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4 Tips for Stand-Out Carnegie Mellon Essays

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Posted by Hannah Muniz | Aug 15, 2020 12:00:00 PM

College 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.

Feature Image: Mathieu Thouvenin/Flickr


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 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.

Note: This year's Carnegie Mellon essay prompts are new, so the following essays are in response to older prompts with different word limits. Despite these differences, being able to see the kinds of stories successful applicants have told should give you a clear sense of what topics, details, and styles might work well for your own Carnegie Mellon admissions essays!


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:

Why Carnegie Mellon University?


And now here's the essay:

As a child who hid behind her parents and never uttered a word whenever strangers were near, I was no stranger to people deeming me shy. As I got older, however, I found my voice more comfortably through music, through art, and through writing. Playing Mozart's Violin Concerto in the Kennedy Center, for instance, unleashed a swell of emotions through the intricate art of storytelling with my violin. I was drawn to writing stories and sharing ideas with my peers, starting my editor career in fifth grade. Five years later, I co-founded my high school's literary magazine, Muses, which provides a platform for all voices while fostering connections among students.

I was twelve years old when an HTML class through Johns Hopkins University's Center for Talented Youth program introduced me to a modern language of communication: computers and the internet. Falling in love with coding and website design, I utilized my newfound knowledge to design a website for my National History Day project, which won the school competition. In high school, I joined programming club, took the rigorous computer science classes, and designed Muses' website. This year, I created a conceptual online boutique store, which won first place in Maryland Future Business Leader Association's E-business competitive event.

In the summer of 2016, I interned in an NCI melanoma research lab. This experience completely changed how I viewed the importance of technology to modern communication. We had obtained genotypes from thousands of melanoma patients and controls, but a new question arose: how could we extract the useful information from a massive data file, akin to finding a needle in a haystack? Under the guidance of a bioinformatician, I performed an association test between melanoma associated variants and survival outcome to identify the risk loci that might affect patient survival. Catering to the needs of the scientists, I wrote an app by R code that organizes and manages melanoma genotype information; extracting the information of a particular genotype and its association with melanoma was now a couple clicks away. From this work, I learned how to translate large data into solutions, while using the correct data format and data structure. I realized that modern technology not only helps us communicate more efficiently, but also provides a system upon which we can solve global problems.

With a strong background in computer science and communications, I hope to incorporate both into a future career of building data systems, conducting research, and consulting for organizations that serve underrepresented citizens. One project I want to tackle is the modification of social media algorithms so that media created by minorities and/or for minorities will appear on users' radars. The algorithm would analyze the user's demographics and deliver news relevant to those traits, such as discoveries about Asian health issues showing up on Asian users' feeds. Carnegie Mellon's encouragement of interdisciplinary studies under the Information Systems major would allow me to accomplish this and so much more. As someone who attacks calculus and creative writing with equal enthusiasm, IS' objective of providing students with a broad background in the humanities and sciences is very appealing. As someone who learned to work as a team in a research lab, I believe CMU's emphasis on collaboration and student innovation would push me to further improve my teamwork and problem-solving skills. In particular, I hope to take advantage of CMU's Technology Consulting in the Global Community program, receiving guidance from both CMU's renowned faculty and international technology experts. To that end, the Social and Decision Sciences major, my second choice, would also prepare me to utilize similar decision-making and analysis skills to solve social problems.

We live in a world where communication through technology connects communities across the globe, more so than ever before. The future of exploration and innovation requires us to develop efficient ways of communication—we need a combination of scientific expertise and knowledge grounded in the humanities to accurately convey ideas, solve problems, and make the planet a better home for us all. An education at Carnegie Mellon would propel me in this endeavor.


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 they've always been considered shy yet how, through various endeavors in fields such as writing, communication, and technology, they've managed to transcend this assumption. This story is raw and honest, and it highlights the applicant's most notable accomplishments in an appropriate and relevant manner.
  • It's extremely specific. The applicant uses concrete details to explain their background and why Carnegie Mellon is an ideal fit for their goals and interests. In addition, the essay makes note of specific qualities of CMU, from its "encouragement of interdisciplinary studies" to its Technology Consulting in the Global Community program, giving us a clear indication of why the applicant is so interested in attending this school.


body_concrete_wallConcrete details are essential for a good Carnegie Mellon essay.


