ChatGPT, education, and college admissions

Posted on 6th March 2023

ChatGPT, education, and college admissions (blog 1 of 2 on ChatGPT) 

A seismic shift in the education landscape is underway, with the release of several AI softwares like ChatGPT–which can follow users’ prompts to generate cogent, stylistically competent essays on any topic–and other similar AI technologies from Google and Microsoft that are set to follow. Since university educators rely on essays as a form of student assessment, they wonder whether they need to pivot to other forms of evaluation.

AI-generated essays are so competent that they led Stephen Marche to declare the death of the college essay. In Marche’s view, to modernise education in the wake of new AI advances, the humanities will have to interact with technology in ways they haven’t previously. But perhaps we need not view technological advance as a threat to education, or humanities and technology as opposite and opposed; Marche may be underestimating how adaptable and responsive educators can be. Philippa Hardman has already created an excellent resource (parts 1 and 2) outlining how AI can be used as an educational tool, and this Times Higher Education article outlines even more ways educators can use AI.

You may remember hearing in the news that ChatGPT passed the Wharton MBA exam. The professor, Christian Terwiesch, who asked the bot his exam question explained in more detail the collaboration that actually occurred: initially, the bot answered Terwiesch’s question incorrectly, but got it right when he gave it a hint. The next day, ChatGPT answered correctly without Terwiesch’s prompt. The professor concluded that ChatGPT was academically competent, though not excellent, and that working with the bot could help students build critical thinking skills.

In other humanities and social sciences, AI has also been used positively. The AI creative writing tool Sudowrite can generate next paragraphs for writers suffering writers’ block, and help with editing and brainstorming. The Wysa app has an AI chat bot that provides counselling to users over text, helping them reshape unhelpful thoughts and work through various mental health toolkits.

Within college admissions, AI technology seems poised to have the biggest impact on the application essay. This personal essay, and the college-specific supplemental essays, are some of the only chances admissions officers have to get a sense of students’ personalities. Unlike essays written for university assignments, college application essays are more like creative writing: subjective, and written in a student’s unique voice.

In a Forbes article, Emma Whitford asked ChatGPT to write a Common Application essay, supplying the bot with some personal details and the prompt to which it should respond. Whilst the AI-generated Common App and supplementary essays (reproduced in the article) do seem competent, they lack the distinct personal voice and vivid, specific details that convey students’ individual experiences and bring the essays to life.

But can ChatGPT make its essay more specific, if asked? We gave it the same prompt as did Whitford, and asked it to provide more specific details about how the author’s Indian heritage had shaped him. The AI generated some impressive details: respect for elders, Indian culture (mentioning specifically Hindu mythology, classical Indian music and dance, and the art and architecture of ancient India), being Hindu, and practising meditation, yoga, and mindfulness.

However, as Jenny Rickard, the CEO and president of the Common App points out in her comment in Whitford’s article, students should be supplying the personal, specific details to represent themselves authentically. ChatGPT cannot read users’ minds to know where their passions lie, and those vivid, personal essays that explore these passions are the ones that Rickard finds most impressive. Authentic essays like these also give students the best chance of finding a good-fit college. Although ChatGPT can certainly imitate a mediocre college essay, the college admissions essay is a particular type of writing: personal writing, the purpose of which is to express deep personal thoughts in an affecting and memorable way. This type of unique content is something AI currently seems unable to replicate.

The idea of writing as a personal, expressive exercise raises an intriguing question that seems to underpin the debate surrounding AI in both university admissions and assessment: what is the purpose of writing itself? In the Toronto Star, Daniel Goodwin argues that if writing is seen as a ‘chore’ or ‘amusement,’ it can, in this form, be replaced by machine writing. But if the purpose of writing is to represent and share authentic personal experiences, perspectives, and voices in a compelling way (as in the college application essay), then machine writing is no substitute.

Christopher Rim furthers these ideas in his riposte to Marche’s Atlantic article, highlighting that another key issue underlying the debate is whether the process, or the product, of writing is most important. At university, he argues, it is the process of higher education that leads up to and scaffolds the product of written assessment. So, AI tools are only as good as their input. This seems a more measured perspective than that of Marche, and highlights the importance of informed collaboration with new technologies. We saw this form of collaboration at work with Hardman’s resources and Professor Terwiesch’s experience with the bot, and it seems to have potential to take other useful avenues.

It seems that AI is here to stay, and has the potential to reshape assessment and, therefore, education. Embracing AI and thinking about how it can be used positively through mindful collaboration seems a healthier response than viewing it purely as a threat. Certainly it is good to be judicious in our use of the new technologies, and honesty and authenticity are certainly important within education. These human qualities do not seem at risk of being replaced by AI, but such technologies seem poised to help us innovate, improve learning outcomes, and widen access.

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