CollegeVine College Essay Team 11 min read Essay Breakdowns

6 Stellar Princeton University Essay Examples

Princeton University is consistently ranked the #1 college in the nation, and is world-renowned for its quality of education. Admissions is extremely selective, with an acceptance rate of 5%. Since most applicants will have a strong academic profile, writing interesting and engaging essays is essential to standing out. Princeton requires three essays and a few short answers for all applicants, plus the submission of a graded paper. Engineering applicants have another essay.

 

In this post, we’ll go over one of Princeton’s former supplemental essay prompts and what admissions officers are looking for. Then, we’ll share an essay from a real applicant, analyzing what they did well, and what they could’ve improved. You’ll also have the opportunity to download more Princeton example essays.

 

Princeton University Supplemental Essay Prompt

 

Here are the instructions for this prompt:

 

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. 

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. (250-650 words)

Note that this prompt is from a previous admissions cycle, and is not a prompt for the 2020-2021 cycle. We’ll still break down this prompt in case you need to write a similar essay for another school, but don’t write this essay for Princeton.

 

In many ways, you can think of this prompt as another Common App essay. The topic is incredibly open-ended, and your response will be longer than many of your other supplements. Like Princeton says, however, it’s crucial that your prompt shares new information, rather than just rehashing some part of your Common App. So, make sure you give yourself enough time to brainstorm a topic that can carry an essay of this length.

 

There are a couple of strategies you can use as you start the brainstorming process. Perhaps you immediately think of a quote you want to use. If that happens, great! Your next step is then to decide which personal qualities you want to illustrate using this quote.

 

For example, say the quote you think of is “It’s strange indeed how memories can lie dormant in a man’s mind for so many years. Yet those memories can be awakened and brought forth fresh and new, just by something you’ve seen, or something you’ve heard, or the sight of an old familiar face,” from Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows.

 

Keep in mind that Princeton asks you to write the quote first, so your reader will have some reaction to the quote before they start to read your essay. In this case, the quote will likely bring up feelings of nostalgia and the thought of growing older, so your essay should ideally touch on these themes.

 

That’s not to say you can’t take your essay in an unexpected direction. You should be mindful, however, that your essay does clearly connect to the quote. To take an extreme example, if you chose this quote and then wrote an essay about playing tennis for the first time your junior year, your reader would be very confused.

 

Instead, try to think of personal qualities or values that clearly connect to this quote. Even though your essay will be relatively long, you still want to be careful that you don’t bite off more than you can chew. You’ll want to include specific anecdotes from your own life in your essay, and if you try to describe ten different qualities in one essay, you’ll run out of space.

 

For this quote, you might choose to write about how your family moved to a new city when you were in middle school, and how you immediately felt much more at home. You’d never liked your old home, but in high school, your family went back, and you were amazed by how many fond memories were stirred up by the places you went and people you saw.

 

You could then conclude this essay by describing how this trip taught you that it’s possible to look back fondly even on experiences you didn’t enjoy in the moment. Today, you feel more confident when facing obstacles or challenges, because you know you will learn and grow regardless of the outcome.

 

If you recall, this approach centered on a particular quote that the hypothetical student knew they wanted to use. If you can’t think of a quote right away, however, that’s completely fine. You can instead work backwards by deciding on the personal attributes, values, or experiences you want to write about, and then flipping through some of the books you’ve read recently to decide on a quote that will introduce your topic well.

 

Regardless of which approach you take, there are a few things to keep in mind when selecting your quote:

 

  • The prompt specifies that the quote should be from a book or essay, so don’t choose song lyrics or a quote from a movie or TV show.

 

  • Be mindful of your quote’s length. The vast majority of the essay should be your own words, and if your reader has to go through a paragraph-long quote first, they might tune out. If you have a quote you like that is too long, select a portion of the quote that still connects to your topic.

 

  • Make sure your essay is about you and not the person who said the quote. If you quote a fictional character and spend your entire essay talking about that character, your reader may now want to read the book, but they won’t have learned anything about you.

