How to Write the Princeton University Essays 2020-2021
We’re technically supposed to write an introduction, but does Princeton really need one? Since it received its charter from King George II “for the instruction of youth in the learned languages… liberal arts, and sciences” in 1746, Princeton University has been one of leading research institutions in the U.S. and in the world. Princeton maintains very small undergrad numbers (last year, it enrolled around 1,300 incoming freshmen in the Class of 2023) and tiny class sizes.
With an acceptance rate of 5% that shrinks more ominously every year, Princeton is highly discerning in its admissions, and its committees consider not just grades and test scores, but the caliber of prose and thought demonstrated in the applications essays. In order to stand out from a sea of other applicants, a student’s personal statements should exude as much thoroughness and eloquence as possible. In this article, we’ll provide some tips for brainstorming and honing your Princeton Supplementals to burnish your strengths as a candidate and blow your readers away.
(Pst. You may also be interested in some of our other resources too. For example, want to know your chances at Princeton? Calculate your chances for free right now.
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Princeton University Supplemental Essay Prompts
Find a targeted story or angle. The first thing you should notice about this prompt is its length. 150 words is perilously short space to describe a pastime that is vital to your story. As a result, you need to formulate a precise approach that allows you to convey maximum emotion, personal voice, and detail in a few paragraphs. (For your probably terrified reference, this paragraph already has been 75 words, or half your limit.)
Centralize the word “meaningful,” and the word “you.” Interrogating what these words can mean is crucial to answering the prompt in the thoughtful way Princeton is looking for. You can brainstorm using a chart:
|Pastime / job / activity||Meaning||You|
|Values it teaches||-Societal impact of those values
-Are they values of which the world needs more?
|-How these values mean something unique to you
-How these values connect you to a community
-How you’ve applied these values in other areas of life
-How did you change as a person, A –> B?
|Concrete skills it teaches||-What emotion do you get out of performing these tasks? Fun? Concentration? Laughter?||-What those skills have enabled you to accomplish?
-How are you prepared for further challenges in life?
You don’t need to answer all of these; these are ideas to aid you when you’re coming up with the “meaning” of your activities.
Prioritize your beginning. What’s vital in such a short time span is that you don’t waste any time getting to the thrilling parts. You really don’t need to start with explanations, like “it was the summer before junior year” or “my high school offers a series of shop classes in the lower wing.” Instead, cut straight to some sort of action, and plunge your reader into an engaging first-person perspective. Here are some ideas to get started:
1. Start with your lowest point. Devastation and failure are always good emotional hooks, because we’ve all experienced them. That’s why so many sports movies start with the protagonist falling on their face: a person who has to overcome doubt and hopelessness is always more interesting than a person who simply excels without obstacle.
Example: “Sweat. Must. Dirt. These things became my world as my face crushed down onto the mat. I struggled to break loose, but it was useless – I was pinned.”
This writing is immersive and leaves us nowhere to go but up.
2. Start with your highest point. When we get really into our hobbies, most of us attain a state of flow, or even euphoria. This would be a tremendous lead-off for an exhilarating sport, like snowboarding or dancing, or a pastime that soothes you and makes you blissful. There’s a reason Chariots of Fire’s opening sequence – runners splashing in slow motion through ocean water with triumphant music – is so iconic and memorable. It perfectly conveys the natural high of doing what you love, and it unites us with the characters by involving us in their happiness.
3. Describe a snapshot. We humans have a natural curiosity about frozen images, so vignette (literally, “a scene composed of a single moment”) is a good tool to use when opening an essay. Your vignette could be a real picture of you doing your activity, or you could imagine one. First, you could talk about the physical elements of the picture – who’s in it, where it takes place – and then you could describe the emotional contents of the scene. For example:
“As the little girl manipulates her pinch pot, her grandma’s hands are steady over hers. The camera flash illuminates those hands – wrinkled, but strong from years of wrestling with clay. The girl smiles, with all five of her teeth.”
This approach works well if you have a unique photo, or a photo with a beloved mentor. It also might work well in describing a piece of your own art, or a historical image. The sky’s really the limit here.
4. Deconstruct a stereotype of your pastime. This is a good way to come out swinging, and with a chip on your shoulder. For example, people might have told you that your interest was boring, or “not what they would have expected” from you. Bonus points if you revisit this stereotype at the end just to drive home the point that you know better.
