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The Role of AI in the College Admissions Process

You’ve probably heard how AI-powered software is affecting multiple industries, but how could AI play a role in college admissions? Both students and admission officers could be affected by these changes in the coming years.

Nowadays, it seems like everyone is talking about artificial intelligence — from business executives praising its ease and convenience to TV and film writers fighting major Hollywood studios who want to automate the screenwriting process to your friends posting AI-generated portraits on Instagram for fun. And now it looks like AI is influencing another major sector: higher education.

While there has been plenty of discourse about the ethics of using AI services for teaching and writing (and the difficulty of distinguishing a student’s work from that of an AI bot), it looks like several colleges and universities have found AI helpful for expediting the college admissions process.

Yet, as expected, AI poses the risk of encouraging increasingly inauthentic and unremarkable personal statements — after all, ChatGPT and the like have not yet proven to be particularly capable of emotion-driven storytelling. However, with the limited time admissions officers have to review applications, it can be difficult to quickly determine which essays simply pass the Turing test and which are actually the result of a student’s hard work.

Now, many are wondering just how AI is affecting the college application process, from prospective applicants to admission offices. We’re here to help break it down from all sides of the issue.

How Could College Admissions Offices Use AI in the College Admissions Process?

Given that many schools are experiencing record-high application numbers, admissions officers are often left incredibly overwhelmed and overworked throughout the application cycle. It’s estimated that application officers can only spend about 15 minutes maximum reading each application before moving on to the next.

Even though many schools promise a holistic review of each application, that doesn’t necessarily mean admissions officers spend a long time understanding the subtleties and nuances of each essay and short answer questions. They simply don’t have the time.

We already know that admissions teams usually summarize a student in a few bullet points using a predetermined system of phrases and acronyms. But given the decentralization of quantitative factors like standardized tests in the college admission process, how could AI help evaluate the more subjective qualities prospective students bring to the table? Enter programs offered by start-ups like Kira Talent, which use applicants’ answers to “video- and text-based prompts” to evaluate personal qualities like “leadership potential, verbal and written communication skills, comprehension of key concepts, drives and motivations, and professionalism.”

These services can also work the other way — to evaluate the bias of admissions officers. Admission offices are facing increasing allegations of prejudice towards students of color, first-generation students, and more marginalized students, as evidenced by current Supreme Court cases. Proponents of this technology, which is still in beta, argue that this helps level the playing field in the applicant pool, ultimately resulting in fairer admissions decisions in the future.

So, how might AI impact admission decisions going forward? After all, students put a lot of time and effort into their essays and other application elements — what happens if admissions officers increasingly rely on AI to decide on their incoming student body?

As of now, there are no studies that show how just AI has impacted a student’s chances of being accepted to a college or university. However, some experts do believe that AI could make the college admissions process more stringent and selective. Given the sheer number of applications that admissions officers have to review, AI services could help them quickly and accurately pinpoint “the best” applicants — which, depending on your perspective, could be seen as a good thing or a bad thing.

On one hand, as mentioned above, AI can help ensure that no applicant is overlooked due to an admissions officer’s bias or their limited time bandwidth. On the other hand, it also means that admission offices could use AI services to eliminate applicants who are “not perfect” by some standard (i.e., based on gender, socio-economic background, etc.).

Furthermore, AI-driven decisions could limit the applicant’s ability to self-advocate. While persuasive essays are still important in the admissions process (and aren’t likely to disappear anytime soon), they might not be as critical if AI is used to make the decision. After all, holistic review allows for admissions officers to make a fundamentally human decision — otherwise, it would be more efficient to just reduce every application to numbers like ranking, GPAs, and standardized test scores.

How Could Students Use AI in the College Admissions Process?

As discussed above, it sounds like the biggest concern about AI in the application process for future students is in regard to college essays. It’s important in a personal statement that a student’s authentic voice comes across clearly — this is one of the few opportunities for applicants to distinguish themselves with a compelling, personal story. But as 

What happens if you tell ChatGPT to write you a college admissions essay? It responds with the following:

“Certainly, I’d be happy to help you write a college admissions essay. However, it’s important to note that your essay should reflect your own unique experiences and voice, and should be tailored specifically to the college or university you’re applying to. That being said, here’s an example of what a college admissions essay might look like…” 

…followed by a full essay complete with details about a random, fictional student. It would be relatively easy for students to use this essay as a template, and it would be even easier to use something like this for more straightforward questions like, “Why do you want to attend our school?” For one, this formulaic approach will yield formulaic results — Jonathan Gratch, a professor of computer science and psychology at USC, said the following of the issue to Annenberg Media:

“It tends to be a little boring, it tends to be a little obvious for people who have an experience that it’s machine-generated. So, I would not recommend it as a way to get in,” said Gratch.

It’s evident what issues this could pose, not just for the application essays but for the evaluation of an entire application. For instance, what is the difference between a student hiring someone to write their essay for them or achieve certain standardized test scores and getting AI-powered tools to do it? Disregarding quality and cost, the principle is the same — if it doesn’t come from the student, then it isn’t fair to anyone involved. 

And on a simpler note, college applications should reflect the best version of you, but it should still be a version of you! By outsourcing the work of your application, you may be sacrificing your chance to find a real college fit for you in favor of somewhere that sounds or feels prestigious. In the end, it’s not worth it, and getting into a habit of relying on AI to produce work will ultimately mitigate student success in college and beyond. Ideally, you want to look back on your college essays and feel proud that you crafted a great reflection of who you are and your personal story.

At the same time, other AI-powered software is focused on increasing the accessibility of information about college admissions. In 2014, a program called AdmitHub (now known as Mainstay) came on the scene. It uses “behaviorally intelligent chatbots” to connect students with the support they need to reach college. The service even claims to have offered “empathetic, conversational guidance” to students throughout their journey to higher education, and they partner with companies and education institutions, including admissions offices, to reduce the amount of human labor necessary to help students make informed decisions. 

For example, one of AdmitHub’s services, Otterbot, is a chatbot available 24/7 to answer questions for college-bound high school students in Washington state. Results from the first years of the service have been promising: according to Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Institute, “among students who asked Otterbot five or more questions, over 86% graduated from high school and over 60% completed the FAFSA.” The service and others like it were also shown to have significantly reduced the workload of directors of college counseling at local high schools.

To summarize, using AI-powered tools to write college admission essays is a bad idea for students, but it could be an easy way for schools and counselors to do more administrative and less human-driven tasks, while allowing students more information and virtual support than ever before.

In conclusion, the use of AI in college admissions is a controversial topic that carries both potential benefits and potential harms. On one hand, it can help reduce bias and ensure that everyone gets a fair look. On the other hand, it also means admission offices could rely too heavily on metrics that don’t necessarily reflect the unique qualities of an applicant. Ultimately, the inclusion of AI in the process will require careful consideration and balancing of the pros and cons by all stakeholders involved. Looking for help with your college applications and essays? Check out our content on that subject here, or set up a free consultation with one of our experienced college admissions counselors.

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