Got your heart set on Princeton—the #1 ranked university in the US? Then you'll need to learn how to write amazing Princeton essays for your Princeton Supplement, a key part of your application for admission.
In this detailed guide, we go over the different types of essays you'll be required to write for your Princeton application and provide you with some expert tips on how to write your most effective and unique essay possible.
Feature Image: James Loesch/Flickr
What Are the Princeton Essays?
The Princeton application requires four essays and three short answers from all applicants. One of these essays must answer a prompt provided by the Common Application, Coalition Application, or Universal College Application (depending on which system you choose to submit your Princeton application through).
The other essay prompt, as well as the three short answer prompts, are part of the Princeton Supplement. The Princeton Supplement also requires an Engineering Essay from applicants who have indicated on their applications an interest in pursuing a BS in Engineering.
Below, we'll look at each prompt in the Princeton Supplement. So let's get started!
While the Princeton supplement is submitted electronically, you might find that brainstorming the old fashioned way (with pen and paper!) helps you get your ideas organized.
The Bachelor of Arts/Undecided and the Bachelor of Science and Engineering Essays
Your first long essay is 250 words long and is assigned based on what you plan to major in. You will only need to answer one of these prompts.
The first prompt is for Bachelor of Arts (A.B.) degree and undecided applicants to respond to. If you are applying for the A.B. degree program or put undecided on your application, you must respond to this essay prompt in the first section of the supplement.
The second prompt is for Bachelor of Science and Engineering (B.S.E.) applicants to respond to. All applicants who indicate they'd like to pursue a bachelor of science in engineering degree must respond to this prompt. Next, we'll break down what each prompt is asking you to do and how to respond to it.
The good news is that both prompts are versions of the "Why This College?" essay, which is a pretty common essay to encounter on college applications. If you want more info on how to answer this type of question more generally, be sure to check out this article.
The A.B. Degree and Undecided Applicants Prompt
For A.B. Degree Applicants or Those Who are Undecided:
As a research institution that also prides itself on its liberal arts curriculum, Princeton allows students to explore areas across the humanities and the arts, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. What academic areas most pique your curiosity, and how do the programs offered at Princeton suit your particular interests? (Please respond in about 250 words.)
This question is asking you to make a case for why you'll be an excellent fit as a liberal arts student at Princeton. You can make your case in your response to this prompt by showing that you understand the value of the liberal arts education that Princeton offers, and that you've thought about how Princeton's programs fit your academic and future goals.
In addition to asking you to show how Princeton is a good fit for you, this prompt is really asking you to highlight why you are a good fit for Princeton. Everyone knows that Princeton is highly competitive, so your response to this prompt is your chance to show that you'll bring valuable intellectual interests and perspectives to the Princeton community as well.
What Makes A Good Answer?
#1: Show how you're unique. Are you excited to geek out about the connections between critical human geography and twenty-first century Arabic literature? To explore the relationships between psychology and social media? If you've got a weird, quirky, or unique set of academic interests, this is the place to go into detail about them. A good answer to this question will nail down one or more specific academic areas that you get genuinely pumped about and why you're interested in them. This is your chance to show the thought processes behind your choice to pursue an A.B. degree at Princeton...or why you put "undecided" on your application.
#2: Connect to Princeton's program offerings. You could name specific professors you hope to work with who share your interests, courses you'd be thrilled to take, or special program offerings you hope to participate in (like study abroad or research opportunities). In order to make your response to this part of the question genuine, you'll have to do your research on the programs you're interested in and really know your stuff. This will show admissions counselors that you're interested in going to Princeton because it's a good fit for you, not because it's ranked #1 on college lists.
#3: Be honest. Your response should make it clear that you've spent a lot of time thinking about and cultivating your academic interests. Make sure you're telling the truth: don't pick an area of academic interest just because you think it's impressive. To show your sincerity, make sure you're being specific about why you're interested in the area you're writing about. This will help your passion come across on the page.
What Should You Avoid?
