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Does ChatGPT pose a threat to the future of the college essay?

A computer shows a purple screen that says, "Introducing ChatGPT Plus." The background of the image is a glowing green gradient.
Andrew Neel
The advent of AI chat bots, like ChatGPT, has sounded alarm bells in the education sector due to its powerful plagiarism potential.

ChatGPT is an open-source, artificial intelligence model that responds to user’s inquiries in a conversational way. ChatGPT can complete simple tasks such as “Give me a classic recipe for chicken noodle soup,” or more complex tasks like “Write a computer script in Java.” Strikingly, ChatGPT can answer abstract and niche prompts like “Generate a comparison of James Joyce’s prose in 'Ulysses' to the directing style of Martin Scorcese’s 'The Godfather,'" or “Contrast the lyrics of Taylor Swift to Jane Austen’s classic works.”

It’s this ability to answer almost any prompt fed to it that make it a potentially powerful tool for plagiarism; such as in the college essay.

Utah State University associate professor of English Lisa Gabbert said for her, writing is a way of thinking and clarifying ideas. If plagiarism using ChatGPT makes the college essay obsolete the question becomes, what will replace it?

“I don't think it's going to be possible just to say, 'You can't use AI in your writing,' and just to ignore it or pretend it's not there. Our challenge is to think about how we can use it to help students think better, and to write better, and to think critically, which is the goal of writing. So that's kind of more of a question for me is where do we keep those skills?” Gabbert said.

Gabbert said oral exams, in-class written essays and editing AI written papers are all possible replacements for the college essay. Her impression, though, is that while some students may use AI written essays, many others will want to learn how to write on their own. Regardless, she says ChatGPT has forced her and her colleagues to think critically about their role as teachers of writing in the modern age.

“What is our job? Is sustained engagement with a long text — is that a good skill to have? Is that going to benefit them in the future? Or should our efforts be put somewhere else, to things that might be more relevant to them?" Gabbert asked. "And I think you have to ask the same question about writing, otherwise we're not being good critical thinkers of our own practices. You don't want to just say, 'Oh, the college essay is important, because it's been important for 100 years.' That's not modeling good critical thinking."

Gabbert said that she’s taking it day by day, and that the role of the college essay in a world with AI is likely going to be a long and developing conversation.

Max is a neuroscientist and science reporter. His research revolves around an underexplored protein receptor, called GPR171, and its possible use as a pharmacological target for pain. He reports on opioids, outer space and Great Salt Lake. He loves Utah and its many stories.