Chatter about artificial intelligence can generally be categorized into three main areas: anxious uncertainty, existential dread, and simple pragmatism. The uncertainty surrounding generative AI, whether it is a tool or a threat, has led to a lack of consensus and guidelines for its proper use. This uncertainty is particularly profound for students, who are now grappling with the idea that AI use is inevitable and should perhaps be taught in schools. As the college admissions season begins, many prospective applicants are now asking themselves: can AI write my personal essay, and should it?
Since the release of OpenAI’s ChatGPT, students have been testing the capabilities of chatbots – generative AI tools powered by language-based algorithms – to complete their essay assignments within minutes. The results are often grammatically flawless but lack intellectual depth, filled with clichés and misinformation. However, teachers and school administrators are struggling to distinguish between authentic work and automated content. Some institutions have invested in AI detection tools, but these have proven to be unreliable. In fact, recent tests showed that popular AI text detectors incorrectly flagged articles written by non-native English speakers and even suggested that AI wrote the US constitution. OpenAI itself pulled its experimental AI detection tool, AI Classifier, due to its low accuracy rate.
Preventing students from using generative AI in their application essays may seem like an attempt to put the genie back in the bottle, but colleges have yet to provide clear guidance on how students can ethically use AI. This is partly due to the impact of the US Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action, which struck down a policy allowing colleges to consider an applicant’s race to promote diversity and equal access to education. Moreover, there is a general confusion about what generative AI can do and who it benefits. The question with AI in education is not only about whether students will use it unscrupulously, but also whether it widens access to genuine assistance or simply reinforces the privileges of a select few.
These questions have become even more urgent as selective colleges place greater emphasis on admissions essays. The Supreme Court ruling has further elevated the value of these essays by allowing applicants to discuss their race. With more colleges adopting test-optional or test-free admissions policies, essays have become increasingly important.
In the absence of national guidance for college admissions officers and counselors, a few institutions have taken matters into their own hands. The University of Michigan Law School recently banned the use of AI tools in applications, while Arizona State University Law School allows students to use AI as long as they disclose it. Georgia Tech is one of the few universities that offers AI guidance to undergraduate applicants, explicitly stating that tools like ChatGPT can be used for brainstorming, editing, and refining ideas, but the final submission must be the student’s own work.
According to Rick Clark, Georgia Tech’s assistant vice-provost and executive director of undergraduate admission, AI has the potential to democratize the admissions process by providing a drafting process similar to the assistance some students receive from attentive parents, expensive tutors, or college counselors at elite schools. Clark hopes that Georgia Tech’s approach will dispel misconceptions about generative AI and pave the way for its appropriate use. He clarifies that simply copying and pasting AI-generated text is not beneficial, as the results tend to be flat. However, with enough revisions and collaboration, working with AI can be a positive resource for students who lack access to other forms of assistance.
While some students and educators are hesitant to embrace AI in the drafting process, these tools could potentially help improve the essays of those who cannot afford outside help. Most AI tools are affordable or even free, making them accessible to anyone with a device and an internet connection. Chatbots can suggest topics, offer outlines, rephrase statements, and help organize thoughts into coherent paragraphs – something many teenagers struggle with on their own.
Jeremy Douglas, an assistant professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, believes that instead of discouraging students from using AI, they should be provided with tools to advocate for themselves, as privileged individuals often hire tutors to gain an advantage in the college admissions process. In conversations with professors, admissions officers, and college prep tutors, it is generally agreed that tools like ChatGPT can produce good admissions essays, but not great ones. The lack of color and specificity in the AI-generated content requires students to rework and refine it to truly make their essays shine. This raises the question of whether AI will genuinely help underserved students. In theory, AI-generated language tools should provide wider access to essay guidance, grammar checks, and feedback. However, in practice, it remains to be seen if the students who could benefit the most from these tools will be able to do so.