Note: this blog post has been updated for the 2016-2017 application cycle. To view the most recent version, click here.

Preppy, stereotypically academic, and in the middle of nowhere – say what you will. As one of the best colleges in the nation, Princeton University is consistently one of the most popular reach schools for rising seniors each year. Because the majority of applicants to the university are already extremely impressive on paper, the essays play an even more important role in gaining acceptance to this prestigious New Jersey school. Fear not, however – Admissions Hero is here to help give you some expert tips on how to tackle the essays for this exceptional Ivy League university.


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Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences that was particularly meaningful to you. (About 150 words [250 MAX])

This essay topic is similar to the one asked on the Common App two years ago, before it was updated to its current version last year. Essentially, this question asks you to expand on an activity that you participate in outside of the classroom. Many students choose to talk about their most important extracurricular activity here. However, a strategy worth exploring is to use this space to write about an activity on your resume that isn’t fully explained on the Common Application—for example, instead of writing about a well-recognized organization like National Honor Society (which doesn’t need much of an explanation because it pretty much does the same thing at every high school in the US), you could choose to write about a charity organization that you founded or a club that is unique to your school. The extra words will allow you to talk about your personal experiences in a club/activity that most students can’t speak to, which will not only help you stand out in the eyes of admissions officers but also help colleges understand what your club does.

Of course, if you haven’t done any activities that are particularly out of the ordinary, here would be a good spot to talk about a typical club that you had an atypical role in. For example, if you were the Secretary General of a Model UN conference, you would be able to speak to the unique leadership role of organizing the delegates and other officers rather than simply the act of debating international issues.

Please tell us how you have spent the last two summers (or vacations between school years), including any jobs you have held. (About 150 words [250 MAX])

This question alone is a good reason for top students to care about what they are doing each summer. Indeed, Princeton-hopefuls who failed to appreciate the importance of summer activities will find themselves hard-pressed to write about anything of substance.

Students who have taken advantage of both their sophomore and junior summers will be faced with the issue of fitting all of their activities into the limited space provided. There are two potential strategies here. The first is to write briefly about all activities in chronological order, taking note to explain each activity but not dwell on it. The second is to focus on one or two activities that meant the most to you and expand upon them in great detail. This strategy can be especially effective if what you did in your junior summer was a continuation of your sophomore summer; for example, if you did research over both summers, here would be a good place to talk about your work and what changed from year to year.

Students who have not done as much during each summer should try to find one activity or event that they were moved by and elaborate as much as possible. In essence, by emphasizing every detail about the single activity, you are redirecting attention away from the fact that you didn’t do much else. Instead, the admissions officers might just assume that you were so passionate about this one topic that you didn’t bother to mention the various other activities you participated in each summer. Again, if possible, try to pick events that are unique.

Finally, don’t be afraid to mention something that isn’t directly a resume builder. Indeed, just because it’s not overtly academic or extracurricular, doesn’t mean you can’t draw some valuable insights from it. For example, if you are an American student who traveled both summers to Greece to visit family, then talking about the disparity between your experiences there and in the US can be a mature topic to demonstrate your global and cultural awareness. 

Your favorite book and its author:

Your favorite movie:

Your favorite website:

Two adjectives your friends would use to describe you:

Your favorite recording:

Your favorite keepsake or memento:

Your favorite source of inspiration:

Your favorite word:

Your favorite line from a movie or book and its title:

There are not really any wrong answers to these questions; indeed, answer them as truthfully as possible. The one exception to this is anything that is controversial/potentially offensive, which should be avoided at all costs. The purpose of these questions is to give the admissions officers some quick insight into your personality. Each answer you give will reflect different parts of your personality and interests. For example, if you say that your favorite recording is an album by Miles Davis, then Princeton will know you are interested in jazz. If you say that your favorite website is the Economist, then Princeton will know that you are interested in the world’s economic affairs. If you say that your favorite source of inspiration is your friends, then Princeton will know that you strongly value friendship. Seems obvious, but many students overlook this fact.

