IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

North Carolina Universities Deal With AI in Admissions Essays

Guidance on student use of generative artificial intelligence in college applications varies widely across North Carolina, but universities broadly expect students not to submit AI-generated writing as their own.

AI writing,Robot,Hand,Writing,The,Book,ChatGPT
(TNS) — “My passion for engineering has deep roots, nurtured in my parents’ garage where I tirelessly disassembled and fixed gadgets.” — ChatGPT answering an NC State admissions essay prompt.

This summer, North Carolina State University posted new guidance on its first-year applicant webpage.

“At NC State, we view submitting language directly from any AI platform as claiming work that you did not originally create,” the school wrote. “If you want to leverage an AI tool like ChatGPT for help writing your college essay, we encourage you to use it solely as a learning experience that can help brainstorm ideas and structure thoughts.”

According to NC State, nearly 40,000 prospective first-year students applied to attend the Raleigh university this fall. As the largest university in the North Carolina, NC State has a staff of 25 full-time readers and around five part-time readers who review every application over the course of months.

Transcripts are required. Test scores remain optional. NC State Director of Admissions Jon Westover said personal essays afford applicants space to express what may not otherwise come across in their applications.

The emergence of artificial intelligence tools has added a wrinkle to the process.

Last November, a Bay Area company called OpenAI released a new version of ChatGPT, an AI-backed large language model that quickly churns out novel text to human-written prompts. The platform went viral, ushering in a new era of hype around generative AI technologies.

Colleges and universities have grappled with its impact since.

This summer, the University of North Carolina released guidance for how current students should ethically use generative AI. Caltech asks fall 2024 applicants to review its AI-use policy before submitting supplemental essays, and Georgia Tech also added an AI statement to its admissions site.

“(Generative AI) is definitely a very big thing in the college planning world,” said Abby Bittler, an admissions counselor in Cary.

Belinda Wilkerson, an independent educational consultant living in Fayetteville, tells clients to look up the AI-related admissions policies for every college on their list before applying.

“There’s no uniform policy,” she said. “(The schools) are still trying to figure it out, too.”


NC State is one of the few North Carolina schools to mention the technology on its admissions site.

“What we put on our website wasn’t really based on any concerns we had seen,” Westover said. “It was more or less recognizing that there are those things out there that students can use. And we wanted to provide some guidance for students on how best to use them.”

Earlier this month, the NC State admissions office removed more forceful language against the use of generative AI, erasing both the opening line from its recommendation as well as the sentence: “Copying and pasting AI generated content is strongly discouraged.”

“It was not necessarily intended as a warning,” Westover said of why his department made these wording changes.

NC State’s undergraduate admissions page for 2024 applicants acknowledges “that students may be using ChatGPT or other AI tools to assist them with their college applications.”

Westover agreed prospective students could ethically use these platforms to avail themselves of the kind of writing support their more privileged counterparts often experience.

“It’s much like having somebody else take a look at your essay,” he said. “Well, if you don’t have anybody else that you’re working with on the applications. It could be used in the same way.”

Many high school seniors struggle with the kind of writing college admission essays demand, Wilkerson says.

“It’s not the same as writing a persuasive essay or analyzing a book,” she said. “So they don’t get an opportunity to write a lot where they’re reflecting about themselves.”

Wilkerson, who serves as president of the North Carolina Career Development Association, believes there’s utility in aspiring college students using AI platforms, suggesting they could use them to brainstorm ideas for particular prompts before adding their own personalities.

ChatGPT is a large language model trained on an expansive database of information. It then uses its neural network to sequence words or phrases in their most probable order based on its training.

The final writing can sometimes make the technology sound sentient, though there are also often tell-tale signs (stilted phrasing, factual inaccuracies) that indicate AI is behind the text.

Anna Zirkel, a counselor in Hillsborough, acknowledges ChatGPT “writes beautiful essays that are well-structured.” Writing structure, she said, is an another area where high school students often struggle. Yet she cautions against students using ChatGPT, saying the influence of the AI is often apparent in the final product.

“I feel like it’s playing with fire right now,” she said. “Maybe in the future, we’ll embrace using this to help people articulate their strengths and their activities that they’ve done and the challenges that they’ve overcome. But right now, I wouldn’t jeopardize my college admissions for an essay that is written maybe a little better than what I could do.”


“NCSU’s vibrant engineering community, exemplified by the Engineering Entrepreneurs Program, provides an avenue for turning innovative ideas into reality.” — ChatGPT

Can ChatGPT write a convincing college admissions essay?