5. Explain a shibboleth. A bold way to open your essay is by starting with a phrase or statement that your reader will not understand without your ensuing guidance. (A shibboleth, I should add, is a kind of “tell” that designates the boundaries of a community. Shibbolim take many forms: jargon, quotes, terms, or references.) Maybe your team had a phrase or inside joke that made sense to you, but would be impenetrable to an outsider. For example:
“I. Hate. Deadheads.
Wait, don’t go! If you’re a fan of Grateful Dead, I don’t mean you. I just mean I’m a gardener, and “deadheads” is the name for one of our worst adversaries: the browning, dessicated flowers that give way to seed and have to be sliced off to keep an annual in bloom.”
This can be a great introduction if your pastime involves an influential mentor who used a signature phrase or maxim: teachers, coaches, authors, parents, etc. all have their own shibboleths for their audiences. Maybe your teacher invented a useful or funny mnemonic or nickname. These can be great personal gems around which to discuss your sport, club, or community. Bonus points if you repeat your shibboleth, in its illuminated glory, at the end.
6. Use a bit of poetry. This is great for a topic that might seem technical or bewildering to outsiders. For example, The Right Stuff famously begins by describing the aerophysics behind why planes until 1947 couldn’t break the sound barrier: the planes could not withstand the drag of travelling through the airmass at such high speeds. But does The Right Stuff use those words? Absolutely not. The movie begins instead using a cosmic, folkloric register: “There was a demon that lived in the air…. They said whoever challenged him would die.” A line like this is guaranteed to hook your audience, whether they care about the intricacies of your field or not.
Maintain the contours of a story, A → B. By this, we just mean that your pastime should convey a sense of personal development and maturation. This can be done in a sentence or two, and don’t worry about drawing it out too much – Princeton isn’t expecting a whole bildungsroman.
For example: “As counterintuitive as it sounds, a year spent reading Stephen King made me a less horrific person. I’m more thoughtful, have more patience, and have realized that all my neighbors – even the most noxious cats and cars – have their own strange knowledge to teach me.”
That was 45 words, so it’s a conclusion that leaves enough space for a few preceding paragraphs.
Don’t mistake awards for personal development. Because it’s Princeton, you might feel tempted to list all your titles, achievements, accolades, etc. to prove you’re worthy of admission. But doing so unthinkingly is a fatal mistake that you should never make. For one thing, there’s a good chance that you’ll just be repeating your resume, which is a waste of your time and your precious word count. Additionally, it’s an easy way to lose your reader – the tone might sound off, it might come across as bragging, and (if you’re like most people) rattling off a list of awards isn’t something you’d actually do in conversation. Can you imagine? “I attended NJHS general meetings biweekly, in addition to officers’ meetings every Thursday after school, and co-chaired a subcommittee on our annual PADS benefit dance.” Ugh. NJHS might be an important community cause in which the speaker was passionately involved, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way from the writing. Our brains aren’t wired to have any actual response to language like this.
Instead, you need to focus on the emotional meaning behind the achievements you mention. For example, how much work, how many early mornings, how many rainy practices, did it take you to go from a freshman on the bench to making it to state your senior year? These details will make your nominal awards seem like tangible payoff rather than text. Call it the Lord of the Rings rule: colleges would rather admit the Frodo Baggins who spends three books walking on foot across Middle-earth than the Frodo who simply rides the Eagles into Mordor in a day.
How to make it seem longer?
There are a few hacks you can use to make the 150 words you have seem a lot longer and more developed. That way, if you want to write about a longer time span, your final product will seem less rushed.
- Frequent indentations and shorter paragraphs. Creating a lot of white space will help your essay register as longer, visually (for proof of this, see any of James Patterson’s books). Dialogue, since it requires frequent indents, is also great for stretching out your space.
- Lists. If you want to show a progress of time, feel free to list out experiences, actions you performed, or things you learned. This compilation of literary lists shows how lists can take you on a journey even in a short space.
- Consider chapters. “Chapters?!” you may think. “With only 150 words?!” Yes. Chapters take up space visually, and they also communicate a sense of covered ground. There’s a reason Portia Nelson’s poem Autobiography in Five Short Chapters is so famous and effective: while it clocks in at only 140 words and takes about 30 seconds to read, it conveys a sense of real development, suspense, and progress. Check it out for a really great way to organize a very short essay.
