AI and College Admissions essays: Cheating, Plagiarism, Inequality and Other Issues
Last year I spent several months on college applications, and the bulk of my time was occupied by writing essays and prompts, as many colleges seem to value them more and more when they try to gauge students’ interest.
With the recent announcement of ChatGPT and the hype in the media about the AI capabilities and possible impact on our lives, I decided to give it a try and see if my application process could be easier if I used the tool. The results of my experiment were unexpected, may I even say shocking.
Here’s what I found.
How To Write The Perfect College Admission Essay With AI
Paraphrase existing college essay with Katteb
When using AI tools, it’s important to understand that while AI stands for “artificial intelligence,” in reality, it does not possess any human intelligence. All it can do is use human sources, such as books, videos, and blogs, to generate sentences.
So, my first idea was to see if I could feed best written pieces and use AI to paraphrase them – the way a lazy person would do.
For example, every year, Johns Hopkins University publishes “Essay the worked” – the best college admissions essays.
For my little experiment, I used Superheroes by Stephanie.
Here’s the opening paragraph:
Legends, lore, and comic books all feature mystical, beautiful beings and superheroes—outspoken powerful Greek goddesses, outspoken Chinese maidens, and outspoken blade-wielding women. As a child, I soared the skies with my angel wings, battled demons with katanas, and helped stop everyday crime (and of course had a hot boyfriend). In short, I wanted to save the world. But growing up, my definition of superhero shifted. My peers praised people who loudly fought inequality, who rallied and shouted against hatred. As a journalist on a social-justice themed magazine, I spent more time at protests, interviewing and understanding but not quite feeling inspired by their work. At first, I despaired. Then I realized: I’m not a superhero.
I started with the AI tool called Katteb. It has multiple writing options, including writing a whole article based on a title. I used Article Rewriter, Advanced Rewriter option.
First, I imported the article by providing a URL to the original source, then selected 5 Variations, went thru each paragraph, and selected a variation I liked most.
Here’s what I ended with:
Novels, fiction, comics. Beasts and heroes were the most important Greek gods. Be careful with the sword of Kannada girls and women. When I was young, I flew on angel wings, fought monsters with my katana, and stopped doing evil every day (I had a good girlfriend). In short, I want to save the world. But as I grew up, the definition of a hero changed. Hooligans and bullies attacked my classmates. As editor of the Social Justice Journal, I've spent a lot of time documenting, interviewing, and researching the movement, but I've been unimpressed by their work. At first I was disappointed. That's when I realized I'm not a hero.
Takeaway: First, AI is making up facts. It turned outspoken blade-wielding women into a sword of Kannada girls, which I am sure does not exist.
Second, it made me a bad person because, apparently, I was doing evil every day, and now I stopped (at least, this is how the admissions officer would interpret this piece).
And finally, the paragraph simply did not make any sense – when bullies attacked my classmates, I decided to document the movement (which movement?)
This was my first fiasco using AI. Ok, maybe paraphrasing a good essay will not make another decent one. Also, there are moral aspects to such an approach – using someone’s work is called stealing or plagiarism.
But how about asking AI to write a new piece?
Using ChatGPT to write a college admissions essay
If you heard about AI, you have most likely heard about ChatGPT. As soon as ChatGPT was revealed to the public, every major publication claimed that college essays are dead because AI can write better than humans.
ChatGPT is a web-based application with a very simple interface. It is supposed to work as a Chat app where you ask questions, and it responds with something intelligent. In our case, it’s an essay that gets you into Harvard.
However, its responses depend on your input, called prompts. Better the input, the better the output.
I started with a simple prompt – something I wrote about in my own Common App essay.
Write a story about a teenage girl who worked at Banana Republic and who had to confront a bad customer in the voice of J.K. Rowling.
Once upon a time, there was a determined and ambitious young woman named Lily. She worked at the local Banana Republic, where she loved helping customers find the perfect outfit. However, on one particularly busy day, she faced a challenge that would test her patience and resolve. A rude and entitled customer entered the store, demanding to speak with the manager. Lily approached the woman, trying her best to be polite and helpful. But no matter what she said or did, the customer only grew more irate, complaining about every little thing and insulting Lily at every turn. Despite the customer's cruel words, Lily remained calm and professional, never once losing her composure. She listened carefully to the woman's complaints and did her best to address them, but it was clear that nothing would satisfy this difficult customer. Finally, after what seemed like hours of endless complaints, Lily had had enough. She took a deep breath and, with a voice as firm as steel, she spoke up. "Excuse me, ma'am," she began, "I understand that you're upset, but I won't tolerate any more of your disrespectful and condescending behavior. I've been doing my best to help you, but I won't stand here and be treated like this. If you can't speak to me with kindness and respect, I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to leave the store." The customer was taken aback by Lily's boldness and for a moment, she simply stared at her in disbelief. But then, to everyone's surprise, the woman's expression softened and she apologized for her behavior. "You're right," she said, "I've been completely out of line. I'm sorry." Lily accepted the apology with grace, and the two of them worked together to resolve the issue. As the customer left the store, she thanked Lily for her help and even complimented her on her excellent customer service skills. From that day on, Lily was known as the teenage girl who stood up to a bad customer and won, and her bravery and determination earned her the respect and admiration of her coworkers and customers alike. She proved that, even in the face of adversity, it's possible to remain kind and professional, and that the true measure of a person is how they handle themselves in the toughest of situations.
As you can see, the first prompt was not the best one – ChatGPT wrote a story in a third person voice.
