How To Write The Princeton University Supplemental Essays (2019-2020)



Welcome to the Princeton supplemental essays!


Princeton University divides its numerous supplemental short answer and essay questions into “Activities,” “Summers,” “A Few Details” (they actually want nine details, which, in my book is more than a few), and “Essay: Your Voice.” This last section provides four different prompts you can choose from. This is a hefty one. Good luck.



Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences that was particularly meaningful to you. (Response required in about 150 words.)


Harvard asks this one as well. It’s the first question on both supplemental applications. With Princeton as with Harvard, this is an indication as to what the nation’s most selective schools are looking for in applicants. They want kids who have done one truly notable thing, whether that’s starting an impactful company or non-profit, training as an Olympic athlete, or holding down a 20-hour job during the school year. If this sounds intimidating, well, welcome to the world of top-3 college applications.


I’ll tell you what I told the Harvard applicants: get straight to the point with this one. Pick your most meaningful activity—the one you’ve dedicated serious time and energy to, and the one that’s allowed you to demonstrate significant leadership. Go beyond the simple facts of your accomplishments. (The basics are already there on your activities list.) Tell us why this endeavor was important to you, why it was personal. Remember that the idea here isn’t to exaggerate or brag. Also avoid false modesty (“I have helped dozens of people, but in the end, they did more for me than I did for them”). Be straightforward and matter-of-fact.


Please tell us how you have spent the last two summers (or vacations between school years), including any jobs you have held. (Response required in about 150 words.)


Are you getting the sense that extracurricular activities are important for Princeton? I don’t know what you did last summer, or the one before that, but now is your chance to go beyond your activities list and discuss, briefly and directly, your activities, their impact, and what they meant to you. Don’t simply repeat your activities list.


Your favorite book and its author


I’d love to say, “Just be honest here,” but that’s not necessarily a good idea. Mostly because, as always, you do not want to talk about required reading, or anything that looks like required reading. I don’t care if your favorite book is 1984. It’s everybody’s favorite book, and lots of people are required to read it. You’re trying to stand out from the pack. You should be honest, and list a book you truly love, but choose something less obvious. It doesn’t have to be a work of fiction. Ideally, this book should tell us something we don’t already know about you. So if you quote Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter in your college essay, or want to mention this work of theory in your additional essay for Princeton, don’t say it’s your favorite here. We want new information, and we want as detailed and three-dimensional a picture of you as possible.


Your favorite website


Same advice as for the last question. Be honest, but think about your audience. If your favorite website is nytimes.com, and if you think Princeton will believe you based on everything they know about you, that’s fine, and you should list it. Ideally, include a sub-domain: it’d be more interesting to know that you’re really into the book reviews, or even the real estate section for some reason. But if you list nytimes.com just because you think it makes you look smart, Princeton may sense what you’re up to. If your favorite website is 8chan, please don’t say so. This probably goes without saying given recent events, but think about whether your choice comes with connotations. As with all these “details” questions, quirky is great, so keep that in mind. Whether it’s the very serious ssrn.com, or iamawesome.com (try it), it’ll be more interesting than something predictable. Just make sure it’s authentic.


Your favorite recording


Same deal. Can be a song, a speech, a YouTube video, a podcast. I’m a big fan of podcasts, which you probably know if you’ve read my blog in the past (check out my post on how podcasts can help you get into college). Of course, if you don’t listen to podcasts, don’t make this up.


Your favorite source of inspiration


There isn’t a right or wrong answer here, but I’d avoid saying something terribly general or predictable (books, nature, my cat, Rhianna). Again, think: what’s the chance someone else has said this before?


Your favorite line from a movie or book and its title


You’re probably getting the sense by now that Princeton really wants to get to know you. Don’t use a line from the book you listed, or the movie you’re about to list as your favorite. Make sure that every short response here is contributing new information. Again, no required reading: nothing from Gatsby or anything like that.


Your favorite movie


See my notes about the favorite book: be honest, but also shoot for being original.


Two adjectives your friends would use to describe you


The obvious thing to do here is to text your friends and ask. Try it. But if you get “sweet and nice,” keep in mind that anyone can use these adjectives to describe anyone they’re friends with. You might consider asking them for adjectives they’d use to describe you and wouldn’t use to describe anyone else. This tends to produce more interesting results.

It’s also OK to ventriloquize here, or guess at what your friends might say when they’re not directly solicited for adjectives via iMessage.


