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How to Write the Princeton University Application Essays 2017-2018

Princeton University, located in the small yet vibrant town of Princeton, New Jersey, has earned itself the distinction of consistently being ranked #1 on the U.S. News and World Report’s undergraduate college rankings. As an elite institution, the thing that Princeton is arguably most famous for is its strong focus on its undergraduate program.


Given the stellar reputation that precedes Princeton, it comes as no shock that this university draws tens of thousands of applicants each year. In fact, last year, 31,056 students around the world vied for 1,890 spots in the Class of 2021, resulting in an acceptance rate of 6.1% — the lowest in the institution’s history.


So, it goes without saying that applicants who hope to one day see the big, bright “Congratulations!” in orange lettering must truly stand out from thousands of other applicants. A strong academic profile is undoubtedly important, but the supplemental essay prompts are where your personality and voice can shine through.


Yet, writing such an essay is often easier said than done. It can be intimidating to craft impressive responses that capture your essence — academic, personal, and extracurricular — all within the stringent word limits. Luckily, CollegeVine is here to help you do just that. Here is our comprehensive guide on how to tackle Princeton University’s supplemental essay prompts for the 2017-2018 admissions cycle.


Want to learn what Princeton University will actually cost you based on your income? And how long your application to the school should take? Here’s what every student considering Princeton University needs to know.

Princeton University Application Essay Prompts

Activities Question

Activities: Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences that was particularly meaningful to you. (About 150 words [250 words MAX])

The challenge of this short essay prompt lies in the brevity of its expected answer — you need to craft a compelling response with very little wiggle room. When thinking of which extracurricular activity to write about, it’s important to consider which activities are both unique and personally meaningful — this short essay is your chance to tell a (short) story about this experience of particular importance.


After thinking about your activities, if you realize that you may not have any particularly “unique” experience or activity, then perhaps consider writing your response creatively — for example, instead of merely describing your activity, why not use an engaging anecdote to highlight your love of the activity? Perhaps, you could reframe your activity from a more personal standpoint to help the readers fully understand the ways the activity affected you.


For instance, if you were involved with music, perhaps you could discuss how being immersed in music helped you learn more about your own culture. Another approach could involve discussing various attributes or aspects of a single activity, which would effectively demonstrate the different reasons for this experience’s personal meaning. For example, if you were involved in sports, you could discuss the physical, social, emotional, and mental attributes that were meaningful in the sport of choice.


Either way, it is important to not only describe the activity, but also (and more importantly) explain the impact it left on you.


As a note of caution, when answering this prompt, it is important to NOT simply reiterate a mere description of the activity. This short essay is intended to reveal more about your personality than your past experiences, so the actual activity that you pick is of far less importance than the way you convey that importance.

Summers Question

Summers: Please tell us how you have spent the last two summers (or vacations between school years), including any jobs you have held. (About 150 words [250 words MAX])

Once again, because you are given such few words, it may be useful to take a slightly more direct, concise approach when describing how you spent your last two summers.


Typically, there are two ways to answer this question. One is to chronologically describe all of the activities you did in each summer — this is particularly useful for students who had very busy, activity-filled summers. Another way is to spend a lot of space focusing on and describing the most important activities you did during your summers, and afterward, fill the remaining space with any other important activities you’d like to briefly highlight.


Beware of cheesy responses that “try too hard” — if your answer looks like it attempted to be different solely for the sake of being different, then you might sink your application. For instance, to avoid this, make sure that your creative decision makes sense in the context of what you wrote. A powerful anecdote could be super effective; a poorly executed rap will probably doom your application.

A Few Details

Your favorite book and its author

Your favorite website

Your favorite recording

Your favorite source of inspiration

Your favorite line from a movie or book and its title

Your favorite movie

Two adjectives your friends would use to describe you

Your favorite keepsake or memento

Your favorite word

And now, we get to arguably the most fun (yet nerve-wracking) part of this application: the very short response questions.


While these rapid-fire questions are meant to simply give the admissions officers an idea of your personality, many applicants often get nervous at the open-ended nature of these prompts. However, as long as you steer clear from writing anything offensive or morally questionable, you can be rest assured that your answers won’t completely derail your application; they will just give your application readers a better idea of what you’re like as a person, not just numbers on a paper.


