How to Write the Cornell University Essays 2020-2021
Cornell University is the largest of the eight Ivy League schools. The university’s seven undergraduate colleges and 80 majors allow students to pursue many fields of interest.
Cornell University accepted only 10.6% of applicants for the 2018-2019 applications cycle. It opted not to report its acceptance rate for the 2019-2020 cycle. It’s no secret that Cornell is selective though, so you will need more than stellar grades and high test scores to stand out to the admissions committee. Well-written essays allow you to showcase passions or interests that may not come through in traditional application materials.
Cornell requires all applicants to submit a supplemental essay in addition to their Common Application piece. The student’s selected college determines the prompt they will complete. All of the supplemental prompts have a 650 word limit. Let’s break these supplements down! Want to know your chances at Cornell? Calculate your chances for free right now.
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Jump to the Different College Prompts
- College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
- College of Arts and Sciences
- College of Engineering
- Cornell SC Johnson College of Business
- College of Human Ecology
- College of Industrial and Labor Relations
- College of Art, Architecture and Planning
College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) is the second-largest school at Cornell with majors ranging from communication to entomology. Even if you decide to apply as an undeclared major, you need to have potential areas of interest in mind to fully address the essay prompt.
The first half of this prompt follows the “Why This Major” format that will become familiar as you apply to more colleges. You should use your current experiences to explain why you want to study the major you selected. A longitudinal approach lends itself well to this portion of the essay.
For example, if you want to study animal science, you could begin by explaining how you always loved going to the zoo growing up. You can then transition into describing how this love of animals led you to volunteer at the local animal hospital, and conclude your essay by explaining that your time at the animal hospital inspired your desire to become a veterinarian.
The second half of this prompt asks you to explain why you want to study your intended major through CALS and Cornell. You need to provide college-specific examples that directly relate to your interest in major. Find courses, clubs, or research opportunities that would be difficult to find at another university.
For example, a prospective Viticulture and Enology major could discuss the field practicum course that allows students to gain hands-on vineyard management experience. A prospective Development Sociology major could talk about the international trips that would allow them to see socioeconomic development firsthand. Don’t be afraid to discuss relevant programs in colleges outside of CALS as well, as CALS is interdisciplinary.
College of Arts and Sciences
Arts and Sciences (A&S) is by far the most interdisciplinary college at Cornell. Students can study topics ranging from information science to Africana studies, and the College houses multiple programs that allow students to design their own major. A&S looks for students with clear passions and goals that can find their place within a broad community.
Try to connect any diverse interests into a singular goal. Cornell’s motto “any person, any student” fully reiterates the university’s desire to provide students with a platform to explore novel connections between seemingly unrelated subjects. For example, if your interests are math and Asian studies, you could discuss how you plan to use statistics or other mathematical models to gain social insight into the Asian-American experience.
Establish your interests by linking them to your present experiences. If you are a government major, write about your time on Model UN. If you are a biology major, write about your success in Science League. Use your present experiences to illustrate the depth and range of your personal interests.
You also need to explain how A&S specifically would provide you learning opportunities. Cornell has an open course catalog, so you can research interesting courses. Do not select common courses such as General Chemistry. Instead, focus on classes that are unique to the university. For example, Cornell offers a class called the Death Penalty in America that is taught by top capital punishment scholars. This connection point would enrich the essay of a government or policy analysis major.
College of Engineering
Due to the breadth of the College of Engineering, your essay should clearly convey what area of engineering you want to study. Are you interested in biomedical engineering or computer science? Do you want to design your own major that allows your to integrate various engineering elements into one cohesive piece?
Connect your intended area of study to your current activities in high school. For example, if you want to study computer science, you could discuss your AP coursework or a recent programming project. Providing a brief personal history allows your interests to come across as more genuine.
You also need to clearly explain how Cornell Engineering will provide you with the tools to succeed within your given field of study. Cornell’s semester-long externship program and project teams are cornerstones of the college that are not found as easily at other schools. Discussing these programs makes your interest in Cornell feel more school-specific.
Your reasons for attendance should be directly connected to your goals. If you want to study aerospace engineering, you could talk about the Cornell Mars Rover Program. You could then connect your desire to work on this project team to your ultimate goal of eventually working at NASA.
The prompt also specifically asks how you see yourself becoming part of the Cornell engineering community. You should point out specific opportunities that allow you to collaborate with other engineering students, such as Cornell University Sustainable Design. Through this group, you’ll be able to contribute to projects impacting the Cornell community and beyond. One current project is “Solarize,” which aims to help Cornell become carbon-neutral by transitioning to solar energy.
Cornell SC Johnson College of Business
The SC Johnson College of Business is made up of two schools: The Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, and the School of Hotel Administration. Our breakdown will focus on these two schools separately, but keep in mind that you can write about both in your essay, especially if your interests and goals are best served by both schools.
Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management
The Dyson School is known as one of the most competitive at Cornell. In order to stand out among the tough competition, you will need to clearly explain why your goals and interests align with Dyson’s unique program.
Your choice to apply to Dyson should extend beyond a basic interest in economics or management. Dyson’s program is interdisciplinary in nature, and the school encourages its students to study various disciplines outside of AEM. Having a distinct interdisciplinary focus such as agro-economics is a great way to stand out in your supplemental essay.
Your reasons for applying to Dyson should be supported by your present interests and activities. For example, a student discussing agricultural economics could discuss leadership roles in a local 4H club, or efforts to learn more about agricultural economics through recent journals and news pieces.
