Can artificial intelligence crack college admissions?
Since the unveiling of OpenAI’s ChatGPT in late November 2022, the Large Language Model (LLM) has been the source of endless speculation – experts have predicted that the technology will do everything from the abolition of high school English lessons to white-collar displacement through the hijacking of democracy. The program has caused particular consternation in the education sector, as school systems across the country have banned its use, fearing it will become a tool for widespread cheating. The concerns are understandable given the sophistication of the program – this week ChatGPT passed both the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) and a final exam in a Wharton School MBA course.
Given the ability of the program to pass a high-level course at a prestigious university, can it successfully win a student admission in a school of the same level? Can ChatGPT write an admissions essay that stands out in the competitive world of Ivy League admissions?
Analyzes of the program’s performance in the USMLE and MBA exams offer useful insights into what ChatGPT can and cannot do in the college admissions landscape. In either case, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the program’s performance was its ability to respond to case studies, arriving at and explaining conclusions that did not draw directly from the input of the whole of data. LLMs, of which ChatGPT is perhaps the most sophisticated, work by using a massive amount of language input to generate and predict text based on probability. ChatGPT is particularly notable for its impressive and complex ability to mimic the nuances of human speech and generate highly contextual responses.
Both the USMLE exam and the MBA exam included questions with nuanced scenarios, often with difficult or misleading wording – in other words, questions and problems that ostensibly require deductive reasoning. Despite the dense and sensitive nature of the questions, ChatGPT was able to provide well-reasoned and largely correct answers. Christian Terwiesch, co-director of the Mack Institute for Innovation Management and researcher who administered the MBA exam, writes that ChatGPT “does an incredible job of basic operations management and process analysis questions, including those that are based on case studies. Not only are the answers correct, but the explanations are excellent. Similarly, researchers analyzing program results on the USMLE found that “the AI-generated answers also offered important insights, modeling a valuable deductive reasoning process for human learners… At least one significant idea was present in about 90% of the results. ChatGPT therefore possesses the partial ability to teach medicine by bringing out new and non-obvious concepts that may not be in the learners’ sphere of awareness. Whereas other earlier iterations of LLM retrieve answers from data entered directly into programs, ChatGPT was able to detect information adjacent to that which had been entered, creating the appearance of independent reasoning.
However, appearance is the critical term. While it’s an incredible feat that the program can respond to nuances in proposed scenarios – nuances we typically associate with human reasoning – using inferences to relate scenarios to adjacent information in its data set does not is not the same as human reasoning.
So what does this mean for the college admissions essay?
Although the program is well equipped to pass even complex tests, it is no substitute for innovation, creativity and critical thinking – qualities that students are expected to exhibit in the college admissions essay. university. The most successful essays clearly express a student’s unique personality. As Forbes’ Emma Whitford has demonstrated, with clear instructions, that ChatGPT can produce a simple admissions essay, but the examples generated lack the grit and imagination that stand out from the best schools.
The University of Chicago’s “uncommon trial” prompts further illustrate ChatGPT’s inability to conduct human reasoning. Prompts ask students to approach topics with ingenuity and originality. One of the most notorious prompts in the past asked students to simply “Find x”. When I plugged this prompt directly into ChatGPT, the program provided a standard explanation: “x is a variable that can represent any number or mathematical expression. It is typically used in equations to represent the unknown quantity that must be resolved.
Even with more specific instructions, the program failed to craft a unique or truly creative response. When I asked the program to “write a creative essay for the ‘Find x’ prompt”, it generated this essay:
It was the summer of my senior year of high school, and I was about to discover something extraordinary. I had spent the last few months studying math and physics, absorbing every detail with an eagerness that only an inquisitive mind can appreciate. One day, my teacher gave us the mission to “find x” – an equation that could unlock the answers to a number of complex questions.
At first, I was overwhelmed with the task. I felt like I was looking for a needle in a haystack – and the stakes were high. I knew I had to find x if I wanted to fulfill my dream of becoming a successful scientist. With a determination that rivals that of a lion, I set to work.
I read and re-read my textbooks, looking at every equation and concept under a magnifying glass. I experimented with different approaches, hitting dead ends and wrong turns, but never giving up. I was determined to find x.
Finally, after weeks of hard work and dedication, I had a breakthrough. I had an epiphany – I had found x! It was an equation that had the potential to revolutionize the world of mathematics and physics.
I was ecstatic. I was so proud of myself for never giving up, even when the odds were against me. I had done the impossible – I had found x!
This experience taught me that persistence, hard work and a little luck can get you anything done. Even if it feels like looking for a needle in a haystack, never give up – you might find x.
Although the prose reads like an excited high schooler, the details of the essay itself leave a lot to be desired. In fact, ChatGPT bypasses the prompt entirely by outlining the process to find x rather than actually discovery x—or at the very least, defining it.
Of course, all of this is not to say that a student’s essay, like ChatGPT, is only as good as their contribution. Prestigious colleges are paying increasing attention to student activities and how these activities provide a cohesive and compelling picture of who the student is and what they are passionate about. A good essay will tie all of these activities together into a holistic narrative with enthusiasm and creativity, but no essay, no matter how well written, can artificially manufacture four years of concrete engagement with one’s interests.
Understanding the limitations of ChatGPT is almost as important as recognizing its strengths. Although the program has a lot to offer students in a variety of different fields, it does not replace the student’s voice and reasoning. Advances in the world of artificial intelligence should push colleges to increasingly develop essay prompts that encourage critical thinking and originality and continue to emphasize students’ demonstrable activities and interests in as a primary consideration in the admissions process.