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How to Write the Cornell University Application Essays 2017-2018
Cornell University, both the youngest and largest member of the prestigious Ivy League, is home to seven undergraduate colleges and nearly 80 majors. Established in 1865 by Ezra Cornell, the Ithaca, New York institution has certainly lived up to its founder’s motto: “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.”
The wide range of opportunities at Cornell drew a record-breaking number of applicants this past admission cycle. 47,038 students applied for entry into the class of 2021, with an acceptance rate of only 12.5%, the lowest in the university’s history. The increasingly difficult nature of the admissions game requires increasingly stronger essays — with nearly 50,000 applications to review, having a supplement that stands out from the pack is essential.
Before submitting the Common Application or the Universal College Application, both of which are accepted by Cornell, students are required to select which of the seven undergraduate colleges they wish to be accepted into. In addition to a personal statement, a supplemental essay (maximum of 650 words) is required for each college. Below, we’ll go in depth into each of the prompts and help you craft an essay that’s sure to impress the Cornell admissions committee!
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Cornell University Application Essay Prompts
The primary focus of your college interest essay should be what you intend to study at Cornell.
In the online Common Application Writing Supplement, please respond to the essay question below (maximum of 650 words) that corresponds to the undergraduate college or school to which you are applying.
The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) is the second largest undergraduate college at Cornell University. While the initial mission of the school when it was founded in 1874 was to educate students in the areas of agriculture and life sciences, the offer of majors at CALS has since become very diverse. Students can choose to study traditional CALS topics like agricultural sciences, plant sciences, and biology & society, or they can venture into areas such as information science, communication, and landscape architecture, just to name a few.
The three most important things to make sure you have in a supplement for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) are answers to the three questions posed by the prompt:
- Why are you drawn to studying the major you have selected?
- How did your interests and related experiences influence your choice in major?
- How will an education from CALS and Cornell help you achieve your academic goals?
In the first two questions, Cornell wants to see that you can connect your major with your experiences throughout high school (and ideally the rest of your life).
If you want to major in biology, you can explain how your AP Biology class was transformative because it taught you how complex life is and inspired a research project into the origins of, say, neurological diseases. You could be applying as a communications major and write about how you were always afraid of public speaking until you came out of your shell on your school’s debate team. At the same time, you don’t have to write about school-related experiences if you became enamored with the subject matter of your major through some other way.
Try to put your desired major at the forefront of the essay — it’s totally okay if you aren’t interested in agriculture or life sciences, as long as your passion for your particular major shows through. Don’t make the mistake of applying as an information sciences major and writing about the summer you spent on a farm; even though working on a farm has everything to do with agriculture, it has almost nothing to do with information sciences.
To tackle to final component of the prompt, you also need to explain how the resources and opportunities at CALS will allow you to pursue your passion (the major which you just finished writing about). Do some research on Cornell’s website. Find a minor, concentration, club, or course that you can tie back to your major. Instead of simply name dropping an organization, try to find something that excites you and write about it such that it becomes evident to the reader. After all, the admissions staff wants to see that you’ve put in the time to learn more about CALS — they don’t want to accept someone that won’t bother to understand the ins and outs of the programs they offer!
The College of Architecture, Art, and Planning (AAP) contains three distinct departments: Architecture, Art, and City & Regional Planning. In this supplement, the admissions office is looking for you to explain both your passion for your chosen department/major, as well as what you believe Cornell has to gain by admitting you as a student. As the smallest college at Cornell, AAP is particularly interested in how you can serve to enrich the school, in addition to how the school can serve to enrich you.
Since the programs at AAP are incredibly specialized, you should have some previous experience in your chosen department, exhibited through extracurriculars, internships, and portfolios. These are the “intellectual interests” that you should be writing about in the supplement — be sure to use as much detail as possible in describing your experiences.
At the same time, use those details to further your argument of why Cornell will benefit from your admission. Also, don’t write about the two departments that you aren’t applying to. Even though it might seem like this would show your well-roundedness, AAP is looking for applicants that have clear interest for their selected field.
One strategy to show passion is to select one or two pieces from your portfolio that are especially meaningful to you and elaborate on their importance. Maybe you have a blueprint of your bedroom, which you used to personally plot out the changes that were made in a recent home renovation. It could be a series of photos, taken at the same place and time every day for a year, showing the natural change in seasons.
