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How To Write The Cornell University Supplemental Essays (2020-2021)

Welcome to the Cornell supplement for the 2020-2021 application cycle! For Cornell, you only need to write one supplemental essay, but it’s a rather long one. Depending on what school or program you’re applying to (the College of Arts and Sciences, Dyson, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, etc.), the question is phrased differently. You can find a complete list of Cornell’s “College Interest Essays” here.

All of these prompts are essentially asking the same thing, however. Cornell wants to know why you are interested in X, and why you want to pursue it at Cornell and beyond. For you, X may be Heraclitus, or it may be hotel administration.

I’m only going to tackle the prompt for the College of Arts and Sciences here, but my advice is fundamentally the same for all these prompts.

Students in Arts and Sciences embrace the opportunity to delve into multifaceted academic interests, embodying in 21st century terms Ezra Cornell’s “any person…any study” founding vision. Tell us about the areas of study you are excited to explore, and specifically why you wish to pursue them in our College. (650 words max)

First, a word about word count. This piece of writing is just as long as your college essay. If you’re dreading writing such a long response, keep in mind that the admissions officers at Cornell are dreading reading a great number of long, unremarkable, essays.

Your job is the stand out from the pack and hold your reader’s attention. To do this, tell a personal story. Narratives are compelling and hold our attention. It’s why more people enjoy Gone With The Wind than Un Chien Andalou. The first film tells a story. The second is a creepy, disjointed string of plotlessness. Even though Gone With The Wind is almost four hours long, we remain engaged. For most people, Un Chien Andalou, which lasts for only twenty minutes, seems interminable.

Crafting a narrative here means connecting your academic and extracurricular interests to a personal experience or anecdote. Begin your essay by telling us your intellectual/leadership origin story. Describe a formative experience that has informed your achievements. We had a student who wrote about humiliating himself in a political argument with an older student when he was in 9th grade, and how the experience made him go and read the federalist papers in his free time, and then decide he was all about politics. This anecdote related to his most impressive academic and extracurricular achievements. The origin story serves as a guiding thread for the entire essay, and everything that you discuss (your prospective major, the organizations you want to join on campus, etc.) should relate to this story.

As with any “Why This College?” question, you need to do your research. You can’t recycle the essays you wrote for Brown or Penn. If your reasons for applying to Cornell are the same as your reasons for applying to Brown and Penn (i.e. it’s an Ivy League university), you need to dig deeper.

Make sure you’re being specific: you’re declaring a major (even if you’re undecided), you’re listing some upper-level classes you’d like to take, some professors you’d like to work with, and some clubs you’d like to join. I can’t tell you what major, classes, professors, and clubs you should mention. You have to go see what opportunities are available, and see what fits best with your profile.

When the prompt asks: “Tell us about the areas of study you are excited to explore,” Cornell is actually begging you to tell them what you’re going to major in. Highly-selective schools like Cornell are not looking for students who are exploring their options, or even well-rounded students, for that matter. They want well-rounded classes made up of “pointy” students—students with one or two specific passions, and a clear direction. So you don’t want to say: “I really like biology, but I also really like Latin.” Choose a major (just for the sake of this essay—you can change your mind once you’re at Cornell) that aligns best with your past accomplishments.

Everything you write about here should be based on your past accomplishments. For college admissions officers, the best indicators of future success are past achievements. So whether you’re discussing your major, the classes you want to take, the professors you want to work with, or the student organizations you want to be a part of, make sure you’re discussing the experiences that inform these choices and aspirations.

Make sure everything relates to the origin story, and that you return to the origin story at the end of the essay in a creative way. (Avoid: “In conclusion, my passions relate to my origin story.”) Find an original way to recall your opening anecdote in order to remind your readers where we started.

As always, Ivy League admission consultants are here to help. Don’t hesitate to reach out.

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