The Ultimate Guide to Applying to Princeton
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If you’re the kind of student who thrives in a highly challenging academic environment, you may already be considering applying to Princeton University. Considered by some to be the best university in the United States, Princeton has a long list of illustrious faculty and accomplished alumni. In fact, three current members of the U.S. Supreme Court graduated from Princeton. Its students are talented, its expectations are high (think undergraduates writing multiple senior theses), and the opportunities it offers are exceptional. What’s not to like?
In this post, we’ll briefly introduce you to what it’s like to be a student at Princeton, go over the Princeton application process, and let you know what you can expect if you apply to Princeton during the 2016-2017 application season.
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, a member of the Ivy League, has the distinction of being named the #1 college in the United States by the influential U.S. News and World Report rankings in the National Universities category. Though there is some dispute about the rankings, most sources (including Princeton itself) count Princeton as the fourth-oldest college in what would become the United States, with a founding date of 1746. However, the name of “Princeton University” wasn’t adopted until 1896.
Princeton changed its location several times during its earlier years of operation, but it has been located in the suburban setting of Princeton, New Jersey since 1756, on a 500-acre campus often cited for its beauty. Students at Princeton live in residential colleges for their first two years, while juniors and seniors can either remain in the residential colleges or move to upperclass dorms.
There are over 300 student organizations on Princeton’s campus, covering a wide range of interests, activities, and affiliations. Beyond the campus, both Philadelphia and New York City are about 55 miles away from Princeton and are easily accessible by train.
Today, approximately 5,300 undergraduates attend Princeton, alongside over 2,600 graduate students. Some undergraduates are candidates for the A.B. degree; other attend the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and will eventually receive a B.S.E. degree. However, all undergraduate applicants apply to Princeton through the same admissions process. Applicants have the option of either applying to Princeton through the Single-Choice Early Action program, or through the Regular Decision program. We’ll go over the deadlines and requirements for each program later in this post.
As with a number of other schools, Princeton refers to a student’s primary field of study as a concentration instead of a major. Popular concentrations at Princeton include economics, political and public-policy fields, computer engineering, and biology. Students in the A.B. program may choose between 31 academic concentrations, while students in the B.S.E. program may choose between 6 academic concentrations. All undergraduate students complete senior theses based upon their own independent research.
A unique feature of the Princeton undergraduate experience is the availability of “certificate of proficiency” programs for undergraduates. These programs are supplemental to the student’s concentration, and play a comparable role to academic minor programs at other schools. Students who participate in one or more of the 53 certificate options take certain required courses and complete another “substantial piece of independent work” such as a thesis within their certificate area.
Princeton Admissions Information
As you would expect from the top-ranked college in the country, Princeton has an extremely competitive admissions process. For the class of 2020, the college received 29,303 applications and sent offers of acceptance to 1,911 applicants, for an overall acceptance rate of 6.5%. 1,312 students ended up enrolling as Princeton undergraduates in the fall of 2016.
According to Princeton’s admissions statistics for the class of 2020, academic achievement is a very important factor for admission. Most accepted students had very high grades and standardized test scores, and Princeton’s admissions website states that the university is looking for “students who will thrive in Princeton’s rigorous academic environment.”
However, Princeton does consider a number of other factors in the admissions process, including personal and academic achievements and evidence that you’ve taken full advantage of the opportunities available to you. Since so few of the many qualified students who apply can be selected for admission, academic excellence alone is not sufficient to gain admission to Princeton; you’ll need to shine in other areas of your application as well.
If you’re interested in Princeton and working on your application strategy, it’s important to keep in mind that, unlike many other colleges, Princeton does not accept any transfer applications from students who have already matriculated at other schools. If you are not accepted to Princeton as a first-year student, you will not be able to attend Princeton as an undergraduate.
