How to Write the North Carolina State University Essays 2023-2024
North Carolina State University has one required prompt and one optional prompt for all applicants. The required prompt asks why you selected the academic prompt that you chose on the application and why you wish to study it at NC State. The optional prompt asks you to discuss any other obstacles or hardships and how you dealt with them. There is also a required prompt for applicants to the University Honors Program that asks about your critical and creative thinking skills.
NC State receives thousands of applications from academically strong students, so your essays are your best chance to stand out. In this post, we’ll discuss how to craft an engaging response to each of these prompts.
North Carolina State University Supplemental Essay Prompts
Prompt 1 (Required): Explain why you selected the academic program(s) above and why you are interested in studying these at NC State. (250 words)
Prompt 2 (Optional): Discuss any other obstacles and/or hardships that you have encountered that have affected you personally or academically and how you dealt with them. (250 words)
Prompt for University Honors Program Applicants
Critical and creative thinking are valuable skills in problem-solving. Tell us about a time in which you used one or both of these skills to address a problem or a need, in or out of the classroom. (600 words)
All Applicants, Prompt 1 (Required)
Explain why you selected the academic program(s) above and why you are interested in studying these at NC State. (250 words)
This is the classic “Why This Major?” prompt. Reading this prompt, it would be easy to fall into the trap of simply listing your extracurriculars that relate to your intended major. For example, if you want to major in engineering, you might list that you participated in Science Olympiad and other STEM activities. However, avoid the urge to do this.
While you should certainly mention if there is a particular extracurricular that drove you to love this field, do not simply list the things that you have done relating to this major or program. Instead, you want to support your decision with specific content that the NC State admissions officers have not yet seen on your application.
For example, you could tell a story about a moment during the Science Olympiad when you encountered a project with applications beyond the club. Perhaps you discovered a robotic device to assist others and from that moment, you realized that this was a field where you could make a tangible impact.
It might be helpful to consider these questions to guide your writing:
When did you decide to pursue this major/program? Why?
Think back to the things that first got you interested in the program you intend to pursue. For example, if math has been a passion of yours for a long time, then you could make a joke about how doing a math problem is your earliest memory. Or perhaps you always considered yourself a math person until you challenged yourself in a humanities class and discovered your passion for the subject.
What are the broader applications of this program?
Another factor that admissions officers will be looking for is your ability to exhibit the ways in which a degree from their school in this major would help you achieve your goals and make the world a better place. Try citing your career goals and discussing how your major will help you achieve them. The admissions officers want to see your passion—they do not want to accept someone who is pre-med just because it is financially lucrative or because their parents want them to be a doctor.
How does your major connect with some of your other interests?
Admissions officers appreciate students who realize that their major can connect to other subjects and activities. Briefly referencing your other interests will portray you as a multidisciplinary person, making you appear more interesting. Such a response could look like this:
“Philosophy, much like the jazz music I play on my piano, is all up to interpretation and how you see things. You can give any jazz pianist the same chords to improvise over, but you’ll never get the same song. Similarly, after posing a question to a group of philosophers, you will get myriad and innovative responses.”
Why this major/program at NC State and not another school?
The most important thing for this part of your response is doing research! If you choose to incorporate NC State into your essay, you should avoid hackneyed statements like: “NC State will help me pursue my dreams of becoming a civil engineer because they have a really good engineering program.” NC State puts a heavy focus on research and will appreciate someone who is ready to positively contribute to their community, but this person has to also be genuinely interested in the subject.
You could look at the research that professors in your major are conducting that you might be interested in. Also consider researching clubs on campus and learning about the kinds of projects they’re working on and events they’re holding. By citing specific resources you plan to take advantage of, you will help admissions officers picture you as part of the NC State community.
All that being said, it’s also okay to be undecided. One of the wonderful things about college is that it is a time to explore your interests and try new things! If you are unsure about your potential major, then provide examples of things that you want to try out at NC State.
You could discuss how you may want to be an engineer, but how you’ve recently worked with little kids as a camp counselor and would like to explore teaching. For this strategy, the same rules as above apply—do not simply list! Instead, be specific and tell a story about your background, or about how you would fit in at NC State as you try new things and gain value from a multidisciplinary education! Here are some more tips on how to write the “Why This Major” essay if you’re undecided.
