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Rethinking College Admissions and Applications with an Eye on AI

Schools, colleges & students' families must make clear that while ChatGPT is fine for structuring college essays, plagiarism is not

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Applying to college is a high-stakes process for students, a crucible of stress and expectations. Many young people feel their fates ride on finding just the right college to reach their dreams. As professionals who have supported high school students through thousands of college admission journeys, we believe the process is ripe for the use of ChatGPT, a powerful new artificial intelligence writing tool.

The entry point is likely to be the college essay, a task many young people find immobilizing. Anyone who works in college admissions must familiarize themselves with ChatGPT and begin to grapple with how the tool might enter into student work in the very near future.

If you haven’t given ChatGPT a try, you should. When asked to write a 500-word essay suitable for college admission, the computer produced a piece in seconds about a student’s interest in science and technology, work on the high school robotics team and desire to be part of a college community. It was a decent response to a basic prompt.

A more complex prompt left no question about the program’s strength: “Write a 500-word college admission essay that tells a dramatic story of a high schooler overcoming something significant in their life. Include references to places in their hometown of Philadelphia and a quote from a famous Philly artist.” The response was well-rounded and intriguing. It described the student coming out from behind an older brother’s shadow through community service using a quote from Will Smith and talked about learning and growing. Any counselor would have believed this was a well-written, human-authored essay.

This nuance is unprecedented, and already, schools in New York are banning access. However, the use of this technology is unavoidable. ChatGPT is on a path to shake up college admissions, and whether schools like it or not, students, admissions professionals and high school counselors must prepare. 

While the college application is full of basic demographic and academic questions, the essay is one of the few areas where students are expected to express aspects of themself they feel are important and let their voices be heard. The stress of conveying the right set of values, or telling a good story, or sharing something deep and heartfelt in 650 words can be paralyzing. Students can spend months on just this one task. 

ChatGPT can help. The program can write an outline to remove writer’s block and offer suggestions for building on students’ existing work. Used responsibly, it functions as a powerful writing companion.

But plagiarism is a serious risk, and educators must send a loud and clear message that it is wrong. ChatGPT adds a new variable to the equation because stealing from a computer may seem less harmful than stealing from a human. However, the program is built using input from countless writing samples from real humans. Passing off the work of ChatGPT as one’s own is plagiarism, plain and simple. This is where the conversation among students, teachers, counselors and parents needs to start.

High school educators should engage students in discussions about the ethics of using artificial intelligence and what constitutes plagiarism. AI has implications in a wide variety of subject areas, so counselors could partner with teachers to discuss its potential use in careers students may pursue. Counselors should also reiterate the importance of students telling their own, original story in their essay and should introduce ChatGPT to students’ family members so they can discuss it at home as well.

Admission offices that rely on the essay might expand their use of interviews, video submissions and/or writing samples that show a student’s response to teacher feedback. While these practices are time-intensive for application readers who are already stretched thin, they get to the heart of who a student is. At the same time, each college’s website should mention ChatGPT with a blurb from the admissions team about how they believe it should be used. 

None of these are perfect solutions. But banning ChatGPT or trying to avoid the topic by downplaying AI’s impact will not change the reality of the new college admissions or technology landscape. High school and college stakeholders must work together to build on existing admissions practices and address the inevitability of ChatGPT directly. 

This is an opportunity for college admissions stakeholders to collectively brainstorm novel approaches to this novel issue.

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