How to Write the Carnegie Mellon University Essays 2019-2020

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Tucked away in Steelers country, otherwise known as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, lies the 153 acre campus of Carnegie Mellon University. CMU is home to just under 7,000 undergraduate students enrolled across its seven schools and colleges. Priding itself on breadth of opportunities as a research university, as well as the achievements of its student body and alumni, Carnegie Mellon offers students the opportunity to pursue real-world solutions alongside award-winning faculty across all disciplines.


Carnegie Mellon ranked #25 for National Universities in the 2020 edition of US News’ Best Colleges rankings. With acceptance rates of 5-14% across the seven colleges in the 2018-2019 cycle, admission to Carnegie Mellon has simply become increasingly competitive. 


Students can apply to Carnegie Mellon using the Common Application either by November 1 for Early Decision, or January 1 for Regular Decision. Students applying to fine arts degree programs are encouraged to apply as early as possible to secure any necessary auditions or portfolio review appointments.


As part of the application process, prospective students are required to respond to three 300 word prompts as part of the Carnegie Mellon University supplement. However, students shouldn’t look at the supplements as a chore. As the admission process for CMU becomes more selective, its supplemental essays provide an increasingly vital opportunity for you to differentiate yourself from the pack. Keep reading for our suggestions on how to tackle this year’s supplemental responses.


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Carnegie Mellon University Supplemental Essay Prompts

Prompt 1: Most students choose their intended major or area of study based on a passion or inspiration that’s developed over time—what passion or inspiration led you to choose this area of study? (300 words)

This prompt is ultimately asking a standard question—why this major—but with a particular emphasis on how past experiences have influenced your desire to study your prospective major, rather than what you hope to achieve by studying it.


A successful execution of this prompt will:


1) elaborate on the path that led you to choose your major and

2) show the admissions committee why you deserve to pursue this major at their school.


The latter doesn’t necessarily need to be explicit. Instead, reflect on your path in a way that demonstrates intellectual curiosity, creativity, and passion for what it is you hope to pursue at the college level.


You can take a few different approaches when answering this prompt. The first is a narrative arc or anecdote. Think back to a salient moment in which you realized the importance of your prospective major to you. Perhaps you were in a robotics competition and after weeks of toiling, your robot finally moved. Maybe that was the moment when you knew for sure that this was the path you needed to pursue. 


Here’s what telling that story does. First, it shows tenacity—even after weeks of failure, you didn’t give up. Second, it shows innovation. And third, CMU just happens to be known for offering a robotics major, so even without being explicit, you just told the adcom exactly why you belong at CMU!


Stories are a great method for drawing in your reader and creating pathos. The trick, however, is to not get so caught up in the narration that you fill your 300 words without actually saying anything. If you’re going the anecdote route, ask yourself the following questions:


Did I answer the prompt?

Does the story I just told show why I’m passionate about the major I’ve chosen?

Have I showed that CMU is the right place for me?


Don’t say you want to pursue a major in underwater basket-weaving if CMU doesn’t offer that (just an example, but you get the idea).


Do mention, either briefly or implicitly, how CMU would allow you to continue pursuing and developing your passion.


Let’s move on to the second method of answering this prompt. I call it the brag sheet method.


You may not be able to fully answer the prompt with just one moment or story. That’s okay! An alternative is to briefly list key moments, progressions, or accomplishments leading up to your decision. Here’s an example:


“From writing short stories as a seven year old to winning my first prose contest in high school, creative writing has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.”


Unlike the narrative arc method, this example is neither a story nor a specific event. Instead, it shows how creative writing has been pivotal to your life for years. Though arguably less compelling than a story, this method has the bonus of demonstrating growth, long-term commitment, and development. Being that CMU is one of the only universities to offer a BA in creative writing, it also shows why you’d be applying.


This same method will work if you choose to talk about who or what inspired you. However, this comes with a warning. If you choose to talk about a person or work that inspired you, ensure that you don’t only write about said person or work. If the admissions committee learns more about the Pulitzer prize winner whose work inspired you than they do about you and your work, reassess!

