4 Tips for Stand-Out Carnegie Mellon Essays


Carnegie Mellon is ranked among the top 25 universities in the nation, so you'll need to have an impressive application—with stand-out essays, of course!—in order to get admitted. Applicants must submit a total of four Carnegie Mellon essays, three of which comprise the Carnegie Mellon supplement.

Keep reading to learn what the current Carnegie Mellon essay prompts are, what topics you could write about, and what qualities make for a great Carnegie Mellon essay.

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What Are the Carnegie Mellon Essay Prompts?

In addition to the personal statement you must write for the Common App (for which you get to select one out of seven possible prompts), Carnegie Mellon requires all applicants to submit three supplemental essays; these essays make up the Carnegie Mellon Supplement.

Applicants are not allowed to submit other supplemental materials with their applications, such as websites, artwork, or resumes. (Note that the only exception to this is if you're applying to a school that requires additional materials, such as the School of Architecture.)

Each essay may be up to 300 words long, making them a little shorter than your typical personal statement for college, which is usually around 500-600 words.

So what are the Carnegie Mellon essay prompts? Let's take a look:

Most students choose their intended major or area of study based on a passion or inspiration that's developed over time—what passion or inspiration led you to choose this area of study?

Many students pursue college for a specific degree, career opportunity or personal goal. Whichever it may be, learning will be critical to achieve your ultimate goal. As you think ahead to the process of learning during your college years, how will you define a successful college experience?

Consider your application as a whole. What do you personally want to emphasize about your application for the admission committee's consideration? Highlight something that's important to you or something you haven't had a chance to share. Tell us, don't show us (no websites please).

As you can see, each Carnegie Mellon essay you must write will focus on something different about yourself. Specifically, you must explain the following in your essays:

  • For Essay 1, what you plan to major in and why
  • For Essay 2, what you hope to get out of attending college
  • For Essay 3, something you want to emphasize about yourself

How should you write each Carnegie Mellon essay? We give you specific tips next.


All Carnegie Mellon Essay Prompts, Analyzed

In this section, we'll go over the three Carnegie Mellon essay prompts in detail, giving you key tips so you can ensure your essays stand out from the rest of the crowd.




Carnegie Mellon Essay 1: Your Intended Major

Most students choose their intended major or area of study based on a passion or inspiration that's developed over time—what passion or inspiration led you to choose this area of study?

Though it might look a little wordy, all this Carnegie Mellon essay prompt is really asking is, "Why this major?" More specifically, this prompt wants you to relate the intellectual path you've taken by explaining the experiences, people, and/or events that have led you to want to major in this particular field.

By far the most effective way to answer this prompt is to tell a compelling story about how you came to be interested in your intended major. Think about the most important moments from your life that showcase your love of what you want to study, and then write about those.

For example, say you plan to major in musical composition. You could start off by recounting the first time you tried to write a piece of music on your family's piano and how hard it was. However, you really enjoyed the process of creating something new. This prompted you to enroll in weekly piano lessons; you also continued to compose piano pieces in your spare time. As a sophomore, you decided to enter your school's talent show and ended up winning with a musical piece you'd composed.

While you don't need to stick to chronological order, using this organization ensures your essay is easy to follow and clearly illustrates how you progressed from someone who knew nothing about the field to someone now highly devoted to it.

In addition, be sure to focus on not only how you became interested in your major but also how this journey of discovering your passion has affected you and your goals. For example, perhaps you want to major in architecture because you hope to use your skills to encourage eco-friendly living and therefore combat the effects of climate change.

It's also a good idea to mention, explicitly or implicitly, how Carnegie Mellon will help you accomplish your goals in your intended field. You could talk briefly about a particular faculty member in your field whom you hope to work with, an expensive piece of equipment offered at Carnegie Mellon, or specific professional opportunities available to students.

Finally, be careful not to exaggerate. Don't say you suddenly developed an interest in literature after reading The Great Gatsby for English class if you actually loathed the book or had a passion for literature well before then.

It's OK if there wasn't one single moment in your life that made you realize this major was the right one for you. Instead of acting as though some particular incident was more significant than it actually was, just focus on the overall journey you took to get to the point you're at now—that is, the major you've chosen to pursue.


