Carnegie Mellon Essay Example: Breakdown + Analysis

What’s Covered:

 

Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) is a school with both impressive technical programs and outstanding creative programs. Because of the university’s multifaceted academic success and the tremendous opportunities students have after graduation, CMU is highly renowned and boasts a low acceptance rate.

 

In this post, we will go over an essay that a real student submitted to Carnegie Mellon. By examining the strengths and weaknesses of this student’s essay, you will be more prepared when writing and editing your essays for CMU. Names and identifying information have been changed, but all other details are preserved.

 

Want to know your chances at Carnegie Mellon? Calculate your chances for free!

 

Carnegie Mellon Essay Prompt

Consider your application as a whole. What do you personally want to emphasize about your application for the admission committee’s consideration? Highlight something that’s important to you or something you haven’t had a chance to share. Tell us, don’t show us (no websites please). (300 words)

 

Carnegie Mellon Essay Example

I will never forget the feeling I had in Kindergarten when I received a failing grade because I couldn’t answer the question “where do you live?” It was a simple question, one that my classmates answered with ease. I was, however, struck by the recounting of my private home life. The 2009 recession left my family homeless and broke, living in the basement of a close friend. While we were fortunate to have somewhere to sleep, my family, especially me, internalized the negative sentiments from everyone we knew at the time. While my Kindergarten teacher didn’t mean any harm, the question reinforced my feeling of inferiority. No matter what I said, there were serious diminutions to my character: being honest about my homelessness or being dishonest about my own circumstances. I ultimately responded with the latter, saying “I don’t know.”

 

That day, I accepted the failing grade, and this moment became a stepping stone to a now valuable trait: healthy self-definition. Healthy self-definition relies on improving the objective truths of myself and fixing lacking characteristics into better ones. Lying to my Kindergarten teacher wasn’t healthy nor ethical to do, but the action of choosing who I wanted to be sparked the desire for healthy self-definition throughout high school. For example, I redefined myself from a dispassionate pianist to an authentic music producer. I used track and field to redefine my lack of athleticism growing up and eventually became a top-three sophomore 400-meter hurdler at my school. I had extreme social anxiety, so I used the Tech in Music Club to redefine my social ability and practice leadership and public speaking skills. In all weak aspects of my character and identity, I improved and continue to improve through these healthy redefinitions. Like Kindergarten me, I refuse to be defined by my circumstances.

 

What the Essay Did Well

 

This essay’s main strength is its content. At its core, this essay tells a beautiful story where a student transformed tragic circumstances into tremendous self-growth. That is exactly the kind of student that a university wants to admit!

 

The prompt here is very open-ended. From the point of view of admissions, it asks “what else do you want to tell us?” To a student, this can be read as “what additional information will help us get to know you and want you?” This student identified their ability to see weaknesses as opportunities for improvement—which they label “healthy self-definition”—as something CMU would want, then used a specific anecdote to show that ability.

 

The structure of this essay goes:

 

  1. Anecdote
  2. Reflection
  3. Implications
  4. Tie back to the anecdote

 

This structure is often a recipe for success! It allows students to effectively divide their words between a story and reflection, to ultimately paint a picture of who they are.

 

Additionally, the use of the “Full Circle” ending strategy is a tried and true way to create a satisfying ending to a college essay. Be sure to learn more about this strategy and 5 other strategies for ending your college essay!

 

What Could Be Improved 

 

While the anecdote/reflection structure can facilitate an engaging essay, this student falls flat with their static writing. Essentially, the story is engaging, but the way the student writes it doesn’t do it justice. It’s repetitive, confusing, and boring at times.

 

For example, in the first paragraph, the following phrases and sentences are all getting at the same idea:

 

  • “I was, however, struck by the recounting of my private home life.”
  • “…my family, especially me, internalized the negative sentiments from everyone we knew at the time…”
  • “…the question reinforced my feeling of inferiority…”

 

I would recommend replacing “It was a simple question, one that my classmates answered with ease. I was, however, struck by the recounting of my private home life” with a more dynamic (and suspenseful) sentence like “It was a simple question—one that my classmates answered with ease—, but it surfaced all of my insecurities.” When followed by the 2009 anecdote, the root of these insecurities becomes clear, so all later explanations are repetitive and should be eliminated. There is no need to waste words restating something that readers already understood through a story!

 

Aside from repetition, in the first paragraph, additional sentences that could be made more engaging through small adjustments:

 

  • In the sentence “The 2009 recession left my family homeless and broke, living in the basement of a close friend,” I would recommend replacing “living” with “stuck”
  • The student could replace the confusing sentence “No matter what I said, there were serious diminutions to my character: being honest about my homelessness or being dishonest about my own circumstances” with engaging questions: “Was I supposed to be honest about my homelessness (which would surely lead to shame and embarrassment)? Or be dishonest to avoid a hard conversation? I wanted an answer to spring to mind that was easy and truthful, but a truthful answer couldn’t be easy when my life wasn’t easy.Small adjustments in sentence structure and word choice can do wonders for an essay!

 

With regards to the second paragraph, the student introduces a value that they call “healthy self-definition.” When describing “healthy self-definition,” the student is simultaneously repetitive and unclear. The current writing requires too much energy on the part of the reader to parse through what is being said. If the student provided a concise definition of “healthy self-definition” before giving the examples from their life, this paragraph would work better. 

 

The current paragraph is as follows:

 

That day, I accepted the failing grade, and this moment became a stepping stone to a now valuable trait: healthy self-definition. Healthy self-definition relies on improving the objective truths of myself and fixing lacking characteristics into better ones. Lying to my Kindergarten teacher wasn’t healthy nor ethical to do, but the action of choosing who I wanted to be sparked the desire for healthy self-definition throughout high school. For example, I redefined myself from a dispassionate pianist to an authentic music producer. I used track and field to redefine my lack of athleticism growing up and eventually became a top-three sophomore 400-meter hurdler at my school. I had extreme social anxiety, so I used the Tech in Music Club to redefine my social ability and practice leadership and public speaking skills. In all weak aspects of my character and identity, I improved and continue to improve through these healthy redefinitions. Like Kindergarten me, I refuse to be defined by my circumstances.

 

With some simple reorganization and more dynamic writing, the paragraph could be as follows:

 

That’s when I established a personal value that I now call “healthy self-definition”—of course, it took about a decade for five-year-old me to figure out the name for my value. Healthy self-definition, at its core, means that I take time to identify my weaknesses, then redefine them as strengths. I acknowledge who I am, then find opportunities for improvement. 

 

I’m a dispassionate pianist, turned authentic music producer. I’m a struggling athlete, turned “top-three Cedar High hurdler.” I used to nervously linger at the back of club meetings, but now I run the very same meetings. No one could dare call me weak when I’m constantly redefining my weaknesses as strengths. Just like Kindergarten me, I will not be defined by my circumstances.

 

Where to Get Your Essay Edited for Free

 

It’s important that you submit the best essay you can to CMU, both for your peace of mind and your admissions chances. To make your essay stand out, you will need other people to give you feedback and ideas of areas for improvement. CollegeVine’s peer essay review tool can help. Other students will edit your essay for free, and you can edit your peers’ essays to help you improve your writing skills!

 

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Brooke Elkjer
Blog Writer

Short Bio
Brooke is going into her senior year at the University of Southern California and is originally from Dallas, Texas. She is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in English and a Bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience. Brooke is the associate literary producer for the intersectional feminist production company on campus, ART/EMIS. She also is a Resident Assistant (RA) and a student worker for the Thematic Option Honors GE Program. In her free time, Brooke enjoys reading, writing, and watching Gilmore Girls.

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