Now that you have an understanding of what elements to include in your essay, let’s look at an example of a weak essay, and then discuss how it can be improved:
“I have a passion for learning about different cultures. I have studied French for six years and participated in an exchange trip after my freshman year for two weeks, allowing me to live with a family in Oyonnax, France. This experience, along with continued political discussions in the midst of the French and American elections, sparked my interest in global affairs. I love communications, diplomacy, and politics. I want to go into international public service with a focus on human rights so I can be a voice for those who lack one.”
One of the main reasons this essay is not very strong is due to its “listiness” quality. Many of the items included in this essay are ones that the admissions office will already have read from the activities list on the Common Application. Including them here is a waste of space that could better be used to share new information.
How could it be improved? Telling a story and showing why you want to study this major is a good place to start. Focus on what was mentioned in the last sentence: “be[ing] a voice for those who lack one.” Have you had experience with this? Why is this important? Why have you enjoyed it in the past? The focus could also be placed on the part about the French and American elections—What was interesting about these discussions? How were those elections similar and different? Give specific details to strengthen your response. Here is a much stronger example:
“Macron a gagné,” my host mom said with a relieved sigh. It was 2017, and I was studying abroad as a homestay student in Oyonnax, France. The murmur of BFM TV became muted as I tuned into my own thoughts—I had just lived through my first French election, and it was a fascinating experience!
Since that day, I have been interested in the differences between French and American elections, and most of all, democratic power transitions. Elections to me are a universal human right—the peaceful transition of the torch of Lady Liberty, the keys to the kingdom, is a historical marvel.
I want to keep democracy alive; by combining what I learned about political accountability in Oyonnax and in Durham as a poll worker, I aspire to start an election-monitoring NGO that works in my mother’s home country of Mali. Majoring in Political Science at NC State, with its unique Honors Program and faculty advisors who conduct comparative elections research, is the best stepping stone I could take to make my goal a reality…”
All Applicants, Prompt 2 (Optional)
Discuss any other obstacles and/or hardships that you have encountered that have affected you personally or academically and how you dealt with them. (250 words)
This prompt is a clear example of the common “Overcoming Challenges” prompt. A successful response will use strong, specific evidence to convince the reader of your ability to manage adversity. College can be full of challenges, and admissions officers need to see that you’re able to handle those challenges.
As you brainstorm for this essay, reflect on your life and experiences. Think about moments when you faced hardship and consider what you did to overcome that hardship. Keep in mind that this does not need to be a traumatic event—admissions officers are not evaluating students based on the severity of their problems. They are most interested in knowing how you overcame the challenges in your life, regardless of how big or small the actual challenge was.
That being said, you shouldn’t pick a challenge that is too trivial or unimportant. This can negatively impact the profile presented by your overall application. When you’re choosing the challenge that you will write about, you should pick one that demonstrates one or more personal qualities that you want to highlight. Some of these qualities may include:
- Willingness to take risks
To highlight some of these qualities, you might choose a topic like this:
Once, during your sophomore year, you had a big biology research paper due in a few days and no idea what to write about. You decided to take a walk to help ease your anxiety over the looming deadline, and that’s when you noticed a metallic green beetle clinging to a nearby tree. You could have passed by it without a second thought, but instead you did some research—it was an emerald ash borer, an invasive species in your area.
Your fascination with the beetle and its impact on the environment went on to become the focus of your research paper. Additionally, you were inspired to volunteer to help educate your community about the emerald ash borer, and this work has encouraged you to pursue a minor in Applied Ecology at NC State’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.
The above topic highlights curiosity, cooperation, and initiative. Your curiosity led you to research the strange insect you saw on your walk. By describing your volunteer experience, you illustrated your ability to cooperate with others and work towards a common goal. Finally, your initiative to make a positive impact on your environment guided your desire to learn more about ecology.
As a bonus, your topic is specific enough to be memorable, and you have expressed the exact reasoning behind your interest in NC State. Most importantly, your topic answers the prompt; it allows you to explain that by combining your values of curiosity, cooperation, and initiative, you were able to not only overcome your obstacle, but turn it into a positive experience.