Luckily, AI remembers the context, and you can refine requests, and I entered the second prompt:
Rewrite in the first person point of view
Here’s the output:
I was a determined and ambitious teenager who worked at the local Banana Republic. I loved helping customers find the perfect outfit and making their shopping experience a memorable one. But one day, I faced a challenge that would test my patience and resolve. A rude and entitled customer entered the store and demanded to speak with the manager. When I approached her, I tried my best to be polite and helpful, but no matter what I said or did, she only grew more irate. She complained about every little thing and insulted me at every turn. Despite her cruel words, I remained calm and professional. I listened carefully to her complaints and did my best to address them, but it was clear that nothing would satisfy her. Finally, after what seemed like hours of endless complaints, I had had enough. I took a deep breath and, with a voice as firm as steel, I spoke up. "Excuse me, ma'am," I began, "I understand that you're upset, but I won't tolerate any more of your disrespectful and condescending behavior. I've been doing my best to help you, but I won't stand here and be treated like this. If you can't speak to me with kindness and respect, I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to leave the store." She was taken aback by my boldness and for a moment, she simply stared at me in disbelief. "You're right," she said, "I've been completely out of line. I'm sorry." I accepted her apology with grace and we worked together to resolve the issue. As she left the store, she thanked me for my help and even complimented me on my excellent customer service skills. From that day on, I was known as the teenager who stood up to a bad customer and won. My bravery and determination earned me the respect and admiration of my coworkers and customers alike. I proved to myself that, even in the face of adversity, it's possible to remain kind and professional, and that the true measure of a person is how they handle themselves in the toughest of situations.
Takeaway: The output is grammatically correct, which is good. But the story is very plain, generic, and boring. Maybe I should’ve added more details about the conflict and been more specific.
ChatGPT is like coding – you have to give specific instructions if you want to receive a specific result. So, I guess if you are good at coding but at writing, you could use the tool to quickly build a generic essay.
On the other hand, I can see where I could use this approach. For instance, if you hit writer’s block, then you could use ChatGPT to generate something very quickly. And then, you have to rewrite by adding details and injecting your personality.
Using ChatGPT to write why us essays
Why this college essays are particularly hard to write because they are short and must be specifically tailored to the institution.
So, why not use ChatGPT to reduce my work on the Common app?
If you dream about an Ivy League diploma from Columbia University, there 4 short questions you have to answer:
I made the following prompt for ChatGPT:
Write a college application in response to this prompt: “Why are you interested in attending Columbia University? We encourage you to consider the aspect(s) that you find unique and compelling about Columbia. (200 words or fewer)”. Write as if your intended major is Computer Science.
Here’s the output:
As an aspiring computer scientist, Columbia University is the ideal institution for me to pursue my academic and career goals. I am particularly drawn to Columbia's strong reputation in the field of computer science and the impressive array of resources available to students. Columbia's computer science program boasts world-class faculty, cutting-edge research opportunities, and a dynamic curriculum that is constantly evolving to keep up with the rapidly changing landscape of technology. I am eager to take advantage of the vast range of computer science courses offered, from foundational programming courses to advanced topics like artificial intelligence and machine learning. Furthermore, Columbia's location in the heart of New York City presents endless opportunities for internships, networking, and professional development. I am excited to be a part of a community that encourages interdisciplinary collaboration and innovation. Overall, Columbia University stands out to me as a place where I can grow both academically and personally. The opportunity to be a part of a diverse and intellectually stimulating community of scholars, as well as the chance to develop my skills in the world-renowned computer science program, make Columbia the perfect place for me to achieve my goals and reach my full potential.
Takeaway: There is one rule of thumb when writing “why this college” essays – if you replace the name of the university with the name of another school and it still reads the same, then it’s not a good essay.
For example, if I replace Columbia University with Boston University and New York City with Boston, the generated essay will still fit. Again, the essay is too generic, and it’s unlikely to help you during the admission process.
Can Colleges Detect AI Written Material?
As you can see from the examples above, AI, at this stage, can only create generic, plain essays. If you are hoping to get an engaging paper that is interesting to read, AI is not going to help.
On the other hand, not everyone can write as well as Ernest Hemingway. I wouldn’t be surprised if AI can write better than many of my classmates who struggle with putting words on paper.
So, I guess many applicants will be tempted to cheat and use technology with their Common App essays.
I also guess that colleges are aware of this and maybe secretly implement measures to detect AI-written content.
For example, many colleges use Turnitin to combat plagiarism. And now, Turnitin claims that they can detect AI, specifically ChatGPT, as well.
Here’s a sneak preview of their capabilities:
So, if you are planning to use AI, be prepared that colleges may have AI detection in place and can possibly reject your application – nobody likes cheaters.
Colleges, AI and Ethics, and Inequality
As of now, AI technology is not good enough to replace human writers, especially good ones. However, even now, the technology is impressive compared to what we had even a year ago. So, it wouldn’t surprise me that in the near future, AI can progress and produce even better results.
Many higher ed institutions are already concerned with technology because the bulk of college education is based on writing.
And if we think about the future, there are some interesting possibilities.
Will colleges become essay optional?
After the pandemic, many colleges became test-optional, and there is evidence that many of them are unlikely to go back and require standardized tests for admissions.
If technology continues improving, I wouldn’t be surprised if colleges become essay optional. After all, if you can use a tool to produce good content and it will be hard to detect, why waste admissions officer time to read generated responses?
Or, will SAT bring back the writing section?
Since writing is important in higher ed, colleges can require you to write on SAT tests under supervision, so they know the writing is yours.
And finally, will AI further increase inequality in college admissions?
ChatGPT already has paid plans, but not everyone can afford them. It’s true that you can use the free version, but it is not as good as paid and is often unavailable during high load times.
I am sure there are even more questions about AI technology and ethics and plagiarism.
This is all just the beginning, and we don’t even know how technology will change college admissions and our lives in general.
It will be interesting to watch how people and organizations grapple with uncertainty, but I am excited about the new opportunities artificial intelligence brings.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the College Reality Check.