Carnegie Mellon Essay Example 2

This second Carnegie Mellon essay example comes from the website Free Test Prep (now called BWS Education Consulting) and is, like the essay above, quite long at about 600 words—that's double the current word limit.

It was written in response to the following (old) Carnegie Mellon essay prompt:

Please submit a one-page, single-spaced essay that explains why you have chosen Carnegie Mellon and your particular major(s), department(s) or program(s). This essay should include the reasons why you've chosen the major(s), any goals or relevant work plans and any other information you would like us to know. If you are applying to more than one college or program, please mention each college or program you are applying to. Because our admission committees review applicants by college and programs, your essay can impact our final decision. Please do not exceed one page for this essay.


Here is the essay:

What would be best for me? I spent a lot of time trying to find colleges to apply to and Carnegie Mellon made the list. I believe it would be essential for me to attend a research university. I want to be able to know that what I am working on (research, experiments, etc.) is current, ground-breaking, game-changing. I want to feel that what I'm doing matters. I've spent years in elementary and middle school only to discover that my achievements (and no, I don't only mean my perfect attendance awards) did not grandfather in for the rest of my academic life. High school did not care whether I attended elementary regularly or about any of my pre-secondary school achievements. College applications only want to know what I have done throughout these past four years. I feel that Carnegie Mellon will provide me with an environment that will let me grow and change as the world is growing and changing. What I do here will matter and carry on to whatever graduate school I may be at or whatever career path I choose to tread.

In the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, one can choose from several Higher Level (HL) courses to fulfill the three required. My campus chose to make English and History mandatory HL's. I chose to take HL Psychology as my third. This focused two-year class has revealed my interest in psychology as a lifelong study and future career. I have always been interested in human behaviors, how and why people make their decisions, how both internal and external factors can and do influence everyday life. As this class has progressed, I have found myself enjoying these studies more and more. I have been very successful in this class and want to apply the knowledge and skills I have learned to real-world situations.

Psychology HL requires students to complete two experiments, one in our junior year and one in our senior year. Additionally, we complete an Internal Assessment (IA) of the experiment done early senior year. My group had to create an experiment based on three past studies and go through the process of analyzing the validity of our results after performing the experiment on student participants. We tested the effect of researcher expectations on participant performance, using the studies of Rosenthal and Jacobson (1966); Stangor, Carr, and Kiang (1998); and Crisson, Seta, and Seta (1989). The objective of this project was to reflect on what we did, how it was done, and what could have been improved on. Although we had to accept our null hypothesis, that researcher expectations had little or no effect on participant performance, we were able to understand what went askew and know what to correct so we could improve the performance, given the opportunity to do it again. I found performing the experiments live exciting; I had to be wary of creating bias or unconsciously affecting others. It made me become more analytical; more understanding of the fact that many factors can influence behavior and more understanding of my own role in affecting others.

I'm applying to Carnegie Mellon into the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. I believe that my two years in HL Psychology have prepared me well for whatever is demanded of me. I hope to take advantage of all the programs available at Dietrich College, such as the H&SS Academic Advisory Center and H&SS Career Connections. I expect to thrive during these next four years, prepared enough to head on into graduate school for a PhD in Psychology.


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

  • It's tightly focused. This essay centers on the applicant's desire to study psychology, a topic that is made clear quickly and acts as the focal point throughout the essay. We learn that the applicant initially developed an interest in psychology through their high school's IB Program and that they intend to eventually get a PhD in the field.
  • It goes into significant detail about a specific incident. In order to showcase their passion for psychology, this applicant wrote a detailed description of an experiment they conducted, what they learned from it, and how this knowledge will allow them to succeed at CMU.




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.


Want to write the perfect college application essay? Get professional help from PrepScholar.

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Hannah Muniz
About the Author

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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