How to Write the Carnegie Mellon University Essays 2020-2021
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 copious 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 (most recent stats), admission to Carnegie Mellon has become increasingly competitive.
Students can apply to Carnegie Mellon using the Common Application either by November 1 for Early Decision, or January 4 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, and one optional 150-word prompt. 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. Want to know your chances at Carnegie Mellon? Calculate your chances for free right now.
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Carnegie Mellon University Supplemental Essay Prompts
Many schools require a “Why This Major?” prompt to assess your interest in your chosen area of study. This prompt asks this standard question, 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:
- Elaborate on the path that led you to choose your major
- Show the admissions committee why you deserve to pursue this major at their schoo.
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 laboring, your robot finally moved. Maybe that was the moment when you knew for sure that this was the path you needed to pursue. This response could start something like this:
“I couldn’t believe my ears the first time Sparky whirred to life. After weeks of toiling, I watched him wheel across the classroom floor, rhythmically belting out the tell-tale beeps I had coded him to make with each turn.”
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 admissions committee 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 demonstrated 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, we’ll refer to it as the chronological 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 whether this is a beneficial inclusion.
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 This School?,” it does 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 question 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 among other applicants.
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 studying at 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 be leaders in 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 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 may be, 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.
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? The topic of this essay 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 talk about? 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 example: “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 example: “I like watching Netflix in my free time.”
Does that tell the admissions officers 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 your identity, and make sure it still shows CMU why you’re a great fit. If you have a story, accomplishment, or passion that shows you possess drive, an entrepreneurial spirit, or a similar embodiment of the values of CMU, here’s the place to show 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 for the required prompts! At the end of the day, you want all three 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 how your first broken bone led you to pursue medicine or discussing how synchronized swimming deepened your capacity for empathy and collaboration, remember to always be open and honest as you tell your story.
This prompt applies to those who have either opted out of taking standardized tests, have chosen not to submit their scores, or have other circumstances surrounding their scores. Here, Carnegie Mellon gives applicants a chance to explain the reasons behind these circumstances.
Standardized testing disadvantages many groups of people, especially low-income students. With the pandemic, it’s also likely that students won’t have had as many opportunities to take tests, if at all. Students may also have other extenuating life experiences or circumstances that affected their ability to take or do well on the test.
Whatever your circumstances, Carnegie Mellon gives you 150 words, so avoid including long anecdotes or excess background information. State your reason(s) clearly and concisely, in a matter-of-fact way. This section might be optional, but you should treat it with the same care as your answers to the other prompts. Your writing should carry the same level of poise as your other responses.
There are some cases, however, where you might choose to forego this prompt. If you chose not to submit a score because you underperformed, and there wasn’t necessarily an extenuating circumstance, then you could leave your response blank. If you performed poorly and didn’t submit your score because you were recovering from a concussion, then you might respond to this essay. Otherwise, telling the admissions office that you got a low score defeats the purpose of not submitting your score.
And with that, best of luck with your CMU essays!
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