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



Welcome to the Princeton supplemental essays!

Princeton University divides its numerous supplemental short answer and essay questions into an “Extracurricular Activity and Work Experience,” “Your Voice,” and “More About You.” They also ask for a “graded written paper as part of your application,” for which you should simply submit your most impressive and recent schoolwork from a social science (Psychology, Economics, or any other) or humanities (English or History most likely). The supplemental essay questions, though, you have more power to shape your responses to as you write your application. It’s worth putting significant effort into these--Princeton’s under-six-percent acceptance rate means you need to stand out in a very competitive pool. Let’s get started!

Extracurricular Activity and Work Experience Briefly elaborate on an activity, organization, work experience, or hobby that has been particularly meaningful to you. (Please respond in about 150 words)

This is a very common prompt at top tier and mid tier schools alike, where they’re giving you the opportunity to elaborate on activities that you otherwise have to summarize in less than 150 characters earlier in your application. Some people have very impressive accomplishments that will naturally fall into this prompt and work very well--winning an international award in an academic competition, being an exceptionally talented musician, etc… For the rest of us, and for those people too, you should focus intensely on why the activity was meaningful more than the basics.

Participating in a high school club and doing well at the state level is certainly an accomplishment, but it isn’t on it’s own enough to convince Princeton admissions officers that you qualify for their school. To make an otherwise-fairly-common activity into a standout essay, you need to analyze it in a compelling manner. What did you take away from this activity that nobody else did? Maybe you did martial arts, but instead of focusing on how you learned to work hard (which way too many extracurricular essays do) you discuss your reflections on the obedience culture and conflict of traditional practice and modern knowledge. A unique take with thoughtful discussion is necessary to present yourself as someone able to make the most of opportunities, and thus deserving of those Princeton provides.



Your Voice

At Princeton, we value diverse perspectives and the ability to have respectful dialogue about difficult issues. Share a time when you had a conversation with a person or a group of people about a difficult topic. What insight did you gain, and how would you incorporate that knowledge into your thinking in the future? (250 words)

This is frankly an exceptionally hard prompt to respond to in a mature and positive manner. First, it forces you to consider what difficult conversations you have had--for most people there won’t be that many to reflect on. Second, it asks you to communicate the nuance of your conversation on an important and controversial topic, what you learned from the encounter, and how it will be important in your future endeavors all in 250 words.

Many people will default to conversations on politics and race here, and while these can be strong options if you have had meaningful experiences I’d encourage you to brainstorm a little longer. Unique topics can give you an edge over the competition in making your essay stand out. Whatever you write about, make sure your opinion is well-informed and succinct. Read up on the topic to discuss it appropriately before writing your essay. Reinforce the nuance instead of claiming victory or insisting you were right. Show yourself able to engage in the gray answers to some of our biggest modern questions, and you’ll make progress to convincing the reader you would fit as a Princeton student.

Princeton has a longstanding commitment to service and civic engagement. Tell us how your story intersects (or will intersect) with these ideals.

This is a variation on a classic community prompt. Colleges understandably want students who are going to leave lasting impacts on their campuses. Consider how you can best convince the admissions committee that you are going to be a force for good on their campus. This will likely involve discussing a time you took initiative to change something upon noticing a problem. Alongside being intelligent, Princeton students are also very passionate about making a difference. How have you done that in your school, town, or state already? If you haven’t done something yet, then write an essay looking towards the future (the “or will intersect” part) that convinces them you will! Come up with a viable and impactful plan to improve the world somehow, and make them want to give you the education that will support that improvement.

More About You Please respond to each question in 50 words or fewer. There are no right or wrong answers. Be yourself!

There are definitely wrong answers; don’t be fooled. I see these questions as ways for the committee to get a better feel for how your personality fits their college. Princeton is known as upscale, sometimes artsy, cerebral, and very put together, although there is much diversity in these features among the undergraduate population. Would you get along well with the people at Princeton? This is where they look to find that out.

What is a new skill you would like to learn in college?

Again, think back to Princeton’s desired traits. Don’t just say you want to learn guitar or karate without a good reason to back it up. There are thousands of “skills” you could learn--pick one and describe its unique appeal among this vast array of potential abilities.

What brings you joy?

Well, what brings you joy? My best advice here is honesty, as they mention above. A disingenuous answer to this question like “math problems” or “studying for history tests” will smell from a mile away. Paint yourself as an honest and balanced human more than just an intense student in your answer to this.

What song represents the soundtrack of your life at this moment?

It would be smart here to pick something the admissions officers are likely to have heard of. They probably won’t look up many of peoples’ responses here. I always advise students to pick a slightly old topic for questions like this--something that the admissions officers will know and will make you seem well read, but that other teenagers might not have heard of. Just as important, though, is the relation to your life. Again, the more intricate the connection and the more elegantly you can explain it, the better.


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