I spent the last week talking with university officials, teachers and high school seniors about the dreaded college admissions essay.
I cover education technology at The Times. And I’ve been thinking a lot about how artificial intelligence tools like ChatGPT, which can manufacture school essays and other texts, might reshape the college application process.
I was particularly interested to learn whether admissions officials were rejiggering their essay questions — or even reconsidering personal essays altogether.
Amid a deluge of high school transcripts and teacher recommendations, admissions officers often use students’ writing samples to identify applicants with unique voices, experiences, ideas and potential. How might that change now that many students are using A.I. chatbots to brainstorm topics, generate rough drafts and hone their essays?
To find out, I contacted admissions officials at more than a dozen large state universities, Ivy League schools and small private colleges, including Juan Espinoza, the director of undergraduate admissions at Virginia Tech.
Right now, he told me, many universities are still trying to figure out how the A.I. technologies work and what they mean for the admissions process.
“But let’s be clear: Students are using it to answer these essay questions,” he added. “So we need to think about how they are using it.”
You can read more in my article today about the implications of A.I. tools for college applications.
The A.I. skeptics
I also gleaned some interesting insights into what admissions offices are thinking about ChatGPT by listening to podcasts from different universities. “Inside the Yale Admissions Office,” a podcast from Yale University, devoted an episode to A.I. tools this week.
The title of the episode — “A.I. and College Essays: Wrong Question, Wrong Answer” — is blunt about Yale’s viewpoint.
During the podcast, two Yale admissions officers discussed how using tools like ChatGPT to write college essays was a form of plagiarism. An applicant who submitted a chatbot-generated essay, they said, would violate the university’s admissions policy.
The Yale experts also argued that personal essays for college applications were “meant to be introspective and reflective.” And they said outsourcing that kind of personal thinking to an A.I. chatbot would not help.
“A.I.-generated content simply isn’t very good at the mode of communication that works in college essays,” Hannah Mendlowitz, senior associate director of admissions at Yale, said on the podcast.
But after doing a few basic A.I. experiments, I have a feeling that such views may not hold up for long.
This week, I used ChatGPT and other tools to manufacture responses to some of the short-answer questions from Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Dartmouth. Although the A.I. bots got some facts wrong, after several rounds of prompts and prodding they produced passable writing. It was easy to see how high school students might use these tools to generate first drafts and then rewrite the texts to reflect their own voices and experiences.
Ethical or not, the tools may help students who feel stuck, or who are not naturally drawn to essay writing, get started.
You can read the short-answer college essays that the chatbots generated in my article here.
A democratizing force
Espinoza of Virginia Tech and other admissions experts told me that they thought ChatGPT could be a democratizing force, especially for high school students whose parents have limited or no experience applying to colleges.
“I wonder what role this could play in simplifying this complex process,” Espinoza said, adding that he was a first-generation collegegoer himself. “If there’s a way this tool can help those that have a different starting point catch up, or narrow those discrepancies, I think that shows a lot of promise.”
To get some suggestions on how high school students applying to college might use A.I. tools, I interviewed Meg Scheid, the college outreach coordinator at the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology, a top public high school in the Atlanta area.
As ChatGPT gained traction in schools last winter, she worried that students across the country might use it to pass off A.I.-generated writing as their own work. She quickly changed her mind after she realized that high school students could use A.I. tools to conduct college searches to fit narrow criteria — like large public universities in the South that are known for their biostatistics research, or small private colleges that offer full scholarships to soccer players.
Scheid said A.I. chatbots might also be helpful for students who were trying to condense long lists of extracurricular activities into the limited spaces on college applications.
“It allows students to make sure that they are letting colleges know: ‘I wasn’t just a captain of the basketball team. I also did these other things that really point to me as a person,’” she said.
Khan Academy, the online education nonprofit, recently developed its own A.I. chatbot for schools, called Khanmigo. And now it includes a feature designed to help students come up with ideas for college admissions essays. I tried it this week.
Khanmigo can be a chatty, upbeat collaborator. It begins a session by advising students that college essays are not the “place to share a list of your achievements — rather, it’s a chance to reveal your unique personality and perspective.”
Then it offers students a list of common pitfalls to avoid when writing their essays. One is: “Don’t write about how the suffering of others made you realize how lucky you are, or how good your life is. This kind of essay makes college admissions officers cringe.”
I think the brainstorming feature could be useful, especially for students who are having trouble deciding on an essay topic. Khanmigo starts by asking users overview questions about their experiences. Then it homes in on themes that sound promising.
I tried out a real example from my teenage years: One summer I worked in a bagel store in the mornings and interned at a genetics lab in the afternoons.
Khanmigo zeroed in on that summer experience. It asked some follow-up questions to elicit details that might be useful for a college essay:
KHANMIGO: Wow, waking up at 5 a.m. to work at a bagel store so you could intern at a genetics lab in the afternoons — that’s dedication! 🙌 How did this experience change you as a person? What did you learn from it?
The software went on to ask for visual details about the bagel store and the lab. Those kinds of descriptions could clearly help enrich an opening scene in a college essay.
I am not arguing that A.I. tools are a perfect substitute for teachers, counselors, parents, friends and other humans who can help with college essays. But I appreciated the instant feedback from Khanmigo and the other A.I. chatbots I tried this week. It definitely made essay-writing more fun!
For next week, I’ll be looking into how educators are using A.I. tools to help generate recommendation letters for their students. If you are a college professor or high school teacher who wants to share your experiences using A.I. chatbots, please fill out this form. We may use your response in a future newsletter.