Paying for Princeton
For the 2016-2017 school year, the total estimated cost of attendance for a Princeton undergraduate is $63,690. Of this figure, $45,320 accounts for tuition itself. This estimate does not include the cost of traveling to and from Princeton’s campus, which will vary for individual students depending on where they live. About 60% of Princeton undergraduates receive financial aid, and prospective applicants can check out the Princeton Financial Aid Estimator to get a general idea of how much aid they might be eligible for.
Admission to Princeton is need-blind, meaning that the student’s financial need is not taken into account by the admissions office. Financial aid at Princeton is entirely need-based, meaning that no athletic or merit scholarships are awarded. Using the student’s financial aid application materials, the university will determine the student’s financial need, and craft a financial aid award that meets 100% of the student’s demonstrated need, as determined by the Princeton.
For students whose family income is under $65,000 per year, Princeton will assess an expected family contribution of zero. (This excludes the amount that students are expected to contribute through their own employment.) Families with incomes above this amount will be expected to contribute an amount that depends upon their exact financial situation, and even some families with incomes above $250,000 per year may receive aid if they have multiple children in college or other special circumstances.
Princeton was the first university to institute a financial aid policy under which students are not expected to routinely take out student loans, and 83% of their students now graduate debt-free. (They have since been joined in this policy by a number of other schools.) However, parents have the option to take out loans directly from Princeton or from the federal government in order to finance their share of the cost, if they so choose.
In order to apply for financial aid at Princeton, students and their families will need to fill out the FAFSA if the student is a U.S. citizen or Permanent Resident. They’ll also need to fill out the Princeton Financial Aid Application, known as the PFAA. Note that Princeton does not use the CSS Profile that many other colleges require; instead, the school uses its own institutional financial aid application. However, if you are already filling the CSS Profile out for other schools, there is an option to transfer some of that data directly to your PFAA.
For Early Action applicants, the PFAA is due along with the admissions application on November 1st. For Regular Decision applicants, the PFAA is due by February 1st, though earlier submission is preferred. It is recommended that all applicants submit their parents’ federal income tax returns and W-2 forms (or the equivalent for international students) by no later than March 15th. Since the FAFSA cannot be completed until tax information is available in the spring, both Early Action and Regular Decision applicants have until April 15th to submit the FAFSA.
Prospective applicants from outside of the United States can breathe easier knowing that Princeton’s need-blind admission policy and need-based financial aid policy both apply to both international students and domestic students. However, the Princeton Financial Aid Estimator is only able to create estimates for students living in either the United States or Canada.
The Princeton Application
Princeton applicants can choose between two application options: the Common Application and the Universal College Application. Prospective students must choose only one of the two options–you’re not allowed to submit multiple applications–but the choice of which to submit is up to you, as both application forms are considered equally. Below, we’ll go over the processes and expectations of each of Princeton’s application options.
As we’ve mentioned, Princeton also offers both Early Action and Regular Decision timelines for applicants. Students can apply for either timeline using either the Common App or the Universal App. Interested students should keep in mind that Princeton’s Early Action program is single-choice or restrictive, meaning that while applicants are not obligated to attend Princeton if they are accepted, they cannot apply to other schools through Early Action or Early Decision I programs. For more information on what it means to apply early, check out the CollegeVine blog post on Early Decision versus Early Action versus Restrictive Early Action.
Application deadlines are the same regardless of whether you’re using the Common App or the Universal App. For Early Action students using either application, the application itself is due November 1st, and standardized testing must be completed by the November test administration. Early Action students receive their admission decision by mid-December.
For Regular Decision students, the application is due on January 1st. SAT testing must be completed by the January test administration, and ACT testing by the December test administration, in order to be considered with your application. Regular Decision applicants will hear back about their admission decisions by the end of March.
The Common App is an application system that includes almost 700 member schools and is quite popular with both colleges and students for the way it simplifies the application process, particularly in terms of entering basic information for a number of different colleges. To apply to Princeton using the Common App, you’ll need to first create a Common App account online, and then to designate Princeton as one of your schools. Visit the post A User’s Guide to the Common App on the CollegeVine blog for more information about how to get started with using the Common App.
