Opinion: ChatGPT can’t replace authentic student voice in college essays

Will students turn to AI-generated essays for their college applications?  That is a question facing admissions offices. (Courtesy of Pixabay)

Credit: Pixabay

Credit: Pixabay

Will students turn to AI-generated essays for their college applications? That is a question facing admissions offices. (Courtesy of Pixabay)

The advent of artificial intelligence software such as ChatGPT has led to discussions about whether colleges will drop or amend their admissions essay requirements. I asked Atlanta college essay coach Patti Ghezzi for her thoughts on the question.

A former journalist who also worked at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Ghezzi now works in nonprofit communications. She also advises high school students on their college essays.

By Patti Ghezzi

I hope AI doesn’t drive colleges to get rid of the admissions essay, as some experts, including Rick Clark, director of admissions at Georgia Tech, have predicted.

As an essay coach, I have seen how the process of writing 650 words requires students to think about who they are and how they want to present themselves to the world, something they would not otherwise have the time, opportunity or inclination to do.

Patti Ghezzi

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

Writing requires you to be still, think and reflect. I used to start by advising students to demonstrate self-reflection in their essay. But I stopped mentioning self-reflection because I realized I didn’t need to, at least until I saw their first draft. Their essays often reveal far more than students intend to share about their sensitivity, self-awareness and capacity to grow.

In one of my favorite essays, a football player wrote about his four years on the team, an experience marked by coaching turnover and COVID-19 interruption. He wrote about the texts he sent to classmates who might be willing to play, imploring them to come to practice, and the multiple positions he covered when the team didn’t have enough players.

What he didn’t write about was how the team only won a couple of games the whole time he was on the team. I was struck by his essay’s absence of self-pity. He wrote about this experience with the joy of someone who played for a winning team uninterrupted by a pandemic.

I wasn’t surprised when he got into his first-choice school only to get recruited to play football at a school he was even more excited to attend.

Another student wrote about his social life, having two separate groups of friends. When he and I talked, his ideas weren’t fully developed, and I didn’t know what to expect. His first draft felt like inside information, a rare look inside a teen’s enigmatic social life. Its subtext revealed someone with the soft skills to handle the curveballs freshman year can throw. I suggested a few edits.

I tell students that pretty much any topic can become a college essay as long as you care about the topic and commit to the writing process: write, seek feedback, revise, seek feedback, revise again, polish.

I advise students to start by writing long and unfiltered and then revise by boiling off the least flavorful words, phrases and sentences, leaving behind the richest prose. Pro tip: Most adjectives and adverbs can be boiled off.

I have always feared that the essay would get edited out of the college admissions process. With so many students applying to the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech and other popular schools, I don’t know how admissions departments have time to read them all, much less draw conclusions about whether each student would be a good fit.

(Yes, I stand to lose a side hustle if the college essay goes away. So, yes, I am inclined to want the essay to stick around to suit my own interests. And, yes, I feel guilty for supporting a practice — private essay coaching — that contributes to inequity. I have worked with students who cannot afford private essay coaching through an organization called Peer Forward as well as referrals. I have never turned anyone away for inability to pay. But I acknowledge my participation in an inequitable practice.)

As colleges respond to demands for equal access, the essay gives students an opportunity to gain advantage by hiring a private coach, like me, or seeking help from a parent or family friend with writing or college admissions experience. As Clark and other admissions professionals have lamented, some essays are so over-edited and polished, the student’s voice has been squeezed out.

And that voice is what admissions professionals say they want. They just want to hear the student’s voice, something that is otherwise absent from the application.

But here we are, the essay on the chopping block not over volume, equity or excessive polish but over ChatGPT, an AI platform that wasn’t even on my radar this time last year.

I have already fielded a question from a parent about ChatGPT. What tool would I run her child’s essay through to confirm it was not written with ChatGPT? I told her I wouldn’t be doing that. My role is to guide students through the process of writing a college essay. I have tinkered with ChatGPT, and I don’t see the tool doing students any favors.

The AI tool pulls together ideas from a variety of sources, but it is not the student’s voice. It can’t capture the feeling of playing football on a team short on players and loving every minute of it. Nor can it reproduce the feeling of having friends who get you.

If a student asks me about ChatGPT, I’ll encourage them to have faith in their voice and write their own essay.

I don’t know where things are headed with AI, nor do I have any idea what will become of the college essay. But for now, students still have 650 words. My advice: Be still, write and tell the world who you are.