Now, onto the next prompts, where you have a little bit more space…
While it can be tempting to simply retell the events of the story, remember that it is equally as important to talk in detail about the specific insight that you gained. We can break down this prompt into three key elements:
These are the integral parts of the essay that you absolutely cannot do without, but within them there’s a lot of freedom. For instance, you can approach your essay using any one of these elements as an entry point. You can think of your future intentions, then backtrack and identify an event that catalyzed your current understanding. Alternatively, you can think of a vivid event, and then discuss your acquired insight and goals.
Make sure you choose drama. We disagree with others all the time, but not all of these conversations have high stakes or dynamism. You should choose an event that was challenging and emotional for you, and most of all, transformative to you. I.e. a debate in which you “owned” your opponent isn’t really that interesting to read about. Consider scenarios with more situational drama:
1. A conversation that challenged a stereotype you held
2. A conversation that disillusioned you about the world or challenged your innocence
3. A debate in which you had to argue a different side than you usually do
4. A conversation with someone close to you who revealed a belief, in which case you could no longer dismiss people who held said beliefs as faraway enemies
5. “The Neville Longbottom” – a time you confronted your friends or family
6. A debate for which you were underprepared
7. A conversation with someone you wouldn’t usually talk to
8. A time you stood up to someone more powerful, or a time in which someone less powerful stood up to you
9. A conversation that encouraged you to do research
10. A conversation where you had to defuse anger and conflict
11. A debate that actually turned into a productive discussion
12. A conversation that taught you about good techniques for engaging others
And remember – the prompt asks for a conversation about a “difficult issues,” so it needs to be a conversation that was fairly radioactive at the time and connected to a deeper political, social, or moral tension. For example, we can look at the first few sentences of Charlotte’s Web for a passage that plunges us headlong into a heavy moral debate while also hitting on some above points of situational drama: Fern confronts her family (4), has her innocence broken (2), and has to stand up to someone more powerful (7).
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern…
“Well,” said her mother, “one of the pigs is a runt. It’s very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it.”
“Do away with it?” shrieked Fern. “You mean kill it? Just because it’s smaller than the others?”…Fern pushed a chair out of the way and ran outdoors.
In addition to being a perfect opening to a book, this would also make a great introduction for an essay in which Fern describes a conversation that challenged her apathy towards animal rights and set her in opposition to her father. Notice how the tension and drama make it almost impossible to stop reading? That’s the kind of high stakes and immediate emotion you should aim for when describing your conversation or incident.
Format. Going off the three main components (conversation → ideas → future goals) mentioned above, you can actually structure your essay in any order you choose. A good, reliable format would be to open in medias res with the action of the conversation, then broaden your focus to include your ideas and goals. The Charlotte’s Web passage you just read is a good example of an in medias res hook that places the inciting action first. However, you can also open with your goals, then take your reader back in time to explain how the conversation affected them.
Ex. “I want – no, need – to be a city planner. Since I was little, I’ve always wished that I could fly above my town and gaze down at the flow of traffic, the interplay of streets and parks, the habitual paths of pedestrians. For a while, I considered my interest in urban engineering as aesthetic: I liked to tinker and make beautiful towns, like the omniscient player of a game. But it wasn’t until high school that I was confronted with the idea that urban design concerned purely with aesthetics wasn’t innocent – in fact, it could be downright deadly to disadvantaged neighborhoods.”
This example would be a good start to an essay, because it hits on the author’s career goals, briefly summarizes the ideological conflict, and leaves you hanging with suspense – what made the author change his mind? How did it happen? It also paints a clear picture of the author at “point A,” so the rest of the essay can focus on “point B” and the changed opinion.
Hidden prompt alert! It’s easy to lose track of the first two words: “At Princeton,” especially since it’s part of a declarative sentence that doesn’t really end up being a question or prompt. But that doesn’t mean that it serves no purpose. Instead, a good rule of thumb for essay prompts that open with a statement is to treat that statement as a tone-setter and peripheral – but still required – concern.
Without stating so explicitly, this prompt wants to get you thinking about your life, ethics, and priorities at college – that’s why it says “at Princeton.” The actual prompt says “future,” but this preface really indicates that your focus should be on undergrad. While you don’t have to talk about yourself as a Student at Princeton doing Certain Things at Certain Clubs while Taking Certain Classes (that might sound a bit overbearing), you should definitely gesture towards your immediate goals for the next four years. If possible, tie the issue at hand to a discipline you plan to pursue in college. For example:
“As I major in mathematics, I’ll do so with a renewed appreciation for the women who came before me in the field – and a commitment to uplift and mentor my fellow women. I know that volunteering to tutor, getting involved in pre-professional organizations, and simply being there as an understanding friend can give us the power of belonging, no matter how infinitesimal we feel.”
