AI in College Admissions: How to Best Counsel Students

AI in College Admissions: How to Best Counsel Students

AI seems to be everywhere these days and used for many different activities. So, it’s no surprise that AI is being used by college admissions departments. Collegewise recently hosted a webinar for Xello users that focused on AI in college admissions and how this may impact the way we counsel our students going forward. Meredith Graham, a veteran Collegewise admissions counselor and a former admissions officer at Purdue, Cornell, and Boston University, shared insights on this hot topic.

How are Colleges Currently Using AI During the Application Process? 

College counselors strongly favor using AI as part of the application process. “Eighty-one percent of college counselors think AI will improve the fairness of evaluating college applications over the next five years,” according to ecampusnews. Some express concern, noting there remains a “…need for careful supervision and ethical considerations.”

Colleges and universities are being cautious when it comes to using AI within college admissions. Screening transcripts is the primary way schools are using AI in college admissions. Graham notes that 70% of colleges who say they’re using some form of AI for admissions are using it for transcripts.

One of the more time-consuming processes of screening transcripts is reading college essays. Can AI help with this task? Researchers have studied the effectiveness of using AI for reviewing college essays with the goal of going beyond just looking for keywords like leadership. The research found that some elements worked quite well, but there were also some glitches. 

However, colleges are starting to use AI for essay review but seemingly none have turned over their entire application review process to AI.

“There’s still a lot of experimentation going on,” Graham says of colleges using AI for essay review.  She adds, “There’s a lot of work still to do before AI can really be a viable essay review tool without a human doing a second review.” 

AI and the College Entrance Essay – What’s allowed and what isn’t?

AI is not just for those reviewing college applications. How can/do students use AI when completing their application, and what do colleges think about this? Graham delved into this element of the discussion on the webinar.

Firstly, the Common App has a box that students must check when they submit their applications that essentially says all work contained within is their own. This seems to be a clear direction that all work must be submitted by students, i.e., not generated by anyone or anything (AI) else.

Despite the warning, students may feel nervous and lack confidence in their writing and turn to AI for help. However, tools such as turnitin can predict AI-generated text with 90% accuracy.  Some colleges are starting to utilize these tools to review if students used AI to complete their essays.

While turnitin is very helpful, veteran admissions officers who have read many essays can often tell when an adult has taken too strong a hand in helping their student write their essays. “… once you get into the rhythm of it [reading essays and] you know what you’re looking for, you do have a sense of when a student has had help from someone …,” Graham says.

Similarly, surveys show admissions officers believe they can sense when an essay was written by a student or when it was written by AI. One of the tell-tale signs of an AI-generated essay, according to the survey – they are bland and impersonal.

Essays of this type contradict the purpose of the essay. “Admissions officers have often employed applicants’ essays as a lens into their unique character, pluck, potential and ability to handle adversity,” according to the New York Times.  

So, is the entrance essay on the verge of becoming extinct? Not so fast. “All indications at this point are essays are not going to go by the wayside ..but … there’s a shift away from are you good at writing to what can we learn about you…” Graham says. She adds that essays are becoming more important. 

“It’s not about sounding fancy… [It’s about getting] to know the person behind the application and that that is even more valuable at this point.”

Consider a recent policy decision at Duke. The university announced that it will no longer provide a ranking or rating for writing quality. Their reason is they assume that many students will probably either use AI or get help from a professional. Duke will still consider the content and examples but not so much the quality of the writing.

Duke’s policy indicates that high schools and colleges, which originally sought to ban Chat GPT and other AI tools when they first became available, have changed their tune. They’ve accepted some use of AI as inevitable and are building guidelines and policies around it.

Soothe Student Fears

Despite the lowered expectations regarding writing quality, many students remain concerned about their essays. They’re concerned they have nothing unique or interesting to tell an admissions officer. 

“In reality, their stories are absolutely worth telling and will become even more important for admissions essays the more prevalent AI becomes,” Graham says.

College counselors like those at Collegewise tell students that the purpose of college essays is for colleges to get to know the person behind the application. The essay is not about students proving their worth, and it’s not even necessarily about proving that they can write well. It is about students giving an admissions office a sense of who they are.

When students submit essays that seem like they might be AI-generated, Collegewise counselors engage students in a conversation. They ease into it, presuming the good intent of the student, without accusing them of doing something they shouldn’t have. 

Graham adds that when a student begins their essay writing process, Collegewise reinforces that plagiarizing your college essays is not worth it. 

The future of AI in Admissions

Once technology is introduced, users typically incorporate it further, and it becomes ingrained. In that same vein, AI is bound to become more prevalent in college admissions.

Graham expects colleges to outline how they use AI regarding their application review process and what students can and can’t use AI for as part of their applications. Some colleges – Georgia Tech and Caltech – already have policies in place.

School counselors and teachers use AI to help write letters of recommendation for their students. Writing letters of recommendation is important, yet finding time for it is challenging, especially for counselors and teachers with large caseloads.

Regarding the essay, Graham notes universities are under-resourced and will continue to have burnout issues with their admissions readers. Therefore, finding ways to incorporate AI could be very beneficial. 

More colleges (some already do this) may even move away from essays in favor of a video introduction. Another potential scenario, according to Graham, is colleges moving towards timed essays. Regarding the admission process, she foresees colleges moving away from more holistic admissions and more towards whether a student has the right classes and standardized test scores.

Whatever the future holds for college admissions, Collegewise will be there to help students and college counselors. We’ll continue to be at the forefront of the ever-changing college and career landscape and provide school districts with expert advice, resources, and on-the-ground support for students, families, and counselors. 

Listen to the webinar to hear more of Graham’s insights on admissions and AI, or schedule time with our school partnerships director here. 

Learn more about award-winning Xello, which has helped millions of educators and millions of students become future-ready with its suite of online platforms. 

About Collegewise

Since 1999, Collegewise has been at the forefront of the ever-changing college and career landscape. School districts rely on us for expert advice, resources, and on-the-ground support for students, families, and counselors.

With our data-backed insights, proven strategies, and expert team, Collegewise can retool your district’s post-high school ecosystem to create a less stressful, more successful experience, with programs and resources built around your unique needs and goals.

How Collegewise Supports School Counselors and your Students

Check out our free Collegewise resources and events to keep you on top of the latest trends in college admissions:

As well as producing hundreds of free college admissions-related resources each year, Collegewise also partners directly with schools and counselors. We offer tailored support in four main ways: 

                           Application Accelerator course for rising seniors 

                           Professional Development in college admissions for educators

                           Workshops and Webinars to engage, educate, and empower your school community

                           Supplemental 1-1 college counseling hours for all grade levels 

If you’re interested in learning more about how Collegewise can assist your community, you can schedule time with our school partnerships director here.