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How to Write the Cornell Supplemental Essays 2020-2021: The Amazing Guide

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Cornell University has an acceptance rate of 15% and is known as one of America’s top schools with Ivy League status. Beyond stellar academic programs, the school boasts architecturally breathtaking buildings, a sprawling quad, and diverse social activities and dining.

It is no wonder that Cornell receives an incredible number of applications every year.

Along with many other Ivy League institutions, Cornell allows students to apply for admission via the Common Application. When applying online, students are asked to complete a school-specific writing supplement. Only one supplemental essay is required, however, the question will depend on what school you’re applying to.  In addition, some schools also have short answer questions.

Cornell Supplemental Essay Requirements

The word count for Cornell’s supplemental essay can be up to 650 words. The prompt you will answer is based on the college that houses your selected major.

These are the prompts:

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences: Why are you drawn to studying the major you have selected? Please discuss how your interests and related experiences have influenced your choice. Specifically, how will an education from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and Cornell University help you achieve your academic goals?

College of Architecture, Art, and Planning: What is your “thing”? What energizes you or engages you so deeply that you lose track of time? Everyone has different passions, obsessions, quirks, inspirations. What are yours?

In addition, the school asks, “What three words best describe you?”

College of Arts and Sciences: Students in Arts and Sciences embrace the opportunity to delve into multifaceted academic interests, embodying in 21st century terms Ezra Cornell’s “any person…any study” founding vision. Tell us about the areas of study you are excited to explore, and specifically why you wish to pursue them in our College.

Cornell SC Johnson College of Business: What kind of a business student are you? The Cornell SC Johnson College of Business offers two distinct business programs, the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management and the School of Hotel Administration. Please describe how your interests and ambitions can be met through one or both of the Schools within the College.

College of Engineering: Tell us about what excites you most about Cornell Engineering and/or studying engineering at Cornell University. How do you see yourself becoming a part of the Cornell Engineering community?

In addition, the school asks, “What three words best describe you?” and “What are three words you would use to describe Cornell Engineering?”

College of Human Ecology: How have your experiences influenced your decision to apply to the College of Human Ecology. How will your choice of major impact your goals and plans for the future?

School of Industrial and Labor Relations: Using your personal, academic, or volunteer/work experiences, describe the topics or issues that you care about and why they are important to you. Your response should show us that your interests align with the ILR School.

It is significant that the university requires only one essay with a generous word limit. They want students with a demonstrated passion for the school they choose. So, don’t let the length of the prompts fool you: They’re actually quite simple. In other words, the essay you choose is another permutation of the “Why This College” essay. 

  • Even for the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, which has the quirkiest prompt listed, Cornell wants to know what about your personality makes you qualified for the school.

Because each prompt is directly related to the college for which you apply, it’s vital that you write an essay with a razor-sharp focus. Support your thesis with details and examples from your life that show how prepared you are to study at Cornell. 

That means it all comes down to brainstorming.

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How to Craft an Excellent Cornell Supplemental Essay

The beauty of choosing any one of these essays is that Cornell, quite literally, tells you what they want to hear. College supplemental essays often want you to show, not tell. Luckily, Cornell specifically says they want to hear about your interests, experiences, background, and goals. They are giving you the blueprints to show, not tell.

When writing this essay, stay focused. 650 words is a lot, so it’s easy, and tempting, to veer off track and give too much background to your story and interests. However, this is not the time. Your Common App essay should have explored your character, values, and themes already, so they do not need to be repeated in the supplemental essay. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • For this essay, be specific and answer the prompt with what they ask.
  • Telling a story is completely fine, but the story must have only a limited introduction.
  • If you so choose, begin your essay with a short story or anecdote that details the spark that ignited your passion for the field.
  • Cover a story and topic that your Common App essay does not touch upon.

After introducing your essay, you will likely focus on the following topics. Remember, although the prompts are different, they all ask many of the same things:

  • What you would like to major in?
  • How have your past academic and work experiences influenced your choice?
  • How have your past extracurricular and intercommunity pursuits prepared you for Cornell?
  • How will Cornell help you further your academic interests?
  • How will studying at Cornell will set you up for your career?