This passage answers the secret prompt appropriately because it anticipates a collegiate environment specifically and mentions specific aspirations for the narrator’s next four years. It signals to readers what kind of person they can expect “at Princeton” – while tactfully not naming names and to their implied question with a subtle answer.
Beware self-flagellation. Because you’re writing about a conversation that challenged your worldview, it’s natural to write about a moment that made you aware of a certain privilege. This is fine, but take care not to be overwrought in describing your shock or sadness or how bad you felt for someone else. Focusing on your own guilt or pity puts you at risk of flattening the issues or people you’re talking about: these are internal, you-focused emotions, while the real subject of the essay should be the issue and the conversation in all its complexity. More important than your personal cataclysm is showing that you’re the kind of person who’s willing to think soundly, research more, and set up a plan of action. Don’t just focus on your inner feelings and shattered blissful ignorance – identify the new initiative you’re part of and show that you’ve made good on your intentions.
Keep in mind that the key word is “story”: this prompt is not an invitation to list all of your achievements in community service as you will on your resume. Rather, Princeton is asking for a deeply-held part of your identity from which you’re motivated to perform civic engagement and service. We’ll cover some specific points below, but we also have a detailed blog post on writing service essays that you’ll find useful as well.
Also note that this prompt is a bit more Princeton-focused, so devote about 30-40% of your writing to specific programs at Princeton that align with your interests. We always recommend spending a good hour snooping around a college website, clicking through links, and looking at the different clubs, classes, programs, institutes, and communities.
The trusty T-chart can be of good help again while you brainstorm:
|Ex. “decreasing partisanship is good for democracy,” “personal mentorship can help students learn material more effectively”||-How I became aware of my ideal
-Cultural factors that influence my ideals
-Important people who influenced my ideals
-How I know my ideal is on the right track
-Why the world needs this philosophy right now
|-Princeton’s cultural missions and history of practicing this ideal
-How Princeton’s programs and their successes prove this ideal is on the right track
|Specific actions and involvements||-Work I did to realize this ideal in my own community
-Effects of my work on my own community
-Organizations or relationships I was part of
|-Natural “next steps” at Princeton: clubs, service fraternities, institutes, etc.
-Effects of these programs that inspire me
Focus on one interest or concern. Here, less is more – focusing on one key experience or aspect of your identity shows more thought and effort than copypasting several experiences. And for this prompt, it’s most effective to focus on the service work about which you can write the most and relate the most. For instance, a literature student might help make sandwiches for charity every month, but she probably has a more immediate connection with being a weekly reader and Bible study leader at her church.
Don’t turn your brain on autopilot or regurgitate the prompt. This prompt uses a lot of “admissions-speak,” which should serve as a signposts to direct you, not suggested wording to include in your response. “Intersect,” for example, has become an important – but increasingly mechanistic – buzzword in recent years. Try to avoid repeating it, and instead opt for words with more emotional resonance: “find a home [at Princeton],” “delve into the research [at Princeton],” etc. The same goes with “service” and “civic engagement” – repeat them too much and you’ll start to sound like you’re using the prompt as a crutch. Besides, there are more vivid words for the harvesting.
As always, be specific. Pick not just a broad issue (“helping the homeless”), but a subset of the issue that actually seems manageable (“making sure that the homeless have access to Internet and library services”). From there, look for potential classes offered at Princeton, and student organizations involved in similar missions. It may be worth citing current student activism projects you find on Princeton’s website, and discuss how those same opportunities would allow you to apply your skills in the best-fit way.
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Your GPA and SAT don’t tell the full admissions story
Our chancing engine factors in extracurricular activities, demographic, and other holistic details. We’ll let you know what your chances are at your dream schools — and how to improve your chances!Calculate your acceptance chances
“There are no right or wrong answers.” (Alexa, play “Why You Always Lying?”)
There is a wrong answer, and it’s a category: “boring.” In fact, the more unique and genuine your answer is, the more that you can break away as a contender. And because you have such a short word limit, you can even add a little mystery. And this is the right place, too – it’s the end of your application, and a thought-provoking or fascinating answer will just remind your reader that We have to interview this applicant to find out more.
For example, a lackluster answer to the “soundtrack” question might be sensible and logical, but flat: “Since I’ve been stuck in quarantine, ‘Circles’ by Post Malone summarizes my repetitive experience.” I mean, it’s passable as small talk. But it’s self-contained and doesn’t elicit any curiosity.
