Applying to College? Here’s How A.I. Tools Might Hurt, or Help

Applying to College? Here’s How A.I. Tools Might Hurt, or Help

ChatGPT could potentially revolutionize the way application essays are crafted.

Over the past week, I’ve engaged in discussions with university administrators, educators, and high school seniors concerning the notorious college admissions essay.

As an education technology journalist for The Times, I’ve been reflecting on the potential impact of artificial intelligence tools like ChatGPT, capable of producing academic essays and various texts, on the college application process.

I was particularly intrigued to discover whether admission authorities were adjusting their essay prompts or reevaluating personal essays altogether.

Among the flood of high school transcripts and teacher endorsements, admissions officers often rely on students’ written submissions to identify individuals with unique voices, experiences, ideas, and potential. How might this dynamic change now that a growing number of students are using AI chatbots to brainstorm topics, generate initial drafts, and refine their essays?

To investigate, I reached out to admissions personnel at numerous institutions, ranging from large state universities to Ivy League institutions and small private colleges. Among those I contacted was Juan Espinoza, the director of undergraduate admissions at Virginia Tech.

According to Espinoza, many universities are currently in the process of understanding how AI technologies operate and assessing their implications for the admissions procedure.

However, he emphasized, “It’s important to note that students are already employing these tools to respond to essay prompts. Therefore, we must consider the manner in which they are leveraging these technologies.”

The A.I. skeptics

I gathered valuable insights into the perspectives of admissions offices on ChatGPT by tuning into podcasts from various universities. Yale University, for instance, dedicated an episode of its podcast series “Inside the Yale Admissions Office” to discuss A.I. tools this week.

The episode’s title, “A.I. and College Essays: Wrong Question, Wrong Answer,” clearly reflects Yale’s stance on the matter.

In the podcast discussion, two admissions officers from Yale University contended that utilizing tools like ChatGPT to compose college essays amounted to plagiarism. According to them, an applicant who submitted an essay generated by a chatbot would be in violation of the university’s admissions policy.

Furthermore, the Yale experts asserted that personal essays for college applications were designed to encourage introspection and reflection. They argued that outsourcing this personal thought process to an AI chatbot would not be beneficial.

Hannah Mendlowitz, senior associate director of admissions at Yale, expressed, “A.I.-generated content simply doesn’t excel in the style of communication that is effective in college essays” during the podcast.

However, after conducting some basic AI experiments myself, I have a hunch that such perspectives may not remain valid for long.

In the course of this week, I utilized ChatGPT and other tools to generate responses to select short-answer questions from Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Dartmouth. While the AI bots made some factual errors, with repeated prompts and adjustments, they produced reasonably well-written responses. It became evident how high school students could employ these tools to create initial drafts and then revise the content to align with their own unique voices and experiences.

Regardless of ethical considerations, these tools could potentially assist students who are struggling or lack a natural inclination for essay writing in getting their writing process underway.

A democratizing force

Espinoza from Virginia Tech and other experts in admissions shared with me their belief that ChatGPT could serve as a democratizing force, particularly benefiting high school students whose parents have limited or no experience with the college application process.

“I wonder about the potential role this tool could play in simplifying this intricate process,” Espinoza remarked, noting that he himself was a first-generation college student. “If this tool can help level the playing field for those starting from different points or bridge those disparities, I see a lot of promise in that.”

To gain insights into how high school students applying to college might utilize AI tools, I conducted an interview with Meg Scheid, the college outreach coordinator at the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology, a prominent public high school in the Atlanta area.

Initially concerned when ChatGPT gained popularity in schools last winter, she feared that students nationwide might misuse it to pass off AI-generated writing as their own. However, her perspective shifted when she realized that high school students could employ AI tools for college searches tailored to specific criteria, such as large public universities in the South with renowned biostatistics research programs or small private colleges offering full scholarships to soccer players.

Scheid suggested that A.I. chatbots could assist students in summarizing extensive lists of extracurricular activities within the constrained sections of their college applications.

“It enables students to ensure they convey to colleges: ‘I didn’t just hold the position of a basketball team captain; I was also involved in other activities that provide a deeper insight into my personality,'” she explained.

A.I. brainstorming

Khan Academy, the nonprofit online educational platform, has recently introduced its own school-oriented A.I. chatbot named Khanmigo. What’s noteworthy is that Khanmigo now features a functionality designed to assist students in brainstorming ideas for their college admissions essays. I personally experimented with it this week.

Khanmigo adopts an engaging and positive approach when interacting with students. At the beginning of each session, it advises students that college essays are not meant for listing achievements but rather as an opportunity to reveal their unique personalities and perspectives.

Furthermore, Khanmigo provides students with a list of common mistakes to avoid when crafting their essays. One notable piece of advice is: “Avoid writing about how the suffering of others made you realize your own fortune or how great your life is, as such essays tend to make college admissions officers uncomfortable.”

I believe that the brainstorming feature could prove beneficial, particularly for students grappling with selecting a suitable essay topic. Khanmigo initiates the process by posing broad questions about a user’s experiences and then narrows down potential themes.

As an illustration, I provided a real-life example from my teenage years: During one summer, I worked at a bagel store in the mornings and interned at a genetics lab in the afternoons.

Khanmigo honed in on this summer experience and proceeded to ask follow-up questions aimed at extracting relevant details that could enhance a college essay:

KHANMIGO: Impressive dedication, waking up at 5 a.m. to work at a bagel store so you could intern at a genetics lab in the afternoons! 🙌 How did this experience impact your personal growth? What valuable lessons did you derive from it?

The software then sought visual descriptions of both the bagel store and the lab. Such details could undeniably enhance the introductory scene of a college essay.

I’m not asserting that A.I. tools can entirely replace the guidance provided by teachers, counselors, parents, friends, and other human resources for crafting college essays. Nevertheless, I found the immediate feedback from Khanmigo and other A.I. chatbots I experimented with this week to be valuable. It certainly added an element of enjoyment to the essay-writing process!

Published byibraheem
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