ASU allows ChatGPT to be used in law school applications
Allowing generative AI's use in college applications could be a game changer in leveling the playing field for getting into programs
I’m not a huge fan of college application essays. There’s something about the ritual of spinning your life’s story to make the ordinary seem extraordinary that jars with me. But more than this, the college essay has evolved into an art form that is less about who you are and more about where you come from, the coaching you receive, and the capacity of your parents to fork out for expert help. It’s a system that deeply disadvantages anyone who doesn’t understand — or cannot afford — how to navigate it.
Because of this, I’m a strong proponent of closing the equity gap that college essays so often exacerbate — especially amongst applicants who don’t have knowledgeable mentors amongst their family and friends, who don’t have access to expert advice, and who can’t afford the services of college essay consultants. And here, ChatGPT and other generative AI platforms are a potential game changer — that i, if used smartly.
Within this context, I was excited to see that Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law have just announced that applicants to its degree program can use generative AI tools such as ChatGPT, Bard and others in their applications — as long as they certify that the information they submit is accurate.
I don’t know whether this is the first move of its kind, but it’s certainly one of the first. In contrast, the University of Michigan announced a few days ago that it is taking the opposite tack and prohibiting the use of ChatGPT in law school applications. (In full disclosure, I’m currently a professor at ASU and was formerly at the University of Michigan — so it’s especially interesting to see these two universities take very different approaches to generative AI.)
Of course, there are plenty of pitfalls in using generative AI in college applications. Simply asking ChatgGPT to write a great college essay is likely to result in saccharine-laced boilerplate stories of epiphanies and acts of social heroism that so often characterize these papers (and believe me, I’ve read my fair share). And there’s always the problem of your generative AI platform of choice simply making stuff up.
At this point, the cynic in me wonders if this would make much of a difference — after all, high school students are already taught to write these essays in a very particular style, and services that coach students (or even do the heavy lifting for them) use tried and tested templates.
But this isn’t how it should be.
In contrast, using generative AI tools like ChatGPT as a collaborative partner has the power to place a meaningful college essay within reach of more students than ever before. If used judiciously, these tools may well shift the balance of power away from students who know how to play the game, and toward to those who don’t necessarily understand the social etiquette of college essays, but have the potential to thrive in the programs they apply for anyway.
Here, I’ll begrudgingly admit that there is merit in essays that convey an applicants’ aspirations, goals, character, and reasons for wanting to enroll in a given program. But these should never be tests of a student’s understanding of unwritten rules, or their mastery of prose, rhetoric, spin, and use of English language.
This is where tools like ChatGPT can be highly effective “translators” if used appropriately. They have the ability to take the complex, fractured and jumbled thoughts and ideas of a young person who isn’t yet sure who they are and where they’re headed — but who nevertheless has amazing potential — and translate these into prose that authentically capture the possibilities they represent.
This is just the start though. As long as they have internet access, any prospective student can use these tools. They don’t have to be rich or privileged, or have in-the-know parents and friends, or be super-articulate and persuasive. They just need to be themselves.
There is, though, a bit of a kicker here. While allowing applicants to use generative AI is likely to make colleges more accessible to more students, internet access is still not ubiquitous. This is a problem, and one that increasingly disadvantages students the other side of the digital divide. But as AI becomes increasingly integrated into society, it would seem more important to work toward access for all, rather than continue to privilege students who have an inside track on how to play the application game by not allowing its use in college applications.
Then there’s the challenge of AI literacy. For some high school students, it isn’t just a case of having access to generative AI tools: they also need to know how to use them effectively. And here I would argue strongly that every high school in the country should be ensuring that their students have the AI skills and savvy they need to succeed.
At the end of the day, it’s hard to see a future where AI isn’t integral to the college application process, and if this enables applicants from all backgrounds to be accepted into programs on the basis of their potential rather than their background, this can only be a good thing.