Should AI help Georgia students write college admissions essays?

While some schools stay quiet, others allow it for tasks such as brainstorming, editing
Georgia Tech is among the first universities to issue guidance about how to use artificial intelligence to write admissions essays. (AJC file photo)

Credit: File photo

Credit: File photo

Georgia Tech is among the first universities to issue guidance about how to use artificial intelligence to write admissions essays. (AJC file photo)

Thousands of high school seniors applying to one of the state’s most selective universities are tackling the same admissions essay question: “Why do you want to study your chosen major specifically at Georgia Tech?”

The best writers will respond with authenticity, personality, a solid grasp of grammar and maybe a dash of wit. Some even will consult ChatGPT for help.

And that’s just fine with Georgia Tech, to a point. The highly ranked public research school in Atlanta is among the first to issue guidance about how to use artificial intelligence as they write their essays.

ChatGPT upended classrooms when it launched last fall, forcing professors to contend with a new cheating threat and figure out how to incorporate it into courses. Now, the disruption is pounding at the admissions office door.

There’s been “deafening silence” from many schools about the use of AI in college applications, said Rick Clark, Georgia Tech’s executive director of undergraduate admission. That was all the more reason to tackle it head on as applications for fall 2024 admission opened Aug. 1.

Georgia Tech applicants can use a chatbot to brainstorm essay ideas, organize their thoughts and edit. But they shouldn’t copy and paste AI-authored paragraphs into their applications. According to Georgia Tech: “your ultimate submission should be your own.”

”We know students are using it in their own academic work in high school, and so if they’re going to, let’s give them … some guardrails,” Clark said.

Rick Clark is Georgia Tech’s executive director of undergraduate admission. (Courtesy of Georgia Tech)

Credit: Georgia Tech

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Credit: Georgia Tech

The AI conundrum adds to the upheaval happening as some competitive colleges adjust policies following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in late June to end race-conscious admissions programs.

Elite institutions have taken varied approaches. The University of Michigan Law School tells applicants to write all drafts and the final product, declaring they “ought not use ChatGPT or other artificial intelligence tools.” Duke University pointed to guidelines developed to assist faculty as they think about the use of AI in classrooms, but the recommendations don’t specifically address admissions.

The Common Application, accepted by 1,000 schools including roughly two dozen in Georgia, advises colleges “to set reasonable parameters” around the use of AI, said Jenny Rickard, the organization’s president and CEO, in a written statement. Just over half of Common App schools don’t require an essay.

Credit: Riley Samples

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Credit: Riley Samples

One in 10 high school seniors and incoming college freshmen used or likely will use ChatGPT to write their college application essays, according to a recent survey of about 750 students by the online site Intelligent. Nearly all students who used AI to write their essays said the text it produced “required some or a lot of editing,” the survey found.

Riley Samples, a senior at Seckinger High School in Gwinnett County, is working on 15 essays as she applies to about seven colleges, including Georgia Tech and some in the Ivy League. The submissions will vary from short statements to 800-word pieces.

Samples thought it was interesting Georgia Tech didn’t ban AI entirely but steered applicants away from plagiarizing. She errs on the side of caution, using such programs only to check grammar.

“I think AI-generated essays cannot really capture who you are as a person,” Samples said. “When it writes, it’s very flat. It’s not very emotion-filled.”

Campus policies

Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia and the private Oglethorpe University in Brookhaven are among those addressing how to use AI in applications.

UGA advises those seeking admission to treat AI programs “like any other form of assistance, whether it is a parent, counselor or friend,” but the writing must be the applicant’s own.

Oglethorpe recognizes AI as a “powerful and convenient” tool that can assist with “language, grammar and structure” in an essay or application. But, the school stresses, “ultimately, we want to learn about you from you.”

Rebecca Sandidge, Oglethorpe’s vice president for enrollment management, said it’s too hard to police the use of AI.

“My goal is to not villainize AI,” she said. “It is a tool and students have to learn how to use it appropriately.”

Detection tools are unreliable, Clark said. Ultimately, the best way to deter students from submitting all-bot essays is to remind them that the writing won’t impress admissions readers.