#1: Avoid generalities. You don't want to respond to this question with general fields of study or disciplines. For instance, saying that "history" or "art" piques your curiosity won't be specific enough to give insight into who you are as a student or where you want your academic journey at Princeton to take you. Instead of "history," you could say, "I'm curious about how war monuments and memorials in the U.S. impact the communities they 're located in." Above all, you want to describe specific issues, questions, or perspectives in your areas of academic interest that you hope to explore and add knowledge to when you become a student at Princeton.
#2: Don't focus on past achievements. This question isn't the place to talk about your academic achievements and awards from high school. While it might seem like talking about your achievements in psychology and English will stand as proof of your commitment to these academic areas, Princeton admissions isn't necessarily looking to learn about why you're good at the subjects you're interested in. They're looking to learn about why you're curious about those areas and why you want to study them at Princeton.
3 Tips For Answering This Prompt
#1: Start with your interests. Start by brainstorming which academic interests you want to talk about You might have to think for a little while! If you know you want to major in African American Studies, take some time to write out the historical, political, and economic issues and questions that get you excited about majoring in this field. Let the specific aspects of the fields of study you're considering be the foundation for your answer.
#2: Do your research. Once you've brainstormed the specific aspects of your major or possible majors that you're most curious about, head over to Princeton's website to search for more information. If it's African American Studies, comb through every sentence on that major's website. Look into the interests of professors in this department, courses they teach, and events hosted by the department. You can even consider including your interest in working with specific professors or taking specific courses in your response.
#3: Be specific. The more specific you can be about your academic interests, the more likely your answer is to appeal to Princeton admissions. They do understand that you can't know every course you want to take for your entire college career before you even get to campus, but they do want to know that you're already thinking carefully about how you'll forge your path forward as an independent thinker and intellectual citizen once you start at Princeton.
The B.S.E. Degree Applicant Prompt
For B.S.E Degree Applicants:
Please describe why you are interested in studying engineering at Princeton. Include any of your experiences in, or exposure to engineering, and how you think the programs offered at the University suit your particular interests. (Please respond in about 250 words.)
This prompt is specific for applicants who want to major in engineering at Princeton. Essentially, this prompt is asking you to highlight the factors in your background and experiences that have influenced you to pursue engineering.
More specifically, this prompt wants you to explain why Princeton engineering is the program for you.
What Makes A Good Answer?
#1: Showcase your background. A good answer to this question will explain why you're interested in engineering. For instance, maybe you grew up in a city that experiences earthquakes, so you want to study civil engineering to make buildings safer. Or maybe your parents and grandparents are engineers and you're passionate about carrying on the family legacy. Whatever your story, including some of it to contextualize your interest in engineering is important to a good response here.
#2: Connect your interest to Princeton. Admissions counselors want to know why Princeton engineering is the only program for you. For example, say you want to focus on engineering for health professions. During your research, you read that Princeton students are developing new personal protective equipment for healthcare workers. This essay is a perfect place for you to explain that you want to join this research project! Making connections to real people, courses, and projects in Princeton Engineering will show that you're excited about engineering at Princeton.
#3: Share your research interests. In addition to stating a specific subfield of engineering that you're interested in (if possible), a good response to this prompt will describe key issues or questions pertaining to the subfield of engineering you want to study that motivate your interest in engineering. For example, if you hope to become a chemical engineer who works with cruelty-free cosmetics, describe that research interest here. While it's important to be flexible, and it's okay if you don't have your whole future with engineering planned out, being able to describe some of your vision for your future in Princeton Engineering is a crucial part of a good response.
What Should You Avoid?
#1: Avoid discussing wards and achievements. Avoid talking about awards, competitions, or other academic achievements if possible. Princeton admissions can find out those details from other parts of your application. Instead, showcase the passion behind your interest in engineering. Instead of describing achievements, describe moments of inspiration in your story that have led you to pursue engineering at Princeton.
#2: Don't skip the context. You don't want to describe your specific interests in engineering without connecting them to what Princeton has to offer. Make sure you describe to specific courses, professors, or research projects. Do your research and making sure your interests coincide with the possibilities Princeton provides.
3 Tips For Answering This Prompt
Tip #1: Start with the research. It will be tough to write a meaningful response to this prompt if you haven't done some serious research about the B.S.E. program at Princeton. Get really acquainted with the B.S.E. program's website. Gather the info you need to incorporate information about professors you want to work with, research projects you'd like to work on, and courses you're eager to take.
