How to Write the Cornell University Essays 2021-2022
You may be wondering how you can make your college application stand out besides just your grades, test scores, and extracurriculars. Personal essays are a great way to show admissions officers who you are and what makes you a great candidate for admission. Cornell University admissions officers read your Common Application personal statement and supplemental essay based on the specific college you choose to apply to within Cornell. By reading these essays, they can learn more about your personality and what would make you a great fit at the university.
Many strong students apply to Cornell each year, and developing a unique, authentic supplemental statement that showcases your personality gives admissions officers a chance to get to know you as an individual. In this post, we’ll discuss how you can write a stellar supplemental essay for the various prompts below.
Do you need essay inspiration? Read over these Cornell supplemental essays.
Want to know your chances of being admitted to Cornell? Check out our chancing calculator.
Cornell University Supplemental Essay Prompts
Before you apply to Cornell, you should determine which specific college is right for you. Cornell has 8 academic colleges and, when you apply, you must pick the one you’d like to attend. Each of Cornell’s colleges has its own majors and specific graduation requirements, however there are some majors that exist within multiple colleges. Understanding the differences between the colleges is really important when applying.
For example, you can apply to Cornell as a biology major within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences or College of Arts and Sciences. Although the classes for the major are the same, the overall college requirements are slightly different, and tuition cost may be different if you are a New York State resident. This is why it is extremely important that you do your own research to determine the best college and major for you before you write your supplemental essay.
Below are the supplemental essay prompts for each college:
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
Why are you drawn to studying the major you have selected? Please discuss how your interests and related experiences have influenced your choice. Specifically, how will an education from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and Cornell University help you achieve your academic goals? (650 words)
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 prospective 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
Students in Arts and Sciences embrace the opportunity to delve into multifaceted academic interests, embodying in 21st century terms Ezra Cornell’s “any person … any study” founding vision. Tell us about the areas of study you are excited to explore, and specifically why you wish to pursue them in our College. (650 words)
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 study” 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
Students applying to the College of Engineering are required to respond to two out of the three prompts below. Each response should be 200 words or less.
Option 1: Engineering is inherently collaborative. What does collaboration mean to you? What strengths do you bring to the collaborative process?
Option 2: For you, what makes Cornell Engineering special? Why do you want to attend Cornell Engineering?
Option 3: Diversity in all definitional forms is intrinsic to excellence in engineering. Indeed, devising the best engineered solutions to complex problems is often achieved by drawing from the diverse ingenuity of people from broadly different backgrounds, lived experiences, and identities. How do you see yourself contributing to the diversity and inclusion of the Cornell Engineering community? What is the unique voice you would bring to the Cornell Engineering community?
Engineering, Option 1
Engineering is inherently collaborative. What does collaboration mean to you? What strengths do you bring to the collaborative process?
Option 1 is looking for you to define “collaboration” and then connect its definition to your own strengths. This prompt option is interesting because it requires you to have a solid understanding of collaboration and how you can bring it into an academic setting. For this essay, college admissions officers want to know how your personality impacts your willingness and ability to collaborate. Remember that admissions officers want to create diverse classes, so they will look for unique responses that are highly personal. You’ll also want to tie the idea of collaboration back to engineering and academia in some way.
What to Consider Before You Write
- What is collaboration? You’ll want to look up the definition to get the exact meaning. It may be helpful to also think about what collaboration is not for reference.
- Collaboration can be shown in many different contexts, both academic and non-academic. Think about the different ways you’ve collaborated both inside and outside of school. How might this be the same or different in the context of engineering?
- Look into examples of how engineers collaborate. Perhaps this is done through specific processes at work or mindsets. It may be helpful to look into the design and engineering process at large engineering firms.
- What does collaboration look like in an academic environment? Do you have any examples?
You’ll want to brainstorm a list of your strengths in the collaboration process. Perhaps you are typically the charismatic leader of a group, and you tend to be the person who thinks of creative, off-the-wall solutions. Or maybe you are the practical and realistic member who values efficiency above all else. Take time to reflect before starting to write. Think of an example when you were collaborating and jot down:
- The situation where you collaborated with others
- How you felt as a part of the group
- Your contribution to the group
- What could have been improved
- How you would have changed the situation if you could
Common Mistakes to Avoid
Picking A Boring/Meaningless Example: You will be most successful with this prompt if you can think of a great, specific example that highlights your personality and/or identity. If you can only think of an example where you worked on an uneventful group project at school, you may want to pick the other two essays instead.
Not Making it Personal Enough: Although you need to define collaboration for this essay, you need to make sure that you tie it back to your own experiences. Oftentimes, students will write a great essay that answers the prompt, but lacks personality. Remember, these essays give admissions officers insight into your life, so you should make them about you!
