How to Write Princeton's Supplemental Essays

Princeton's supplement requires 2 short essays and 1 long essay. Additionally, there will be some short takes (favorite book, movie, website, etc.) that you will have to answer. There is a separate engineering essay if you are interested in pursuing an engineering degree. Finally, beginning with the 2018-2019 application season, Princeton is now requiring you to submit a graded writing sample (preferably an English or history paper) as part of your application. Here are some tips to optimize your supplemental essays for Princeton:


Short Essay #1: Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences that was particularly meaningful to you. (150 words)


This short essay is a version of an essay that used to be required on the Common Application. When the Common Application eliminated this short essay requirement, many colleges including Princeton began including a version of the essay in their supplements. How do you pick a good topic for this short essay? I would recommend taking a close look at your Activity List on the Common Application. There, you probably listed 10 or so activities that represent the most meaningful extracurricular experiences of your high school career. This essay should take one of those experiences (preferably one in the top 5) and elaborate on that experience. You should definitely avoid picking an activity that you already discussed in another essay.


Because this is a relatively short essay, you need to minimize the storytelling and focus more on packing lots of information into a condensed space. Don't just describe what the activity or experience is. Elaborate also on why and how you are involved in that activity or experience. Why did you pursue this? Why is it meaningful to you? How have you participated? How has the activity or experience changed you or made you grow? What have you ultimately put into this activity or experience, and what have you taken away? Remember that each piece of your application should provide more insight and information about you, and if there is a piece of your application that you have not yet been able to highlight sufficiently, this is your opportunity to explain its significance to your reader.

Short Essay #2: Please tell us how you have spent the last two summers (or vacations between school years), including any jobs you have held. (150 words)


Show your reader that you are a normal teenage human being! I recommend providing some balance and perspective in your response to this prompt. Don't just pack your response with all of the academic, extracurricular, and enrichment activities that you have done over the last two summers (e.g., summer school, science camps, debate camps, leadership conferences, etc.). Also sprinkle in a reference or two to things that you did for fun and recreation that enabled you to recharge your batteries and live a normal life. You want to show that you use your summers productively, but you don't want to sound like you had no life during these summer vacations either. Seek balance in your essay. I would recommend formatting this into two short paragraphs, one paragraph for each summer.


Long Essay Instructions: Using one of the themes below as a starting point, write about a person, event, or experience that helped you define one of your values or in some way changed how you approach the world.


Long Essay Option #1: Tell us about a person who has influenced you in a significant way. (250-650 words)


This is a tricky prompt because you will have to balance talking about this significant person in your life and revealing things about yourself. Remember that at the end of the day, this should still be an essay about you. You don't want the reader walking away more interested in the person you discussed than in you. So make sure that you keep the spotlight on yourself even though you are writing fondly about someone who had a significant influence on your life. Don't let that person overshadow you in this essay. Always find ways to come back to yourself in this essay.


Many students will write about close family members for this essay, including parents. I would encourage you to try to search for people beyond your nuclear family. Family members are always going to be significantly influential. The problem with family is that you can't avoid your family--you are just born into your family, you had no choice. However, other relationships in your life may have arisen out of choices you deliberately made. Maybe you sought out a meaningful relationship with a mentor. Maybe you chose to participate in an activity and you naturally developed a meaningful relationship with someone in that activity. Explore broadly when thinking of someone for this essay, and don't just confine yourself to close familial relationships.


What's most important in this essay is not describing this other person. In fact, if you spend most of your time doing that, you will easily be overshadowed in this essay. What's most is showing how this person influenced you in a significant way. Why do you have this meaningful relationship with this person? How did this person change you or push you to grow? What are specific and concrete ways that one could see the influence of this person in your life? Provide examples and stories. Emphasize your personal growth and your gratitude to this person for the ways in which he changed your life.


Long Essay Option #2: “One of the great challenges of our time is that the disparities we face today have more complex causes and point less straightforwardly to solutions.” Omar Wasow, assistant professor of politics, Princeton University. This quote is taken from Professor Wasow’s January 2014 speech at the Martin Luther King Day celebration at Princeton University. (250-650 words)


Don't fall into the trap of writing an expository essay for this prompt. Even though the prompt emphasizes the causes of and solutions to disparities, don't get carried away just talking abstractly about a problem in the world and its possible solutions. Always find ways to bring the spotlight back to you, and reveal unique and interesting things about yourself through your response to this prompt.


This essay is an opportunity to reveal something personally meaningful to you. Hopefully, whatever you choose also has some connection to your academic and scholarly aspirations. Maybe it is what is inspiring you to learn and to grow through college. Maybe it is what led you to pursue a particular major or minor. Try to bridge your scholarly and academic side with your personal and compassionate side in this essay.