Tip #2: Focus on your experiences. Incorporating your background with engineering is important to a good response here, but you need to be strategic about what details you include. Describe the moment your interest in engineering began, the most exciting experience you've had with engineering, or what gets you pumped about studying engineering at Princeton. Revealing where your interest in engineering comes from can help prove that the B.S.E.program is a good fit for you.
Tip #3: Be specific. State the subfield of engineering that you're interested in and/or what engineering issues pique your curiosity. Princeton wants to know that you already have a vision for how you'll be an active engineering student!
Princeton also requires an essay about your extracurricular and/or work experience. This is your time to show admissions counselors a different side of yourself (like...maybe your cowboy side)!
The Extracurricular and Work Experience Supplement
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 is pretty straightforward. It's asking you to show that you choose activities and dedicate your time to things that you find meaningful. By describing one of these things in your life that is meaningful to you, you'll be showing Princeton admissions that you'll manage your time with similar precision as a student.
What Makes A Good Answer?
#1: Include details that excite you. The prompt makes it pretty clear that you should select one activity, organization, work experience, or hobby to write about, but how do you decide what to choose? A good response will focus on the aspects of your activity that are most exciting to you. Focus your description on the aspects of the activity that you find exciting and meaningful.
#2: Highlight your values. Describing an activity that is meaningful to you is also a chance to highlight your personal values. For example, maybe you teach yoga classes at a day camp for preschoolers because you believe yoga can help them learn how to cope with their big feelings. Explaining why you engage in your chosen activity will tell more about who you are and the values you hold.
What Should You Avoid?
#1: Avoid choosing a topic just because you think it looks good. This should be obvious: don't write about something you don't find meaningful. You might have involvement in activities that you think would sound impressive on your application, but it's more important that you reveal a more about who you are by describing an activity that is meaningful to you instead.
#2. Don't make this a list. It's easy to go into the details of all the stuff you do in your chosen activity, job, or hobby, but it's important to take it a step further and describe what the activity means to you. Don't get too bogged down in reciting your job description and lose focus of the story behind it.
3 Tips For Answering This Prompt
#1: Pick your most meaningful activity. Your enthusiasm will shine through in your response if you choose to write about the activity that is most meaningful to you. Think about where you are and what you're doing when you're feeling the most invigorated, and write about that activity in your response.
#2: Accentuate the positive. Try to identify the aspects of your activity that make you feel the most alive and fulfilled, then focus on describing those aspects of your activity in your response. You won't be able to include every little detail about your activity in your response, and that's okay. What's important is that you offer your interpretation of the importance of that activity in your life.
#3: Explain the meaning. This doesn't have to be some life-shattering revelation, but you should definitely highlight what your activity means to you. For example, if you work as a cashier at a local grocery store every summer, perhaps the job gives you the opportunity to know and connect with everyday people in your community, and you value the opportunity to build local connections with people you'd otherwise never know. What you find meaningful about your activity is ultimately up to you, but you want to make sure you briefly describe it in your response.
The "Your Voice" essays are designed to help Princeton admissions counselors get to know you better.
The Your Voice Supplement
The "Your Voice" supplement section consists of two required, approximately 250 word essays. The prompts for these essays (below) are asking you to give Princeton admissions a sense of how your past and ongoing experiences shape the kind of student you will be at Princeton.
In other words, the "Your Voice" supplement is asking you to show evidence that you live out values that fit with Princeton's values. So, to answer these two required questions, start thinking about points in your ongoing story that reflect your commitment to having hard conversations and serving others. We'll get into the specifics of how to write about your story in response to each prompt next.
Prompt #1: The Difficult Conversation Prompt
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?
The first of the required "Your Voice" supplements is asking you to show that you're capable of engaging in civil discourse with others—even when the topic of conversation is tough to talk about. By describing a time when you shared in a convo about a difficult topic, you'll also demonstrate that you're bold and brave enough to push through uncomfortable situations and learn something new along the way.
To respond to this prompt, you'll need to tell a story. Start by thinking of a specific conversation you've had and what you learned from it, and how that learning informs who you're becoming and who you'll be as a student at Princeton.