Not Answering the Entire Prompt: As you write the essay, make sure that you address all parts of the prompt. Too often, students will only answer one of the sections and forget about the rest. In this prompt, you’ll want to define collaboration and discuss your strengths, and then tie it back to engineering. This is important because it will show admissions officers how you can work collaboratively within the Cornell College of Engineering
To answer this prompt, you could choose to write about collaborating with your robotics team at the state competition. Given this topic, here is an example from a student:
“It was 2:50pm, and we were scheduled to show our robotics project at the exposition in just ten minutes. After months of sleepless nights and weekends spent preparing for the largest robotics competition in the state, this was it. We were ready to win the competition. That was before the unthinkable happened. Right as we lifted our robot into the ring, a giant piece fell off. Luckily, the judges were sympathetic and allowed us five minutes to fix our robot.”
This introduction succinctly explains the student’s collaborative situation and presents the problem, while introducing the student’s interest in engineering–specifically robotics. Regardless of your topic, you could do something similar in your own response by beginning with a short anecdote that captivates your reader’s attention.
This essay could then continue with:
“Collaboration, or the act of working together, sounds perfect when things are going well; however, it certainly does not come easy in moments of stress. For a minute, we blamed each other. But then, one of my teammates rallied up the four of us. Being a naturally practical and efficient person, I outlined all the steps we would have to do in the remaining four minutes in order to get the robot working again. I then assigned my team members to each task based on their own personal strengths. Even though I didn’t lead the team, I was the person who stayed calm under pressure and devised an efficient strategy. Even in a highly calculated environment like a robotics competition, unexpected problems can occur. Collaboration isn’t about working together when everything is going perfectly, it is about weathering the storm and persisting when it isn’t.”
In this section, the student defines collaboration, a requirement when answering this prompt, while also explaining their strengths in the collaborative process. By defining collaboration later in the essay, the response was more engaging since it allowed for the student to tell a story that highlighted a clear example of their collaboration. Additionally, the student explained how collaboration can change when under pressure and stress, which demonstrated the student’s ability to reflect on their experiences and analyze their reactions under different circumstances.
While this is a strong response overall, for clarity’s sake, it might have been better for the student to omit the contributions of others (“But then, one of my teammates rallied up the four of us.”), and instead focus solely on what they learned personally, and how they would apply that to future collaboration.
Engineering, Option 2
For you, what makes Cornell Engineering special? Why do you want to attend Cornell Engineering?
This is a classic “Why This Major?” type essay. Here, you’ll want to reflect on why you are applying to Cornell, and how Cornell engineering can help you achieve your academic and personal goals. For this type of essay, a good response should show your interests through your previous experiences, discuss your goals for the future, and show how Cornell Engineering can help you achieve these goals in detail.
What to Consider Before You Write
- You’ll want to reflect on why you are interested in engineering and your authentic reasons for wanting to pursue the major. Admissions officers can tell when essays are inauthentic, so make sure that your reasons align with your personal values and goals.
- Think about how this particular program is aligned with your goals. You’ll want to do research into the specific program and how it ties in with your interests. For example, if you’re really interested in aerospace engineering and design, you may want to talk about the ASTRALab at Cornell or one of Cornell’s various engineering project teams.
- Reflect upon your experiences in engineering or STEM. Where did they come from?
- Are there other parts of Cornell that interest you besides just engineering? What are they, and how can these interests give you an interdisciplinary education?
Common Mistakes to Avoid
Empty Flattery: One common mistake is just to write about what you are interested in at Cornell without connecting it back to yourself. Remember, these essays give admissions officers a chance to get to know you, and they know a lot about their own programs. As you write these essays, talk about why you are interested in the subject, not just the subject itself.
Having Misaligned Values: Don’t write about how pressure from parents, money, or prestige is leading you to a certain career or academic field.
Misaligned Childhood Experiences: It is totally ok to talk about how an experience in childhood led to an academic interest later on. But make sure that this interest has persisted throughout your life. Many essays start by describing interests in childhood, which can be cliche. Only employ this method if it is authentic and true to your life.
Here are two examples of this type of response, one stronger than the other, to help get you started:
“My 10th grade science teacher, Mr. Moore, developed my love for chemistry and physics. I read all I could about the subject, and my teacher even started tutoring me outside of class so that I could learn more advanced material. Although I participated in science clubs at school, I developed a keen interest in research during my summer experience in a research lab at Fermilab, which led to my current goals of pursuing a PhD. During the summer of my junior year, I worked on a project on particle physics and accelerator research at FermiLab which fascinated me. At Cornell, I’d like to become involved in research through the Cornell Laboratory for Accelerator-based Science and Education.”
This is a solid example because the narrator discusses how they went above and beyond in an academic class to learn more about chemistry and physics, and tied their summer experience with something that they would want to pursue at Cornell Engineering. Additionally, they discussed their long term goals of getting a PhD.