Carnegie Mellon Essay 2: Why You're Going to College

Many students pursue college for a specific degree, career opportunity or personal goal. Whichever it may be, learning will be critical to achieve your ultimate goal. As you think ahead to the process of learning during your college years, how will you define a successful college experience?

Going to college isn't just about getting your degree. That's part of it, of course—you'd feel pretty cheated if you got all the way through college only to find out that you weren't getting your degree—but learning new things and growing as a person are also really important.

In this essay, Carnegie Mellon wants to see you discuss how learning, not just having a degree, will represent your growth in college. That might feel a little intimidating since you haven't actually left for college yet, but you have two important things to draw on: experience in your prior education, and your hopes for the future.

When responding to this prompt, think less about the individual classes you'll take, what grades you'll get in them, or what essays you'll write. Think about the learning process, all the little things that go into your education beyond the grades and assignments. How do you learn? And beyond that, what did you learn?

Think about what having a "successful college experience" would look like for you. When you graduate, what knowledge and experience do you hope to have? What unique experiences will you have at Carnegie Mellon that will shape the person you ultimately want to become?

This is a time to be specific. Maybe you see yourself as belonging to a thriving intellectual community, and thought-provoking discussion is one of the ways that you learn best. You can look at what groups there are on campus, for example, and see which ones you'd like to join.

Joining re:verb might be a way that you connect with other people who love having thought-provoking discussions, or maybe you're drawn more toward MOSIAC to learn about concepts like intersectionality. You can identify groups that appeal to you in your specific niche, and mention them in your essay as places where you hope to find your intellectual community.

Of course, that's not the only way to go about it. The important thing you need to convey is that you have an interest not just in attaining your diploma, but in the experience of learning. How you do that is up to you—you can describe how you learn and how Carnegie Mellon will help enrich you as a person through their teaching methods, through being around other accomplished and intellectual individuals, or by naming specific clubs, groups, or classes you want to be part of.

Show Carnegie Mellon how you learn and how they'll contribute to your specific goals, and you'll be on the right track!


body_question_mark_headWhat defines you?


Carnegie Mellon Essay 3: Something Important About You

Consider your application as a whole. What do you personally want to emphasize about your application for the admission committee's consideration? Highlight something that's important to you or something you haven't had a chance to share. Tell us, don't show us (no websites please).

This essay prompt is the most open-ended of the three and a great opportunity to really dig into any important attributes of yourself that you feel you didn't get to write enough about or at all in other parts of your application.

Did you write about something in another essay, such as the one you wrote for the Common App, that you wish to talk about more here? Do you want to write about something that's important to you and that you haven't had a chance to elaborate on yet?

Your topics are pretty endless here—just make sure whatever you write about for this essay is revealing something important that you think the admissions committee should know about you.

This could be a specific personality trait—maybe you want to emphasize your leadership skills by talking about your role as team leader at the local youth club—or something about your life that's had a major impact on how you see yourself and your future.

Here are some topics you could write about (but don't feel limited by these suggestions!):

  • A specific incident that holds importance for you, and what it taught you about your academic and/or professional interests, your goals, your personality, etc.
  • Someone you know who has impacted you in a significant way, and how that person has specifically influenced your interests and/or goals
  • An explanation for something that negatively impacted your grades or another part of your application—for example, perhaps you spent a lot of time taking care of a sick relative during your sophomore year of high school, which caused your grades to dip slightly
  • A particular interest, passion, hobby, or skill you have, and what you've gained, either intellectually or emotionally, from it

Once again, don't try to write about what you think the CMU admissions committee wants to read—be honest about what's important to you and why. If you volunteered somewhere a few times but didn't enjoy it or gain anything valuable from it, do not write about it here!

Similarly, don't be afraid to focus on something seemingly mundane. Just be sure you're using the topic you choose—even if it's pretty commonplace—to ultimately reveal something important about you. So, no, it's probably not a good idea to write about how you spend hours on Instagram every day, since this hobby isn't really revealing anything significant about you, your goals, or your personal growth.