As our User’s Guide describes, you’ll first be asked to fill out the bulk of the Common App with the same information that all colleges ask for, such as your contact and demographic information, your grades, your extracurricular activities, and so on. You’ll also respond to one of the standard Common App essay prompts, all of which we’ve covered in greater detail on the CollegeVine blog.
Once you’ve answered these general questions, you’ll need to fill out Princeton’s Common App supplement. A word of caution: Princeton’s supplement is especially extensive, and there are many additional questions you’ll need to answer, including essay questions. Make sure you allow enough time for yourself to complete these additional questions and essays.
The Princeton supplement will become available to you once you’ve designated Princeton as one of your colleges within your Common App account. At that point, you’ll navigate to the My Colleges tab and click on Princeton under your list of schools. Your screen should look like this screenshot from our CollegeVine sample student’s application:
First, Princeton will ask you a number of specific questions in addition to the ones you’ve already answered on the general Common App. In order to access these questions, look at the sidebar where it says “Princeton University.” Under the heading “Application”, you’ll see the word “Questions.” Click on that word, and you’ll see the screen below:
You can see from this screenshot that, just as in other sections of the Common App, you’ll need to answer questions in four different sections: General, Academics, Contacts, and Family. Click on the header of each section to open up that section. Below, we’ll go over how to fill out each section. Questions taken directly from the application will appear in bold.
For the “General” section, you’ll see the following questions:
- Preferred start term: Select “Fall 2017.” There are no other options available.
- Preferred admission plan: Select “Restrictive Early Action” or “Regular Decision”, depending upon which application timeline you are using for Princeton. See above for what is meant by “Restrictive Early Action” at Princeton.
- Do you intend to use one of these school-specific fee waivers?: From the drop-down list, choose the fee waiver option you intend to use, or choose “Not applying for Princeton Specific Fee Waiver” if you do not intend to use a fee waiver. Talk to your guidance counselor for more information about your various fee waiver options. Requesting a fee waiver will not affect your chances of acceptance in any way.
- Do you intend to pursue need-based financial aid?: Choose “yes” or “no.” Again, since Princeton’s admissions are need-blind, this will not affect your chances of acceptance in any way.
- To submit an optional art supplement, please see: https://puwebp.princeton.edu/UA-Art-Web/. Do you plan to submit one to Princeton University?: Choose “yes” if you plan to submit an optional art supplement; otherwise, choose “no.” The art supplement website for Princeton will be available by mid-October. For more advice on whether submitting an arts supplement would be a good choice for you, see our post on the CollegeVine blog entitled “Should I Submit an Arts Supplement?”
For the “Academics” section, you’ll see the following questions. As noted, these questions are not in any way binding, so don’t stress out too much about your response–just answer them to the best of your ability. However, you will want to research the degrees, major/concentration programs, and certificate programs that are available to Princeton undergraduates first so that you can make an educated selection.
- Which degree would you most likely pursue at Princeton?: Choose either the A.B., the B.S.E.,, or “Undecided.” You can consult this list for more information on which departments offer which degree at Princeton.
- In which program of study do you think you would like to major at Princeton?: You can find out more about each major or concentration at Princeton on their admissions website. Choose whichever program of study you currently plan on pursuing from the drop-down menu.
- In which second program of study do you think you would like to major at Princeton?: Choose whichever program of study would be your second choice from the drop-down menu.
- In addition to the major you noted above, please indicate which certificate program might interest you: As we mentioned above, certificate programs at Princeton are roughly equivalent to academic minors. Check out the Princeton admissions website for more details about the available certificate programs. Choose whichever certificate program looks most interesting to you from the drop-down menu.
- In addition to the major you noted above, please indicate which second choice certificate program might interest you: Choose whichever certificate program you find the second-most interesting from the drop-down menu.
