How to Write the Princeton University Supplemental Essays 2019-2020

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Princeton University, situated in the small and charming city of Princeton, New Jersey, is often regarded as one of the world’s most prestigious universities. Consistently ranked at #1 by the U.S. News undergraduate college rankings, it is no secret that Princeton exudes academic excellence and offers students a top-tier education.


With only 1,895 students being offered admission out of an applicant pool of 32,804, Princeton’s acceptance rate for the class of 2023 comes in at 5.8%. While many of these admitted students undoubtedly had strong academic and extracurricular profiles, the supplemental essays play an equally important role in gaining admission.


Although it might initially seem daunting to try to stand out among tens of thousands of applicants, CollegeVine is here to help and offer advice on how to tackle the application. Here is our guide on how to approach Princeton University’s 2019-2020 supplemental essays. Want to know your chances at Princeton? Calculate your chances for free right now.


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The Princeton University Supplemental Essay Prompts 2019-2020

Prompt 1: Activities: Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences that was particularly meaningful to you. (Response required in about 150 words)

Upon initially reading the prompt, it might seem difficult to articulate a thorough response in only 150 words. However, when used to its fullest potential, 150 words is just enough to show the admissions committee an activity you’re passionate about without being overly verbose.


One approach you could take when brainstorming this prompt is to construct a brief anecdote. If you were, for instance, an active member of the debate team, you could craft a story of an impactful debate tournament. Perhaps you could put the reader in your perspective by making it appear as if reader were physically there when the tournament occurred.


Avoid using all 150 words to simply summarize the extracurricular or work experience, as this does not highlight the impact this experience had on you. Remember, the prompt asks for something that was particularly meaningful; make sure to demonstrate this, whether it be describing its cultural impact, emotional significance, or any other relevant attribute.


Still, it’s understandably difficult to be vivid while remaining within the word limit. Here is an example of a student who took advantage of the limited word count by crafting a concise, yet detailed opening sentence:

“My school’s newspaper and I have a typical love-hate relationship; some days I want nothing more than to pass two hours writing and formatting articles, while on others the mere thought of student journalism makes me shiver.”

This is a very strong opening because the student successfully introduces the topic while also appealing to the reader’s senses. The student maximizes the limited space by carefully choosing words that are both meaningful, yet clear.


When choosing a topic, it may be stronger to pick an activity that contrasts with your chosen major in order to round out your profile. While choosing something related to your major will not automatically hurt your application, it’s always best to illuminate parts of your personality that may not have been highlighted elsewhere on your application.

Prompt 2: Summers: Please tell us how you have spent the last two summers (or vacations between school years), including any jobs you have held. (Response required in about 150 words)

Like the previous question, this is another another brief essay. Similarly, you should try to avoid verbosity and instead try to frame your answer in a direct and concise manner while fully answering the question.


When answering this question, a possible approach is to discuss the lessons that you learned during these two summers through an extracurricular or work experience. If you choose this approach, however, make sure you don’t repeat what you wrote in the previous question.


Perhaps a job you held changed your view on an important attribute in your life or afforded you a valuable skill you previously didn’t possess. Or perhaps you spent your second summer caring for an aging relative and hearing your relative’s stories changed your emotional outlook on life. Here, you could indicate how your second summer opened your eyes in ways that the first summer did not.


Since all this is easier said than done, here is an excerpt from a strong essay:

“Before junior year, I spent several days shadowing Pennsylvania State Senator Nick Micozzie in his community office, observing meetings, making calls, listening to his advice, and realizing that, beyond writing, I’d also developed a powerful pull toward politics. Then, last summer, I spent an incredible week at Susquehanna University’s Advanced Writers Workshop, where I passed one day conquering homesickness and six more drafting, refining, and finally publicly reading a short story.”

This student does an excellent job of compacting an extraordinary amount of detail into two sentences without overwhelming the reader. The student details the roles assumed during these two summers and briefly discusses a new learned passion (a powerful pull towards politics).


No matter what topic you choose, avoid exaggerating your experiences, as this could come off as if your essay is trying too hard to be different or creative. Make your writing feel natural!

Prompt 3: 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

Here we have what could be both the simplest but most stress-inducing questions. Since these questions are so short, many applicants are caught up with choosing the perfect word or series of words to answer the questions. However, there is no perfect response, as the admissions committee simply wants to get a better feel of who you are; these questions are meant to be casual. No need to overthink it!


With that being said, however, keep in mind that your answers should be appropriate. For instance, if your favorite movie is something like Fifty Shade of Grey, perhaps that is better left unsaid. Avoid writing something offensive exercise good judgement.


