The essay has always been integral to a student’s college application. However, it is now arguably an even more critical aspect for students this upcoming admissions cycle, thanks to colleges adopting test-optional policies and the fall of affirmative action pressuring students to capture their experience as a minority in their written materials.
With the pressure to shine in their college essay increasing, students have also become fully aware and accustomed to generative AI to create fluid text.
“This is the first full application cycle where students have the ability to use ChatGPT, and this technology is constantly changing,” Jenny Rickard, the chief executive of the Common App, said in a statement, according to The New York Times.
While a swell of admissions officers reportedly use AI now, even going as far as to help them make decisions on applicants, the consensus among colleges on how to deal with student use is still developing despite the technology’s rapid evolution.
The application portal on Oglethorpe University’s (Ga.) and Georgia Tech’s websites state that AI-based technologies can be used as a “tool” to help students draft their essays but that it shouldn’t be the end-all-be-all.
“While AI-based writing assistance may be utilized to enhance elements of the application, such as language, grammar, and structure, it is crucial that the ultimate submission of any content be your own,” Oglethorpe’s guidance states.
This kind of guidance, which echoes that of Arizona State University’s Law School, suggests it relies on a degree of honesty from its applicants. However, the college essay has been a feeding ground for lies dating back to at least 2018, before the rise of generative AI; more than a third of students reported writing untrue information in their college essays.
“If you think about it from a student’s perspective, what’s their incentive for telling the truth? If they lie on their application, what happens when they get caught? The worst thing that happens is the thing that would have happened anyway: They won’t get in,” said David Rettinger, a psychology professor at Tulane University and president emeritus of the International Center for Academic Integrity.
Professionals may argue that papers written prominently by programs such as ChatGPT are stale and lack the conversational tone found in human writers, but emerging technologies may challenge this. Tech companies, like ParaAI, are creating services that can refine AI-produced text to provide more sophisticated prose.
While many such programs are still in the startup stage, says Amanda Stent, Director of Colby College’s (Maine) Davis Institute for AI, she foresees it coming to large document editing software soon. ParaAI is a student startup at Colby.
Whether colleges decide to embrace AI as a tool for students to use or stay mute, which the majority of colleges seem to be doing, Stent believes the college essay currently serves an unclear purpose in the student application. If colleges are using it to gauge a student’s lived experience, especially in a post-Supreme Court world, then how students choose to express themselves shouldn’t matter so much, she says. If colleges use the essay purely for an academic gauge, then it’s time for an overhaul.
“If the college or university is using it to make decisions about how well a student writes, then that college or university needs quickly to move to another form of assessment.”