Lesson Plan: Applying to College in the Age of A.I. – The New York Times

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Current Events
Students examine how chatbots are reshaping college admissions, look critically at what happens when they are given essay prompts, and formulate opinions about the questions raised by these tools.

Featured Article: “Ban or Embrace? Colleges Wrestle With A.I.-Generated Admissions Essays.” by Natasha Singer
The easy availability of artificial intelligence chatbots like ChatGPT, which can manufacture humanlike text in response to short prompts, is poised to upend the undergraduate application process at selective colleges — ushering in an era of automated plagiarism or democratized student access to essay-writing help. Or maybe both.
In this lesson, students learn why chatbots are disrupting college admissions and how institutions are responding. Then they look critically at what happens when chatbots are given essay prompts. Finally, they formulate opinions about the practical and ethical uses of A.I. chatbots in the college application process.
Please note: If your students need an introduction to generative A.I., the lesson Teaching and Learning in the Era of ChatGPT can help.
How much is the college application process stressing out your students? Which aspects of it are hardest for them?
Invite them to discuss or journal about those questions, and then present the following paragraph, which comes from the article they will read in full later in this lesson:
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.
What is their reaction to it? If they agree that there is great pressure to showcase a “singular personal writing voice” in these essays, how are they going about that process?
Next, introduce them to the statements below, which are adapted from the article. What do they think? To gauge your students’ reactions, you might read the statements aloud and have them show in some way if they agree or disagree, as in a Four Corners exercise. Or divide them into pairs or small groups to discuss each one — or simply have them react privately in their journals.
Here are the statements:
As we learn more about these chatbot tools, it’s important for institutions like schools to set reasonable parameters on how they can and can’t be used.
Large high schools often have overworked college counselors with little time for individualized essay coaching. Chatbots can help play that role.
Outsourcing writing to bots could hinder students from developing important critical thinking and storytelling skills.
Using ChatGPT for college essays is akin to plagiarism.
Using A.I. chatbots to generate ideas or pieces of writing can make college essays sound too generic.
Wealthier high school students often have access to resources like 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.
Part of the process of the college essay is finding your writing voice through drafting and revising, and A.I. chatbots will rob students of the opportunity to do that.
What happened? Which statements provoked the most discussion? Why? Tell students that at the end of this lesson, after they have read the relevant article in full, they will have a chance to post their thoughts to our related Student Opinion question: “Should students let A.I. chatbots help write their college essays? If so, how?
Read the related article, and then answer these questions:
1. Why did staff members at the Georgia Institute of Technology spend weeks this summer pretending to be high school students using A.I. chatbots to fill out college applications?
2. Why is higher education facing a “turning point”? What else happened recently that has helped upend the college admissions process?
3. What does the author mean when she writes that these new tools “threaten to recast the college application essay as a kind of generic cake mix”?
4. As you read the article, you probably recognized some of the sentences from the warm-up activity. Has your reaction to any of them changed? For instance, what do you think of what the teacher Susan Barber has to say? What is your opinion of how she is treating ChatGPT in her classes in Atlanta?
5. To what extent do you agree with those who say ChatGPT might have a “democratizing effect” by giving students without resources access to help? How much does that matter?
6. The article describes some ways that colleges are dealing with A.I. chatbots by laying out the policies of three schools — the University of Michigan Law School, the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University and Georgia Tech. Which of the three do you think has the best policy, given everything you have discussed and read so far? Why?
See what happens when a chatbot writes your essay.
Write me a 100-word essay in the voice of a high school student explaining why I would love to attend Dartmouth to pursue a double major in biology and computer science.
As a high school student, I am eager to pursue my passion for both biology and computer science at Dartmouth College. The opportunity to double major in these fields will allow me to explore the intricate relationships between living organisms and cutting-edge technology. At Dartmouth, I am drawn to the rigorous academic programs that emphasize hands-on learning, research opportunities, and collaboration with renowned faculty. By attending Dartmouth, I aim to develop a deep understanding of the complexities of life and technology, preparing myself for a career where I can make a meaningful impact on the world.
What song represents the soundtrack of your life at this moment?