 

  • Avoid cliche quotes. This goes beyond the classic yearbook quotes (“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”) and also includes popular quotes from the classics (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” from A Tale of Two Cities) or bestselling series (“The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword” from A Game of Thrones). While there’s certainly nothing wrong with these books or quotes, your goal is to stand out from the other applicants, and choosing something that falls into one of these categories may cause your essay to feel generic.

 

  • Choose a quote from a book you have actually read. Although you aren’t going to be quizzed on your quote, you should be honest in your application, and your essay will be stronger if you choose a quote that you genuinely feel a connection to.

 

Princeton University Essay Example

 

Now, let’s take a look at a sample response to this prompt, from a real Princeton applicant.

“I am a mother and mothers don’t have the luxury of falling apart in front of their children, even when they are afraid, even when their children are adults.” Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale 

 

My father was deployed to Afghanistan in the winter of 2009, and I remember two things about that day: my mother’s tears coating her lashes and the snowflakes coating mine. My dad was a specialist overseas, identifying and dismantling IEDs and other bomb-like configurations, but they dare not tell me that he was at risk of being blown up or killed every day. To me he was, and still is, my hero. But the war was fought at home, too; every day weighed upon my mom’s face like a decade. I was seven at the time, and my brother was almost four, so I understand why she kept so many secrets. But I am her person, her confidante, her mini-me, and I still saw, not everything, and many things I learned later, but I saw. I saw the pain in her face reading the mail, the bills. I saw her heart ache, I saw it bleed the snow that winter red.

 

The winter of 2010 was one of the worst in West Virginia’s recent history. The snow just kept coming; in droves, it filled our yard and driveway and window, over three feet of it. We could hardly walk outside, and frequently lost our dogs in the white sea of our backyard. That was the winter mom got sick. 

 

My mother has only had the flu twice in her life, and this year, in spite of her shot, one of the worst strains braved the snow to reach her. Determined to hide her sickness from us, she spent hours shoveling the feet of snow, trying to escape for medicine and help. Her yellow ribbon on the gate swayed with each passing car, with no one stopping to help. By nightfall, she was exhausted; the snow had won. In her sickness, exhaustion, and emotional turmoil, she was dying. 

 

So, she did what no mother would ever want to do: she broke down. In front of me. And asked if I could take care of my little brother for the evening. Make him food. Calm him down. Tuck him in. 

 

She felt as if she had failed as a mother in that moment, asking so much of her seven- year-old daughter. But I stepped up to bat for her willingly. 

 

The winter of 2010: the winter of a thousand snows and the winter of grilled cheese. 

 

It was the only sustaining thing I could make, and my brother, Caden, and I ate them constantly. I can still hear mom cry from the kitchen as I prepared our meals. (I made her an extra. I do not know if she ever ate it.) I tucked Caden into his train bed, put an extra Pull-Up on his nightstand, kissed his forehead. Mom got sick in the bathroom, so I quietly left her a note on her bed that said “I love you!” before heading off to my room. 

 

2010 was a defining year for me. I began dance classes, saw my dad leave to fight for our country, felt the jubilation of his return. But my mother’s struggle permeates that year like the smell of burned popcorn. For the first time, I saw my mother, my invincible mother, weakened by life, and it humbled me. Her struggles made me want to work harder, be better, be stronger,  for my family. That year, I vowed to serve my family in every way possible, and I try to even today. When I enter society as an adult, I want to be as strong and resilient as my parents, and to be empathetic toward everyone, even my enemies. Everyone has a story, a hardship, and no one, especially mothers, should feel ashamed to express it. 

Breaking Down the Princeton Essay Example

 

“I am a mother and mothers don’t have the luxury of falling apart in front of their children, even when they are afraid, even when their children are adults.” Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale 

 

The author starts strong with a quote that is relatively short, impactful, and unique. The quote also clearly connects to the author’s essay topic, so there’s no risk of the reader struggling with any disconnect.

 

My father was deployed to Afghanistan in the winter of 2009, and I remember two things about that day: my mother’s tears coating her lashes and the snowflakes coating mine.