Prompt 2: Many students pursue college for a specific degree, career opportunity or personal goal. Whichever it may be, learning will be critical to achieve your ultimate goal. As you think ahead to the process of learning during your college years, how will you define a successful college experience? (300 words)

This essay provides you with the perfect opportunity to demonstrate your passion for CMU and your understanding of its available opportunities. While the prompt doesn’t explicitly ask you “why school,” like the age-old why school question, this prompt asks you to discuss two things:


The explicit question: what do you hope to accomplish in your undergraduate degree program? 


The implicit question: how is CMU uniquely equipped to help you realize those goals?


While the explicit questions is definitely important to address, tackling the implicit question through the use of specific examples and thoughtful reflection will allow your essay to stand out from the pile. 


Think about your expectations for your college experience. Perhaps it’s really important to you to have substantive research experiences under your belt as an undergraduate student, since you want to pursue an MD-PhD. What specific projects and topics might you be looking to pursue? How will you studying and Carnegie Mellon enable you to pursue these projects and ideas? Briefly reflecting on Carnegie Mellon’s financial investment in undergraduate research as you answer this prompt, for example, can help demonstrate both your familiarity with the university and its resources as well as your alignment with its culture and values.


Perhaps you are hoping to apply your textbook knowledge within a broader context through community engagement. CMU empowers its students to tackle problems and issues that matter in hopes that its students will lead the charge on improving the world around them. Consequently, discussing your interest in taking your learning outside of the classroom with the support of the Office of Student Leadership, Involvement, and Civic Engagement would serve not only speak to your metrics regarding a successful college experience, but also show how you might add to the CMU community as an undergraduate and beyond.


Whatever your goals, ensure that your essay has a clear “why.” Rather than simply stating that you want to join the college orchestra, explain that you want to do so because playing the cello in high school has allowed you to form meaningful relationships with other musicians and life mentors. Playing music has taught you the importance of teamwork and dedication, and you want to continue cultivating these relationships and skills in college. 


The point here isn’t to draft a college bucket list, but instead to reflect on what elements of the college experience, outside of the day-to-day coursework, you’re looking forward to as a prospective student. Be true to yourself and your goals, and speak honestly about what it is you hope to accomplish as an undergraduate student at CMU.

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Prompt 3: 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)

This is your chance to show the admissions committee exactly what makes you special. Within the confines of the word limit, the options are endless. But don’t get bogged down by the possibilities! So, how do you know what’s worth writing about?


Is there something you mentioned on your Common App that you feel the need to elaborate? This should not be even remotely similar to the subject of your personal statement. Think of your essays as a portfolio; they should be complementary without being redundant. For example, if your passions are science and wildlife, and your personal statement is about wildlife, make this prompt about science.


Is there something you haven’t been able to mention anywhere else that you’re dying to mention? Let your personality shine through. Whether your passion of choice is volunteering with animals, taking apart computers, or almost anything else, it can have a place in this prompt. However, it shouldn’t be so random that it doesn’t say anything about you as an applicant.


Here’s a good idea: “I collect postcards from all over the world because I love learning about new cultures.”


See how this paints a picture of a student eager to learn and expand their horizons?


Now here’s a bad idea: “I like watching Netflix in my free time.”


Does that tell the adcom something that helps them envision a contributing member of the CMU community? Not particularly.


Basically, use this as an opportunity to show your personality and your passion. Narrow in on something pivotal to what makes you you, and make sure it still shows CMU why you’re a fit. If you have a story, accomplishment, or passion that shows you possess drive, an entrepreneurial spirit, or a similar embodiment of the CMU spirit, here’s the place to prove it. However, if you’ve already said it in another CMU essay or in your personal statement, don’t say it again.


So, there you have it! At the end of the day, you want your essays to answer the prompts in a way that screams ‘you.’ The more of your personality in the essays, the better. Whether you’re reflecting on your how your first broken bone led you to pursue medicine or discussing how synchronized swimming deepened your capacity for empathy and collaboration, remember that no one can tell your story better than you can. 


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