What Makes A Good Answer?
#1: Share a real experience. Thinking of a challenging experience that seems meaningful enough to include in an application essay might feel...well, challenging. Nevertheless, you want your story and be as truthful as possible. Princeton Admissions knows that you probably didn't change the world from one conversation. What they want to know is that you're willing to have tough conversations. So, pick a memory of a real conversation, recall as many details about what happened in the conversation as you can, and draft a description of the situation that's as true to real events as possible.
#2: Be thoughtful. Did you learn something new during the difficult conversation you're writing about? Explain what you learned from it in your response! For instance, perhaps you learned that being a nonjudgmental listener can help others feel more comfortable with listening to what you have to say. Whatever you learned, make sure you describe it in your response. This will show Princeton Admissions that you're open to learning and growing.
#3: Show you're forward thinking. How will the knowledge you gained from this difficult conversation shape your behavior as a Princeton student? Think about what college is like: you'll be encountering students, faculty, and staff from all over the world. This means you'll be in constant contact with different values, cultures, and ways of thinking about the world. Princeton wants to know that you're prepared to participate in this environment in positive ways!
What Should You Avoid?
#1: Don't disparage anyone. Even if the conversation you're describing was incredibly frustrating, don't insult the other people who were involved. Instead, show empathy toward the people who spoke with. Empathy is a crucial part of difficult conversations, and Princeton Admissions wants to know that you're a person who can extend empathy to many different kinds of people to be a good student and citizen.
#2: Don't brag. Don't brag about what you accomplished. Instead, focus on what you learned from the conversation--even if you think that the other people involved were totally wrong and you were totally right. Admissions counselors want to know that you learned from your experience.
2 Tips For Answering This Prompt
Tip #1: Pick a convo that impacted you. You should definitely write about a conversation that was meaningful to you, rather than one that you think is impressive or controversial. Take time to reflect on tough conversations you've had before drafting your response, and make sure you pick one that impacted you in some way.
Tip #2: Connect the topic to college life. While you obviously need to describe the topic of your difficult conversation and how you handled it, a crucial part of your response is how this convo prepared you to be an engaged, ethical member of the Princeton community. Be sure to focus part of your response on explaining how what you learned will guide your life as a Princeton student.
Prompt #2: The Service and Your Story Prompt
Princeton has a longstanding commitment to service and civic engagement. Tell us how your story intersects (or will intersect) with these ideals.
This supplement prompt is asking you to show your commitment to serving others and/or being an engaged citizen--and you'll need to describe a specific experience or idea that demonstrates this commitment.
When the prompt says "tell us how your story intersects (or will intersect with) these ideals," it means that you should think of real things you've done or real values you hold that motivate your civic engagement. This is a key part of the story you'll have to share in your response.
What Makes A Good Answer?
#1: Tell a story. Basically, the prompt is assuming that who you are and what you value will motivate how you serve others and participate as an engaged citizen. To answer this prompt effectively, then, think about telling the story behind your decision to serve or fulfill your civic responsibilities in a specific way.
#2: Connect it to your local life. The decisions we make about our community involvement are often personal. For instance, maybe someone in your family recovered from cancer as a child, so your story with service involves gathering donations for a pediatric cancer care center in the region where you live. Think about the personal connections that you've made, then include them in your response.
#3: Consider the future. Maybe you don't have much experience with service or civic engagement yet, but you have a big vision for how you'll serve and engage in the Princeton community. This prompt is a chance to describe the details of that vision. Alternatively, if you have existing experience with service and civic engagement and want to continue serving in similar ways at Princeton, share your ideas about how you'll accomplish that. Service and civic engagement are lifelong commitments—describing your ideas about how you'll serve in the future will show that you prepared for that commitment.
What Should You Avoid?
#1: Don't be condescending. While it's likely that the people you've served in the past earned things from you, don't focus your response on describing how wonderful you . Instead, focus on how your service and civic engagement experiences have refined your values and helped you become a better human citizen, which is what Princeton admissions wants to hear about.