The News & Observer asked the platform to answer a question from NC State’s first-year application. We then asked college admissions counselors in North Carolina to give feedback.

NC State requires students to write multiple essays. They can choose one prompt from a list provided by either the Common App or Coalition App. The university then also asks prospective students to respond to the following supplemental short-answer question in 250 words or less:

  • Explain why you selected the academic program(s) above and why you are interested in studying these at NC State.

Engineering is the most popular topic selected; Westover said roughly 11,000 of the school’s 40,000 applicants say they hope to pursue engineering at a university renowned for its engineering research. So we typed into ChatGPT: “Can you write me a sample of an essay about why I want to study engineering at North Carolina State University using specific examples?”

We also gave the maximum word count. The platform produced a short-answer response in under 10 seconds.

The supplemental essay hinted at an actual life. The AI applicant fixed gadgets in their parents’ garage and later joined the high school robotics club. It referenced specifics about NC State, including “cutting-edge facilities” like Centennial Campus and Hunt Library, as well as the school’s Engineering Entrepreneurs Program.

“This to me feels significantly more polished than what most 18-year-olds write,” Bittler wrote in an email.

Yet like many critiques of generative AI text, the ChatGPT response to her feels “generic” and devoid of “sensory details.”

“What street is the house/garage located on?” she wrote. “What high school did you attend? Who (what person) inspired your love of this subject area? This is what makes an essay special in my opinion.”

Wilkerson, too, thought the ChatGPT college essay overly broad. “When it said it liked to problem solve, well give examples of how you problem solved in the past,” she said.

Both counselors concluded that if an applicant felt they needed to plagiarize a personal essay to get into a certain school, then perhaps that school was not the right fit.

Using the feedback from Wilkerson and Bittler, the N&O then asked ChatGPT to revise its essay to include more personal details.

“I think it’s an excellent essay,” said Zirkel, who reviewed the revision. “It includes specific things at NC State and that’s typically one of the things that they’re going to be looking for.”

But like her counterparts, she found ChatGPT’s response left her with a few too many questions.

“I want to know what did you do in robotics club?” she said. “What was your position? Did you attend competitions? If you attended competitions, did you win anything? Did you overcome challenges?”

Zirkel also noted it is rare for college admissions essays to include titles.


Across the state, guidance on prospective students’ use of generative AI in their college applications varies widely, with some schools offering no clear guidance or policy, to others including it only in honor code agreements students sign when they submit their application.

Some universities, such as N.C. Central in Durham and N.C. A&T in Greensboro, do not require students to submit essays as part of their applications and could remain largely unaffected by generative AI in the admissions process. At N.C. A&T, associate vice provost for enrollment management Joseph Montgomery said, the university most heavily considers academic performance, but accepts voluntary essays if students wish to submit them and explain more about their motivations to attend college.

Montgomery told The N&O he didn’t “think this new technology will greatly change our current process.”

At UNC-Chapel Hill, applicants are only given guidance on the use of ChatGPT in their applications when they ask about it, the university told The N&O by email, but all applicants are expected to abide by the university’s honor code — which prohibits academic dishonesty — and write their own essays. Applicants have to affirm they adhered to the honor code when they submit their applications.

“Our best advice when crafting your application is to be authentic and genuine throughout: this is your opportunity to tell us your story,” UNC’s guidance to applicants states — if they inquire about it. “We’ll see how you’ve challenged yourself and thrived in the classroom from your transcript, and you can tell us what you care about and how you’ve invested your time and energy outside of the classroom through the extracurricular activities and writing sections.”

UNC offers more robust and readily available guidance for the use of AI in the classroom.

“As the first public university, UNC has a history of innovation. We invite students to enter into that history and innovate with generative artificial intelligence (AI) tools,” the student guide states before offering a checklist with six tips, including that AI should “help” students think, but not think for them.

Duke University also requires prospective students to affirm their adherence to the university’s community standards when they submit their applications. The “terms and conditions” applicants must sign specifically address the use of AI, stating: “My application materials were not created by another person or by a generative artificial intelligence system.”

Duke also offers guidance on student assignments, generally stating that “AI-generated content falls under the definition of plagiarism at Duke.” The university’s guidance encourages faculty to develop their own policies for the use of AI in their courses, including defining what each faculty member deems an “acceptable use” of AI.

Jay Pfeifer, media relations director at Davidson College, said that school’s admissions team builds “deep personal relationships” and “close contacts” with applicants, which means admissions officials are able to “understand whether an applicant’s essay is consistent with other parts of their application.”

©2023 The Charlotte Observer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.