Why This Princeton Supplement Essay Works
Working on your Princeton Supplements and thinking about this prompt? This article will talk strategy regarding brainstorming, writing, and fine-tuning a college essay centered around a quote. Read on to learn how you can effectively answer this prompt, and to see how CollegeVine coached another student through their essay.
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Prompt: Choose a quote that is important to you and discuss it.
Feeling like there’s not much to go off of? Well, you’d be right. This kind of prompt is essentially asking you to write about anything you want. That being said, it attempts to elicit and examine specific qualities that might not be present in a prompt literally asking students to write anything. Below, we’ll delve into some of the aptitudes this prompt works to assess.
Reading: extracting meaning from the quote.
No, not just the ability to understand words, letters, and symbols (you’re applying to Princeton after all)—we’re talking about real inference. Reading a quote means more than just parsing it. This prompt is asking you to start with a pithy, dense, seed of an idea, before growing it into an elegant and textured elaboration on itself. You’ll need to demonstrate that you can start with a basic piece of information and relate it (accurately) to the world at large. Quotes—forms of knowledge in general—reach out reflexively to the world around them. Your ability to articulate these interrelations, to think critically about a quote, will impact your ability to write a successful supplement.
Voice: balancing personal, professional, and analytic writing.
While you want to remain professional, this is an opportunity to demonstrate your own personal voice and creativity. Essays about quotes can take many forms, including more creative avenues such as dialogue-based writing. It’s important that you sound authentic and interesting. Remember, this isn’t a term paper. So, while you’ll want to analyze the quote at a high level (especially as you prepare to write) it’s important that you maintain a voice that is true to who you are. The prompt wants to know about your values, history, and ambitions, all through a quote. Making sure that your voice aligns with your meaning will be crucial here.
Originality: avoiding cliché in the essay and redundancy as an applicant.
Being original when writing about a quote might seem difficult at first, after all, you’re literally writing about what someone else said. Still, originality is of the upmost importance for prompts like these. It can be split up into two sections: the quote, and your reflection. Ideally, both of these are original but there are still good essays that use an aphorism and get away with it. As you search for a quote, make sure you don’t use anything entirely hackneyed like, “good things come to those who wait.” Not only does it show a lack of effort, but adcoms will likely be reading plenty of essays that use essentially the same idiom. Striking a balance between original and relevant can also be tricky. While you probably shouldn’t use a quote from the Gettysburg Address, you also shouldn’t dig into a 1968 newspaper to find an op-ed columnist’s reflections on the state of American scientific research. Walking the line between substantial and original will lead to a much better essay.
The Essay in question:
The following quotes are taken from a real student essay responding to this prompt. Our team have reviewed and edited this essay in cooperation with its author to come to the final version quoted here. The original version, along with our edits, will be available for download at the end of this post.
How does the final product relate to and demonstrate…
In this essay, the student focuses on the role of creativity in science by using a quote that helps to illustrate their point without just saying it outright. In fact, it implies just the opposite.
“Radio has no future. Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. X-rays will prove to be a hoax.”
I first came across this quote in Physics of the Impossible, a book by Michio Kaku: theoretical physicist, science educator, and one of my all-time favorite authors.
This essay is practically perfect in terms of its originality. The quote is far from cliché but still comes from a reputable and interesting source. Given that the quote is a foil to, rather than an affirmation of, the point that the student wants to make, we can be even more sure that it represents a unique premise for the essay. While adcoms might read several essays about the role of creativity in science, it’s probable that this quote will remain a unique choice. A less unique and impactful choice for this topic would be Einstein’s hackneyed quote on imagination: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”
Of course, originality is about more than the quote itself. Drawing convincing parallels between scientists and authors in order to make their point, the applicant is able to further differentiate their essay from the crowd. By leveraging their unique knowledge, using a quote balanced between obscurity and relevance, and finding a personal and unlikely angle, the author of this piece crafts an interesting and original piece that is sure to avoid the chronic redundancy that can hurt an application. Here is an example of a passage in which to author draws on a unique perspective — implicating a fiction writer in their discussion of science — to further their analysis.
How could a great mind like Kelvin – the father of absolute zero and the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable – predict with such certainty the failure of technologies that would succeed within his own lifetime?
Conversely, we have Jules Verne, a contemporary of the esteemed Lord Kelvin. Verne’s works of fiction, ranging from his famous Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea to his recently discovered Paris in the Twentieth Century, presented readers in the 1800s with incredible technologies – advanced submarines, helicopter-like flying machines, and space launchers that could reach the moon – that just so happen to exist today.