A better answer will entertain, provoke a chuckle, frighten, intrigue – pick a verb you want your reader to have. Recontextualize a song. Pick a weird one. Send your reader to YouTube to look it up. For example, “Early in his career, David Bowie wrote a song about being stalked by a magical gnome. It is friendly, but harasses Bowie. Does it come in goodness, or in evil? It is, like both, inescapable. Its voice plays in my dreams. I fear gnomes now.” The weirdness there commands attention.
You can also demonstrate uniqueness by redefining or recontextualizing a word in the prompt. For example, you could write about a niche type of joy, like schadenfreude (well, maybe not), fear/excitement, or watching fire. You could redefine “song” to include birdsong, or the sound of a favorite coffee shop.
A word on the “skill” question: it may be helpful to address a shortcoming or skills gap, then cite the skill and how it will improve your life. Doing so can prove that you’re not going for pure quirkiness or trying, superficially, to be a Manic Pixie Dream Freshman. For example, “juggling!!!” itself might seem a little vacuous, but can be easily deepened by expansion: “juggling as part of the team would help me overcome my fear of performing and presenting in front of crowds.”
Overall, use these “More About You” questions to showcase another part of your story, personality, or character that you didn’t have the chance to showcase before. When answering this prompt, it can also be helpful to astral-project yourself into another student or who’s assessing you as a potential friend. Look over your answers: would you want to grab lunch or share a dorm with the person who’s written them? Would you be inspired to befriend the engineering major who answers the first “More About You” Question with yet another example of her love of engineering? Or would you choose the engineering major who answers the same question with her love for candlemaking and Dolly Parton? The main point is that answering these prompts successfully takes a degree of self-awareness and quirkiness.
While we generally recommend that students answer “optional” prompts, you can actually forego this essay if nothing stands out to you. After all, you have similar Additional Information space in the Common App, which Princeton will see.
That said, if you weren’t able to fully address unusual circumstances or qualifications in the Common App Additional Information section, this prompt is for you! Princeton allows you to upload a document with no specified length requirements, allowing you to go more in-depth (though try to cap it at 500 words, as admissions officers have a ton of applications to read).
You could provide more detail for circumstances already mentioned, or bring up an entirely new situation/qualification. Just make sure your situation is actually significant to your personal development. Appropriate topics include, but aren’t limited to:
- Family responsibilities
- Unusual extracurriculars (especially self-driven projects)
The goal of this prompt is to allow you to address anything that fell through the cracks, so if there’s nothing you want to add, no to need force it.
This essay is only required for those who have indicated an interest in pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Engineering on their applications.
The key here is to be specific; an implicit aspect of this question is “why Princeton engineering? What makes Princeton’s engineering program different from other programs? Why would this be a better fit for you? Rather than vaguely discussing the reasons why Princeton’s engineering program is something you desire, include specific classes and appeal to the philosophy of an engineering education. For instance, if there’s a particular class that interests you, don’t be afraid to directly mention it and connect the class back to your overall interests in engineering.
Extracurricular programs are another area you should definitely mention. If you’re passionate about sustainability, you could mention an interest in Princeton’s Engineers Without Borders and comment on how you will use your membership to promote sustainable engineering. If you enjoy working with kids, perhaps Princeton Engineering Education for Kids is more appealing. No matter your interests, be sure to mention a club or organization that could allow you to pursue these interests outside of the classroom.
If you have a preferred area of specialization, such as bioengineering or chemical engineering, it would be great if you’re able to tie this back to your current passions or activities. Maybe you are already involved in an organization at your current school that deals with these more specialized areas of engineering. If so, make sure to emphasize this, as this would allow your passion to shine through and show previous relevant experience.
Be warned, however, that listing all your engineering related activities can make your essay sound like a resume. Rather than simply providing a list, connect each activity to each other in order to construct a more cohesive essay. Make sure that any change in topics flow smoothly from one to the next to avoid transforming your essay into a laundry list of your achievements.
Another direction that you could take when discussing previous engineering experience is to discuss your state of mind when partaking in these activities. Perhaps working on complex engineering problems gets your adrenaline pumping or perhaps you find it quite therapeutic and relaxing. It’s always a good idea to show the admissions officers how you feel when partaking in subjects you’re passionate about.
As always, remember to show Princeton another piece of yourself by highlighting your passions, interests, and goals and connecting these back to Princeton’s academic environment.
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