2): Avoid delusions of grandeur. If you decide to include a description of how you hope to serve once you get to Princeton, don't get too carried away. For example, you probably aren't going to get every single Princeton student registered to vote...but you can probably make some progress. Be realistic about your ideas for how you'll serve in the future. Princeton admissions just wants you to show dedication to service and civic engagement. They don't expect you to solve all of the world's problems.
3 Tips For Answering This Prompt
Tip #1: Tell a story. It's important to coach your answer in the form of a story. Describe who you served, what the service looked like, and why you decided to serve in this way. If possible, connect it to your background, your identity, or your values. Turning your service experience into a story for Princeton admissions will make it more memorable.
Tip #2: Describe the impact. Princeton Admissions doesn't just want to know the story of your past experience with service--they also want to know how the experience continues to impact you today. Describe what you learned from the experience, how it changed you, and how it shapes your current actions and values.
Tip #3: Connect it to your future. Connect your story about your service to your vision for your life as a student at Princeton. This will let admissions know that you'll also be an exceptional student outside of the classroom in the Princeton community.
The "More About You" Short Answer Supplements
The "More About You" short answer section of the Princeton Supplement is your last chance to show who you are: the real person behind all of the stats, scores, and successes that the rest of your application showcases. In fact, the instructions for this required portion of the supplement are clear: "There are no right or wrong answers. Be yourself!"
This means that, in 50 words or less, you'll need give admissions counselors a clearer picture of the "you" behind the application. All three of the "More About You" short answer questions are required, and each one gives you a chance to provide a little more context for your desire to be a student at Princeton.
#1: The New Skill Prompt
What is a new skill you would like to learn in college?
To answer this question, all you need to do is describe a skill that you want to learn in college! There are a couple of different ways that you could interpret this prompt. Just remember: answer honestly.
For starters, you could think of the prompt as asking about a skill that you want to learn from your actual college courses. If this is the path you choose, you could write about how you want to learn to produce a podcast, how to lead a Socratic Seminar, or how to write a winning elevator pitch. Connecting the skill you want to learn to your areas of academic is a solid strategy.
Alternatively, you could think more generally about any skill you want to learn during your time in college! For example, maybe you struggle with public speaking, and you want to learn to share your ideas more clearly in your classes and your extracurriculars. Writing about skills that are more oriented towards exploring your identity, background, or interests outside of academics is perfectly fine here too.
Whatever skill you decide to write about, it's important to briefly explain why you want to learn that skill. For instance, if you were writing about learning to bake like your grandmother, you might explain that this skill has been passed down in your family for generations, and you'd like to pass it down as well. If you want to learn how to produce a podcast, maybe you'd explain that you were searching for an interesting podcast on Marxist economics, but couldn't find one that had good production quality, so you want to learn how to produce one yourself.
#2: The Joy Prompt
What brings you joy?
The same principles go for this prompt: write your response about something that genuinely brings you joy. It could be an activity, a person or relationship, or an experience you've had. To answer this question, simply describe the thing that brings you joy.
A good answer to this question will identify one specific thing that brings you joy, then describe it with gusto. For example, if the thing that brings you joy is building model planes with your little brother, briefly tell the story of why that experience brings you joy. Maybe you like the challenge of focusing on small details, or perhaps your joy comes from building something with your hands.
Briefly giving these specific details will show how the thing that brings you joy reflects your values and identity--both of which will give more clues as to the kind of person you'll be as a student at Princeton.
#3: The Soundtrack of Your Life Prompt
What song represents the soundtrack of your life at this moment?
This short answer is fun! Keep your song selection relatively clean, of course, but otherwise, just think of a song that you're literally listening to on repeat right now, or pick a song that symbolizes your current experience. Then explain why!
For example, maybe you'll write about "Inner Child" by BTS because getting ready for college in the midst of so much has made you reflect on your younger years. Or, if you've literally listened to "my future" by Billie Eilish one thousand times since its release, briefly write about why you can't stop hitting repeat.
Don't overthink this prompt: the music we love reveals things about our personality and how we cope with the realities of our lives. Just be real, and you'll show Princeton admissions another facet of your genuine personality and how you process the world.
Tip 0: find a cozy coffee shop to start writing your essay in.
How to Write a Great Princeton Essay: 4 Key Tips
To wrap up, here are some final tips to keep in mind as you write your Princeton essays and any other essays for college applications.
