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How to Write Princeton’s Supplemental Essays

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Emily Toffelmire

Written by Emily Toffelmireon October 5th, 2018

I came to College Coach after working for many years in college admissions and high school counseling. As a school counselor, I assisted students in the college application process and wrote hundreds of letters of recommendation, while also helping them and their families cope with any emotional, social, and academic concerns throughout the year. I transitioned from the high school setting to the admissions office when I joined the University of Southern California as an assistant director, reading freshmen and transfer applications and collaborating on admission decisions for over 150 majors, including the liberal arts, engineering, business, cinema, and the fine and performing arts. I subsequently took on the role of senior assistant director in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, where I coordinated the division's Mork, Stamps, Trustee, Presidential and Dean's merit scholarship selection process, as well as recruitment publications and outreach, and traveled everywhere from Honolulu to Miami presenting to and interviewing hundreds of applicants each year.
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The Princeton supplement is one of the most varied in terms of tone. One prompt asks for a long, thoughtful response, while the others are brief and informational rather than introspective. Let’s start with those short ones! Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences that was particularly meaningful to you. (50-250 words) Please tell us how you have spent the last two summers (or vacations between school years), including any jobs you have held. (50-250 words) Though you can go up to 250 words for each of these essay prompts, the Princeton admissions website suggests you aim for “about 150 words.” As you begin writing your response, one of your first thoughts will be, “Wow, 150 words is. . .not very many words.” These short replies require you to be spare and concise in your writing while also communicating to the reader just why an activity was meaningful to you or what you got out of your summer experiences. Remember not to be repetitive: If you wrote about a particular activity in your big Common App essay, don’t write about the same one here. For those of you who didn’t do much of anything during summers, try to be specific anyway. You can talk about books you read, test prep you may have done, a hiking adventure you may have taken, and family obligations like babysitting—it doesn’t all need to be stuff that knocks the admission officer’s socks off. The other short Princeton essay prompts limit you to 300 characters each; one read of them and you can see why you have such limited space: Your favorite book and its author. Your favorite movie. Your favorite website. Two adjectives your friends would use to describe you. Your favorite recording. Your favorite keepsake or memento. Your favorite source of inspiration. Your favorite word. Your favorite line from a movie or book and its title. The 300-character limit may leave you with some space to write a brief explanation for your answer if you feel more context is needed. When choosing your favorites, don’t overthink it. Be honest, be yourself, and don’t try to seem decades older and more mature than you are. Have fun with this section! Okay, you made it through the short answers; now on to the long one you’ve been putting off: In addition to the essay you have written for the Common Application, please write an essay of about 500 words (no more than 650 words and no fewer than 250 words). Using one of the themes below 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. Please do not repeat, in full or in part, the essay you wrote for the Common Application. Option A: Tell us about a person who has influenced you in a significant way. The danger of an essay about a person who is not you? The essay often ends up telling the reader more about that other person than about the writer. Keep in mind as you write that the way YOU changed, grew, developed, etc., is the focal point of the essay—not the person who inspired you. When choosing a person, I would encourage you to opt for someone who personally and deeply affected you rather than someone who is a distant role model or icon. Option B: “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. Given the context of the quote and Dr. Wasow’s mention of disparities, it’s logical that you might choose Option B if you want to write about issues relating to social justice, inequality, and civic duty. These are topics weighing on nearly everyone’s minds right now, so be sure you’re making this story specific and personal to your experience. For example, don’t write generally about how recent events have affected your generation or your country—write about how those events impacted you in particular. Option C: “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 chair, Department of Philosophy, Princeton University. This one is for the philosophers out there, as well as for those who find inspiration and guidance in some form of culture. If you’re someone who has been affected by a religious or ethnic background, a community, or even music, the arts, or literature—this may be the prompt for you. What form of culture has provided your life with meaning? Option D: 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. Finally, an option for the avid reader who is forever highlighting favorite passages or scribbling quotes into diaries. This prompt is fairly self-explanatory, but note the important detail: It should be from something you read in the last three years. So, perhaps avoid the Dr. Seuss or Harry Potter and opt for a quote from something more age-appropriate (bonus points if it was from outside reading rather than assigned reading!). Essay-Pitfalls-CTA


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