Some applicants may feel a need to include “academic” answers in an attempt to demonstrate intelligence or academic vigor. However, this is not necessary unless your favorites are, in fact, academic, since admissions officers can already see your academic excellence elsewhere in your profile. For example, if your favorite book isn’t Aristotle’s Politics, then there’s no reason to pretend that it is.


Overall, the admissions committee simply wants to get a better sense of the unique parts of your personality, so your answers to these rapid-fire questions won’t make or break your application. Just be yourself!

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Prompt 4: 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.

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

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 This quote is taken from Professor Wasow’s January 2014 speech at the Martin Luther King Day celebration at Princeton University.

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.

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.

Before diving in, pay extra attention to this prompt, as it specifies an essay independent from your Common Application or Universal College Application essay. Avoid repeating the same topic, as this won’t highlight anything new in your application. With so many options, however, you should have a variety of ways to approach this essay.

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

If you have a specific person in mind that has personally influenced you or left a significant impact on your life, then this may be the perfect prompt for you. However, there are still some caveats to this prompt, as there are some topics that can be a little overdone or less-than-ideal.


Upon reading the prompt, many students immediately think of a family member, whether it be a sibling, mother, father, or grandparent. While there is nothing inherently wrong with choosing a family member, these essays can often appear cliche.


A more powerful way of approaching this topic would be to write about a scenario in which you disagreed with your chosen family member in some way. This could be someone holding you back, working against you, or challenging your ideals.


However, when choosing this approach, make sure to not turn your essay into a rant about the individual or appear overly-critical and negative. This can distract from the significance of the experience. Make sure to still be charitable to the person you disagree with, as this will create a much more powerful narrative.


For example, if you and a parent disagree on your career choice, you could highlight that you acknowledge their perspective even in your disagreement. Maybe your parents pressured you into going into medicine, but your true passion lies in social work. Although both express similar goals (helping others), your parents come from an economically-insecure, immigrant background and only want you to achieve financial security. Here, you understand your parents’ position, but continue to express a different perspective. Of course, you would want to elaborate upon this more by demonstrating its significance and influence.


Another approach to this prompt would be to discuss a peer. A positive scenario could perhaps be a friend who helped you overcome a major struggle in you life such as an insecurity, loss, or fear. Maybe your best friend was the person who was able to recuperate you from a tragic loss of a childhood pet. Or a friend helped you overcome the physical struggles that accompanied a sudden injury. Either way, be sure to emphasize the role that peer played during the interaction and highlight the reasons why it was significant.


If you describe a negative scenario with a peer, you could discuss about how an individual negatively impacted your mental health. Perhaps you experienced bullying and you want to discuss the impact this had on your educational experiences. Or perhaps you want to discuss how overcoming this initially damaging behavior allowed you to develop newfound strength, courage, and confidence.


With that being said, keep in mind what the prompt is asking. While not explicit, it is stronger to write about someone who personally impacted you. Many students may choose someone such as Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg in order to highlight how these individuals impacted their passion for technology or entrepreneurship. However, unless you have personally interacted with these public figures, your essay will not be as personal. Writing about such individuals will not ruin your application, but be mindful of the personal aspect to the essay.

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 This quote is taken from Professor Wasow’s January 2014 speech at the Martin Luther King Day celebration at Princeton University.

If there’s a social or political issue that you’re passionate about or if you have personally fallen victim to one of these disparities, then this is a perfect prompt to explore your ideas on the subject. Upon first reading the prompt, it might seem a little daunting since it’s expressed as a quote instead of a clear-cut question. Although the prompt might seem a little broad, this allows you to incorporate more creativity and more variety when brainstorming topics.


One approach you could take when writing this prompt is to choose a political, social, or moral issue and analyze it by detailing its causes and suggesting possible solutions. Perhaps you are extremely passionate about the Me Too Movement and want to analyze the causes and implications. Or maybe you have thoughts about gender equality and want to show how this disparity constitutes a large part of who you are today. Here, the possibilities are endless.


With that being said, however, don’t forget that this is a personal essay and not an analytical paper. While it’s perfectly fine to analyze the disparity, make sure this doesn’t take up your whole essay. Instead devote space to discussing how your chosen disparity impacts you and specifically why it is important/relevant to you.


If you don’t feel particularly passionate about any specific political, social, or moral issue, another approach is to personalize the topic and discuss something specific to your experiences. If you have struggled with anxiety or depression, a strong essay could analyze the impact this had on you and how it has shaped your life today. If you are on the ADHD spectrum, you could highlight the effects this attribute has had on your education or lifestyle, and how you manage any challenges.


Another strong way to approach this prompt is to reflect on the privileges that you notice in your life. With this, however, it’s best to choose something more subtle and unique rather than discussing the more commonly perceived privileges of being white, male, or wealthy. For instance, if you have a particular skill or quality that somehow affords you a privilege that others may not have, this would be a great place to discuss that. Perhaps you are lucky to have a particular group of friends that keeps you humble and grounded. Or perhaps you are lucky to have a specific talent that many others may not necessarily have.


