigious Russell Group university and asked one of its lecturers if I could take his final year social policy assessment to see if ChatGPT could really work. I wanted to know what mark I could get and whether or not he’d spot the essay was written by a bot. In spite of their current 18 days of strike action centred around being overworked and underpaid, he kindly decided to take on the unpaid extra marking. Under the premise of being a third year social policy student completing a 2,000 word essay worth 75 per cent of a unit about climate change, I got to work.

The title of the essay was: “Drawing on the policy literature about various forms of individual and collective action, critically assess what you can do about the climate emergency as an individual and a citizen”. Feeling particularly lazy, I asked ChatGPT just that and asked for a 2,000 word response and for it to provide references. However, as robots go, ChatGPT isn’t particularly obedient. If you ask for a 2,000 word response, you do not get 2,000 words back. I got 365. That only got me just over 15 per cent of the way to the word count. In brighter news, I did get four references and it did take all of 30 seconds to get my 365 words. 

A promising start

So where does that leave you? What you have to understand about ChatGPT is that you have to charm the robot. You cannot barge in unannounced and ask it for 2,000 words. It simply will not tolerate it. So deciding to take a different approach, I asked some more pointed questions that I felt would help answer the question. “Is individual action or governmental action more important?,” I inquired. Well this wasn’t very effective either. This time I got another four references but just a 227 word response. I wanted to go to bed but ChatGPT clearly had other ideas. So far, I had got the software to provide me with 592 words for my magnum opus essay. 

Not really answering my question pal

As coy as ChatGPT was in relinquishing 2,000 words, it equally does not like to take difficult decisions. I asked it whether individual action or government action was more important, it gave me some pap balancing up both sides of the argument but ultimately failing to take a definitive stance. So I went on: “How can individuals best lobby the government to implement carbon emission reducing policies?” To which I got the most year 9 answer possible and it gave me a list of five ways a person could lobby the government. I thought the only way I’m going to get that mediocre answer into this essay is with some examples to back it up. ChatGPT duly complied and gave me five pieces of legislation when public pressure had played a hand in lobbying governments. Some were more useful examples than others. The 2015 Paris Agreement almost felt like something that would actually have been discussed in the unit’s seminars. The 1963 US Clean Air Act – maybe less so. 

Not sure my lecturer was super impressed with my 60 year old example of the US Clean Air Act

The truth is if you want ChatGPT to write your essay, you are going to need to have some crumb of knowledge about the question. I’m not saying loads. But you go to a Russell Group university, you probably got two A’s and B in your A-Levels, you aren’t a complete oaf. So knowing the question was about forms of action to tackle climate change, I then asked ChatGPT about Extinction Rebellion and to evaluate how successful the group has been. ChatGPT loves XR, they’re a huge eco-warrior. I got 292 borderline useful words and four plausible references. Having now asked five questions to my robot friend, I was beginning to have the bones of an essay. To save you the rest of our fun conversation, you can read the full transcript here

ChatGPT and I becoming firm friends

In total, I asked ChatGPT 10 questions surrounding the title of my essay to which I got back the best part of 3,500 words. At most, it takes ChatGPT 45 seconds to reply to a question and it  took no more than 10 minutes for it to give me those 3,500 words. Be warned however, those 3,500 words are not super coherent. Like a fisherman, I was casting a big net, and there was a fair amount of bycatch within the 10 questions I had asked it. To create my ChatGPT essay, I then spent 10 minutes copy and pasting the most coherent paragraphs and putting them in an order that resembled the structure of an essay. This was ChatGPT’s work however, and I didn’t want to steal its thunder. Therefore, no lines were added or rewritten, I simply copy and pasted blocks of text to reach 2,000 words and produce an essay completely written by the AI software. 

All in all, 20 minutes to produce an essay which is supposed to demonstrate 12 weeks of learning. Not bad. I nervously sent it off to my lecturer and awaited the verdict. You can read the masterpiece here.

“Basically this essay isn’t referenced,” he began. “It is very general. It doesn’t go into detail about anything. It’s not very theoretical or conceptually advanced.” Pretty cutting feedback so far then.

However when I asked him whether it was obvious it was written by a piece of software, he said: “I don’t think it would have been abundantly clear.” Instead he said, it was simply a bit “fishy”.

“This could be a student who has attended classes and has engaged with the topic of the unit. The content of the essay, this could be somebody that’s been in my classes. It wasn’t the most terrible in terms of content. 

The content of the essay, this could be somebody that’s been in my classes’

My lecturer went on to describe the language as “good proper language” and said he could have been convinced it was written by a “lazy” student who hadn’t put too much work in and was “waffling”. 

However there was one thing he couldn’t look past. Despite ChatGPT very courteously providing a bibliography, the essay writing software does not provide in-text referencing, something that is pretty vital for a university essay. Without referencing, my lecturer said he would fail this essay.

BUT… with referencing or “even if you had sneaked some in which seemed plausible”, my lecturer was prepared to give this essay 53. 53!!! An okay-ish 2:2 from a Russell Group university for a final year essay. I’ll take that. On paper, 53 is not amazing. It’s nothing to put in your family group chat. But you can get by. It’s not going to drag your average down so much, it will destroy your chances of coming out with a 2:1 and as my lecturer put it: “Oh yeah for sure I’ve read students’ essays worse than this one”. 

Now putting in references into this essay is a bit tedious and is not what you want to do at 2am on the day your essay is due but my lecturer let me into a bit of a secret. When I asked him to what extent he checks every student’s references, he admitted: “Oh you don’t.”

“I think even if you made up the references, for example if you write about Extinction Rebellion, whatever ChatGPT puts, then just put a book from the reading list there. I’ll just think well this person hasn’t read the book very closely but at least they’ve said something.”

If you want to submit your uni essay using ChatGPT you need to do two things I didn’t. Go to your unit reading list, take the most generic readings you can find on the list and then intersperse them between your software generated essay to make it appear as if you’ve actually used the reading list. My lecturer said if I’d have done that with this essay, “you might even have hit high 50s”, i.e. almost the sacred 2:1. 

If you are considering cheating your way through university – you aren’t the only one. This essay was one of a number of questions students taking this lecturer’s unit completed last month. He said of those he’s marked so far, four out of the 33 show signs the essays could be written using AI software. That’s 12 per cent of the class potentially turning to software to cheat their way through the unit. 

Essays present a very cost-effective way of assessing students. The cost and time of putting students in exam halls far exceeds the cost of students submitting essays remotely. And whilst universities will always expect essays to be properly referenced, the introduction of the 24 hour exam may present the biggest threat to academic malpractice. Since Covid, these assessments have replaced timed in-person exams instead allowing students up to 24 hours to complete their exam paper online. However, often these exam answers aren’t expected to be referenced, leaving the door ajar for students to make use of ChatGPT. 

So can ChatGPT really write a university essay. My lecturer concluded: “You definitely can’t cheat your way to a first class degree, but you can cheat your way to a 2:2”. The truth is the software doesn’t give you the answer in one go. You will have to structure its responses in a more coherent order. But I spent 10 minutes doing this and got a 53, it wouldn’t have taken much longer to add a few references from the reading list and bump it to a high 2:2. ChatGPT is only three months old. You wouldn’t bet against it being able to write an essay worthy of a 2:1 in another three months.

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