Note: this blog post has been updated for the 2015-2016 application cycle. To view the most recent version, click here.

Located in a quaint town by the same name in New Jersey, Princeton University enjoys its status as one of the top higher-learning institutions in the world. Students flock to this Ivy League school for a variety of reasons, ranging from its world-class research facilities to its beautiful closed campus. Perhaps most impressive is its specialized focus on undergraduate students. Indeed, the university devotes a staggering proportion of its endowment to improving the lives and education of its college students.

In recent years, Princeton’s devotion to excellence has allowed it surface to the top of the US News College Ranking List, rising past the likes of Harvard and Yale (which currently sit at #2 and #3, respectively).

Given the competitive nature of Princeton admissions, we asked essay specialist Vinay Bhaskara for advice on tackling the Princeton supplement essays:

Vinay’s Take

Princeton asks you to write a total of 3 essays if you are not applying to its Engineering program; otherwise, you must write an additional Engineering essay (to be covered in a future post). With this in mind, let’s approach the essays in the order in which they appear on the app:

Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences that was particularly meaningful to you. (About 150 words)

The key to answering this essay is to find the most meaningful extracurricular on your application and then write about that. Or if your main Common App Essay is about that, move down to the second most meaningful one on your resume. You shouldn’t be writing about a superficial experience just because it fits with your major – focus on the most meaningful experience and reevaluate the major you’re applying to accordingly. With regards to the content of the essay, your focus should be on specificity. Don’t just recount your accomplishments in that activity (that belongs on a resume) focus either on what you learned from it, what it says about you, or a specific event or project within that activity that illustrates your ability to execute key projects or your ability to work well with others.

Please tell us how you have spent the last two summers (or vacations between school years), including any jobs you have held, if not already detailed on the Common Application. (About 150 words)

This question can prove to be a headache for those who seemingly didn’t take full advantage of their summers. Students around the world can be heard groaning in retrospect at the opportunity cost of sleeping and playing video games all day. However, this needn’t be the case. The relative brevity of the essay (150 words) suggests that students can take two approaches to answering this question. Students who have had jam-packed summers can choose to take a chronological approach to their answers, detailing briefly all of the activities they did over the past two summers. Although there won’t be much in the way of specifics for each activity, it will still show the Admissions Committee that you used your summer wisely. However, students with either a unique passion for a particular activity they did over the summer or students without many activities to write about can choose to elaborate on a single activity per summer vacation. The extra word space will allow you to write more about that one engaging research internship you did, or maybe speak more emotionally about the time you spent caring for your younger siblings while your parents had to work. The key here to this question is simply to demonstrate that you did at least something productive during your summer. Also, if you can spare the extra room, it doesn’t hurt to mention ways that you were able to relax over the summer—sometimes, this can lend interesting insight to unique hobbies that you may have.

Short Questions to answer (1 line each)

  • Favorite book and its author
  • Favorite movie
  • Favorite website
  • Two adjectives your friends would use to describe you
  • Favorite recording
  • Favorite keepsake or memento
  • Favorite source of inspiration
  • Favorite word
  • Favorite line from a book or movie and its title

These questions are really to let the Admissions Committee know more about you. Your answers to these questions will say a lot about your personality. Are you secretly an indie film lover, having watched 500 Days of Summer when it first aired at the Sundance Film Festival? Do you love sports and tennis, citing Roger Federer as your source of inspiration? Maybe you see yourself as a person who considers family to be very important; your favorite keepsake or memento might be your grandmother’s necklace. There are no right or wrong answers here—just make sure that your answers paint as accurate of a picture of the real you as possible.

In addition to the essay you have written for the Common Application, please select one of the following themes and write an essay of about 500 words in response. Please do not repeat, in full or in part, the essay you wrote for the Common Application.

