We are learning how to get Large Language Models (LLMs), such as the one that powers Chat GPT, to act like writing mentors for our students. In this article I’ll describe how and why we are designing prompts that young writers can use to ask OpenAI’s LLM to give them helpful, honest, and harmless feedback on their college admissions essays.
We are not asking AI to write college admissions essays for our students or to score them for us, although LLMs can do these tasks. Instead, the prompt designing we are doing on NowComment and on Youth Voices gives our students AI tools that appropriately engage, push, challenge, affirm, or inspire them at different points in their own writing and thinking processes.
These tools–Thinking Partners on NowComment and AI Mojo Templates on Youth Voices–can be used by students to support their development as writers, not just improve the text they are working on. We invite you to follow our process as we develop AI tools for students who are writing essays for college admissions.
As this semester, the Fall of 2023, was about to begin Chris Sloan, a media and English teacher at Judge Memorial Catholic High School in Salt Lake City, started thinking about how he usually begins the school year with seniors by asking them about their college admissions essays. This year was like many others in that his students expressed an interest in work on these essays in their English class.
Chris also started wondering if there might be a fit with such a project for AI to act as a mentor through the process of writing these important essays. Student often write about personal histories, traumatic experiences, and other things that ofter make them uncomfortable with sharing these essays with their peers.
While having this conversation about how to respect our students’ needs for privacy and get them the feedback that a trusted mentor or peer might provide, we started to wonder if AI might be useful in this process given. An AI mentor might be worth considering given it’s anonymity and our growing confidence in being able to shape the results it produces into criterion-based (using the criteria we give it), useful, descriptive, and suggestive comments.
In addition Chris had taken the lead earlier in the summer with composing prompts to describe stakeholders who could give a writer feedback from particular perspectives. For example, what would a principal in your district say about the proposed solution you are writing for a problem you see in the curriculum?
Perhaps, Chris thought, writers could use and create AI personas or Thinking Partners who would could give them responses to their essays as if they were admissions officers. How would students expect these AI Thinking Partners to respond? How would they describe the people they imagined are going to read their essays?
With these questions in mind we asked Jessica Early to join our conversation at a Teachers Teaching Teachers meetup on August 23, 2023 . In the 4th chapter of their book Real World Writing for Secondary Students: Teaching the College Admission Essay and Other Gate-Openers for Higher Education (2012), Dr. Early and her co-author Meredith DeCosta explain that “the research and teaching team decided to devote a class to understanding audience and purpose as a step toward successfully executing this real world, gate-opening genre (Day 4).”
As students completed their brainstorming questions, many said they imagined the audience of college admission officers as “old,” “conservative,” and “White.” Cody, a highly verbal student who always sat in the front row, blurted out, “I’ve never thought about who ends up actually reading these essays. I just assumed they would wind up in some file somewhere.” Lindsey, a quiet student, raised her hand to share, “When I think of college admission officers, I think of White men. I never picture anyone who looks or thinks like me.” On her questionnaire, Lindsey wrote that her audience would most likely be a “42-year-old, upper-class, male professor with a Ph.D., and Caucasian.” She also stated that this unknown reader would expect her to be “smart, well-rounded, and worldly.” Many students pictured “men in suits and ties with white hair and glasses” reading their essays with a critical eye.”Early, Jessica Singer, and Meredith DeCosta. “Chapter 4 Demystifying the College Admission Essay Genre.” Real World Writing for Secondary Students: Teaching the College Admission Essay and Other Gate-Openers for Higher Education, Teachers College Press, New York, NY, 2012.
On TTT we all agreed that it would be great if we could find a way for NowComment Thinking Partners or AI Mojo Templates to simulate a college admissions offices as a way to have students to consider their audience. We put a pin in this and spent the rest of the evening talking about how AI Mojo Templates could be used to give students feedback on their college admissions essays in a way that simulates a peer review group. See AI Does Peer Review. There’s plenty to unpack with this simulation, and we think these AI Mojo Templates will be quite useful for student. (I also make an edit to one of the prompts that was imprecise. Now it provides the kinds of feedback we would want it to give.)
Instead of spending more time here on “AI doing peer review,” I would like to turn to how I developed an AI Mojo Template for Youth Voices and a Thinking Partner for NowComment that are first-drafts of AI tools that simulate an Admissions Officer. I’m collaging these materials here as an example of how we might compose prompts for AI to teach writing, to suggest some of the rationale for adding prompt-shaped AI to our classrooms, and to provide a how-to of prompt design, thus, I hope to invite others to begin their journies into prompt engineering.
I start by asking Perplexity for some help in defining a persona for a college admissions officer.
My question is:
Who reads College Admissions Essays? Can you give me character sketches of the admissions officers who make read and judge College Admissions Essays?
