Generative AI and College Application Essays: College Presidents Cheat Too

February 19, 2024

green-dino_thumb_thumb_thumbThis essay is the work of a dumb dinobaby. No smart software required.

The first college application season since ChatGPT hit it big is in full swing. How are admissions departments coping with essays that may or may not have been written with AI? It depends on which college one asks. Forbes describes various policies in, “Did You Use ChatGPT on your School Applications? These Words May Tip Off Admissions.” The paper asked over 20 public and private schools about the issue. Many dared not reveal their practices: as a spokesperson for Emory put it, “it’s too soon for our admissions folks to offer any clear observations.” But the academic calendar will not wait for clarity, so schools must navigate these murky waters as best they can.

Reporters Rashi Shrivastava and Alexandra S. Levine describe the responses they did receive. From “zero tolerance” policies to a little wiggle room, approaches vary widely. Though most refused to reveal whether they use AI detection software, a few specified they do not. A wise choice at this early stage. See the article for details from school to school.

Shrivastava and Levine share a few words considered most suspicious: Tapestry. Beacon. Comprehensive curriculum. Esteemed faculty. Vibrant academic community. Gee, I think I used a one or two of those on my college essays, and I wrote them before the World Wide Web even existed. On a typewriter. (Yes, I am ancient.) Will earnest, if unoriginal, students who never touched AI get caught up in the dragnets? At least one admissions official seems confident they can tell the difference. We learn:

“Ben Toll, the dean of undergraduate admissions at George Washington University, explained just how easy it is for admissions officers to sniff out AI-written applications. ‘When you’ve read thousands of essays over the years, AI-influenced essays stick out,’ Toll told Forbes. ‘They may not raise flags to the casual reader, but from the standpoint of an admissions application review, they are often ineffective and a missed opportunity by the student.’ In fact, GWU’s admissions staff trained this year on sample essays that included one penned with the assistance of ChatGPT, Toll said—and it took less than a minute for a committee member to spot it. The words were ‘thin, hollow, and flat,’ he said. ‘While the essay filled the page and responded to the prompt, it didn’t give the admissions team any information to help move the application towards an admit decision.’”

That may be the key point here—even if an admissions worker fails to catch an AI-generated essay, they may reject it for being just plain bad. Students would be wise to write their own essays rather than leave their fates in algorithmic hands. As Toll put it:

“By the time a student is filling out their application, most of the materials will have already been solidified. The applicants can’t change their grades. They can’t go back in time and change the activities they’ve been involved in. But the essay is the one place they remain in control until the minute they press submit on the application. I want students to understand how much we value getting to know them through their writing and how tools like generative AI end up stripping their voice from their admission application.”

Disqualified or underwhelming—either way, relying on AI to write one’s application essay could spell rejection. Best to buckle down and write it the old-fashioned way. (But one can skip the typewriter.)

Cynthia Murrell, February 19, 2024


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