This next part of the application is interesting as it gives you 5 potential essay topics to choose from. Thus it’s important to choose the essay topic that will allow you to answer in the most powerful way, illuminating your personality and life in a way not previously covered by your other essays. Here’s a breakdown of each:

1. Tell us about a person who has influenced you in a significant way.

For this question, make sure to choose a person who you think will accurately symbolize who you are or who you want to be. Keep in mind that all praise, epithets, and descriptions of this person will reflect back onto you. So, if you choose your history teacher because she’s charismatic, smart, and never stops learning, you are essentially saying those same things about yourself. Use this as a unique opportunity to implicitly describe yourself in the best way possible. Alternatively, you can also answer this question to demonstrate a life lesson you’ve learned, perhaps one that has become central to who you are as a person. For example, maybe your father taught you the importance of honesty—feel free to tell a story narrating the circumstances. Just don’t lose sight of the prompt; make sure that there is enough coverage of the person who influenced you.

2. Using the statement below 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. “Princeton in the Nation’s Service” was the title of a speech given by Woodrow Wilson on the 150th anniversary of the University. It became the unofficial Princeton motto and was expanded for the University’s 250th anniversary to “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.” – Woodrow Wilson, Princeton Class of 1879, served on the faculty and was Princeton’s president from 1902–1910.

This essay prompt lends especially well to applicants with a passion for community service and/or international relations. If you are passionate about helping others and have a track record of doing so (i.e. you are the Vice President of the Red Cross Club), you’re going to want to cut to the core of why you are so passionate. What is it that makes you want to help children in Indonesia? Why are you so interested in making education accessible for everyone? Are these passions so powerful that you will affect you for your entire life? If you can answer these questions, it shouldn’t be too hard to expand your motivations to a more global scale, thereby creating a highly effective essay.

3. Using the quotation below as a starting point, reflect on the role that culture plays in your life. “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, chair of the Council of the Humanities and director of the Program in Humanistic Studies, Princeton University.

This essay prompt lends especially well to applicants who have strong cultural backgrounds. In particular, children of immigrant parents have a powerful story to write—so long as they can include specific details as to why their immigration story is unique to them. Feel free to talk about how cultural customs, celebrations, or wisdom has shaped your life for the better. Even if you aren’t from an immigrant background, you can still approach this essay. Perhaps you come from a multicultural, diverse hometown—how have the people you encountered changed you? Maybe you are particularly interested in various aspects of pop culture—has any particular piece of work affected you on such a basic level that it has come to represent who you are? There are many varied, interesting ways to approach this essay; indeed, such is the nature of culture.

4. Tell us how you would address the questions raised by the quotation below, or reflect upon an experience you have had that was relevant to these questions. “How can we unlearn the practices of inequality? In other words, how do we increase our capacities not just to act without racism but to actively promote racial equality?” – Imani Perry, Professor, Center for African American Studies, and Faculty Associate, Program in Law and Public Affairs, Princeton University.

This essay prompt is not for everyone—only those with a strong passion for addressing racial equality should attempt to write this one. Perhaps you have encountered a profound case of racial inequality—if not directly in your life, then maybe you witnessed it in someone else’s. Talk about how that experience changed the person affected, and what we can take away from it. It’s also possible that, instead of giving an example of racial inequality, that you give an example of racial equality. Use this anecdotal experience to extrapolate to the world at large, perhaps lending insight into a society where racial inequality is indeed “unlearned.”

5. 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.

This essay prompt is essentially Princeton’s “choose your own topic” essay. Try to find a quote that has the same tone as the quotes provided to you in the previous prompts. Also, many students find that they are able to use a particularly well-written essay for another school and apply it here by finding an appropriate quote.

One last tip: make sure your quote adequately fits your essay. If your quote doesn’t fit, either find a new quote or rewrite your essay.

Good luck!

Zack Perkins

Zack Perkins

Zack was an economics major at Harvard before going on indefinite leave to pursue CollegeVine full-time as a founder. In his spare time, he enjoys closely following politics and binge-watching horror movies. To see Zack's full bio, visit the Team page.
Zack Perkins