All competitive applicants will have excellent portfolios, but the students that are able to best explain the personal significance of their portfolio components have the best chance at acceptance.
The College of Arts and Sciences (AS) is the largest of Cornell’s undergraduate colleges, and also contains the widest range of majors, from Africana Studies to Statistical Science to Philosophy to Astronomy. Unlike the other colleges at Cornell, there’s no common thread running through AS. For that reason, it’s especially important that your supplement be as detailed and specific as possible to the field of study you wish to pursue. Bring in examples of how your experiences throughout high school led you to your desired major.
For example, if you want to major in computer science, try writing the essay about the apps you’ve developed or the meticulous manner in which you organize sections of code. When explaining your interest in government, don’t try to connect your experiences in model congress to something completely unrelated, like art history — maximize your message by focusing specifically on what’s relevant to the field of study. If you aren’t yet positive about a major, take advantage of the opportunity to explain what you’re considering through your “intellectual interests.”
In transitioning between the two parts of the prompt, illustrate why specifically you chose the major you did. This provides a logical pathway from your interests to why you wish to study at Cornell. Try to isolate a specific moment in your life, or a series of moments, that made you absolutely certain that you wanted to devote your education and career to this particular course of study.
An uncommon example could be: You went on a trip to the Middle East, participated in an archeological dig, and discovered a piece of ancient Roman pottery that was determined to have been used by Constantine in the fourth century. Ever since, you’ve strived to pursue a career in archaeology, so you can continue making connections with lost civilizations. Don’t feel intimidated if you haven’t done anything “crazy,” either. As long as the experience is important to you — that’s all that matters. The ultimate goal is to humanize yourself in the eyes of the admissions staff.
The second part of the prompt asks, “Why Arts and Sciences?” Make sure to provide concrete examples of courses, concentrations, clubs, and/or research opportunities that have drawn you to AS. That being said, be careful not to appear as though you’re just quoting the website: elaborate on how each of the examples you provide will be meaningful to you and help you advance your academic interests and goals! Also, try to avoid dropping names of professors, unless you’ve had personal contact with them. Instead, refer to the course they teach or the research they’re doing.
The Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management (Dyson/AEM) is a member of both the S.C. Johnson College of Business and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. This is the first year that Dyson has its own essay prompt—previously, it resided solely in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The new prompt affords AEM applicants the unique opportunity of writing about two different colleges at Cornell, in addition to the Applied Economics and Management major.
The first part of the prompt is asking students to elaborate on specific high school and life experiences (that were most likely briefly mentioned in their application) and connect them to economics and management. If you participated in any sort of business organization or held leadership in any organization, you should explain how those experiences led you to apply to Dyson.
You can even write about a job that you may have held, and show what you learned by working for a firm. Regardless of whether or not you dealt with the financial aspects of the firm, you can take a management approach—maybe you had a boss that was a great leader (or an awful one). Always make sure to tie back and intertwine the idea with specific aspects of AEM.
The second part of the prompt could be a bit more difficult. While there are many resources online about CALS, there’s very little regarding the S.C. Johnson College of Business. Focus more on how you can take advantage of the opportunities available in CALS by relating them back to applied economics and management. Maybe you’re interested in pursuing a research project about the economics of family farming vs. factory farming, or taking on a minor in environmental and sustainability sciences and examining the ways to make renewable energy more profitable. For this example, you would explain that by applying the business principles you learn in Dyson, you can better analyze market trends and in turn increase sales of home solar panels. Whatever you choose, make sure you bring in topics from outside of Dyson.
The School of Hotel Administration (SHA) is widely considered one of the best hotel management programs in the world. Typically, more than 80% of enrolling freshmen in the Hotel School have work experience in the hospitality industry prior to applying. For those that do, this essay shouldn’t be too difficult. Provided that you’ve had some professional exposure to the hospitality industry (be it through a paid job, internships, or shadowing), the focus of your essay should be on what you learned about the industry through your exposure. Make sure to explain not only why you are passionate about hospitality, but also about business.
For those that don’t have any professional exposure to the hospitality industry, try to pull as much as possible from your high school extracurriculars and think outside the box. Even if something may not seem like it connects to hospitality, find a way of connecting it in your essay. Volunteering at the local soup kitchen and interning at a regional hospital may seem to have little to do with a massive field that connects hotels, restaurants, and transportation, but a soup kitchen can just as easily be compared to a restaurant as a hospital can be compared to a hotel — by being creative, you’ll be able to find more than enough to write about.