It will be easy to fall into the trap of writing about cliché topics--big global problems like poverty that have been plaguing society since time immemorial. I would recommend that you limit the scope of your search to the recent past (i.e., the last 5-7 years). Try to brainstorm some of the most significant disparities that have arisen in the last 5-7 years that you care about deeply, and try to stay local if possible. What recent changes or developments have prompted these disparities? Why have these disparities suddenly become so significant or salient?


What's most important in this essay is not identifying a disparity. It is explaining why you believe this disparity is significant, why you personally care about this disparity, and how you hope to address and solve this disparity through your college education and experience, specifically at Princeton. Try to connect the disparity to your personal values, beliefs, and experiences. Is there anything practical you have already done to try to address this disparity? In what contexts have you personally witnessed the effects of this disparity? Provide specific and concrete examples of this disparity, preferably in your own local community. Also, how will Princeton specifically equip you to address this disparity?


Your topic selection for this prompt will reveal a lot about your values and character. What do you care about? Why do you care about it? How have you concretely and specifically expressed your care regarding this, and how do you hope to continue doing so in the future through your college experience and beyond? Thinking about these core questions honestly and deeply will help you generate the most authentic response to this prompt.


Long Essay Option #3: “Culture is what presents us with the kinds of valuable things that can fill a life. And insofar as we can recognize the value in those things and make them part of our lives, our lives are meaningful.” Gideon Rosen, Stuart Professor of Philosophy and chair, Department of Philosophy, Princeton University. (250-650 words)


Don't fall into the trap of trying to define culture--an extremely ambiguous and amorphous concept. If you try to turn this essay into a philosophical discussion of culture, your essay will flop. Keep your essay personal and specific. Basically, this prompt is asking you to identify something that provides meaning to your life. Almost anything that is meaningful to your life will have some kind of cultural link, so focus more on identifying the meaningful thing in your life rather than exploring the abstract concept of culture. Just one meaningful thing should be sufficient for your essay--explore it deeply and substantively.


This essay is not only an opportunity to reveal something meaningful to you but also an opportunity to show off your scholarly and cultural side. Princeton wants to see that you are an intellectually curious and vibrant individual who will contribute to both the extracurricular and cultural experiences of Princeton students and the classroom, discussion, and laboratory experiences of Princeton students. Learning happens in all sorts of indoor and outdoor contexts at Princeton, and you should show your reader your openness to academic and cultural growth through new and meaningful experiences.


To pick a good topic for this prompt, try to think about where you spend most of your time, money, creativity, talent, and energy. Start making a list, and narrow it down based on what you have already mentioned in your other essays or other parts of your application. Your topic selection will provide insight to the reader regarding what fills your life and how you derive meaning in your life. Be honest and vulnerable, and let your rich background and diverse experiences shine through in your essay.


Long Essay Option #4: Using a favorite quotation from an essay or book you have read in the last three years as a starting point, tell us about an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world. Please write the quotation, title and author at the beginning of your essay. (250-650 words)


How should you select the quotation to lead your essay? First, you can try following the instructions: look back on the essays and books that you have read in the last three years. Whether you read these essays and books for school or for your personal pleasure, this is a good first starting point. However, many of you may not have read widely, and you might feel uninspired based on the reading of your last three years. At the end of the day, you can explore beyond what you actually read in the last three years. Princeton is not here to police and judge your high school reading in the last three years. Explore and brainstorm broadly, seeking quotations from various sources.


Thinking backwards can sometimes be more helpful. That is, instead of trying to find the perfect quotation to lead your essay first, brainstorm first the event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world. If you start there, then you can work backwards. Based on whatever event or experience that you want to write about, you can start searching essays and books for great relevant quotations. This way, you can start with the personal and connect it back to something external or scholarly. The Internet is filled with quotation websites, so once you have narrowed down your topic, you should have no problem finding a deep and interesting quotation that meets your needs.


This essay is ultimately about your values and your worldview. What do you care about? How do you see your role in this world? What actions have you taken as a result? Choose one event or experience to discuss in this essay. Ultimately, many things may have affected your values and your worldview, but with only 250-650 words to play with, you want your essay to stay focused and to have depth and substance. Your quotation should be somewhat provocative in the sense that it stimulates thought and reaction in your reader's mind. Be bold--take risks with your quotation. However, make sure to vet the source of the quotation so that you are not using a quotation from a disreputable author or written work. The last thing you want to be doing is citing from a scandalous source to discuss your own values and worldview. Finally, even though you're discussing values and the way you approach the world, don't keep it all in the realm of theory. Provide concrete and specific examples from your life that demonstrate those values or your way of approaching the world.

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