How to Write the Princeton Supplemental Essays: The Top Guide

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Princeton is an Ivy League university with an acceptance rate of 6.5%. That means if you’re planning to apply to Princeton, you’ll be facing some stiff competition.

You’ll need to demonstrate to the admissions committee that you’re intelligent, an avid learner, a leader and teammate, and an individual with integrity and good character.

You have several opportunities to do so on Princeton’s application. But one of the best chances for you to help admissions officers get to know you is the Princeton Supplement.

In this article, we’ll guide you through completing the Princeton Supplement successfully and boosting your chances of being in that elite 6.5%!

What is the Princeton Supplement?

Princeton accepts the Common Application, the Coalition Application, and the Universal College Application. Whichever you decide on, you’ll be able to view and complete the Supplement once you’ve added Princeton to your list.

The Supplement contains two short answer questions, a section titled “A Few Details” in which you give very short answers, and a 500-word essay with four different topic options.

If you’ve indicated on your application that you’re interested in pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Engineering, you’ll have an additional 300-500-word essay to write.

Below, we’ll get into the specifics of each portion of the supplement, along with some helpful tips!

Short Answer Questions

Princeton requires you to complete two short answer questions:

Short Answer Question #1-Activities:

Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences that was particularly meaningful to you. (Response required in about 150 words.)

Short Answer Question #2- Summers:

Please tell us how you have spent the last two summers (or vacations between school years), including any jobs you have held. (Response required in about 150 words.)

These two questions are straightforward and are fairly standard for college applications.

For best results, you just need to answer them honestly and in your own voice. And of course, you’ll want to proofread carefully.

  • For the first question, don’t fall into the trap of trying to choose your most impressive extracurricular activity or work experience to discuss.
  • Instead, choose the activity or job that was truly meaningful to you. It should be something you feel passionate about.
  • Then, explain why this particular activity or experience was so meaningful to you. You can also talk about what you learned from the experience. You do only have 150 words, so be specific and concise.
  • For the second question (Summers), talk honestly about how you’ve spent the last two summers and what lessons you’ve learned from these experiences.

Don’t worry if you feel you haven’t done anything important or impressive with your summers. Even a summer spent babysitting or practicing your guitar can yield interesting lessons and information about you.

“A Few Details”

This section is the perfect opportunity to showcase your personality. These “few details” give admissions officers information that goes beyond your GPA, class rank, SAT scores, accomplishments, etc.

Since the point of this section is for admissions officers to get to know you, resist the urge to choose “impressive” answers.

For instance, your favorite keepsake or memento doesn’t need to be the trophy from that time you won the state Spelling Bee.

And don’t say your favorite book is A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking—unless, of course, it really is.

Here are the details you’ll be asked to provide:

  • Your favorite book and its author
  • Your favorite website
  • Your favorite recording
  • Your favorite source of inspiration
  • Your favorite line from a movie or book and its title
  • Your favorite movie
  • Two adjectives your friends would use to describe you
  • Your favorite keepsake or memento
  • Your favorite word

These questions can be answered in just a few words.

Princeton doesn’t expect or even encourage complete sentences or lengthy explanations. Simply answer the questions, occasionally providing brief commentary if you feel it’s needed.

Again, give specific, honest answers.

If you see a chance to be witty or creative in a response, go for it. But these questions probably won’t make or break your application. Instead, they’re an opportunity to give admissions officers a more complete picture of who you are.

Honest answers that truly reveal your personality will make you memorable and help you stand out!

The Main Princeton Essay

Last, but not least, the Princeton Supplement includes an essay of “about 500 words.” (Princeton specifies that the essay should be no more than 650 words and no fewer than 250 words.)

On the university’s website, it states that this essay should not repeat “in full or in part” the essay you wrote for the Common Application, Coalition Application, or Universal College Application.

In fact, it’s best to write the essay on an entirely different topic that can’t be found elsewhere on your application.

For this essay, you have four topic options, which we’ll discuss below. Princeton University states, “Using one of [these four themes] as a starting point, write about a person, event or experience that helped you define one of your values or in some way changed how you approach the world.”

Topic #1- Tell us about a person who has influenced you in a significant way.

This may seem like the simplest of Princeton’s four topic options, but be careful:

  • Although you’re writing about someone who has influenced you, don’t forget the focus of the essay should still be you.
  • You may choose to include an anecdote showing why this person has been so influential, thus revealing information about what values or attributes matter the most to you.
  • Then, you need to make sure to explain how this person has shaped your values or your approach to the world.

Perhaps someone has inspired you to choose a particular career path, to be passionate about a certain cause, etc.