“For as long as I can remember, I loved science. In third grade, I won the science fair for my physics experiment, where I made balloon rockets to see how high they could go. I carried this interest with me to high school, where I took the most advanced science classes and participated in as many science fairs as possible. An education at Cornell Engineering would help me future develop my interests and career goals.”
This example is not nearly as good as the first. The narrator talks about their experience as a child, but does not connect it to their interests later in life. Additionally, they do not mention why they are interested in engineering, or how Cornell Engineering can help them achieve their academic or career goals.
Engineering, Option 3
Diversity in all definitional forms is intrinsic to excellence in engineering. Indeed, devising the best engineered solutions to complex problems is often achieved by drawing from the diverse ingenuity of people from broadly different backgrounds, lived experiences, and identities. How do you see yourself contributing to the diversity and inclusion of the Cornell Engineering community? What is the unique voice you would bring to the Cornell Engineering community?
The goal of this type of essay is to find out how your values and background influence your personal choices and goals. College admissions officers look to build unique classes, so you’ll want your response for this to be individualized and authentic. To learn more about this post, check out our tips for writing a diversity essay.
What to Consider Before You Write
Coming up with a good topic for a diversity essay can be tricky. This is what you’ll want to keep in mind as you think of how to approach the question.
- Think about your various identities and what makes you unique. This could be your community, racial identity, religion, hobbies, disability status, gender, language, hometown, country of origin, etc. You may want to make a list and write about the one you are most familiar with and feel most comfortable talking about.
- Consider how you relate to this identity, and how you feel when you are part of this group. Have you developed any personality traits through this group, and how have they changed over time?
- Have you had any major events that have occurred in your life because of this group? What were they, and how did they shape you into the person you are today?
- Have you learned any skills through one of these identities? What are they?
- How can you connect this with Cornell Engineering?
It is important to consider how your emotions tie in with one of your identities and what story or stories may demonstrate this emotion. This way, you can write an essay that shows the identity and how it has shaped you. For shorter essays under 250 words, you can just reflect on your emotions through your identity. For longer essays, you’ll want 2-3 anecdotes to demonstrate how these emotions and identity have impacted you.
When you start writing, you’ll want 25% of the essay to summarize the identity that you are describing, and a remaining 75% to talk about how you have been impacted by this community. If possible, write about how this experience can make you a good addition to Cornell’s community.
Mistakes To Avoid
Don’t List All Your Identities: This essay isn’t the time to talk about all your personal identities. Instead, focus on one of them and dive deeper into what it is and why it is important to you.
Don’t Just Focus on Negative Experiences: Although you should make sure that your experiences are completely authentic to you, college admissions officers often look for stories with positive or optimistic endings.
Don’t Pick a Cliche Topic: Many topics around moving or immigration have been overused and are cliche. Think about an identity you have that may be more nuanced or unique.
Here is an example of a response to this prompt:
“One community that I’ve been part of for many years is the jazz piano community. Although jazz is often seen as being “outdated” or “pretentious” by the outside world, true jazz lovers know that it is in fact one of the only music genres that stays current with new beats and rhythms that are influenced by new music. Not only is jazz always adapting, but jazz pianists must improvise while also keeping a fast tempo and staying on key. My years playing piano taught me to go with the flow and not worry about the outcomes–usually, the best jazz pieces are created spur-of-the-moment. As a student within the College of Engineering at Cornell, I would be able to bring my creativity that I’ve learned through improvisation to the college.”
This example starts by describing how jazz is perceived, and then connects the skills and lessons that the student learned through improvisation to creativity. The student describes how the job of a jazz pianist is not just limited to piano, but those lessons can be applied in other aspects of life. The student also brings their response back to the College of Engineering, thereby connecting their identity to Cornell.
Cornell SC Johnson College of Business
What kind of a business student are you? Using your personal, academic, or volunteer/work experiences, describe the topics or issues that you care about and why they are important to you. Your response should convey how your interests align with the school(s) to which you are applying within the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business (Dyson School and/or School of Hotel Administration). (650 words)
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
How has your decision to apply to the College of Human Ecology been influenced by your related experiences? How will your choice of major impact your goals and plans for the future? (650 words)
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
Using your personal, academic, or volunteer/work experiences, describe the topics or issues that you care about and why they are important to you. Your response should show us that your interests align with the ILR School. (650 words)
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
What is your “thing”? What energizes you or engages you so deeply that you lose track of time? Everyone has different passions, obsessions, quirks, inspirations. What are yours?
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.
Where to Get Your Cornell University Essay Edited for Free
Do you want feedback on your essays for Cornell? Check out our free Peer Review Tool, a free online service where you can get essay feedback from another student. Since they don’t know you personally, this can be a great way to get objective feedback from a peer who is also going through the same process. You can also review other student’s essays as well so you can become a stronger writer yourself.