To help your brainstorming along, the colleges give you some guidance. For example, if you are applying to the SC Johnson College of Business, Cornell asks that you respond to the following instructions:

  • What kind of a business student are you?
  • The Cornell SC Johnson College of Business offers two distinct business programs, the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management and the School of Hotel Administration. Please describe how your interests and ambitions can be met through one or both of the Schools within the College.

These specific questions give you a direction for the topics to discuss, such as what kind of business student you are and how one, or both or the schools will help you achieve your goals. 

What to Include in Your Supplemental Essay

In this essay, Cornell is indirectly asking you to provide work and academic experiences that have influenced your decision to pursue a particular academic interest. During your brainstorming process, make sure that they are relevant and timely. These questions may help:

  • What first inspired you to pursue a particular career? Don’t try to make up a grandiose story, just be true to yourself.
  • How have you explored that career since then? Focus on more recent experiences, ideally in the last few years of high school.
  • What was your favorite moment exploring this academic interest? What makes it so memorable to you?

Whatever the specific experience may be, make sure your evidence is not only relevant but relates to high school.

Think About Initiative and Action

When choosing a story to write about, it should not be something that you stumbled upon. You want to demonstrate initiative and your ability to take action, not how privileged you are or your ability to fulfill academic requirements that are true for everyone. 

As an example, you might be interested in marine biology. Describing how taking biology inspired this interest is relevant, but it’s also a requirement at many schools. It would be much better to discuss how you applied to an internship program at the local aquarium because it shows that you’re both qualified to succeed on Cornell’s campus and hungry enough to utilize its resources.

Don’t be discouraged if you don’t have experience with official outlets. If you created something meaningful and grew it during high school, tell the admissions officers about it. Here is an example of a potential project that would fit this prompt:

  • You combined your love for Indian folk dancing with your interest in business and entrepreneurship.
  • Recruiting nine kids from your neighborhood, you created a dance group and taught them choreography after school.
  • The group performed at charity events, helping raise $3000 over three years.
  • As a result, your group grew to 20 kids by the end of your junior year.
  • Altogether, you learned about scaling a business, recruiting students, and keeping them interested enough to attend practice.

Including Cornell in the Essay

Now that you have a potential idea in mind, it’s crucial that you do your research on the academic programs at Cornell University because your writing should demonstrate your understanding of the program you are interested in pursuing. This could include details about the program, potential career opportunities, or even the culture.

Beyond academics, you should also check out other opportunities, such as student clubs and study abroad programs. The goal is for you to have a well-rounded vision for how Cornell University will help you to achieve your career goals. This needs to be specific. Your essay should not be able to be copied and pasted to another university’s application.

Once you have done this research, think about how you can incorporate it into your essay. Do not try and mimic the same exact language that is used on their website. Not only is it plagiarism to copy and paste, but Cornell also knows what they have online and aren’t interested in reading it again. They want to know you understand.

Use specific examples that are relevant to your interests. For example, if you are interested in pursuing business or hotel administration, you could mention that Cornell has top programs, as well as a vast network that will allow you to fully ascertain what you would like to do post-graduation in pursuit of a career. However, both of these are true of other schools too. You’d be better off mentioning specific professors, projects, grants, fellowships, or programs that will take your learning to the next level. Show Cornell that you care enough to do your research, as this indicates that you will likely contribute to the campus and your class.

Share your excitement for the opportunities Cornell offers, and describe how you envision your future as a student, and perhaps graduate, of the university. Consider looking at:

  • Clubs
  • Academic offerings
  • Professors and their research
  • Out-of-classroom-academic immersions
  • Fellowship opportunities

Make the admissions officers really think about how admitting you will continue to build a positive reputation for Cornell.

What Do I Write About If I’m Undecided?

If you’re undecided about your major or the direction for your future, that’s okay! There are many students who enter college hoping to find their direction in the first few years. However, this is the time to think about your interests and talents, and how those relate to potential majors and careers.

In your essay, don’t write about why you might be interested in pursuing each of the six different colleges. Writing about too many possibilities will water down the power of your essay, cause it to lose focus, and waste your word count. Instead, try to narrow it down to one possible college, potentially with multiple different majors, as the colleges offered at Cornell have a variety of degrees offered under the general umbrella.