When it comes to reading and judging college admissions essays, admissions officers look for specific qualities and traits in applicants. Here are some character sketches of the admissions officers based on the information from the search results:
- Focus on personal attributes and skills: Admissions officers have shifted their focus from solely academic achievements to personal traits and qualities associated with college success. They want to see evidence of empathy and passion in applicants’ essays.
- Holistic approach: Admissions officers take a holistic approach to reviewing applications, considering not only academic achievements but also personality and character traits. They believe that character attributes are important in admissions decisions.
- Looking for uniqueness: Admissions officers are interested in what makes applicants unique and how they will contribute to the college campus. They value qualities such as leadership, willingness to take risks, initiative, sense of social responsibility, and commitment to service.
- Academic excellence and character strength: Admissions officers are looking for both academic excellence and character strength in applicants. They want to see evidence of creativity, self-awareness, and a good command of grammar in college essays.
- Recognizing good writing and storytelling: Admissions officers recognize and appreciate good, solid writing and storytelling in college essays. While exceptional essays can make an impact, admissions officers also value essays that are well-written and effectively convey the applicant’s story.
Overall, admissions officers are looking for applicants who not only have strong academic records but also possess personal qualities and character traits that align with the values and goals of the college or university. They want to see evidence of empathy, passion, uniqueness, leadership, and a commitment to service in applicants’ essays.
 Two Qualities College Admissions Officers Want to See in … https://writingcenterofprinceton.com/two-key-qualities-college-admissions-officers-want-to-see-in-your-common-app-essay/
 9 Personality and Character Traits Colleges Look for in … https://www.collegedata.com/resources/getting-in/9-personal-qualities-colleges-look-for-in-applicants
 Character Counts: What Are Colleges Looking For? – Big Future https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/plan-for-college/college-prep/stand-out/character-counts-what-are-colleges-looking-for
 CHARACTER AND THE COLLEGE ADMISSION PROCESS https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED608316.pdf
 20 College Essay Examples (Graded by Former … https://admitreport.com/blog/college-essay-examples
 6 Types of Essays College Admissions Officers Are Tired … https://www.collegecovered.com/getting-into-college/bad-college-essay-topics/
I move next to the AI Mojo Dashboard in an edit or add new post page on Youth Voices. I click Customize Template under Settings then choose Add New Template.
I copy the Perplexity thread and paste it in the box that invites me to Enter your prompt here… Then I revise the text to make it into a set of instructions for the LLM to follow. In addition I click all of the items on a List of setting(s) that are available for user to configure in the template playground. I keep the default Mode, Engine & Model and I change the Max Response Length to 2500 tokens. I also keep the defaults for the other settings in the right column. These are things Finally I change the Imput field to read College Admissions Essay with the Shortcode Id: ESSAY. I know to make these settings from trial and error of having created over 80 of these templates since March 2023.
Here’s the prompt after I edit the Perplexity text:
Be an admissions officer seeking to help me with my College Admissions Essay. Read and judge my [Essay]Talk to me like a supportive writing mentor.
Talk to me about my essay by using second-person pronouns: you, your, yours, yourself, yourselves.
Look in my essay for strong and weak examples of the five specific qualities and traits listed below.
Go step-by-step and show me what you are thinking for three of the five qualities and traits listed below.
Give me both positive feedback and let me know where I need to improve. There are two steps.
Something to Improve
Choose two of the qualities and traits listed below that are strongest in my essay. Quote from my essay to specifically show why you think these are strong parts of my essay. Then give me one thing that I might improve on within these two qualities and traits, and give examples of what I might write.
Something to Improve:
Choose one of the qualities and traits listed below that needs the most improvement in my essay. Provide expanded examples of the kinds of things I might do to make these improvements on my next draft of this essay.
Five specific qualities and traits to choose from for in my essay. Choose two from this list that are strong and one that needs improvement.
- Focus on personal attributes and skills: Shift your focus from solely academic achievements to personal traits and qualities associated with college success. You want to see evidence of empathy and passion in my essay.
- Holistic approach: Take a holistic approach to reviewing my essay, considering not only academic achievements but also personality and character traits. You believe that character attributes are important in admissions decisions.
- Looking for uniqueness: Show interest in what makes me unique and how I will contribute to the college campus. Value qualities such as leadership, willingness to take risks, initiative, sense of social responsibility, and commitment to service.
- Academic excellence and character strength: Look for both academic excellence and character strength in my essay. You want to see evidence of creativity, self-awareness, and a good command of grammar in college essays.
- Recognizing good writing and storytelling: Recognize and appreciate good, solid writing and storytelling in my college essay. While exceptional essays can make an impact, you also value essays that are well-written and effectively convey my story.
