Princeton is one of the most prestigious and selective universities in the world, admitting less than eight percent of students every year. In order to be one of them, you need to make sure that your application stands out from the other tens of thousands of applicants the admissions committee must review.
In this article, we'll break down exactly how to get into Princeton, starting with how difficult it is to get in. Then, we'll move into talking about the test scores, essays, and supplemental materials you'll need to really make your application stand out.
How Hard Is It to Get Into Princeton?
Princeton is an extremely competitive university. As of September 2020, Princeton's admissions rate was just 5.8%, making it one of the most selective schools in the entire world.
Like many other colleges and universities, Princeton's admissions rate is incredibly selective, particularly as more and more students apply.
If you want to be one of the students admitted to the next Princeton University freshman class, you need to make sure your application reflects why you would be a great addition to the school.
What Is Princeton Looking for in Its Students?
If Princeton is so competitive, how can you make your application stand out?
In short, you need to focus on what makes you, you.
On Princeton's undergraduate admissions website, the school offers several tips for how to get into Princeton. Let's take a look at what they are:
#1: Challenge Yourself Academically
Princeton recommends that students have coursework in the following subject areas:
- Four years of English (including continued practice in writing)
- Four years of mathematics (including calculus for students interested in engineering)
- Four years of one foreign language
- At least two years of laboratory science (including physics and chemistry for students interested in engineering)
- At least two years of history
But simply checking off those boxes won't make you stand out. You need to demonstrate that you've challenged yourself academically; that means signing up for advanced coursework, like AP or IB classes and doing well in them. You need to show that you're up to the challenge of Princeton's rigorous academic requirements.
#2: Spend Time on Your Essays
Princeton requires its applicants to write at least two essays and two short answer questions (three essays if you've indicated an interest in Engineering). The admissions blog recommends taking your time on your essays.
Because the essays are so important, we've put together a complete guide to the Princeton supplement. The biggest takeaway, though? Use your essays as an opportunity to show off your writing skills. Your work should be polished and written in your own voice.
#3: Focus on What Makes You Stand Out
Finally, Princeton wants its students to demonstrate exceptionalism in and out of the classroom. The vast majority of students who apply to Princeton will have a stellar academic track record. You need to show the admissions committee what makes you different from the other thousands of applicants.
We'll return to these tips more in a later section.
Can You Apply to Princeton Early?
Princeton offers single-choice early action.
Single-choice early action program is a non-binding process, which means that if you're admitted, you have until May 1 to notify Princeton about your decision to attend. If you apply single-choice early action, also known as restrictive early action, on November 1, you may not apply to an early program at any other private college or university.
However, you can still apply early to other schools. Here are the exceptions to the single-choice process:
- You may apply early to any public institution or service academy, as long as the decision is non-binding.
- You may apply early to any international institution, as long as the decision is non-binding.
- You may apply early to any college or university with a non-binding rolling admission process.
You should only apply to Princeton early action if Princeton is your first choice, since you'll save money on other apps if you're accepted.
That being said, applying early doesn't offer any significant statistical advantage over applying at the regular decision deadline, so if you're not all in on Princeton, you can wait a few more months to submit your application.
Princeton Application Deadlines and Requirements
Here are the important dates and requirements for applying to Princeton:
Due on November 1 for Early-Action Students
- Application and Princeton Supplement
- Graded Written Paper
- School Report, Guidance Counselor Letter, and Transcript
- Teacher Evaluation Form 1
- Teacher Evaluation Form 2
Due on January 1 for Regular Decision Students
- Application and Princeton Supplement
- Graded Written Paper
- School Report, Guidance Counselor Letter and Transcript
- Teacher Evaluation Form 1
- Teacher Evaluation Form 2
What GPA Do I Need to Get Into Princeton?
You'll need a strong GPA to get into Princeton. The average unweighted GPA of Princeton's admitted students is 3.9.
Princeton admitted less than 11% of students whose GPA's were under 3.8 in 2018. If your grades aren't the best, you'll need to really strengthen other parts of your application, like your essays and your extracurricular activities.
What Test Scores Do I Need to Get Into Princeton?
Unsurprisingly, Princeton's admitted applicants also have high test scores. Let's take a look at the SAT and ACT scores you'll need to be competitive in Princeton admissions.