A creative way to execute the previous approach is to discuss how your life would be had you not had that privilege. What would have happened if you did not have the same group of friends you do now? How would your life be different?


Note: 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.


Whichever topic or approach you choose, make sure to include a personal element into the essay, as this will make your writing much stronger and impactful. Remember, Princeton wants to know more about you, so make sure to let your personality shine through.

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.

Like the previous prompt, this essay offers a great range of variety, as it is up to you to interpret what the quote means. Often, students immediately think of their heritage or ethnic background, especially if part of an immigrant family. While this is a good start and can definitely still produce strong essays, these are often overdone.


Another way to discuss culture is to analyze your experiences with a culture different from your own. Perhaps interacting with those of another culture taught you a valuable lesson on acceptance and broadening your worldviews.


For a more unique approach, you could instead interpret the word “culture” outside of its traditional usage. For example, you could talk about the culture (essentially the overall environment) at your school and how that has impacted your educational experience. Perhaps your school culture held you back in some way and challenged you by confronting you with adversity. Or perhaps it positively influenced you by introducing you to academic and extracurricular opportunities you wouldn’t have had otherwise. Either way, analyze both the negatives and positives, if applicable, to your experiences and tie in your personal experiences to craft a thorough narrative.


Culture can also apply to your strongest passion; you can discuss the culture surrounding this passion in a similar fashion as the previous example. If you’re an avid female gamer, for example, you could analyze the gaming community culture and the lack of female representation in League of Legends. By critiquing the misogyny, lack of access, and overall unwelcoming attitudes, you could show honesty while also offering solutions to these issues. By critiquing and suggesting possible changes over time, you demonstrate your awareness of modern issues while also highlighting a culture important to your individuality.


Ultimately, there are endless ways to interpret culture beyond those mentioned in this guide. Most importantly, no matter the subject, remember to unearth the value of your culture and the role that it has played or continues to play.

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 arguably the most open-ended out of the four, since Princeton is essentially giving you the freedom to write about any topic you please. As long as your chosen quote reflects your values in some way or has changed them, then you are free to choose anything.


The essay or book you choose can definitely be academic, as this would help highlight your passion towards that subject and how this passion has impacted your worldview. If, for instance, you have read an eye-opening research essay on biotechnology, you could analyze the uniqueness of the topic and discuss how it has changed your perspective of the world. Perhaps it has taught you the value of slowing down in the midst of a technological revolution. Or perhaps it has done the opposite by strengthening your appreciation for technology and motivating you to pursue similar research.


In this case, political essays are a little tough to execute, but they can still definitely be done well. For example, if you live in a state or country where people of your background face prejudice or discrimination as a result of a prevailing political attitude, you could reflect on how that has challenged your empathy towards people who support a government that condones such discriminatory actions. A quote from any book or essay that relates to topics of prejudice, political turmoil, or even immigration would work well in this case.


Even with the plethora of options for this prompt, however, try to avoid cliche quotes such as “be the change you want to see in the world” or “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” These sayings have been used way too frequently and you’ll benefit from choosing something more unique that relates more personally to your life.


To demonstrate an excellent usage of a unique quote, one student cited the quote “You cannot be lonely if you like the person you’re alone withfrom Wayne Dyer’s The Power of Intention. Here is an excerpt from this student’s essay that successfully drew a powerful conclusion:

“After sliding around in the snow for a while, I went on the swing set and saw how far I could launch myself off the swing into the white powder, and to this day, I can vividly remember how much fun I had. I didn’t feel any qualms about being alone, and I didn’t experience any awkwardness or embarrassment when people asked about what I did over the break upon returning to school. Without that sense of independence, I probably would have stayed at home wasting my day with monotonous activities. Instead, I wasn’t afraid to go outside to play in the snow alone, free of insecurity, and create a memory I can still fondly recollect.

By spending time by myself, I’ve learned to like the person I’m always alone with. Even though I may not always be surrounded by others, through the internal strength I gain with this self-appreciation and independence, I will never be lonely.”

The overall conclusion is quite unique as the student interprets a quote on loneliness as a means to encourage self-love and independence. The student does an excellent job of making the topic extremely personal by crafting a narrative on individual strength, telling a story of playing alone in the snow and showing what lesson was learned from this experience. It is clear that the quote has a powerful meaning and connection to the student’s personal growth.

Prompt 5: 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 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.


Hopefully, reading this guide has allowed you to approach Princeton’s supplemental essays with the utmost confidence, making you all the more excited to become a potential Tiger. Happy writing!


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