college essay questions

Carnegie Mellon University has just two required supplemental essays, one long and one short. You’ll also find two optional prompts that allow students to explain educational interruptions and discuss their CMU admission interview, if they had one.

Prompt #1: Please submit a one page, single-spaced essay that explains why you have chosen Carnegie Mellon and your particular major(s), department(s) or program(s). This essay should include the reasons why you’ve chosen the major(s), any goals or relevant work plans and any other information you would like us to know. For freshmen applying to more than one college or program, please mention each college or program to which you are applying. Because our admission committees review applicants by college and program, your essay can impact our final decision. Candidates applying for early decision or transfer may apply to only one college and department.

Many universities have a “Why This College?” prompt, but they don’t all lay out so clearly what they want you to cover. CMU bluntly asks you to get specific about your major, department, and/or program, while also tying in these factors to your professional goals. They do this because, as the prompt points out, you’ll be evaluated in the context of your program choice, not just for general admission. That means this shouldn’t be a fluffy, “CMU has a vibrant campus, diverse student body, and an array of majors to choose from” piece of writing. Instead, get specific, not just by naming your major, but by explaining how particular components (courses, faculty, emphases, etc.) of the major fit your interests, and how these components will help you achieve your educational and professional goals. You can also mention related factors, like research, internship, and experiential learning options affiliated with your major.

Prompt #2: List the books (if any) you’ve read this year for pleasure. Choose one and in a sentence describe its impact on you.

CMU’s second required prompt asks you to list the books you’ve read this year for pleasure. I know it can be tough to fit outside reading into your life when you’re a busy high school student, but, let’s face it: avid readers often make better students, and universities want readers on their campuses. Don’t feel like you have to lie in order to impress admission officers; listing the complete works of Proust as your light summer reading won’t fool anyone. The most authentic lists I’ve seen are a mix of high-brow and low-brow—think a Pulitzer Prize winner or a historical biography juxtaposed with a young adult novel or a dragon-centric fantasy epic. You’re also asked to choose one of these books and write a sentence describing its impact on you. I’d go with whichever most deeply affected you, and be sure to stick to the single-sentence limit.

Finally, CMU has two optional essays which serve two very different purposes.

Optional Prompt #1: If there was an interruption during your secondary school or collegiate experience or between your secondary school and collegiate experience (gap year(s)) when you were not enrolled and as a result, not making normal academic progress, please explain the reason for the interruption.

This is straightforward and should only be answered by applicants who have taken a gap year or who took time off in the midst of their high school education, perhaps due to illness or other challenging situations.

Optional Prompt #2: While not a requirement, have you been interviewed by an alumni or on campus representative prior to applying for admission? If so, indicate the name of your interviewer and tell us how it impacted your decision to apply.

The final optional prompt should only be answered by applicants who interviewed for admission to CMU. If you did, I hope you took notes! This is your chance to talk about your fit for CMU on a personal level, based on the information you received from your interviewer. That could be in the academic sense (“I learned that being an English major won’t limit my ability to fulfill pre-med requirements and do scientific research.”) or a more personal sense (“The alumna and I connected so easily, and she spoke so passionately about her time at CMU, that I left the interview convinced it is where I want to spend the next four years of my life.”).

Best of luck on your CMU application! Just think, the sooner you get it submitted, the sooner you can get back to all that Proust you’ve been meaning to read.


Written by Emily Toffelmire
Emily Toffelmire is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Prior to joining College Coach, Emily worked as an admissions officer at University of Southern California as well as a college counselor at high schools in the US and Thailand.