Georgia College & State University hasn’t provided applicants with specific guidance regarding AI, a spokeswoman said. Neither has the private Emory University, though a spokeswoman said “we expect applicants to write their essays themselves.”

Spelman College also doesn’t have a policy forbidding the use of AI in admissions essays. Ingrid Hayes, senior vice president for enrollment management, said in a statement that if AI-generated text is suspected, it “may raise doubts about the students’ academic potential in the holistic application review.”

Abby Hyken, a senior at Atlanta’s Midtown High School who plans to apply to about a dozen colleges, has used ChatGPT to brainstorm debate team arguments, where it provided a helpful starting point. But the text it generates is emotionless and “not that good.” She has not turned to it for the 20 or more college essays on her to-do list.

Hyken’s biggest writing challenge is showcasing her personality and how she’d fit into a school “without sounding too cliche.”

Ethical concerns

At Seckinger, a school that intertwines artificial intelligence into courses, students are accustomed to thinking about its ethical uses.

Noelle Halverson, a senior, experimented with ChatGPT when a teacher encouraged her class to try it on a creative writing assignment. Halverson used it to flesh out plot details and to look for a period-appropriate name for an 18th-century character.

Using a chatbot to help with college essays, though, doesn’t feel right, she said. “It wouldn’t be me at all.”

The college search is “a daunting task,” said Seckinger junior Lauren Chiru-Danzer, who has used ChatGPT to research schools in the Northeast with good law programs.

“We are constantly discussing the ethical implications of AI,” she said. “We have deemed it ethical to use AI as almost like a brainstorming partner, as a way to get ideas started. But it is not ethical to copy and paste what AI has given to you because it is plagiarism.”

College counselors at the Buckhead-based Access Test Prep & Tutoring help students brainstorm ideas for essays, edit and proofread. Co-founder Elaine Rosenblum said teenagers communicate in smartphone “text-speak” and learn formulaic writing in high school. But those skills don’t exactly translate into crafting strong college essays, which should capture a student’s personality and a reader’s attention.

So far, AI writing can’t replicate nuance and emotion, said Rosenblum. Relying on ChatGPT is “a very dangerous proposition” unless colleges clearly state what’s allowed.

“I wouldn’t test the waters,” she said. “I think it’s lazy. It’s the opposite of what a college wants you to do. Why risk it?”

Rosenblum draws a distinction between students who use AI and those who hire advisers to help them apply to college.

“Someone who is doing college counseling that has integrity will not write the essay for the student,” she said.

‘Paralysis of the blinking cursor’

For first-generation students or those from rural communities who don’t have access to college coaching, AI isn’t an equalizer, but it might help democratize the application process, Clark said. Georgia Tech’s guidance notes that “AI could be a helpful collaborator, particularly when you do not have access to other assistance to help you complete your application.”

And while essays are a valuable component of a student’s application, it’s exceedingly rare to admit or deny someone based on those writings, Clark said. Grades, academic rigor, test scores, and involvement outside of class are critical to decision-makers, he said.

Freshman move-in day at Georgia Tech on Sunday, Aug. 13, 2023.   (Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com)

Credit: Ben Gray

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Credit: Ben Gray

Still, many students get stuck on essays. Clark calls it the “paralysis of the blinking cursor” and said admissions departments should do what they can to “de-stress the process.” That’s where ChatGPT can chip in.

“It gets them throwing out some stuff, getting started, thinking about things, and then realizing, ‘Well, that’s not exactly the way I want to put it. Or, that’s not really my voice,’” he said.

Students aren’t the only ones figuring out how to use AI. Admissions officers are exploring how it could work for them too.

Last year, humans read more than 52,000 undergraduate applications to Georgia Tech. They’ll do so again this year, but the school is testing the use of AI in its own process. The school plans to run applications through a computer program at the end of the admissions cycle. Officials will check how the program scores submissions compared to humans, who will still decide who gets in, Clark said.

“We have to find ways to learn and to be more efficient and to spend our time on what really matters,” he said.

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