Overall, you are looking for applicants who not only have strong academic records but also possess personal qualities and character traits that align with the values and goals of the college or university. You want to see evidence of empathy, passion, uniqueness, leadership, and a commitment to service in my essay.
it’s worth noting that ths is actually the third draft of the prompt. At first I asked for strengths and weaknesses within each of the five qualities and traits, but it was a bit more than AI could handle. I wasn’t getting consistent results. When I did get something like what I had requested the results were repetitive and unwieldy. I tested several different prompts using the example essay that Chris Sloan had provided on Teachers Teaching Teachers on August 23, 2023, Losing Track of Time (Purple). These iterations led to the revised prompt that I’ve copied above.
Title I gave this AI Mojo Template: [Revising 20] College Admissions Officer
Two results generated by [Revising 20] College Admissions Officer for “Losing Track of Time”
Keep in mind that you can ask for the results as many times as you would like. These are results six and seven:
In your essay, you demonstrate a strong appreciation for the complexity of acting. You write, “The complexity of acting is fascinating because it allows for me to be a part of an idea that is typically larger than life, out of this world, or simply an alternate reality.” This is a great example of how you can express a deep understanding of the topic and provide insight into your creative approach to problem-solving.
You also demonstrate a strong sense of business acumen with your experience in fashion and branding. You write, “Putting an outfit together allows for a daily creative outlet and during high school I have been able to mix the worlds of clothing and business.” This shows your ability to think strategically and how you are able to use problem-solving skills to build a business.
Something to Improve:
You should consider expanding on your passion for acting and business to provide more evidence of your commitment to these topics. For example, you could provide more detail about the types of scenes you create in your head and the types of emotions and themes you explore when acting. You could also provide more detail about the business you have built and the strategies you have implemented to make it successful. Additionally, you could provide more detail about the types of clothing you buy and sell and the unique styles you have created. By providing more detail about these topics, you will be able to demonstrate your commitment to and knowledge of acting and business.
One of the strongest qualities in your essay is your focus on personal attributes and skills. You showcase your passion and empathy by discussing your love of acting and your ability to analyze how you would approach each scene through multiple different emotions or themes. You also provide evidence of your creative thinking by discussing your fashion and branding business and how it allows you to express yourself. Your essay also expresses your uniqueness by discussing how you think of acting “more than anything else on a daily basis” and how it allows you to be part of an idea that is “larger than life.” To improve on this quality, make sure to tie your passion for acting, fashion, and business to the values and goals of the college you’re applying to and how you can contribute to the college campus.
Something to Improve:
One of the qualities you need to focus on improving is your holistic approach to your essay. While you provide evidence of your passion and creativity, you need to make sure to also discuss your academic achievements and your academic goals. Provide evidence of your academic excellence and discuss how you plan to use the educational resources of the college or university to reach your academic goals. Additionally, discuss any extracurricular activities or volunteer work that you have participated in and how they have helped shape your character. Showing evidence of your commitment to service and leadership can help make your essay stand out.
The next thing to try is to see how the same prompt might work for a Thinking Partner on NowComment.
On NowComment a student could upload their college admissions essay and — after hitting Ask AI — could choose to get a response to their essay from a “College Admissions Counselor” who (according to the Short description): “Assesses the strongest and weakest quality from five that are looked for in a college admissions essay”
Here’s the reponse given for the essay “Losing Track of Time:”
1. Focus on personal attributes and skills: The strength of your essay in this aspect is your vivid exploration of your passion for acting and fashion. Your words not only describe this but show it. Particularly, the line “I find acting enticing because I tend to overthink things in life and acting allows me to prepare for various scenarios that I’ve contemplated too much previously in real life situations” shows how acting has been central in shaping your perspectives and daily activities. Additionally, your explanation of why you enjoy running a fashion business depicts your entrepreneurial mindset and dedication – fundamental traits of great students.
Something to Improve: Perhaps touch on the transformative power of these pursuits on your character. Mention specific instances where you noticed a change in your attitudes, viewpoints, or behaviors as a result of these intriguing endeavors.
2. Recognizing good writing and storytelling: Your writing style demonstrates a strong narrative and describes your experiences in a conversational manner that will be easy for the admissions team to follow. Details like “In my head I imagine a camera ready to film everyday scenarios and I analyze how I would approach each scene through multiple different emotions or themes” create an engaging tone that invites the reader into your world.
Something to Improve: You might try to tighten up your text by eliminating any unnecessary words or vague phrases. For instance, you could say, “Acting fascinates me because I can recreate and reinterpret situations from everyday life,” for a more direct and compelling opening.
Something to Improve:
3. Looking for uniqueness: Your essay is strong in narrating your passion for acting and the unique way in which you perceive it but doesn’t go much in depth about your unique characteristics. In reference to your involvement in the clothing industry, give examples of how your creative vision differentiates your style from others. Highlight your innovative decisions, original styles, or unique ways you connect with customers. Be more concrete about your unique abilities, experiences and points of view especially in the part where you talk about building your own brand and creating merchandise inspired by your favorite designers.