2 Real Carnegie Mellon Essay Examples + Analysis

In order to write a great Carnegie Mellon essay, it helps to see what kinds of essays actually got applicants accepted to this prestigious university. Here, we give you two real Carnegie Mellon essay examples we found online and explain what makes them successful.


Carnegie Mellon Essay Example 1

This first of the two Carnegie Mellon essay examples comes from the college essays website Essays That Worked. The essay is quite long—more than 650 words!—and was written in response to the following (old) supplemental Carnegie Mellon essay prompt:

Many students pursue college for a specific degree, career opportunity or personal goal. Whichever it may be, learning will be critical to achieve your ultimate goal. As you think ahead to the process of learning during your college years, how will you define a successful college experience?


And now here's the essay:

When I was younger, I faced a lot of negative emotions including anxiety and low self-esteem. For a long time, I felt alone and as if no one understood how I felt. My self confidence was at an all-time low when I started taking psychology. All of a sudden the negative emotions I was feeling started making sense. I was suddenly able to understand how people were wired and why others treated me a certain way. I in fact was able to feel empathy for my aggressors after understanding that those who treated me negatively often faced struggles of their own.

Most importantly, I felt as though something out there finally understood me. Because psychology offered insight into my own behavior and helped me to understand others, I was eventually able to overcome my insecurities.
In the future, I would like to help others do the same. No matter where I end up, understanding why people behave a certain way and being more considerate and empathetic for others will only help me thrive. Mental health is a growing issue in our society. The world we live in is a confusing place filled with pain, but psychology provides a way to determine the cause of this suffering and how to change it. I never want anyone to feel the isolation and sorrow I felt when I was younger.

I want to help others become compassionate and unconditionally loving not just toward others, but to themselves. Even if I only make a small change in the world and affect just one person’s life, I would like to pursue that.


Here's why this Carnegie Mellon essay works so well:

  • It has an honest, compelling narrative that flows well. This applicant begins by explaining how their feelings and experiences allowed them to form a connection to the field of psychology from a young age. This story is raw and honest, and it highlights the applicant's reasons for wanting to pursue psychology in an appropriate and relevant manner.

  • It's extremely specific. The applicant uses concrete details to explain their background and why the psychology major is a perfect fit for their goals and interests. In addition, the essay connects the applicant’s present interest in psychology to how they hope to help others in the future, giving us a clear indication of why the applicant is so interested in psychology.


body_concrete_wallConcrete details are essential for a good Carnegie Mellon essay.


Carnegie Mellon Essay Example 2

This second Carnegie Mellon essay example also comes from the website Essays That Worked and, like the essay above, responds to a current Carnegie Mellon essay prompt.

It was written in response to Carnegie Mellon essay prompt number three:

Consider your application as a whole. What do you personally want to emphasize about your application for the admission committee’s consideration? Highlight something that’s important to you or something you haven’t had a chance to share. Tell us, don’t show us (no websites please).
(300 words max)


Here is the essay:

I recall entering the intimidating world of high school as an exorbitantly introverted, stereotypical Asian girl. My father urged me to assert myself and attempt new activities I wouldn’t have typically participated in. I didn’t want to be disappointed in twenty years by the things I didn’t attempt in high school, so I decided to pursue my long-time dream of becoming a cheerleader. I had always admired the optimism that cheerleaders had, and I was at a point in my life where I needed more positivity.

I faced obstacles trying to join the team. An Asian cheerleader? But Asians were supposed to be smart and cheerleaders were dumb! I broke racial stereotypes by becoming the first Asian cheerleader in my high school.
When I made the squad, I was exposed to individuals which whom I did not ordinarily traverse paths. I stepped outside of my bubble and met girls who were extremely extroverted and seemed to be in a constant state of elation. They taught me how to spread positivity throughout my daily interactions and taught me to use optimism as a strength in facing the hurdles of life. These were qualities I would have never learned from a textbook.

My parents had possessed strong reservations about me joining and feared I would meet girls who weren’t motivated in academics. This was false. Many of the girls were brilliant and creative in ways my regular friend group wasn’t. All avenues of life met there on that team.