For example, if you answer that your favorite source of inspiration is Elon Musk, it would be assumed that you have some interest in technology and innovation, whereas if you discuss a leadership book, for example, it may be assumed that you have some sort of managerial aspirations. Overall, the goal of these questions is to learn as much as they can about you by asking these unique questions, so you should carefully think about how you want to be perceived by the admissions committee, and frame your answers based on that.


It is also important to note that your answers don’t need to be overly academic — unless your favorite book truly is The Republic by Plato, don’t write false responses that may paint an inaccurate picture of who you are.


Warning: Although certainly all answers have merit, some are suboptimal strategy-wise. Listing “My Gold Medal from the International Physics Olympiad” as your “favorite keepsake or memento” isn’t going to make admissions committees want to give your application a second look; instead, they’ll just sigh and roll their eyes (especially considering your Common App extracurricular list already details your achievement quite clearly). Exercise good judgment!

Essay Questions

Essay: Your Voice

In addition to the essay you have written for the Common Application or the Universal College Application, please write an essay of about 500 words (no more than 650 words and no fewer than 250 words). Using one of the themes below as a starting point, write about a person, event or experience that helped you define one of your values or in some way changed how you approach the world. Please do not repeat, in full or in part, the essay you wrote for the Common Application or Universal College Application.

The last sentence of this prompt is arguably the most vital — Princeton wants this essay to showcase a completely different aspect of your personality or background that they have not yet discovered from your other essays. With that in mind, let’s explore the prompt options and how you can bring out your voice through each choice.

Option A

Tell us about a person who has influenced you in a significant way.

While this prompt asks you to talk about someone who has been influential in a significant way, it is crucial to remember that the end goal of this essay is to reveal something more about you and bring out your voice. So, as expected, the person who you choose will lend insight into your personality and values, especially if you write about well-known public figures.


On that note, we often see applicants choosing celebrities or famous people to write about; however, choosing them may not necessarily be the best idea unless they have personally influenced you in a unique, extraordinary way. For instance, even though you may look up to Mark Zuckerberg as an idol, he has likely influenced many others in a very similar way. So then, does talking about him truly reveal something unique about your own voice?


When you remember that the goal is to distinguish yourself from your peers, it becomes clearer to see that you should choose someone who has truly influenced you in a personal way. Writing in this manner also makes it easier to focus the essay on telling the application readers more about yourself, which is ultimately the goal.


For instance, if you choose to write about a mentor in your life (perhaps a teacher, family member, boss, etc.), you could use an anecdote to demonstrate why that individual was so influential, and doing so would reveal what qualities and traits you value and what matters to you the most.


For instance, perhaps someone’s personal experiences inspired you to start an organization and get deeply involved in a particular cause. This would be a strong example of how someone can influence another person. On the other hand, writing about how your parents inspired you to work hard could end up sounding bland and cliché, so try to stray away from commonplace influences.


Finally, make sure to consider how you can maintain a strong balance between talking about your role model/influencer and yourself in order to answer the prompt as thoroughly as possible while revealing new information about yourself.

Option B

‘One of the great challenges of our time is that the disparities we face today have more complex causes and point less straightforwardly to solutions.’

– Omar Wasow, assistant professor of politics, Princeton University and co-founder of Blackplanet.com. This quote is taken from Professor Wasow’s January 2014 speech at the Martin Luther King Day celebration at Princeton University.

To all the politics, philosophy, and ethics aficionados out there — this prompt may be the one for you! By nature of this prompt, it lends well to a more academic analysis of prominent political issues.


While delving into your undoubtedly nuanced, unique analysis of a particular political issue, it is important to keep in mind that you bring yourself into the discussion. Specifically, what stance do you take on the issue, and what does that say about your personality or values? Additionally, what life experiences or beliefs might have led you to take on this particular position?


Another potential way to approach this prompt is to discuss an ethical or moral dilemma, or even just a difficult decision, that you have experienced in the past; the prompt doesn’t necessarily limit you to a political issue. In this case, perhaps anecdotally recounting your thought process when reasoning through the decision or dilemma would be most helpful for readers to learn more about you.


For instance, a strong essay could come out of discussing political topics such as immigration reform or moral/ethical dilemmas such as the fabrication of scientific data. When picking topics, however, it can be easy to simply rattle off a standard scholarly analysis of the topic at hand, so make sure to relate your nuanced analysis back to yourself, which is the purpose of this essay — to reveal your voice.