But before we get started, there's one important caveat for students applying to Princeton in 2020-2021: because of the coronavirus pandemic, Princeton has gone test optional for this application cycle only. For more information about what this means for you, check out this article.
What SAT Scores Do I Need to Get Into Princeton?
The vast majority of admitted students at Princeton score above 1500 on the SAT. The average SAT composite score of Princeton's admitted applicants is 1515.
While Princeton doesn't have a hard cutoff in terms of SAT scores, the data speaks volumes: Princeton accepted less than 5% of applicants who had scored under 1400 on their SATs. Go down 100 points and the numbers are starker: Princeton accepted barely 1% of students who had a 1300 or lower.
If you want to be a competitive applicant at Princeton, you'll need great test scores. If you're not quite at a 1500 yet, don't panic. Invest in some solid test prep materials, make a study plan, and stick to it.
What ACT Scores Do I Need to Get Into Princeton?
The average ACT scores of Princeton's admitted applicants are also high. Princeton accepted less than 1% of students who scored under a 24 on their ACTs.
In order to have the best shot of admission, you'll need at least a 33 to be in the middle range of admitted applicants.
Princeton Application Essays
Princeton likes a well-rounded student and your essays are one of the best places to show off what makes you unique.
Princeton requires a total of three essays and three short answers from all applicants for admission.
One of these essays will answer a prompt provided by the Common Application or Coalition Application (depending on which one you choose to submit your Princeton application through).
Essay #1: 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 prompt might look easy to answer, but remember that your ultimate goal here is to explain why this activity is meaningful to you. So to answer this question, you need to pick one thing and then focus on why you care about it.
The best tactic to doing well on this essay? Be honest. Let's say you were the Vice President of your honors society, volunteered for Habitat for Humanity, and also worked summers at a youth camp. Take some time to pick the activity that meant the most to you, not the one that you think admissions counselors care the most about. So if that's working at a summer camp, roll with it! Your passion will come though in your essay, and that's what admissions officers want to see.
Oh, and be careful with word count here: while you have 200 words in the reply box, the prompt specifically asks for about 150. We recommend that you edit your response until it's as close to 150 words as possible.
Essay #2: 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?
Admissions counselors want to learn more about how you handle disagreements and if you're open to learning from them. To answer this prompt, you need to 1) tell a story about a time when you disagreed with someone about something important, then 2) explain what you learned from that exchange and how it shaped you as a person.
Do not talk about how you were right, and you made everyone come around to your way of thinking. This doesn't demonstrate your open-mindedness or willingness to learn from others, which are both key things Princeton admissions counselors are looking for. Princeton wants to admit students who will be positive contributors to the Princeton community.
Essay #3: Civic Engagement
Princeton has a longstanding commitment to service and civic engagement. Tell us how your story intersects (or will intersect) with these ideals.
First things first: in order to answer this question, you need to know what "civic engagement" means. According to the New York Times and the American Democracy Project, civic engagement means "working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference."
So that means this prompt wants to know how have (or plan to) make a difference in the community around you.
There are two ways you can go about answering this prompt. The first tactic you can use is telling a story about your current service and explaining how you plan to bring what you've learned to the Princeton community. For example, let's say you volunteer at the animal shelter. You can tell a story about how one scared dog his perfect forever home after you worked with him for weeks. That experience taught you that every animal and person has value and should be treated with kindness. That's why you're majoring in political science in hopes of one day working for a community-oriented political organization.
But what if you don't have a lot of community service experience? Then you can answer this question by looking forward to the service you plan to do as a Princeton student. For example, if you're majoring in business, you can talk about how you want to join the Small-Business Consulting group to help local businesses become strong members of their community. The goal with this approach is to show admissions counselors that you have a plan for furthering the school's mission of civic engagement.
The Princeton Supplement also requires you to answer three short answer questions. You only have 50 words to answer each of these, so make sure you're keeping your answers short and specific.
Here's the first question:
What is a new skill you would like to learn in college?
Princeton is asking this question to figure out what you want to learn while you're in school. The best answers to this question will be achievable and unique.
So saying that you want to learn to become the President of the United States isn't a very good answer, but saying you want to learn how to tell if other planets can support life by studying with Dr. Joshua Winn and other professors in the Department of Astrophysical Sciences!