For the “Contacts” section, you’ll see the following question:
As you can see, there’s only one question in this section: Have you previously applied to Princeton University? Most students will reply “no”, especially given that Princeton does not accept transfer applicants.
The only way you might reply “yes” to this question is if you applied to Princeton last year, but decided to take a gap year instead of attending college, and are reapplying this year. If you reply “yes” on this question, you’ll be prompted to enter the month and year you previously applied to Princeton.
For the “Family” section, you’ll see the following questions:
- Are any siblings also applying for undergraduate admission to Princeton University this year?: Choose “yes” if you have a sibling who is also applying as an undergraduate; otherwise, choose “no.” If you choose “yes,” you will be prompted to enter the sibling’s name and relationship to you.
- Do you have any other relatives who are attending or have attended Princeton University?: Choose “yes” if you have one or more relatives who attend or have attended Princeton, whether as undergraduates or as graduate students; otherwise, choose “no.” If you choose “yes,” you will be prompted to provide more information about your relative(s) and their attendance at Princeton; follow the instructions provided. Since legacy can be a factor in admissions decisions, it’s important that you answer this question accurately.
- Have any relatives ever worked for Princeton University?: Choose “yes” if you have one or more relatives who work at or used to work at Princeton; otherwise, choose “no.” If you choose “yes,” you will be prompted to provide more information about your relative(s) and their employment at Princeton; follow the instructions provided.
Once you have completed these Princeton-specific application questions, you can move along to Princeton’s writing supplement. Navigate to your My Colleges tab and click on Princeton; then click on the word “Questions” under the header “Writing Supplement.” You’ll now be prompted to answer one long essay question as well a number of shorter-answer questions.
Below, we’ll briefly go over the prompts you’ll be given. For in-depth advice about how to go about answering these questions, see our CollegeVine blog post on How to Write the Princeton University Application Essays 2016-2017.
The prompt for Princeton’s long school-specific essay is shown below:
“In addition to the essay you have written for the Common Application, please write an essay of about 500 words (no more than 650 words and no less 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.
- Tell us about a person who has influenced you in a significant way.
- “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, Politics; Founder, Blackplanet.com This quote is taken from Professor Wasow’s January 2014 speech at the Martin Luther King Day celebration at Princeton University.
- “Princeton in the Nation’s Service” was the title of a speech given by Woodrow Wilson on the 150th anniversary of the University. It became the unofficial Princeton motto and was expanded for the University’s 250th anniversary to “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.” Woodrow Wilson, Princeton Class of 1879, served on the faculty and was Princeton’s president from 1902–1910.
- “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, chair of the Council of the Humanities and director of the Program in Humanistic Studies, Princeton University.
- 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.”
In addition to this essay, you’ll need to submit two shorter essay-type answers on the topics below:
“Extracurricular Activity or Work Experience: Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences that was particularly meaningful to you. (About 150 words)”
“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)”
Finally, you’ll need to answer a number of short-answer questions for Princeton, as shown below:
- “Your favorite book and its author:
- Your favorite movie:
- Your favorite website:
- Two adjectives your friends would use to describe you:
- Your favorite recording:
- Your favorite keepsake or memento:
- Your favorite source of inspiration:
- Your favorite word:
- Your favorite line from a movie or book and its title:”
Again, you can find a detailed breakdown of how to answer these essay and short-answer questions for the Princeton supplement on the CollegeVine blog.
Finally, as you can see above, you’ll have the opportunity to submit additional information about any special circumstances that you feel are not adequately covered on the application already. For advice on whether you should submit additional information and how to compose your document, visit our CollegeVine blog post on How to Explain Exceptional Personal Circumstances on Applications.
Universal College Application
The Universal College Application, like the Common App, is an application system that serves a number of different schools. If you would like to apply to Princeton online using the Universal App, you’ll first need to create an account on the Universal App’s online system. Once you’ve created your account, you’ll navigate to the My Schools tab and add Princeton University as one of your schools.