While this essay includes historical and critical analysis, it also does a good job of bringing in the applicant’s voice. Written in the first person, the essay focuses on discussing the quote in the context of the applicant’s life and values. By weaving in their own experiences and ideas with those present in the quote, the author is able to maintain an authentic and personal tone. This is accentuated by the genuine and casual humor in the essay. While jokes—if forced—can actually be detrimental to an essay, this is an example of jokes well-used. At the end of the piece, we’re left with an image of the author as curious, creative, data-driven, and full of wonder at the sheer possibilities of the world. Even though very little biographical information enters the essay, the author’s attention to voice makes it feel like we’ve really gotten to know them. Here are a couple instances in which the author maintains an authentic tone through humor and other devices.
In this section, the author creates a humorous atmosphere around a subject that might otherwise seem technical and cold.
From our vantage point in the 21st century, quotations like these are quite humorous. Which famous historical figure could possibly have been so shortsighted? That person, it turns out, was none other than Lord Kelvin, the eminent nineteenth-century physicist who was instrumental in formulating the laws of thermodynamics.
Here, the applicant leverages the power of the personal by discussing their subjective relationship with the quote rather than assessing it in a detached and objective way.
My passion for science – and beyond that, my love of dreaming about future technologies, from superconducting roadways to space elevators – was sparked the first time I cracked open Physics of the Impossible. As I read Lord Kelvin’s flawed assertion and Jules Verne’s astonishing forecasts, I learned something about science, scientists, and myself.
Finally, the applicant sums up their essay with this pithy, well-timed joke about why they want to attend Princeton.
Oh, and it also doesn’t hurt that Princeton has free laundry. Not even Verne could have predicted that!
Still, even with plenty of examples, voice can be tricky. One way to hone your supplement to be sure of your voice is to take a break from your writing for about a day. When you get back to it, pretend you’re editing for someone else. Try to write down a verbal portrait of the person who wrote the essay. Do they resemble you? Do they resemble what you want to communicate?
This essay is a great example of what we mean when we say that you need to demonstrate an ability to read into your quote. Beginning with the quote, the author goes on to do several important things. Firstly, they address the contemporary perception of the quote as shortsighted and ignorant. Next, they address the historical origin of the quote, relating it to Lord Kelvin and giving us context as to who that was and why the quote seems so ironic. Having established a solid contextual base, the author goes on to “read” the quote onto the state of contemporary science and onto his/her own aspirations. Reading the quote onto science, the author manages to make sound and lucid claims regarding the role of imagination in science. The applicant then goes on to explain how this quote and their subsequent reading of it represents the crux of their own scientific aspirations. Through their understanding of how the quote applies to situations beyond its immediate context, the author demonstrates the critical thinking skills that are crucial to a successful undergraduate career.
In this early section, the author explicitly contrasts the two perspectives in the essay, demonstrating an understanding of the implicit irony, as well as the socio-historical norms that surround these figures.
Kelvin, the most respected scientist of his day, failed to envision the technological revolution that would take root in just a few years; yet Verne, a lay writer, uncannily presaged a world a century away in his writings.
Later in the essay — after establishing their original perspective and accurately reading the irony of the situation — the author reads the quote onto the state of contemporary science. This is the analytical crux of the essay and is written with power and concision.
Science is not all details and numbers on a spreadsheet. These are undoubtedly important, the skeleton of research and invention; discoveries would be impossible without painstaking observation and experimentation. Yet science is also imagination. Wonder. Vision. These are the vital organs that fill out the skeleton, that make progress possible. Without imagination, the details and data could never coalesce into a clear picture.
What else does this piece do well?
Beyond the three core aptitudes that we discussed above, what makes this essay so special? One important component of this piece is its texture. A supplemental essay like this one gains texture through an effective balance of sources, analysis, and personal writing. The author never lingers too long on any one thought or example and focuses a lot on the connective tissue between their ideas. The specificity of their examples is paramount to their role in giving this essay texture.
Mentioning Princeton is also a nice touch in this piece. By bringing Princeton into focus after constructing a convincing and immersive essay, the reader is immediately prompted to imagine the applicant in the context of a science program at Princeton. That being said, talking too much about a specific school or program can detract from the essay’s ability to give the adcoms a sense of who you really are.
Related to voice, this essay is also a good example of clean and clear writing. By using a variety of sentence lengths, the author creates rhythm in the piece—helping the audience to flow along in their reading. The author also varies their use of stylistic devices, making sure to limit their reliance on adjectives, imagery, etc., so as to maintain their force when they are used.
Want more insight?
Seeing the process of an essay’s growth and perfection can be useful in writing your own essay. The original version of this essay, along with our edits and higher-level notes, can be found in a download here.
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