In addition to the work experience, many applicants to SHA have a passion for hospitality that has been a core component of their life for many years. This passion typically manifests itself through strong leadership skills, undying compassion and empathy, and a love for travel. Find a way of showing your passion in your essay (personal anecdotes are usually the best way to go). Since the Hotel School has such a specific program, it’s incredibly important that your supplement provide the admissions committee with a full understanding of why you belong in the field of hospitality.
The prompt for the College of Engineering (EN) provides you with a wide range of acceptable topics, provided that they’re in some way related to engineering. The first step in crafting this essay would be to find out what you’re specifically interested in studying. In a way, this prompt is somewhat easier than most, as it asks you to look towards your future, and not explain your past (through extracurriculars and life experiences). Even if you’ve had minimal experience with engineering throughout high school, you can still craft an excellent response to the prompt.
The best way to tackle this essay, once you’ve decided what you wish to study at Cornell, is by finding a problem in the world. The problem could be anything that interests you and relates to engineering. Brainstorm a list of problems that you would be interested in solving, and reformat all of them into questions, like this:
- How do we make highways cheaper and easier to build in remote locations?
- What’s the best way to provide renewable energy for the whole planet?
- How can we use genetic engineering to solve the hunger crisis?
From your list, decide which problem fits best into your selected major. Now, you’ll just need to explain how being a student at Cornell University will provide you with the tools and knowledge you need to go out and fix your problem. Look into what previous graduates have accomplished, the courses that are offered, and the opportunities for research. You should try to come up with a plan of action to solve your problem (which cites the research you’ve done about the school). Demonstrating what you would actually do to problem-solve can be impressive to readers.
For example, in order to build a lightweight sustainable vehicle, it would be crucial to describe the steps you would take to: design crash tests, research into fuel availability, draft blueprints of the physical model, recruit drivers, and consult engineering professors about the feasibility of manufacturing. By displaying this high level of analytical thinking about how you would solve a real problem, the admissions team will be sure to recognize your interest in and fit for the College of Engineering.
The prompt for the College of Human Ecology (Humec/HE) has two distinct components: the past and the future. It first asks you to explain what in your past led you to apply to Humec, and then asks you to elaborate on what your life plans are after you graduate from Humec. In tackling the first half of the essay, you’ll need to decide which of the seven HE majors you are applying for.
If you’re interested in Fiber Science and Apparel Design, you should write about your background in fashion, not about your interest in microbiology. Likewise, if you plan on majoring in Nutritional Sciences, you could explain how you changed your family’s eating habits by creating a weekly menu plan. This isn’t necessarily the place or time to write about a trip to Africa in which you experienced firsthand the devastating effects of malaria — even though that’s really interesting, it’s far more suited to an essay for the Global and Public Health Sciences major.
Make sure to be as specific as possible to your desired major, and let your excitement about the subject shine through to the admissions committee.
The second part of the prompt shouldn’t be too difficult, provided that you’re able to link in your future goals and aspirations to your previous experiences (that you wrote about in the first part of the essay). Once again, make sure that your passion for your selected major is evident, and don’t just write in the general sense. If you’re hoping to go to medical school after college, definitely mention that — explain how what you study at Humec will influence your life in the medical world and guide you through your career.
The School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) is all about people. Your essay, similarly, should be all about people. Students in ILR learn about the relationships between employees and employers in the workplace — including the history of labor, labor law, organizational behavior and leadership, and economics. An interest in these fields can typically be shown through strong public speaking and communication skills, a passion for debate, and an ability to settle almost any dispute amicably. In your essay, you could explain how you’ve mastered those personality traits throughout your life, citing experiences that emphasize your strengths.
Just as much as this prompt is asking about you, it’s also asking, “Why ILR?” Make sure to insert some information about the school, be it courses you find interesting, a minor/concentration you wish to pursue, or research being done by professors. Find a way of linking your past experiences to the new ones you hope to have at Cornell.
Hopefully the analysis of each supplemental essay prompt has helped you to fine-tune your plans for your Cornell University supplement!
Best of luck with your application, and GO BIG RED!
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