When you select Princeton as one of your schools, the following screen will pop up:
Here, you’ll select the term you’re applying for, which, if you’re reading this post, will most likely be Fall 2017, from the drop-down menu. Then you’ll select the program you’re applying to, which will be “First Year.” Finally, you’ll select your decision plan, which will either be “Regular Decision I” or “Restrictive Early Action.” Your selected admission option will appear at the bottom, and you’ll click the button that says “Add” to add it to your list.
A word of caution when filling out this portion of the Universal App: at present, the drop-down menus in this section offer options that do not actually exist for Princeton. Remember that Princeton does not accept transfer applicants, nor does it accept applicants for terms other than the fall term, so while you can see these options in the menus, you cannot actually apply to Princeton under them. Make sure you read the instructions on the Princeton admissions website carefully before you choose your application options on the Universal App.
Once you have selected Princeton as one of your schools and filled out the Universal App’s basic applicant profile, you’ll move on to Princeton’s supplement to the Universal App. As with the Common App, you’ll fill out a Princeton supplement as well as another segment, here known as the “Essay.” According to the Princeton admissions website, the questions and prompts that you will be presented with on the 2016-2017 Universal App supplement for Princeton will be the same as the questions and prompts on the 2016-2017 Common App supplement, so you can make use of the advice we’ve provided above under the Common App section to craft your answers.
The Princeton Interview Process
For many students, interviews are a part of the application process at Princeton. Once your application is submitted, a member of the Princeton Alumni Schools Committee (ASC) will contact you to arrange a meeting if it is possible to do so. Generally, you’ll meet your interviewer in a public place— coffee shops are popular— at a mutually agreeable time. The interviewer’s comments will become part of your admissions file and will be considered along with your application. You can find more posts about how to prepare for college interviews on the CollegeVine blog.
The interview is not a required part of the Princeton application, and a sufficient number of alumni interviewers are not available in all geographic areas, so you may not be contacted for an interview. However, this does not mean you’re out of the running for admission! While you should make an effort to meet with an interviewer if you have the opportunity, you won’t be penalized on your application if you’re not able to have an interview.
On-campus interviews are not available at Princeton, but interested prospective applicants can visit the campus for an admission information session or a campus tour if they wish.
Other Princeton Application Requirements
In addition to your Common App or Universal App basic application and your Princeton supplement for either of the first two, Princeton requires that you submit the following:
- Application fee of $65, or a fee waiver request, completed by you.
- School Report, including counselor recommendation and transcript, completed by your counselor.
- Two recommendations, completed by your chosen teachers, preferably from two different areas of study.
- Mid-Year Report, completed by your counselor or a school official.
- Official test results for the SAT with writing or the ACT with writing, requested by you and sent directly to Princeton.
- Any additional recommended test score reports (for AP tests, SAT IIs, the TOEFL, and so on), requested by you and sent directly to Princeton. Check out the Princeton admissions website for more information about which tests are recommended as opposed to required.
- The Princeton Arts Supplement, if you have chosen to complete one. As we mentioned above, you’ll need to carefully consider whether submitting an arts supplement is the best choice for you.
In addition to these items, if you’re applying for financial aid at Princeton, you’ll need to submit the required financial aid forms and documents, as we covered earlier in this post. After you submit your portion of the application, you can use Princeton’s online application tracking system to make sure that all your information has arrived on time.
Hearing Back from Princeton
If you apply to Princeton as an Early Action candidate, you will receive your admission decision in mid-December. At this point, you may either be accepted to Princeton, rejected from Princeton, or deferred to the Regular Decision application pool.
Princeton has a Single-Choice Early Action program, not a binding Early Decision program, so applicants who are accepted in December are not contractually obligated to attend Princeton. If you’re accepted Early Action, you can still apply to other schools in the Early Decision II and/or Regular Decision admissions rounds in order to compare offers and give you space to change your mind. You’ll need to make a final decision about Princeton by May 1st.