#1: Be Specific
A vague essay is certain to squelch your chances of getting into Princeton, so make sure you're being as specific as possible in your writing.
For example, if you're writing about somebody who inspired you, touch on the little quirks or traits they have to help the admissions committee more easily visualize this person, such as their subtle mannerisms, the way they handled stress, or their perseverance in a difficult situation.
Remember that you're writing about something real, whether that's a person, event, object, or experience. Your aim should be to make the subject of your essay feel as real to your readers as it did and does for you.
Other ways to ensure that you're being specific enough in your essay are to use common literary devices such as anecdotes, dialogue (an actual conversation you had with someone), imagery, and onomatopoeia. These not only add color to your writing but also paint the subject of your essay in a more effective, relatable way.
Lastly, I recommend getting somebody else to read over your essay (which I talk about more in tip 4); this person can let you know if your writing isn't specific enough and if too much is left to be implied.
#2: Be Honest and Use Your Voice
The whole point of writing an essay for a college application is to show the admissions committee who you are. In short, what makes you you? This is why it's so critical to use an authentic voice in your Princeton essays.
For example, if you love making people laugh (and think humor is one of your defining traits), then it might be a good idea to include a joke or two in your personal essay.
However, don't exaggerate anything that happened to you or any feelings you might have—the admissions committee will more than likely be able to see through it. Remember that you want your voice and feelings to come across strongly but also (and more importantly) authentically.
Don't claim in your engineering essay that you've liked engineering since you were 3 years old if you only recently developed an interest in it. Lying about or exaggerating anything in your essay will simply make you seem insincere and, yes, even immature. So avoid it!
#3: Write Well and Avoid Clichés
You'll need to be a decent writer if you're hoping to get into Princeton—one of the most selective universities in the US! On the technical side, this means that your Princeton essays should have no grammatical, spelling, or punctuation errors.
If you're unsure about a certain grammar rule, such as how to use a semicolon correctly, feel free to consult our SAT grammar guide for a quick refresher.
Writing well also means varying up your sentence lengths and styles (in other words, don't start every sentence with "I," even though you're likely talking about yourself).
On the more stylistic side, your essays should really grab your audience's attention—and keep it throughout. Therefore, you'll need to come up with a unique way to hook your readers from the beginning. For example, you could start with a piece of dialogue that someone said to you once (I'd avoid famous quotations, though, since these can come across really clichéd).
Alternatively, you could start with a memory, opening a description with a strong emotion you had, a sound you heard (using onomatopoeia would be a good idea here), or powerful, sensory images of the setting.
As a final tip, make a conscious effort to avoid clichés. These include quotations that have been quoted to death and phrases or idioms that are often overused. Using clichés indicates laziness to the reader and a lack of authenticity in your voice and storytelling.
For example, instead of writing, "I woke up at the crack of dawn," you could write something like "I woke up as soon as the sun began to peek over the horizon" (if you're the poetic type) or even just "I woke up at dawn" (if you're more like Hemingway).
Remember that you're ultimately telling a story with your essays, so don't be afraid to get creative and use a variety of literary techniques!
#4: Proofread, Proofread, Proofread!
The final step before you submit each of your Princeton essays is to edit and proofread it.
Editing isn't a one-step process. After you finish your rough draft, put your essay away and take it out again a few days or even weeks later to get a fresh perspective on what sounds good and what comes across awkward, unclear, or irrelevant. Do this step numerous times. At this time, you should also be checking for any typos, grammar errors, etc.
Once you've done a few editing sessions on your own, give your essay to someone you trust, such as a teacher, counselor, or parent, and have that person look it over and offer any feedback or corrections. Getting another set of eyes to look at your essay can help you catch smaller mistakes you might've failed to notice; it also gives a clearer sense as to what kind of impression your essay will likely leave on the Princeton admissions committee.
If you're applying to Princeton through the Common Application, you'll need to write an essay that answers one of the Common App prompts. Our in-depth guide goes over all the current prompts and gives you expert tips on how to answer them.
You can also check out our guide on how to choose a Common App prompt if you're struggling with deciding on the best one for your college application.
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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.