Now let's look at the second question:
What brings you joy?
There are a lot of questions on college applications where it makes sense for you to tie your response back to your degree, a program on campus, or even an on-campus group. This is one of those rare questions where the best answers are going to be authentic and honest. Admissions counselors are using this question to get a better sense of who you are and what you value.
So take a minute and think about what brings you joy in your life. Is it big family dinners that you have every Saturday? Or maybe it's surfing a perfect wave on a beautiful summer day? There's no real wrong answer here — joy is a good thing!
Whatever the case may be, the best responses to this question will paint a picture for the reader and help them feel your joy as they read your words. Explain why this activity brings you joy, how it makes you feel, and why it matters to you.
And that brings us to the last short answer question:
What song represents the soundtrack of your life at this moment?
For this response, you want to give counselors a glimpse into your personality beyond just the song title. Two answer this question, you need to do two things: pick a song and
Picking your song might be the trickiest part. The first thing to keep in mind is that you want to avoid super controversial songs. Don't pick something overly vulgar or deliberately provocative—remember, you're trying to make a good impression. Similarly, you want to pick a song that will let you tell a short, but compelling story about your life. It's worth spending time to be thoughtful about your song choice!
Once you have your song picked, you want to explain why this song is a good soundtrack for your life at the moment. Why does it speak to you? The best discussions will help readers get a sense of who you are while staying positive or hopeful. You don't want to pick a song that says it encapsulates your sadness because your life is miserable at the moment. While it's totally okay to be sad, see if you can't spin that into something more positive.
For instance, maybe you choose the song "Better Days" by the Goo Goo Dolls because while COVID has made things tough for you and your family, you know good things are on the horizon...including majoring in social work so you can help struggling families in the future.
3 Tips for Getting Into Princeton
Getting into Princeton isn't easy… but it's certainly not impossible! If you want to boost your chances at admission, follow these expert tips for how to get into Princeton.
#1: Polish Your Academic Record
You need to demonstrate some serious academic chops if you want to be accepted to Princeton. Your grades and your test scores need to be near perfect.
Don't expect to coast into Princeton if you haven't put some serious work into both - you likely won't get in. And you can't make up for years of bad grades by finally putting effort in the first semester of your senior year - you'll need to demonstrate a track record of academic achievement and rigor.
Start working towards a 4.0 early. Make a plan to take the most rigorous courses your high school offers.
When it comes time to take your standardized tests, make sure you study. Come up with a plan and stick to it.
#2: Spend Serious Time on Your Essays
Your Princeton essays are important. Don't skimp on them or rush through! You should put hours of thought, writing, and revising time into each one.
Don't write what you think the admissions committee wants to hear. Write what's true for you. Remember, the admissions committee will be reading tens of thousands of essays. The ones that are trite or cliche will just become part of that noise.
The essays that stand out will be the ones that are honest, sincere, and original. Use the essays are an opportunity to show who you really are.
In other words, let them describe your spike.
#3: Find Your Spike
What's a spike, you ask?
In short, a spike is something that makes you stand out. Something that no (or very few) other applicants have.
When you're applying to college, it's tempting to seem well-rounded and interested in all the things.
Don't do that.
Your application won't stand out if you're mediocre in band, on the track team, and on student council. It will stand out if you travel to Japan to perform with a world-class performance ensemble or qualify for the Olympic trials in shot put.
When your focus is on one thing, you'll be better at it than if you have to split your time and attention. It will also be more impressive on your resume.
Even if you're only interested in Princeton, learning more about how to get into other selective schools, such as Harvard, can give you additional insight into how to polish up your application.
Looking for application tips for other selective schools? Read our complete guides to the University of California system and to the Georgetown application.
Should you apply early or regular decision to college? Find out the pros and cons of early decision in this article.
Want to get into Princeton or your personal top choice college?
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Hayley Milliman is a former teacher turned writer who blogs about education, history, and technology. When she was a teacher, Hayley's students regularly scored in the 99th percentile thanks to her passion for making topics digestible and accessible. In addition to her work for PrepScholar, Hayley is the author of Museum Hack's Guide to History's Fiercest Females.