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How to Write the Carnegie Mellon Supplemental Essays: A Great Guide

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Carnegie Mellon University has an acceptance rate of 13% and is enamored with big, bold ideas, as well as “a whole lot of robots.”

While their website might be playful, their admissions application is no joke. You can tell from the tone of the writing supplements that the university is interested in serious and goal-oriented students.

participant in the Common App, Carnegie Mellon University requires additional writing supplements that are tailored to their school.

Carnegie Mellon Supplemental Essay Requirements

Specifically, CMU requires three short essays in addition to the main Common App essay.

  • One 250-word essay
  • Two 200-word essays

The supplemental essays are broad in their topics. They focus on the following elements, respectively:

  • Essay 1: Collaboration
  • Essay 2: “Why this major”
  • Essay 3: Something special about you

All told, These are the essays. They are quite straightforward:

“When we‘re connected to others, we become better people,” said Carnegie Mellon University‘s Randy Pausch, author of The Last Lecture. At Carnegie Mellon you‘ll have the opportunity to collaborate with a diverse community of scholars, artists and innovators. Given the students, faculty, staff and resources that have been available to you as a student, how have you collaborated with others, in or out of the classroom? Or, what lessons have you learned from working with others in the past, that might shape your experience in the future? (250 word maximum)

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? (200 word maximum)

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). (200 word maximum)

General Tips for the CMU Supplemental Essays

Since you don’t have much room to work with, it’s important to get straight to the point.

  • Starting with a small anecdote is OK, but you need to get to the point of your essay right after finishing the anecdote.
  • Your anecdote, should you choose to include one, should comprise less than 30% of your essay. Spending too much time on the story means you’ll spend less time on key takeaways, lessons learned, and personal themes.

It’s also critical to stick to one or two key points in each essay. No matter how tempting it is, don’t provide a laundry list of your accomplishments, since this is ineffective and reads like a resume.

Your narrative is critical. When you’re sticking to those one or two key points, keep in mind the following:

  • Introduce new elements. Don’t discuss something that you’ve already expanded on in your Common App.
  • Try to tell a new story.

CMU Essay 1: Collaboration

“When we‘re connected to others, we become better people,” said Carnegie Mellon University‘s Randy Pausch, author of The Last Lecture. At Carnegie Mellon you‘ll have the opportunity to collaborate with a diverse community of scholars, artists and innovators. Given the students, faculty, staff and resources that have been available to you as a student, how have you collaborated with others, in or out of the classroom? Or, what lessons have you learned from working with others in the past, that might shape your experience in the future? (250 word maximum)

We highly recommend sticking to one project or example of collaboration inside or outside the classroom. If you mention more than one, you run the risk of not adequately extrapolating both examples.

Examples can include but are not limited to the following:

Volunteer or community service with fellow citizens

  • Perhaps you led a blood drive with the help of underclassmen.
  • Maybe you built a fence and a wheelchair ramp for your religious community organization’s building.
  • Did you clean up a beach or lakefront with classmates and Boy Scouts?

Internship work with team members

  • Did you formulate a social media marketing plan for a startup or nonprofit?
  • Were you an assistant to a director who was a leader in your local organization?
  • Perhaps you shadowed a doctor and coordinated his appointments with other interns on the team.
  • Maybe you worked a summer job as a stockboy and learned about the struggles and challenges of small business owners.
  • Perhaps you created a website for a fledgling local organization.

School projects with classmates

  • Did you create a lead filtration system for an underserved community?
  • Were you a member of an art performance?
  • Maybe you completed a major research assignment on climate change, shrinking glaciers, and the loss of polar bears.
  • Did you win a school election with the help of campaign volunteers?

Personal commitments with family members

  • Did you need to work with your mom to schedule babysitting times for your younger siblings?
  • Is your dad disabled and, thus, someone who needs the helping hand of family members?

Once you choose your experience, introduce it in your essay with an anecdote or hook. Don’t take up too much space with this introduction. This should comprise ~20-25% of your essay.

Afterward, you want to spend ~40% on your essay providing action steps.

  • Essentially, what did you and your team members do to beget your goal?
  • Give us a snapshot of your role. It doesn’t matter whether you mention a leadership or junior role. What matters is that you tell the admissions officer what you did.
  • Explain how you worked within the team.

A safe way to ensure you’re providing substantive action steps is to break down your sentences and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I using passive voice? You want to avoid passive voice when you can.
  • Do I use action verbs to detail my contributions?
  • Toward the end of this portion of the essay, do I provide the results of our team efforts?

You then need to spend the third portion of the essay on explaining your lessons learned. Ask yourself these questions to write this part of the essay, which should comprise ~40% of your essay.

  • How did I become a better person?
  • What did I learn and how can I leverage this lesson on Carnegie Mellon’s campus?
  • Have I learned more about the societal challenges I want to tackle in the future?

Don’t just mention that you became a better team player. The assumption is that you learned more than just this. Use specific keywords to better explain what you learned.

Perhaps you learned more about the following general concepts:

  • Challenges of becoming a small business owner
  • Struggles underserved youth in your community face when pursuing a college education
  • Intricacies of the human mind and the difficulties of creating human-behavior algorithms

Write about your values and what you learned.