 

As you describe your anecdote(s), you want to use this kind of descriptive language. The author could just say it was winter and her mother was sad, but by taking the time to show, rather than tell, these details, she makes the reader feel like he is experiencing this moment with her.

 

My dad was a specialist overseas, identifying and dismantling IEDs and other bomb-like configurations, but they dare not tell me that he was at risk of being blown up or killed every day. To me he was, and still is, my hero.

 

Although these details are relevant, they also aren’t essential for the reader to understand the story, and in some ways distract from whom the essay is really about: the author’s mother. If you find yourself over the word count, read over each sentence and ask yourself if the essay would make sense without it. If the answer is yes, that’s a great place to start cutting content.

 

I saw the pain in her face reading the mail, the bills. I saw her heart ache, I saw it bleed the snow that winter red.

 

This is another example of strong descriptive language that can take your essay to the next level. In your first draft, you don’t need to worry as much about these finer details, but as you refine the essay look for places where you can elaborate.

 

Determined to hide her sickness from us, she spent hours shoveling the feet of snow, trying to escape for medicine and help. Her yellow ribbon on the gate swayed with each passing car, with no one stopping to help.

 

Initially, these details may not seem important, particularly as they are about the author’s mother, not herself. But the author’s approach in this essay is to describe what she learned about endurance and empathy by watching her mother, and these lines powerfully illustrate just how dire her mother’s situation was.

 

So, she did what no mother would ever want to do: she broke down. In front of me. And asked if I could take care of my little brother for the evening. Make him food. Calm him down. Tuck him in.

 

Here, the author breaks from the rhythm she has utilized for most of the essay and instead uses a sequence of several short sentences. Because this is a crucial moment in the author’s story, this strategy is extremely effective, because it alerts the reader that something important is happening. 

 

This is another technique that you don’t need to worry about in your first draft, but as you edit see if there’s a logical place for you to change up the pacing of your essay, as that can also be a good way of keeping your reader engaged in a relatively long essay.

 

The winter of 2010: the winter of a thousand snows and the winter of grilled cheese.” 

 

The tone of the essay is overall very serious, but, similar to the change of pace the author utilizes just before, injecting some humor can liven up the essay. In general, you want to be careful with humor in college essays, because it doesn’t always come across, but if something comes to mind, don’t be afraid to put in a funny line or two.

It was the only sustaining thing I could make, and my brother, Caden, and I ate them constantly. I can still hear mom cry from the kitchen as I prepared our meals. (I made her an extra. I do not know if she ever ate it.)” 

 

At this point in the essay, the focus shifts fully from the author’s mother to the author herself, and right away the author illustrates the qualities she will then summarize in the essay’s final paragraph. This anecdote shows the reader that she is resourceful, emotionally strong, and empathetic.

 

For the first time, I saw my mother, my invincible mother, weakened by life, and it humbled me. Her struggles made me want to work harder, be better, be stronger, for my family.

 

These two sentences clearly summarize what the author learned from watching her mother in the winter of 2010. If you choose to write about another person in any college essay, you always run the risk that the essay will end up being more about them than you, but this writer clearly connects her mother’s experience to her own.

 

When I enter society as an adult, I want to be as strong and resilient as my parents, and to be empathetic toward everyone, even my enemies. Everyone has a story, a hardship, and no one, especially mothers, should feel ashamed to express it.

 

In her concluding sentences, the reader explains how this experience continues to impact her and affect her worldview even today. She also subtly ties the end of the essay back to her quote, which is about how mothers are never able to show their struggles. This is a satisfying way of bringing the essay full circle, but it’s also not the only way to end an essay successfully. So, if it doesn’t work for your essay, you definitely don’t have to use it.

 

Want more tips on writing the Princeton essays? Check out our essay breakdown for 2020-2021.

 

More Princeton University Essay Examples

 

If you’re looking for more Princeton essay examples from real students, you can view the other five essays by entering your email and graduation year below. Then, links to the PDFs will appear on the right side of the box.

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