For the most part, you should stay away from essays about celebrities.

A celebrity has likely influenced others in the same way he or she has influenced you, and this essay should be personal and unique. You might also want to steer clear of overused topics, like how your parents have inspired you to work hard in school.

Topic #2- “One of the great challenges of our time is that the disparities we face today have more complex causes and point less straightforwardly to solutions.” – Omar Wasow, assistant professor of politics, Princeton University. This quote is taken from Professor Wasow’s January 2014 speech at the Martin Luther King Day celebration at Princeton University.

You could use this quote to discuss a contemporary political issue, ethical dilemma, or even a very difficult choice you’ve faced in your life.

  • Of course, keep in mind that the quote mentions “the great challenges of our time,” so make sure your essay covers an issue that’s both current and important.
  • Additionally, try not to get carried away simply writing an analysis of a political or moral issue. Make sure, as always, that the essay focuses on you.

While discussing the issue, you can write about why it’s so meaningful to you, what your stance is on the issue, and what this says about you and your values or beliefs.

Topic #3- “Culture is what presents us with the kinds of valuable things that can fill a life. And insofar as we can recognize the value in those things and make them part of our lives, our lives are meaningful.” -Gideon Rosen, Stuart Professor of Philosophy and director of the Behrman Undergraduate Society of Fellows, Princeton University.

This topic is a great choice if you have unique cultural experiences.

  • For instance, you could write about being the child of immigrant parents, or perhaps an immigrant to the United States yourself.
  • If you choose this topic, be aware that many other students may do the same, so focus on personal or unique aspects of your immigrant experience and specifically how it’s impacted your life.
  • You could also write about cultural values, traditions, beliefs, or wisdom that have shaped you as an individual.

Be sure to mention specifically why this aspect of your culture has been important in your life and how it has influenced your values or approach to the world.

  • Alternatively, perhaps you come from a multicultural or diverse family, town, or neighborhood.

Any of these approaches are appropriate, as long as you avoid overly controversial topics relating to culture. Remember that as you write about culture, the focus should be on how your experiences have personally impacted or shaped you.

Topic #4- Using a favorite quotation from an essay or book you have read in the last three years as a starting point, tell us about an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world. Please write the quotation, title and author at the beginning of your essay.

For this essay, you can write about virtually any topic of your choice. You simply need a quotation from an essay or book that is relevant to the event or experience you’d like to discuss.

  • Remember that the event/experience should relate to one of your values or your approach to the world, and all of this should be connected to the quote you’ve selected.
  • Try not to select a quote that could be an overly popular choice, and avoid clichés.
  • This topic, in particular, makes it easy for students to rely on clichés, like, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” or, “Honesty is the best policy.”

Avoid this trap by writing an essay on a topic that is meaningful, personal, and unique to you. Be as specific as possible, and show instead of telling.

Engineering Essay

If you’ve marked a Bachelor of Science in Engineering as one of your possible degrees of study on the Princeton application, you’ve got one more essay to write. (If not, you’re done with the Supplement!)

Here’s the Engineering essay topic:

If you are interested in pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Engineering degree, please write a 300-500 word essay describing why you are interested in studying engineering, any experiences in or exposure to engineering you have had, and how you think the programs in engineering offered at Princeton suit your particular interests.

Note that this essay has three parts, and you must clearly address all of them.

  • Start with an anecdote or brief description of how you became interested in engineering.
  • If you have a particular experience or moment that jumpstarted your interest, now’s the perfect time to mention it!
  • Next, you’ll need to explain any “experiences in or exposure to engineering” that you’ve had.
  • Don’t just list a resume here. Instead, take the time to explain how these experiences have shaped and defined your interest in engineering.
  • Finally, you get a chance to discuss why you’re interested in Princeton in particular.
  • For this question, you’ll need to do your research.
  • Don’t speak about Princeton in general terms. Instead, mention specific programs, professors, research opportunities, courses, etc.

Here, you can show admissions officers that you would be an asset to Princeton Engineering and would take advantage of the unique resources offered at Princeton. If possible, discuss opportunities related to your specific interests in engineering, rather than general or common engineering opportunities.

Conclusion: How to Write the Princeton Essays

The Princeton Supplement includes two short answer questions (150 words each), a brief questionnaire called “A Few Details,” and a 500-word essay with four topic options. If you want to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Engineering degree, you have an additional 300-500 word essay to write.

As you complete the supplement, remember that the goal is to help admissions officers get to know you.

Don’t try too hard to impress. Focus on being honest, writing in your unique voice, and helping admissions officers learn about your personality, values, and goals.

Following these tips will get your application one step closer to the “accepted” pile!

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