  • In this essay, we recommend not writing about your professional ambitions (that’s for the next essay).

Instead, focus on how you’ve changed and utilized the value of collaboration to grow.

CMU Essay 2: Why This Major?

We strongly recommend you begin this essay by explaining your personal connection to your intended major.

It’s perfectly fine to not know your major. If you’re having trouble picking something, choose a niche major that relates to your interests.

  • Don’t spend too much time on this. Choose something Carnegie Mellon offers and move on to writing the essay.

The safest way to write this essay is to pick an experience from your life – perhaps an extracurricular activity, outside-the-classroom project, or internship experience – and connect it to your major.

It’s important to write about what you did during this experience. Again, mention the action steps. Show that you pursued this interest with fervent desire and passion.

  • We encourage you to reuse themes and pieces of other essays that answer a similar question, but do not simply copy and paste another supplemental essay.
  • You’ll be missing out on the chance to specifically express why you want to be admitted to and belong at Carnegie Mellon if you use the exact same sentiment written in another one of your essays.

Instead, brainstorm the following questions:

  • What is it that you are passionate about?
  • How is it that you want to mark your place in the world?
  • What drives you? What motivates you?
  • What topic(s) do you spend hours researching?
  • Which courses and experiences will best prepare you to accomplish your ambitions?
  • Is there a global or community you want to solve? How are you personally attached to this problem?
  • What are your favorite subjects in school? Why?
  • Connect that passion to a program.

Your discussion of “why” might naturally lead into outlining your academic and career goals.

  • For example, if you have big dreams of becoming a political leader or writing a best-selling novel, do not forget to recognize the steps and smaller roles you will have to take to get there.
  • Admissions officers will want to see that you are reasonable and methodical in reaching your goals.

Since you don’t have much room, there’s a strong chance you’ll finish your essay right after you connect your action steps to the desired major.

Here’s a preferred breakdown of this essay, in no particular order:

  • 10% explaining your passion or field of interest.
  • 60-80% discussing your action steps and how you pursued your passion.
  • 20-30% extrapolating how you’d use your expertise in this field upon graduating. What problem would you try to solve, and how would you solve it?

CMU Essay 3: Something Special 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). (200 word maximum)

You have the utmost flexibility when writing this essay. Just follow this guideline:

  • What you write about should not be directly mentioned anywhere else in your application for Carnegie Mellon University.

This essay should introduce something new that is neither explained nor is a topic in your Common App or other CMU essays.

This essay is your chance to throw the admissions officer a curveball, so to speak.

Ultimately, you want your essay to tell a story. You can discuss…

  • …the guiding themes, values, and lessons of your life
  • …a critical aspect of your upbringing.
  • …perhps a dire, formative moment from your past

For example, you might have taken an engineering fundamentals class in high school, as well as a programming course. This might have sparked your interest in participating in FIRST robotics at school, getting you involved in the hands-on aspect of design principles and software integration. This naturally led to you performing research on pursuing robotics at different universities.

Then, Carnegie Mellon’s robotics research into soft robotics could have piqued your interest. Afterall, Baymax was inspired by the research out of the soft robotics lab at Carnegie Mellon. Your motivation might be to eventually contribute to the advancements in the field or work on effectively translating the research into the industry to disseminate advancements throughout the rest of the world.

Finally, you can also use this essay to explain a gap in your study history or circumstances that interrupted your educatiom:

  • Therefore, include what you were able to learn and gain from your experience.
  • Also, consider including what you did to ensure you were on track with your “regular” education, like online classes. This is particularly important if your interruption occurred in high school.
  • Perhaps you were offered an apprenticeship that didn’t allow you to pursue school at the time.

It could also be the case that your education was interrupted for reasons such as failing classes or dropping out and re-enrolling in high school. If that’s the case, you might be groaning on the inside.

  • Try thinking about this prompt in a positive light – Carnegie Mellon will have already reviewed your transcript, which only shows hard numbers.
  • This is an opportunity to share your story, struggles, and growth.
  • Some students decide to drop out so they can work full-time to provide additional income for their family, then return to school when there is better financial stability.
  • What would you like Carnegie Mellon University to know about your experiences during this time that led to an interruption?

Clearly, you are in a better place and ready to continue your education.

  • What changed?
  • How did you work toward your goals?
  • What characteristic(s) did you gain from this interruption?
  • What perspective can you bring with you to Carnegie Mellon from this experience?

Answering this question honestly might just say more about you as a student than your transcript does.

Conclusion: The Carnegie Mellon Supplemental Essays

As with any writing supplement, review your responses for mistakes. Print out your essays and read them aloud.

Ask a friend or family member to check for clarity. You might know what point you are trying to get across, but someone without 24/7 access to your brain might ask you a question that you hadn’t thought to address.

Finally, read your writing for passion.

  • Do you reflect your past in addition to lessons learned?
  • Are you excited about your academic goals and future career opportunities?
  • Are the essay responses written in your own voice?

Universities care deeply about their schools. They want to ensure they are great places to learn and grow. Reflect that image back to them by using the advice we provide.

And if you’re interested in gaining an edge in college admissions essay writing, check out our college essay boot camp.