Your favorite keepsake or memento


As far as I’m concerned, this is the most personal of all the questions Princeton, or any college, will ever ask you. Good for Princeton. The honest response may feel embarrassing, but it’s OK to be vulnerable on your college applications. You don’t need to have a signed copy of Toni Morrison’s Beloved or anything like. This can and should be a highly mundane yet important object. Please don’t say that it’s a fancy trophy or something. (Your awards are listed on your applications; that’s not what this question is about.) Also avoid citing the $14,000 necklace your father bought you for your sixteenth birthday, or any other object that highlights extreme privilege. Keep this one very human and banal and full of personal meaning.


Your favorite word


After the last question, which is really excellent, this one—the final “details” question—feels a little anticlimactic to me. Which is what you should list as your favorite word, just to send Princeton a message. OK, not really. Just remember that the idea here isn’t to test your vocabulary: that’s what the SAT is for. If you’re thinking of submitting something you once wrote on a flash card, it’s probably not a good choice. Personally, I’ve liked the word “punky” ever since my dad taught me how to split wood. Look, this one isn’t going to make or break your application. Just don’t say “bloviate” or something, because your admissions committee isn’t going to take the time to look it up, and if they do, they may think you’re describing yourself.


In addition to the essay you have written for the Coalition Application, 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). Using one of the themes 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 Coalition Application, the Common Application or Universal College Application.


  • Tell us about a person who has influenced you in a significant way.

Remember that this essay is ultimately about you—not the person who has influenced you. This being said, you can show a great deal of personality by describing your relationship with someone else. This requires some skill. Don’t fall into the trap of writing an elegy (or a eulogy) to a grandparent, parent, sibling. These approaches are highly typical, and you want to surprise your readers with an original take on the prompt. Don’t talk about someone famous who’s influenced you, but whom you’ve never met.


This essay is about you, but you want to be very sure that you’re not describing someone else who is simply a foil for you. In other words, avoid describing a sidekick, or any other kind of character who exists, within your essay, only to make you look good and highlight your personality. As I said, this is a tough essay to execute well.


Ideally, I’d like to see a story about a mutual exchange of ideas, a double portrait of you and your interlocutor. Both personalities should be developed, and descriptions of the person who has influenced you should say a great deal about the way that you view and experience the world.


  • “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 of politics, Princeton University. This quote is taken from Professor Wasow’s January 2014 speech at the Martin Luther King Day celebration at Princeton University.

You can check out this speech if you look for “Princeton Martin Luther King Day Keynote by Omar Wasow” on YouTube. This is a “Big Issue” prompt, and these questions have some big pitfalls for applicants. For one thing, you don’t need a convincing solution to the disparities we face today in order to get into Princeton. Sure, you need to be pretty great, but it’s not like you’re running for president. Also, keep in mind that these essays are about you, so unless that big issue you want to talk about has affected you in a personal and unique way, your essay won’t say much about who you are. Of course, big issues like climate change and gun control affect lots of people. But that’s the problem: they affect lots of people, not just you.


As always, focus on what you’ve done, not what you hope to do. So if you want to solve the income gap in the U.S., great. So do 99% percent of the people in this country. What have you done about it? If you want to tackle this question, or any big issue question, you better have some serious, quantifiable accomplishments to cite to give your hopes and dreams credibility.

As always, if you are a truly brilliant writer—and I mean a truly brilliant writer—there’s always a way to be creative with questions like these and make them work. But unless you have truly uncommon abilities in personal essay writing (in which case, what are you doing reading my blog?), avoid this question.


“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 and chair, Department of Philosophy, Princeton University.


So, one way to approach this question is to read it as the standard “diversity/community question” that many colleges ask. You are more than welcome to define “culture” however you like, including as your family and/or community culture.


Just for fun, though, take a look at the interview this quote was taken from, and see where Professor Rosen is going. He isn’t really talking about diversity and community. He’s responding to Nietzsche, who, according to Professor Rosen, claimed that culture (meaning, both “low” and “high” culture—from, say, popular fiction to opera) couldn’t help anyone who was thoughtful and reflective and sophisticated. Professor Rosen is arguing that “culture” is meaningful, even for those who lead examined lives.


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.


This essay can be about absolutely anything. The only constraint is that you must begin with a quote, and there is, of course, a quote for literally everything.


Now, I don’t mean that you should go scouring the internet for some random quote to support that thing you want to write about. The quote should hold personal meaning, and should meaningfully relate to that essay you want to write. Once you’ve got that, this is essentially another Common App essay. Tell a compelling story that shows us something new about who you are.

©2020 H&C Education, Inc. All rights reserved.