Cheerleading was the rain and sun that helped a small seed like me bloom into a flower. It delights me knowing that I gained social skills and made friends I never thought I could gain. Cheerleading has changed my perspective on life and joining that family is one of my greatest treasures.


Here's why this Carnegie Mellon essay works so well:

  • It's tightly focused. This essay centers on a struggle the applicant overcame, a topic that is made clear quickly and acts as the focal point throughout the essay. We learn that the applicant made a decision in high school--to become a cheerleader--that defied racial stereotypes and helped her grow as a person. The role that cheerleading played in the applicant’s personal growth remains the focus through the end of the essay.

  • It goes into significant detail about a specific incident. In order to showcase the uniqueness of their experience and the impact it had on their identity, this applicant wrote a detailed description of what being a cheerleader was really like, beyond the stereotypes, and what they learned from that experience. This provides information about who the applicant is that can’t be conveyed through the other parts of their application.




4 Tips for a Great Carnegie Mellon Essay

As you now know, you'll need to write three essays for the Carnegie Mellon supplement. Here are some general tips to keep in mind as you begin to work on each Carnegie Mellon essay.


#1: Use Highly Specific Details

Don't rely on catch-all phrases to get your points across in your essays. Instead, try to think of real, concrete examples you can use.

Specific details will make each Carnegie Mellon essay you write (and your application as a whole!) stand apart from others; it also proves to the admissions committee that you know what kinds of opportunities are available to you at Carnegie Mellon.


#2: Avoid Exaggeration—Be Yourself!

Many students think they need to write about topics that sound "impressive," but this isn't actually what admissions committees want. What they really want is to learn more about who you are, what you sound like naturally (on paper, of course), and what you value in life.

This is why it's so important for you to clearly channel your voice in your writing. For example, it's OK to tell a joke or focus on a lighthearted topic if you would describe yourself as a comedian.

Just make sure that, no matter what kind of topic you choose or how you write, you're ultimately making a bigger, important point about yourself—one that ideally emphasizes essential facets of your personality, your experiences, and/or your ambitions.


#3: Don't Repeat Anything You've Written for Your Common App Essay

Carnegie Mellon requires all applicants to submit the Common App essay in addition to the three essays described above, so you'll want to ensure there's not too much overlap between them. While it's OK to elaborate on a specific topic or point that you briefly mentioned in another essay, don't end up writing about the same experience more than once.

The point of these essays is to showcase various aspects of your personality and life, and you won't succeed if all you're doing is repeating yourself in each Carnegie Mellon essay!


body_pattern_repetitiveRepetition: good for making pretty patterns, bad for college essays.


#4: Edit, Polish, and Proofread

Our final tip is to take a lot of time to edit, polish, and proofread each Carnegie Mellon essay you write. Look over each essay multiple times to catch typos and other technical errors, such as grammatical problems, and spelling mistakes.

You should also be on the lookout for the following problems:

  • Any inconsistencies in style, tone, voice, tense, etc.
  • Any areas that are unclear, vague, or awkwardly worded or placed
  • Any irrelevant details or descriptions that don't add anything important

Once you've edited and changed your essays a few times, give them to someone you trust, such as a teacher, mentor, or parent, and have that person offer feedback on how you could improve your writing.

Here are some key questions to ask this person to think about as they edit your essay:

  • Is the topic/theme effective and appropriate for a college essay?
  • Does the essay sound as though you wrote it (and not someone else)? Does the voice sound like your authentic voice?
  • Does the overall organization make sense? Is there a story, and does it flow well? Does the structure successfully get the main point across?
  • Are the details specific and relevant?

With all these tips in mind, you should definitely be able to write a great Carnegie Mellon essay!


What's Next?

You'll need to use the Common App if you're applying to Carnegie Mellon. Get tips on how to write a great Common App essay with our expert guide.

Thinking of applying to other great schools like Princeton, Brown, or Columbia? Then be sure to check out our guides to learn how you can write amazing essays for these schools' supplements.

Learn more about Carnegie Mellon's admission requirements by visiting its school page in our extensive database.



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About the Author
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Hannah Muniz

Hannah received her MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California. From 2013 to 2015, she taught English in Japan via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.

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