In other words, answer honestly, and if you are not sure what to put for a particular answers (because maybe you just don’t really listen to music), then consider what you would like to tell the college about yourself and pick an answer that conveys that accordingly.

In addition to the essay you have written for the Common Application, please write an essay of about 500 words (no more than 650 words and no less than 250 words). 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. Please do not repeat, in full or in part, the essay you wrote for the Common Application.

The next part of the Princeton supplement asks you to write a 650-word essay either answering one of the following questions or responding to a quote. We’ll tackle them one by one.

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

When answering this prompt, it is important to choose a person you actually admire because the person you choose will lend insight into the kind of person you are. This is particularly true when you choose well-known individuals. For example, if you choose Bill Clinton, then it can be assumed that you are interested in politics and one day aspire to be like him. If you choose Warren Buffet, then it might be assumed that you are interested in finance or strive to emulate his patient, self-confident demeanor. When you choose well-known individuals, these character traits can be inferred immediately just by reading their names.

However, always remember that the bulk of these inferences are done after reading what you have to say about these individuals. Therefore, no matter whom you choose, you must remember that whatever you write about them, you are essentially saying those same things about yourself. So if you choose your father because he is a man of moral values, as evidenced by the fact that he could not tell a lie about chopping down a cherry tree, then you are essentially telling Princeton that one of your personal values is honesty. Use this to your advantage in conveying what matters to you most. By striking the correct balance between talking about your role model and yourself, you can achieve the perfect balance of self-divulgence and humility.

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, Politics; Founder, Blackplanet.com This quote is taken from Professor Wasow’s January 2014 speech at the Martin Luther King Day celebration at Princeton University.

This prompt lends itself especially well to a more academic analysis of political issues that are most prominent today. Indeed, it can be highly rewarding to analyze either a domestic or international issue because doing so will allow you demonstrate your knowledge of the world. However, remember to bring yourself into the analysis – in stating your position on the situation, what does that say about you? The issue you are discussing is undoubtedly complex – which perspective will you discuss from? Whatever you answer, be cognizant of the fact that you are indirectly talking about yourself.

Another way to approach this prompt is to discuss a morally gray position that you have found yourself in the past. Perhaps you weren’t sure whether a decision would be right or wrong, and on top of that you also weren’t sure if doing the right thing would benefit you in the end. It would be valuable to discuss your mindset and reasoning when recounting what occurred. However, one warning regarding taking this approach to the essay—because the quote mentions “one of the great challenges of our time,” you should be sure to pick a situation that is adequately severe enough such that it fits the tone of the quote. If you pick something a bit on the insignificant side, then you run the risk of seeming immature.

3.     “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.

For students with a proven track record in community service, this essay prompt is right up your alley. Use this prompt to talk about how you were able to help out your community; indeed, the word “nation” need not be taken so literally, so long as you can demonstrate that your actions had a sizable impact on a group of people.

However, if you are a student with an interest in politics or international relations, then this prompt can also be beneficial. Use this essay to talk about your experiences in working for the government or the UN, or talk about that one time you were able to analyze another country’s political situation from a different lens. Whatever you choose to write about, the most important thing is to talk about how the experience changed you.

4.     “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.

To borrow from last year’s Admissions Hero advice on this question:

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.

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 prompt is basically Princeton’s way of providing you with an option to write any essay you please. Basically, because you are able to choose your own quote, you can take any given essay and appropriate it for the Princeton application—as long as you choose a quote that adequately fits the essay. If you decide on this option, try to choose a quote that has a similar tone and level of meaning as the ones provided to you above. Bonus points if your quote is Princeton-related—not really crucial, but it will definitely show off your love of the school if you can find one. Either way, once you have your quote, feel free to use an essay from another school’s application here.

Hopefully, after reading these quick tips regarding the Princeton supplement, you have a better idea of where to start. Feel free to take these ideas in whatever direction you please, and for more Princeton essay ideas check out last year’s blog post.



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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