Your essay shows a strong sense of self-awareness and creativity. With some refinement and deeper reflections on your experiences, it can become very compelling.
I think we are on to something here. It’s not perfect yet, but it’s usable, and that’s where we need to get this prompts to before starting to use them in our classrooms. Then students can iterate on them, suggest improvements, and make them themslves. AI Mojo on Youth Voices and Thinking Partners on NowComment are tools that students and teachers can and remix and revise.
As I was completing this first stage of developing a College Admissions Officer or Counselor on two platforms, I read an incredibly helpful column by Lance Eliot, “Latest Prompt Engineering Technique Inventively Transforms Imperfect Prompts Into Superb Interactions For Using Generative AI” (or on NowComment).
Note how closely his process feels to Flower and Hayes’s model for writing:
Flower and Hayes based their model upon a theory of cognitive processes comprising four key points: (1) the writing process involves a “set of distinctive thinking processes” that writers employ during the composing process; (2) writers organize these thinking processes hierarchically and often embed them within each other; (3) composing is “a goal-directed thinking process” that is guided by the writer’s own “growing network” of goals; and (4) writers generate purposeful goals, both high-level goals and supporting sub-goals, and may revise them or even formulate new ones based on what they learn during the act of writing (Flower and Hayes, 1981, p, 366).
Compare these processes with this extended quotation from Lance Eliot:
Do the best that you can do and do so in a series of forthrightly “imperfect” prompts (ones that in your heart of hearts, you know are not what you want or need to say, but you’ve got to start somewhere). A journey of a thousand miles requires that you put one foot in front of another. Repeatedly.
My four overall major steps are these:
- (1) Devise A Knowingly Imperfect Prompt Set
- (2) Use The Imperfect Prompt Set To Derive An Aggregated Prompt
- (3) Utilize The Aggregated Prompt And See How Things Go
- (4) Rinse And Repeat, Plus Identify Prompting Lessons
Notice that this is a decidedly action-oriented method.
The good news is that you will likely feel better about using generative AI due to the action-inspired moving-things-along mantra of this technique. Furthermore, I am granting you explicit permission to assuredly not be perfect. Yes, that’s right, you are being handed a get-out-of-jail-free card. Whereas most of us would suffer endlessly with a burning desire to write the perfect prompt, I am telling you that this is not something you need to further grouse over.
The delightful song Let It Go provides solace here.
Moving on, let’s unpack those four major steps:
(1) Devise A Knowingly Imperfect Prompt Set
- (a) Compose your base prompt, don’t fret over it
- (b) Come up with a series of reasonable and pertinent variants of the base prompt
- (c) Consider varying the style or format in addition to the substance involved
- (d) Review and possibly drop out imperfect prompts that mislead or could confound the AI
(2) Use The Imperfect Prompt Set To Derive An Aggregated Prompt
- (a) Start up a new conversation in the generative AI (fresh and clean)
- (b) Begin with any needed context-setting prompts (see the link here)
- (c) Selectively make use of your imperfect prompts from your drafted set
- (d) Based on the generative AI response, gauge which other selections to try
- (e) If coalescing toward a suitable generative AI response do proceed in that direction
- (f) If diverging from a suitable response then halt your efforts, reassess, and possibly start anew
- (g) Establish a prudent aggregated prompt based on your tryouts in generative AI
(3) Utilize The Aggregated Prompt And See How Things Go
- (a) Start a new conversation in generative AI, so that all is fresh and clean
- (b) Begin with any needed context-setting prompts (see the link here)
- (c) Make use of your derived aggregated prompt
- (d) Based on the generative AI response, use follow-on prompts for added depth of pursuit
- (e) If coalescing toward a suitable generative AI response further proceed in that direction
- (f) If diverging from a suitable response then halt your efforts, reassess, and possibly start anew
(4) Rinse And Repeat, Plus Identify Prompting Lessons
- (a) Take a reflective moment to consider how things went
- (b) Ask yourself: How can you improve the “imperfect” prompt prep for the future?
- (c) Ask yourself: How can you improve the devising of aggregated prompts?
- (d) Ask yourself: How can you improve the utilization of an aggregated prompt?
- (e) Identify any other learnings that will bolster your prompt engineering skills
I don’t have the space here to go into a full-blown example of the process, but if there is sufficient reader interest I’ll gladly do so in a later follow-up column and illuminate the subtle nuances of this notable technique.
This technique ought to be one of many that you have in your arsenal of prompt engineering methods.
My writing here is–at best–a collage essay pulling together my latest writing and thinking about prompt engineering. I invite others to join this process by making prompts for AI like this one we are making for the college admissions essay.
We can work on this together at the next meetup of Teachers Teaching Teachers on Wednesdays at 9E/8C/7M/6P. Join us at https://kumospace.com/youthvoices.