Rick Clark, the executive director of undergraduate admission at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and his staff spent weeks this summer pretending to be high school students using A.I. chatbots to fill out college applications.
The admissions officers each took on a different high school persona: swim team captain, Eagle Scout, musical theater performer. Then they fed personal details about the fictional students into ChatGPT, prompting the A.I. chatbot to produce the kind of extracurricular activity lists and personal essays commonly required on college applications.
Mr. Clark said he wanted to get a handle on how A.I. chatbots might reshape the admissions process this fall — the start of the first full academic year that the tools will be widely available to high school seniors — and come up with guidance for students applying to Georgia Tech.
“Students on some level are going to have access to and use A.I.,” Mr. Clark said. “The big question is: How do we want to direct them, knowing that it’s out there and available to them?”
The easy availability of A.I. chatbots like ChatGPT, which can manufacture humanlike text in response to short prompts, is poised to upend the traditional undergraduate application process at selective colleges — ushering in an era of automated plagiarism or of democratized student access to essay-writing help. Or maybe both.
The digital disruption comes at a turning point for institutions of higher education across the United States. After the Supreme Court ruled in June that race-based university admissions programs were illegal, some selective universities and colleges had hoped to rely more on essay questions — about applicants’ upbringing, identities and communities — to help foster diversity on campus.
The personal essay has long been a staple of the application process at elite colleges, not to mention a bane for generations of high school students. Admissions officers have often employed applicants’ essays as a lens into their unique character, pluck, potential and ability to handle adversity. As a result, some former students say they felt tremendous pressure to develop, or at least concoct, a singular personal writing voice.
But new A.I. tools threaten to recast the college application essay as a kind of generic cake mix, which high school students may simply lard or spice up to reflect their own tastes, interests and experiences — casting doubt on the legitimacy of applicants’ writing samples as authentic, individualized admissions yardsticks.
“It makes me sad,” Lee Coffin, the dean of admissions at Dartmouth College, said during a university podcast this year that touched on A.I.-generated application essays. “The idea that this central component of a story could be manufactured by someone other than the applicant is disheartening.”
Some teachers said they were troubled by the idea of students using A.I. tools to produce college essay themes and texts for deeper reasons: Outsourcing writing to bots could hinder students from developing important critical thinking and storytelling skills.
“Part of the process of the college essay is finding your writing voice through all of that drafting and revising,” said Susan Barber, an Advanced Placement English literature teacher at Midtown High School, a public school in Atlanta. “And I think that’s something that ChatGPT would be robbing them of.”
In August, Ms. Barber assigned her 12th-grade students to write college essays. This week, she held class discussions about ChatGPT, cautioning students that using A.I. chatbots to generate ideas or writing could make their college essays sound too generic. She advised them to focus more on their personal views and voices.
Other educators said they hoped the A.I. tools might have a democratizing effect. Wealthier high school students, these experts noted, often have access to resources — alumni parents, family friends, paid writing coaches — to help them brainstorm, draft and edit their college admissions essays. ChatGPT could play a similar role for students who lack such resources, they said, especially those at large high schools where overworked college counselors have little time for individualized essay coaching.
So far, however, very few U.S. universities have published admissions policies on the use of A.I. tools by applicants.
The University of Michigan Law School recently issued guidelines saying that “applicants ought not use ChatGPT or other artificial intelligence tools as part of their drafting process.” But the law school does allow applicants to ask mentors, friends or other humans “for basic proofreading assistance and general feedback and critiques.”
The Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University has taken the opposite stance. The law school’s website says applicants may use A.I. tools to prepare their application materials as long as they “use this technology responsibly” and certify that the information they submit is true.
After experimenting with ChatGPT this summer, the admissions team at Georgia Tech chose a third way. The university’s website recently posted guidelines encouraging high school applicants to use A.I. tools as collaborators to “brainstorm, refine and edit” their ideas. At the same time, the site warned applicants that they should “not copy and paste content you did not create directly into your application.”
Mr. Clark, the Georgia Tech admissions official, said ChatGPT could not compete with live writing coaches or savvy parents in providing feedback to high school students on their personal essays. But he hoped it could help many students get started.
“It’s free, it’s accessible and it’s helpful,” Mr. Clark said. “It’s progress toward equity.”
Several high school seniors said in interviews that they had chosen not to use A.I. tools to help draft their essays — partly because they wanted to tell their own personal stories themselves, and partly because many universities have not taken clear stances on applicants’ use of the chatbots.
“The vagueness and ambiguity is kind of hard for us,” said Kevin Jacob, a senior at the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology in the Atlanta area. The public high school has a dedicated writing center where students may get feedback on their college essays.
The Common App, a nonprofit group that runs an online system enabling high school students to apply to many colleges and universities at once, has not taken a public stance on the use of A.I. chatbots. The group requires applicants to certify that their writing — and other material they submit as part of their college applications — is their own work. But the group has not updated the academic integrity policy on its website to include artificial intelligence tools.
“This is the first full application cycle where students have the ability to use ChatGPT, and this technology is constantly changing,” Jenny Rickard, the chief executive of the Common App, said in a statement.
“We’re all learning more about these tools, and it’s important for our member institutions and our K-12 partners and counselors to set reasonable parameters on how they can and can’t be used.”
The New York Times emailed more than a dozen universities and colleges — including large state schools, Ivy League schools and small private colleges — asking about their policies on high school applicants using A.I. tools to draft their admissions essays. The majority did not respond or declined to comment.
In a statement sent by email, the Office of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of Michigan said the school was “aware of the new technology” but had “not made any changes to our undergraduate application process, including our essay questions.”
Ritika Vakharia, a senior at the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology, said she had tried asking ChatGPT to produce ideas for college admissions essays. But she found the responses too broad and impersonal, even after she gave it details about her extracurricular activities like teaching dance classes to younger students.
Now she said she was working to come up with a more personal college application essay theme.
“I feel a little more pressure to create, like, this super unique, interesting topic,” Ms. Vakharia said, “because a basic one these days could just be generated by ChatGPT.”