CollegeGPT - The role of A.I. in the future of college essays and admissions

With the rise of student access to A.I. like ChatGPT, how will it affect the world of college admissions?

An open ChatGPT window next to the Common App window on a student's computer on May 1, 2023. (Photo by Ethan Huang)

“As a student and an aspiring media professional, I believe that the University of Southern California (USC) is the perfect place for me to grow both personally and professionally. USC’s commitment to diversity, innovation, and academic excellence aligns perfectly with my own values and goals.”

Reportedly, a college admissions officer can spend only 15 minutes reading an entire application. If the hook is not eye-catching enough, the application is passed over for the next. If you were reading that text, would you take the time to read over that student’s essay?

But what if I said that that text was written by a machine – a high school college applicant who goes by the name ChatGPT?

ChatGPT, or Generative Pre-trained Transformer, is an artificial intelligence chatbot developed by OpenAI. The algorithm pulls from various sources on the internet such as Wikipedia or Reddit and uses them to provide a plausible “next word” in a sequence, creating a more or less accurate piece of text responding to the user’s prompt.

It has recently gained both popularity and notoriety among students given their use in everything from essays for their classes to even cover letters for job applications.

The result is a crackdown by some professors to prevent cheating to the point that popular anti-plagiarism software Turnitin added AI writing and ChatGPT detection into their platform. On the other hand, some are open to the rise of this technology, with the International Baccalaureate allowing the use of ChatGPT in student essays.

However, within academia, one side of this that has not been addressed extensively is its use in college applications. With today being National Decision Day, hundreds of thousands of high school seniors will be announcing their future colleges across social media. While this round of admissions has passed by, the next cycle is already ramping up, and A.I. may have a role to play in the experience of student applicants.

While officers are stated to review students “holistically”, meaning the entire package (resume and all) are taken into consideration, the essay is an invaluable and time-consuming part of these applications. It is also where A.I. could make its mark. After all, if A.I.-generated cover letters and academic papers are on the rise, what is to stop students from using it in their college applications?

The big question for this issue is how well a chatbot can write a college essay. As conversational as the generations read, it may be more difficult that one may expect to perfectly replicate the human cadence.

“A longtime challenge to try to convince a human whether or not something is human in our minds is a classic Turing test in one form or another,” said Jonathan May, a professor of computer science at USC Viterbi. “I’m sure I could be fooled in the right circumstance… if you look at the essay, you spend a few minutes looking at the essay and you don’t really think about what the essay is trying to say, but it contains the right words more or less, and it seems to contain a surface understanding.”

That said, it does not mean that the product will be appealing to the reviewing schools. According to Daniel Lee, a co-founder of college counseling business Solomon Admissions Consulting, A.I. technology lacks the sense of authenticity that schools expect from these essays.

“Really compelling college essays have a very specific tonality, and that tonality is personal to that student, and it’s very hard for a computer program to simulate that,” he said. “Stanford University likes essays that are very quirky and show intellectual vitality. ChatGPT isn’t going to know that, and so they would probably write an essay for Stanford, but it’s not going to be what Stanford’s looking for.”

To A.I. and college experts alike, that is the main caveat of trying to use ChatGPT in these situations: it is simply too boring.

“It tends to be a little boring, it tends to be a little obvious for people who have experience that it’s machine generated. So, I would not recommend it as a way to get in,” said Jonathan Gratch, a professor of computer science and psychology at USC.

Mainly, it is because these machines generate an essay based on a resume fed into the program, and do its best to construct something incorporating those components without much consideration to creativity.

All of this is said without mentioning the ethical issue that arises with its use. The reason why ChatGPT has become such a hot topic in recent months is because of its use to stain academic integrity.

“What’s the difference between having to write your essay versus just hiring someone else to write your essay and submitting it as your own. So, I mean, it’s also a plagiarism, honor code issue,” said Lee.

So far, colleges have not extensively announced plans to respond to this, mainly because they are waiting to see how far it goes, according to Lee. That said, Gratch believes they may use A.I. detection software to catch perpetrators, much like in the classroom.

“There are a number of tools to detect that that has been done in that way,” he said. “Just seeing it can get a sense, okay, this is probably from ChatGPT; a colleague of mine, a professor at UCLA, actually caught a bunch of his students and he used tools to detect they were using it for their essays.”

That is not to say that it should be completely barred from students, as some actually find it helpful beyond its use as a tool for plagiarism.

Jude Hijleh, a senior at Ayala High School in Chino Hills, CA deciding between UCLA and USC, says that she enjoys using ChatGPT casually.

“Often my friends and I have actually used it to ask questions about our lives, about educational resources,” she said. “Just yesterday, I asked it to plan a trip, so I use it like a part of my school”

This extends even into the world of applications, especially essays. According to David Yang, a senior at San Mateo High School in San Mateo, CA committing to UC Berkeley, says that there are better ways to use the platform.

“I think that you need more creative uses of it than just writing the essay for you,” Yang said. “There’s obviously the cute way of grammar checking, but sometimes they could evaluate the cohesiveness of your response.”

Both May and Gratch express similar sentiments. They both mentioned how for their colleagues and students whose native language is not English, A.I. can actually be useful to ensure that they can express themselves clearly in writing.

In the case of May, he says that rather than use ChatGPT for plagiarism, it can be a good starting point, especially with essays.

“I find it very fun to play with and I also find it can help me overcome writer’s block and maybe even workshop new ideas,” he said. “Like if I have some new idea for something or I maybe want to try a fictional scene or come up with some explanation of how ChatGPT works or something like that.”

A.I. remains a rapidly evolving topic, so it is difficult to piece together what is the future of this technology in the university space. Yang is interested to see its potential growth.

“I think GPT in general is just going to get more and more advanced because now we’re throwing so much money at it, it’s kind of got to get better,” he said. “Maybe if like maybe in one or two years we’re going to come back and we’re going to see that GPT models have this newfound ability to not only spit out text that’s good, but maybe solve problems.”

Perhaps it will become just another part of a student’s digital toolkit, but its potential infringement on academic dishonesty is made clear. Hijleh reflects on how she feels on how universities may respond.

“I think universities should address it in a way that welcomes this evolving world, but also places limits on students,” she said. “Obviously, this isn’t the first time a university has had to deal with a tool that allows students to cheat, but maybe addressing the issue with open arms almost and embracing it rather than just rejecting it because students are going to be attracted to it and use it regardless.”

According to ChatGPT, “Overall, the use of A.I. in college admissions has the potential to make the process more efficient, fair, and effective. However, it’s important to ensure that these algorithms are transparent and unbiased, and that they do not reinforce existing inequalities in the education system.”

Again, a bit dry and “boring” as experts say, but there is always potential for development, whether it be as a force of dishonesty or inspiration. It remains unclear how much of an effect it will have on college admissions, but only the coming application cycles can tell.

In the meantime, students may fare better using the words of a real human as opposed to an artificial one.