Finally, as a warning, it’s important to consider that the quote in the prompt mentions “great challenges of our time,” so you should probably pick an issue or situation that is relevant or severe enough to fit the tone of the given quote.

Option C

‘Culture is what presents us with the kinds of valuable things that can fill a life. And insofar as we can recognize the value in those things and make them part of our lives, our lives are meaningful.’

– Gideon Rosen, Stuart Professor of Philosophy and director of the Behrman Undergraduate Society of Fellows, Princeton University.

This essay prompt is best suited for individuals who have particularly strong cultural backgrounds. For instance, children of immigrant parents may have powerful stories to tell, as long as they describe how their immigration story is unique and how it has impacted their life. Another good idea would be to discuss specific cultural traditions, wisdom, ideologies, celebrations, etc., which have had prominent roles in your upbringing.


However, even if you don’t come from an immigrant or strong cultural background, perhaps you are a part of a multicultural, diverse hometown, or maybe you are particularly involved with or interested in pop culture. In this case, you would be able to speak to how this culture around you has shaped your values and come to represent who you truly are.


If you decide to choose this prompt, it may be wise to avoid speaking of highly controversial cultural or modern practices, as it is best to remain ideologically neutral with respect to such issues, given that it is difficult to predict how your application reader may respond to the issue.


Overall, there are countless ways to approach this prompt, as culture, by its very nature, influences different people in largely variegated manners. With that in mind, it’s critical to, then, focus on the role of the culture you discuss in your life.

Option D

Using a favorite quotation from an essay or book you have read in the last three years as a starting point, tell us about an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world. Please write the quotation, title and author at the beginning of your essay.

This prompt is essentially Princeton’s way of telling you to write about any topic you desire — so long as you can find a quote that adequately fits the essay topic you choose to explore.


Because the essay prompt is focused on your values and revealing more about your voice, make sure that your topic somehow relates to that in a relatively direct manner. Other than that, you’re given plenty of freedom to discuss whatever you feel inclined to discuss!


That said, however, it is possible to be too cliché here; try to avoid commonly used sayings (like “honesty is the best policy”). When picking a quote, make sure that it is unique enough that it specifically inspired a change in your values or the way you approached the world. Furthermore, this essay could be made stronger by considering its delivery — creative ideas include using a narrative tone, writing in a unique format, or even incorporating dialogue.

Engineering Essay*

If you are interested in pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Engineering degree, please write a 300-500 word essay describing why you are interested in studying engineering, any experiences in or exposure to engineering you have had and how you think the programs in engineering offered at Princeton suit your particular interests.

*This essay is required for students who indicate Bachelor of Science in Engineering as a possible degree of study on their application.

This prompt is only required for applicants interested in receiving a Bachelor of Science in Engineering and those who mark it as one of their possible degrees of study on their application.


Given the word limit and subject matter, a strong approach to this essay is to perhaps begin with a short anecdote or a few sentences that interestingly convey to the reader your interest in engineering, and perhaps what ignited your curiosity.


After that, you should discuss practical experiences in the field and how they shaped your interests. When discussing your exposure to engineering, it can be easy to fall into the trap of simply going through your resume and listing experiences or activities. Instead, you should make sure that your discussion of your experiences with engineering have a cohesive flow to them, as opposed to simply being unlinked events in conjunction.


Finally, they give you a chance to speak to “why Princeton Engineering,” specifically, what programs, organizations, opportunities, classes, research projects, etc. pique your interest. This is a chance for you to convince the admissions committee and Engineering department that not only would you thrive in Princeton’s Engineering department and take advantage of their resources, but also that you would be an asset to the field.


This section of your essay can be enhanced by discussing opportunities that are highly specialized to your interests and experiences; perhaps there is a professor who is conducting research in a highly specific area that suits your interests. On the other hand, discussing very common engineering opportunities (such as the ACM club) could be detrimental to the entire essay, as it fails to demonstrate why Princeton, specifically, is a strong fit for you.


Overall, this is likely intended to be less of a creative essay, and more of a prompt designed to simply tell Princeton why you are particularly interested in engineering, and why Princeton’s departments are suited for these interests.


Hopefully, after reading this guide, you feel much more confident and prepared to craft a compelling supplemental application to Princeton University that will distinguish you from your peers.


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