Aim to be as detailed as possible when discussing your future goals and clearly connect them to Dyson’s offerings. The agricultural economics student could talk about how Dyson’s flexible curriculum would also allow them to take agriculture classes.
Be sure to include your post-college goals and how the College of Business would help you achieve them. For example, our hypothetical agro-economics student might be interested in starting an organization to eliminate food deserts, by diverting food that would’ve otherwise gone to waste. They could mention the course HADM 4315: Nonprofit Social Enterprise and Food Justice in the School of Hotel Administration (remember that you can talk about both schools in the College of Business!). This would allow the student to learn “management best practices for leading nonprofit food service organizations.”
School of Hotel Administration
SHA consistently ranks as the best hotel school in the United States, and applicants should have a clear, demonstrated interest in hospitality-related careers. In addition to relevant experience, SHA looks for the interpersonal skills required to be successful in the hospitality industry.
Your hospitality experiences should directly show why you chose to apply to SHA and why you are interested in hospitality management. For example, instead of simply listing your duties as a bellhop at a local hotel, describe how the integration of many fast-paced movements at a hotel invigorates you.
Connect these experiences to your long-term plans and aspirations, and explain how the Hotel School will provide you with the tools you need to achieve these goals. If you want to manage a hotel one day, explain how SHA will provide the hands-on experiences and practical skills you will need to run an establishment.
SHA is the only college at Cornell that requires an admissions interview, which focuses on the applicant’s interpersonal skills. While describing your experiences within hospitality, make sure to highlight personal attributes such as your empathy or adaptability, especially through anecdotes. Perhaps a hotel client once lost his dog, and you went above and beyond to help them make missing dog signs, even putting them up across the city. Maybe the hotel’s fitness center yoga instructor called in sick last-minute once, and you stepped in with your knowledge of yoga, leading the class instead. These details allow an admissions counselor to see that you would thrive at SHA.
College of Human Ecology
The College of Human Ecology (HE) centers around exploration of human connection and the human experience. HE is interdisciplinary by nature with strong roots in research and public engagement. Your supplemental essay should reflect these themes while also explaining your interest in your intended major.
Use your high school classes and extracurriculars to explain why you applied to HE. If you would like to study nutritional sciences, you could discuss your role in the Health Club at your high school. Make sure to explain why your intended career path interests you. Maybe you are a runner and are fascinated by how diet impacts physical performance. Connecting these experiences to a broader desire to improve the human experience—and potentially adding interdisciplinary elements—will help deepen your connection to the College of Human Ecology.
The next aspect of this prompt asks how your major specifically will contribute to your plans for the future. Be as specific as possible. For example, instead of broadly stating that studying fashion design and management will help prepare you for the fashion industry, discuss how the studio-based classes will provide you with both a strong physical skill set and a portfolio of work for job applications. Or, if you want to start your own sustainable fashion brand, mention how the courses in Fiber Science will allow you to learn about innovative ways to create eco-friendly fibers and dyes.
College of Industrial and Labor Relations
The College of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) studies the world of work, and the intellectual interests you write about should also involve labor and human capital. The ILR community has a strong drive for public service, so making social service the focus of your essay will help explain your choice in ILR.
Given the specificity of the prompt, it is imperative that you provide concrete examples of how experiences relate to your intellectual interests. For example, you can discuss how studying disability rights in your American History class made you want to become an advocate, or how volunteering in a local lawyer’s office helped you find your passion for labor law.
Your essay should also explain why you are interested in your chosen subject matter to fully address what makes it exciting to you. Does the ability to advocate for others inspire your passion for disability rights in the workplace? Your reasons can be more personal, too; maybe you have a friend or relative with a disability, and have witnessed how many workers with disabilities are underpaid and taken advantage of. Or, perhaps you’re interested in labor law because you want to defend workers from minority groups facing discrimination.
Choose ILR-specific programs to explain why the school is the right fit for you. For example, a future law student could mention ILR’s intensive legal writing seminars. They could also discuss the Labor & Employment Law Program in NYC, which focuses on managing repositories for documents related to work discrimination acts.
College of Art, Architecture and Planning
Art, Architecture, and Planning (AAP) is the smallest college at Cornell. Most AAP classes are studio-intensive and involve hands-on projects. As a result, your essay should demonstrate that you are secure in your major decision and ready to engage with a nontraditional learning experience.
The “thing” you suggest should relate to your intended major. Choosing a particular sub-discipline will also help to show your familiarity and passion for the subject matter. For example, if you are applying to the art school, your “thing” should not be microbiology unless you have a particularly compelling way to integrate the two subjects. However, writing your essay about your love of fifties pop art would demonstrate your knowledge and love of art.
There are two ways to structure this essay: a longitudinal method or a moment-in-time method. To organize the information in a longitudinal way, describe how your passion unfolded over time. For example, discuss the first time you encountered photography and how you grew more passionate about it. You could discuss crucial memories like getting your first high-quality camera, or your first interaction with your favorite photographer.
Alternatively, you emphasize one key moment. You could discuss your first time walking through a gallery of your favorite artist’s works or the moment you took your favorite photograph. Use this key point to fully illustrate what you love about your “thing.”
Make sure to elaborate on how your “thing” inspires what you do currently, and how it might impact your future goals. Maybe your “thing” is living a zero-waste lifestyle, and you’re a prospective Architecture major. Your love for sustainability might inspire you to study and develop eco-friendly buildings that interact with nature and the surrounding ecosystems, such as apartment buildings with green roofs.
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