What college course would you teach?
What should your future roommates know?
Why do you want to enroll at _____?
These are examples of short essay questions from Ivy League schools like Yale and Harvard. Write a short response to one in your journal — or work with a partner and take turns answering the question aloud.
Then, take a look at “We Used A.I. to Write Essays for Harvard, Yale and Princeton. Here’s How It Went.” What do you think of the answers the chatbots gave for these prompts? How do they compare with your answers? Be as specific as you can: Which words, phrases or ideas in each version are superior, in your opinion? Why? Overall, how useful do you think the chatbot was?
Now, consider this prompt, from Johns Hopkins University:
Tell us about an aspect of your identity or a life experience that has shaped you.
How would you answer it? Do you think A.I. could help? Do you think a chatbot would be better at answering a prompt like this than at answering the four above? Why or why not?
As you know from the article, the four questions above come from supplemental essay sections — additional short-answer questions some colleges ask alongside a main essay. But according to another New York Times article, “Colleges Want to Know More About You and Your ‘Identity’,” many schools are now using prompts like the one from Johns Hopkins as their primary essay:
For college applicants, this is the year of the identity-driven essay, the one part of the admissions process in which it is still explicitly legal to discuss race after the Supreme Court banned affirmative action in June.
A review of the essay prompts used this year by more than two dozen highly selective colleges reveals that schools are using words and phrases like “identity” and “life experience,” and are probing aspects of a student’s upbringing and background that have, in the words of a Harvard prompt, “shaped who you are.”
Where does all this leave you? To what extent do you think it is useful to use A.I. to help you with your college essay? When, if at all, do you think it is ethical? Will it depend solely on whether or not the colleges you are applying to allow it? Or do you think there are greater considerations?
Finally, what do you think should be the ultimate purpose of a college essay? If it is supposed to show a college who you truly are, is it ethical to get help, whether from an adult or a chatbot? Or is the college process, at least for those highly selective schools that require multiple essays, so unfair that making it more accessible is the greater ethical consideration?
Tell us what you think.
Now that you’ve spent time with these issues, we’d love to hear your responses. In a related Student Opinion forum we’re asking, Should Students Let ChatGPT Help Them Write Their College Essays? If so, how? Read and respond to others’ thoughts, and then post your own to join the conversation. We hope to feature a range of your comments in our weekly Current Events Conversation.
Consider broader questions about how your school should handle A.I.
Can schools survive — and even thrive — with generative A.I.? Kevin Roose, a Times tech columnist, thinks they can. In a column in August, he made several suggestions, including this one:
My third piece of advice — and the one that may get me the most angry emails from teachers — is that teachers should focus less on warning students about the shortcomings of generative A.I. than on figuring out what the technology does well.
Do you agree? Should teachers and students be playing with the tool to see what’s possible? How might that happen? And what rules, if any, should be placed around the use of generative A.I. in your school?
Mr. Roose’s column offers “resources for educators who want to bone up on A.I. in a hurry,” including links to A.I.-focused lesson plans and recommendations made by other educators. You can also listen to an episode of his podcast, “Hard Fork,” for a conversation about this topic with Ethan Mollick, an associate professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Mr. Mollick is experimenting with generative A.I. in the classroom.
Another helpful Times resource? This column by Brian X. Chen, “We’re Using A.I. Chatbots Wrong. Here’s How to Direct Them.” There, he explains how to mitigate the spread of misinformation from these tools by steering them toward high-quality data.
Finally, back in January, when these kinds of chatbots were new, we published a resource called Teaching and Learning in the Era of ChatGPT. The “Going Further” section in that feature offers activities that can easily be adapted as these tools continue to develop. For instance, teachers, students, parents and administrators might work together or separately to:
Reimagine school assignments to productively use chatbots
Come up with ethical guidelines for school or personal use
Debate the implications of A.I. for art and for the humanities
Find more lesson plans and teaching ideas here.
Katherine Schulten has been a Learning Network editor since 2006. Before that, she spent 19 years in New York City public schools as an English teacher, school-newspaper adviser and literacy coach. More about Katherine Schulten