If you are rejected by Princeton in December, unfortunately, you’ll probably need to move on and focus on one or more of your other college options. Princeton does not accept any transfer applicants, so the only way you could still attend Princeton is if you take a gap year, use that time to improve your application, and apply again for the next academic year. However, we typically don’t recommend going this route, especially given that acceptance rates will be just as low your second time around.
Applicants who are deferred in December will have their applications reconsidered in the spring with the rest of the Regular Decision applicants, and will receive their admissions decision by the end of March. For more information about what being deferred at Princeton means for you, see the next section of this post.
Princeton releases its admissions decisions for the Regular Decision applicant pool in late March, on a day designated as “Ivy Day.” On this day, all the schools of the Ivy League release their admissions decisions, so you may be hearing back from multiple schools on that day. At this point, you’ll find out whether you were accepted, rejected, or possibly waitlisted at Princeton.
If you’re accepted to Princeton, congratulations! You’ll have until May 1 to make a final decision on whether to attend in the fall. Some students choose to defer their matriculation by a year in order to pursue other interests, but you may not enroll in a degree-granting program at another university during your deferral period.
If you’re waitlisted at Princeton, you may still have a chance at admission. Once the college has sorted through the responses it has received in May, it may choose additional applicants from the waitlist to fill any remaining spots. If you’re selected for one of these spots, you’ll hear from Princeton after May 1st, and sometimes much later in the summer.
However, you’ll definitely need to move forward with other college plans, considering that the acceptance rate for waitlisted applicants is very low and also highly variable. While 39 applicants were admitted off the waitlist for the class of 2020, in some years, no applicants are accepted off the waitlist at all. Below, we’ll go over more about what being waitlisted at Princeton means for you.
Deferrals and the Waitlist at Princeton
If you apply to Princeton on the Early Action timeline, it’s most likely that you’ll be deferred. In 2014, for example, 78.9% of Early Action applicants to Princeton were deferred. This deferral rate is consistent with the policies of many comparable schools, which outright reject relatively few students in the early rounds of admission.
If you’re deferred in December, you’ll have to wait for Ivy Day in late March to find out whether you’ve been accepted to Princeton. However, you can do a few things during this waiting period to keep your application competitive.
Many students choose to send a letter to the admissions office, reiterating their strong interest in Princeton and including any new information that has arisen since they initially applied in November. If you’ve substantially improved your grades or standardized test scores, or won a prestigious new award, you can definitely let the admissions office know, though you should not send an excessive amount of new information.
Whether you’re a Regular Decision applicant or you were deferred in the Early Action round, you’ll receive a decision about your application by late March. However, for some applicants, this decision is not necessarily final. If you’re placed on the Princeton waitlist, you may be accepted to Princeton after the May 1st response deadline if spaces open up, but the acceptance rate for waitlisted applicants is very low or sometimes nonexistent.
If you choose to stay on the waitlist at Princeton, you are welcome to send additional information to the admissions office if something new and impressive comes up. However, you should definitely pursue one of your other college options as well.
As you can see from this post, applying to Princeton is a long and involved process, but the potential rewards are great. If you’re accepted, you’ll join a community of exceptional scholars and gain a uniquely rigorous educational background— one that will prepare you for whatever career path you choose.
Interested in applying to Princeton? You’ve certainly got your work cut out for you! Visit the Princeton undergraduate admissions website for more information about the application process, the academic and other offerings you’ll find at Princeton, and what makes a Princeton education special.
Whether you’re just starting to think about applying to college, or you’re right in the middle of putting together your applications, CollegeVine can help with information and advice about how to get the most out of the college application process. Visit the CollegeVine blog for more posts about what to expect from application season, and what will be expected of you. You can also fill out the form below for a free initial consultation with one of our admissions advisors. Good luck!
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