How to Write Carnegie Mellon University’s Essays 2018-2019
See our updated 2019-2020 guide here.
With its application pool rising to record highs and an acceptance rate that keeps dropping (2017 saw a 10.8% acceptance rate spanning its seven colleges), Carnegie Mellon University is amongst the most selective institutions of higher education in this country. As the university becomes more selective, its supplemental essays provide an increasingly vital opportunity for you to differentiate yourself from the pack.
For the 2018-2019 admissions year, CMU has announced that it will be using three entirely new prompts. This is your chance to show them something they’ve never seen before! Below, we’ll go into detailed explanation of what the prompts are asking—with tips, hints, and examples provided to ensure that you stand out.
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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)
What CMU has done here is take a standard question—why this major—and ask it in a manner that will make you answer it a certain way. While the typical ‘why this major’ prompt gives students the freedom to focus on the past or future (i.e. how you developed an interest or what you plan to do with the major), this version of the question is asking you to focus on the former.
A successful execution of this prompt will:
1) elaborate on the path that led you to choose your major and
2) show the adcom why you deserve to pursue this major at their school.
The latter doesn’t necessarily need to be explicit. If you can do part one while showing drive, curiosity and all those good things that adcoms love to see, consider part two completed as well. Let’s dive in.
There are essentially two methods for completing this prompt. The first is a narrative arc or anecdote. If there’s a moment where you said to yourself “this is going to be my major,” that could be a great story to tell! Perhaps you were in a robotics competition and after weeks of toiling, your robot finally moves. And that’s when you knew, you knew beyond a shadow of doubt, 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.
If you can honestly answer yes to those questions, then you’re all set! 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! Not everyone has that kind of story to tell. 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 my 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 I’m 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 adcom learns more about the Pulitzer prize winner whose work inspired you than they do about you and your work, reassess!
Prompt #2 “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 prompt is a gift. Within the confines of the word limit, the options are endless. This is your chance to show the adcom exactly what makes you so special. 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 complimentary 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 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?
Neither of the above? Just write about something you love. If you have a topic that you could talk about for hours, then here’s your place.
Note: this has to be entirely different than your answer for the previous prompt.
The scoop: use this as an opportunity to show your personality and your passion.
The caveat: don’t get overwhelmed by the possibilities. Narrow in on something pivotal to what makes you you, and make sure it still shows CMU why you’re a fit.
The ideal: 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.
What not to do: Don’t be redundant. If you’ve already said it in another CMU essay or in your personal statement, don’t say it again.
Prompt #3: “When we’re connected to others, we become better people,” said Carnegie Mellon University’s Randy Pausch, author of The Last Lecture. At Carnegie Mellon you’ll have the opportunity to collaborate with a diverse community of scholars, artists and innovators. Given the students, faculty, staff and resources that have been available to you as a student, how have you collaborated with others, in or out of the classroom? Or, what lessons have you learned from working with others in the past, that might shape your experiences in the future? (300 words)
This prompt is clearly one CMU values highly. They give you an additional 50 words, provide an introduction for the prompt, and attach more than one question. Spoiler: they care a lot about your answer.
Let’s break down what this prompt is really asking because there are a lot of extra words.
- How have you demonstrated teamwork, be it in or out of the classroom?
- What did you gain from that experience?
- How will this experience impact your teamwork in the future?
The overarching goal for this essay is to prove to CMU that you deserve their “diverse community of scholars, artists, and innovators.” They’re proud of their network. Why do you deserve to be a part of it? If offered access, what do you have to offer to their collaborative environment? These are all implicit questions, meaning they may not outright ask them, but they secretly want them answered.
The only efficient way to ensure you account for all aspects of the prompt is to focus on one instance or example. Whether this is a long-term commitment (the teamwork you’ve encountered while playing football for the last four years) or one specific event (the time your group was falling behind on a school project, so you helped delegate roles to pull everyone together), the idea is the same. But don’t just start listing stuff.
Here’s the format your essay should follow (and for clarity’s sake, I’ll continue with the previous example):
The challenge: Regardless of whether you’re choosing the long-term or specific instance, your essay will be much stronger if you describe a challenge that had to be overcome. For example, you’ve been assigned to a group for a school project. The deadline is in a week, your group has communicated very little, and everyone seems to be inefficiently doing their own thing.
The solution: Solve your challenge using teamwork. Bonus: try to show leadership qualities! You realize your group needs to work together, so you get everyone together and delegate roles to get things done. With everyone working on a role that caters to their unique talents, the project comes together.
The takeaway: What did you learn from the experience? I learned that communication and teamwork allowed our finished product to be so much stronger than it otherwise would have been.
The future: How will you apply the takeaway to the future? Don’t be afraid to make it CMU specific! In fact, this is a great opportunity to throw in a few sentences of ‘why CMU.’
Example: “CMU is constantly collaborating with leading companies, amongst them Sony and CH Robinson, to create results that would otherwise not be possible. In this environment, I would use my own talent for robotics and seek complimentary talents to push the limits of what I can achieve.”
The more specific you can be here, the better. Specific to you and specific to CMU.
Be aware that the above scenario is a very generic scenario. You will create a much stronger essay by using this space to share an example specific to you. Whether this is the time you entered a design competition with a group of friends or painted a city mural with your art club, just make sure it’s pretty specific to you! If it’s a situation that can apply to every high schooler in the world, definitely reassess.
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 personality and you-ness in the essays, the better.
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