This is not a contract for your entire future. Simply be honest about what attracts you to this college, and describe how Cornell will help you realize your passion and goals. If you’re really feeling at a loss, here are two things for you to consider:

  • There are multiple different free career-assessment quizzes. While these definitely do not have perfect algorithms, you might be surprised to learn more about your personality and what careers are attractive to you.
  • If you have several careers of interest, do some job shadowing or interview professionals in those fields. You can talk to a friend or family member for help finding an opportunity, but also consider calling or emailing a company to ask if someone would be willing to meet with you.

Whatever you decide to explore while in high school, it won’t be a waste. Every experience is a potential essay, especially when you’re trying to explore a career. 

Cornell Supplemental Essay Example

We added this essay to give you a visual on what a strong Cornell supplemental essay looks like. Remember, never plagiarize.

As I reflect on my commitment to pursuing neuroscience, I see that my journey started with Great Tennis, an organization which teaches neurologically and physically disabled children tennis.

Initially expecting the students at Great Tennis to be mostly reclusive and inactive, I was surprised on my first day to see kids who were no less outgoing than many others their age. However, as I stepped out onto the tennis courts, I quickly realized the reality of the disabilities they faced daily. I saw kids who needed assistance to perform even basic tennis drills. Unable to relate to being hindered by such difficulties, I really began to empathize with them. I stopped viewing them as people I was helping for the sake of volunteering. Rather, I had connected with them on a more personal level, having my own desire to help them in any way possible.

Passionate to understand more about their disabilities, I participated in the Mind Challenge, a neuroscience competition for teens, in my junior year of high school. I had the opportunity to learn about neurology and neurological disorders, spending numerous hours studying neuroanatomy, neurological disabilities, and analyzing MRIs. Through this participation, I began to appreciate the intricate and intimate relationship the brain has with the numerous other bodily systems. I was genuinely intrigued that even a small error in this highly complex structure could lead to some of the severe diseases I saw at Great Tennis, ranging from Down Syndrome to Rett Syndrome.

Wanting to further this growing passion, I sought out the opportunity to work as a neurobiology research intern at the University of Tennessee. First tasked with collaboratively writing a review article, I came across recent studies detailing an intriguing biochemical pathway that had implications in gliomas, or brain cancer. Curious to explore this pathway, I eventually found a particular unexplored bio-molecule that I believed had great potential for treatment. The process of discovering this molecule, creating and designing a project, and proposing this concept with eventual approval, invigorated my interest in neuroscience. Getting exposure to the biological aspects of the brain, along with seeing their potential therapeutic implications through research, helped develop and solidify my passion for neuroscience.

At TDSP, I hope to follow my intellectual curiosity for the brain by joining the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior. I am excited to take courses such as “Molecular and Genetic Approaches in Neuroscience,” that would provide me with background knowledge in the biology behind the genetic diseases some of the Dream Court athletes faced. I plan to supplement my curricular work in neurobiology with undergraduate research by joining the TDSP Research Honors program. Specifically, I hope to conduct research under the guidance of Dr. Halls, where I can gain a deeper understanding of the neural mechanisms behind reward and motivation.

My interests in neuroscience expand beyond just studying the biological and molecular aspects of the brain. I am also particularly interested in understanding the intersection of neuroscience and economics to see how aspects such as emotions and cognitive function could affect financial behavior, as well as understanding the ethical implications associated with this field. At Cornell, as part of the Dyson Business Minor For Life Sciences Majors, I will gain the necessary knowledge of and exposure to this relationship so I can gain insight into human decision-making and behavior.

Given my diverse interests, I am excited to further explore the interdisciplinary areas of neuroscience at Cornell, delving deep into their implications for research pertaining to neurological illnesses, as well as their applications with other fields like economics. This experience at TDSP will help me honor the commitment to helping the kids at Great Tennis, who first motivated me to embark on this path and sparked my interest in the field.

Conclusion: How to Write the Cornell Supplemental Essay

Before submitting your supplement through the Common App, go back to the prompt. You’ll want to ensure you:

  • Answered all the parts of the question
  • Conveyed enthusiasm for the program and the school
  • Relate your academic and career interests with not only your major but also with Cornell

If you feel this is true of your essay, you are ready to submit it and be one step closer to admission to Cornell University!

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