Some topics for this prompt, despite being valid challenges, are not the best choice for your essay because they are too overdone. When writing, try to avoid challenges like:
- Sports injuries
- Immigration stories
- Tragedies like death, divorce, or abuse
- Challenging academic classes
- Volunteer trips
- Romantic relationships or breakups
- Family pressure
Here’s what your essay might include:
Section 1: Describe the challenge
- Give a fairly brief overview of the challenge here.
- If you can, try to move away from the more traditional essay structures. Maybe discuss a challenge you’re currently overcoming, one that spans multiple activities or events, or one that you can write about in a narrative style.
Section 2: What did you do to overcome the challenge?
- Focus on your internal struggle in this section. Let the reader know about the feelings you had as you faced your challenge. Were you frustrated? Anxious? Despondent? Continue to describe how your feelings changed as you overcame the challenge. Perhaps finding the solution made you feel motivated? Triumphant? Empowered?
- For example, you might write: “When I started my own store, I was nervous. Would anyone like my designs? Would I be able to pay my bills? I wasn’t sure. However, as more and more people began ordering, I became increasingly confident in my work.”
Section 3: Reflect on your growth as a result of the challenge
- Conclude your essay by ensuring that the reader has a clear understanding of what you learned from this experience.
- Rather than explicitly stating “this experience taught me X,” show the reader what you learned by reflecting on your feelings and on the outcomes of the experience.
Remember, the goal here is to show admissions officers why your experiences make you a great candidate for admission.
Here is an example of a good “Overcoming Challenges” Essay:
“I knew I had to quit my job.
I struggled to balance working long hours against doing my best in school. Work stress was keeping me from completing my assignments, and at school I was a blanked-out zombie. I was scared to quit because I had to pay my bills, but I also recognized the importance of maintaining my grades. I knew I needed to find a better solution.
I started by taking inventory of my interests and skills. I had always considered myself to be an artsy person, and I had seen others build successful small businesses selling their crafts online. One day, while researching, I glanced at my water bottle and suddenly I had my solution: I would start my own line of stickers, just like the ones that adorned my bottle. I spent weeks working out the designs before I launched my creations. At first, I was nervous. Would anyone like my designs? Would I be able to pay my bills? I wasn’t sure. However, as more and more people began ordering, I became increasingly confident in my work. Within three months, I was making what I needed, without sacrificing my mental health and academic progress. At that moment, I knew I could do whatever I set my mind to. Because of this hardship, I realized that a challenge in life can also be an opportunity to grow. I have since decided to study design in college so I can continue creating art as a career.”
University Honors Program Applicants
Critical and creative thinking are valuable skills in problem-solving. Tell us about a time in which you used one or both of these skills to address a problem or a need, in or out of the classroom. (600 words)
This prompt is a take on the Overcoming Challenges essay type, which you can read more about in this CollegeVine guide. It’s a little bit more specific than your typical overcoming challenges prompt, but it’s still an opportunity to talk about your resilience and how you respond to adversity, along with your problem-solving skills.
In coming up with a challenge to write about, you’ll notice that the prompt specifically mentions critical and creative thinking. Rather than choosing the most exciting or even the most impactful story, choose one that showcases your ability to see many different sides to a problem, and just as many possible solutions. If there was a time when you saw an angle to an issue that no one else did or came up with a solution that you’re particularly proud of, this is the time to talk about it!
In choosing your topic, avoid writing about problems that are very common, like a sports injury or getting a bad grade and learning from it. Try to pick something that is higher stakes than choosing a topic for a project or getting in an argument. You don’t need to pick something life changing, either—just make it unique, and make sure it speaks to your critical thinking and creative problem solving. There are many ways to approach this prompt. Consider the following questions to guide your thinking:
- When has a preconceived idea of yours been challenged? How did you adapt to the situation?
- Have you ever had to work especially hard to achieve something, or tried a new strategy when faced with a new challenge? Have you ever felt that a situation was hopeless, only to come up with an idea that ended up working?
- Can you think of a time you were pushed out of your comfort zone? How did you respond?
- How did you develop your most effective study strategies and coping skills?
- Describe a project that felt especially rewarding to complete. What made this project more satisfying than others? What skills did you practice while working on it?
Once you’ve picked your essay topic, it’s time to start writing. You’ll want to describe the problem or need with enough detail that the admissions committee will know how important it is to you and why. You might want to explain your brainstorming process in coming up with a solution, and then say what that solution was, how you enacted it, and what the end result was. If you learned something or grew from this experience, you’ll definitely want to include that, too!
Just because these steps are laid out in this order doesn’t mean that you have to write them that way. In fact, an interesting story structure could be a great way to make your writing stand out. You could begin in the middle of the story, or even at the end. Consider this example from a student who wrote about her difficulty in attaining a Girl Scout Gold Award, the Girl Scout equivalent of an Eagle Scout:
“To earn my Girl Scout Gold Award, I had to be tougher than a Himalayan blackberry, and that’s much harder than it sounds. The main canes of this bully of a plant can reach ten feet, while trailing canes sprawl to forty, with every inch-thick stem bristling with bloodthirsty thorns. The most devious thing about the vine is its dark, delicious fruit, which endears it to many, even as it conquers backyards, chokes out native species, and restricts the movements of animals that can’t get through its thorny hedges.
Having grown up baking blackberry pies with my mom, I was horrified when my environmental science teacher informed me that I had unknowingly colluded with an alien species that was devouring the Pacific Northwest much faster than we were eating it. When I went back to the elementary school where my family used to pick berries for our pies, I discovered that though the main soccer field had remained clear, the smaller secondary field had been entirely conquered by menacing vines thick as quarters. I knew then what I had to do.
Flash forward five months, and it looked like the blackberries were winning. After getting approval from the school, I’d set out to battle the field of blackberries, equipped with hedge clippers, rubber boots, and gloves that came up all the way over my elbows. For hours, weeks, months, I cleared with a vengeance, but when I stood back to survey my work, so little of the project I’d envisioned was finished. Soon, fall set in, and then winter, firming the ground and freezing root balls safely below the surface. At this rate, I was going to be the Girl Scout’s first geriatric Gold Award.
One winter day, I sat at home with my mom, nursing my stinging scratches and wondering what to do about the field. Had I bitten off more than I could chew? Fighting a smile, my mom chose that moment to present me with her idea of a joke—a blackberry pie. Bought from the grocery store and way out of season, it was a last-ditch idea to lift my spirits as I contemplated switching projects. Instead, it gave me an idea.
As snow settled on blackberry bushes, I abandoned the field, and traded my gloves for an apron. I practiced my flour-sifting skills, and I spread the word. On a partly sunny day in March, the first weekend of spring, I held my first Blackberry Bake Sale. Each treat was blackberry themed, and, even better, I wasn’t trading them for cash. Anyone who wanted to walk away with a tart or a slice of pie had to present me with a bag of blackberry vines.
Over the course of the spring, I held four Blackberry Bake Sales. Customers showed up with mowers, weed whackers, or just willing hands, and I rewarded them with puff pastry and powdered sugar. One man even brought a pair of goats, who rivaled the riding mowers with their efficiency, and certainly with their enthusiasm.
By June, the field was ready to be replanted, and I invited my whole troop to come with me to sprinkle seeds and stamp them down into the soil. In a way, that afternoon was more meaningful to me than the Gold Award ceremony that followed months later. As I looked out over the newly open field, I pictured the native plants I hoped would grow there. I recalled my early optimism, my hours of labor, and my triumphant comeback, and I knew the seeds we spread would be just as resilient as I was.”
This student uses vivid descriptive language and a strong personal narrative to convey qualities of resilience, commitment, and a passion for environmentalism. This is also a particularly good example of creative problem solving and a willingness to learn. While the narrative structure could be a bit more creative than it is here, this is still a strong example of a gripping challenge that the student was able to overcome, demonstrating personal strength and out-of-the-box thinking along the way.
Where to Get Your North Carolina State Essays Edited
“Overcoming challenges” essays can be tricky, so it’s important to make sure that your essays are carefully reviewed for effectiveness and areas for improvement. A fresh pair of eyes can really help spot areas for improvement that might not occur to you, or other ways to make you stand out to the admissions officers at NC State. CollegeVine has created a free Peer Review Essay Tool, where you can get feedback on your essay, and give feedback to other students just like you!
CollegeVine also offers essay review by our team of experienced advisors, who have helped hundreds of students submit successful applications to top schools. Find the right advisor for you and get the feedback you need to make your application a success!