An Analysis of the Cornell Supplemental Essays 2023-2024

Noel Kim

After devoting extensive time and effort to crafting multiple essays for your college applications, you may be pleasantly surprised to discover that Cornell University only requires two supplemental essays – one general response and one school-specific response. It is important to note that the specific Cornell school you apply to ultimately determines the supplemental essay question you must address. Therefore, it is essential to approach your response with careful planning and consideration. To assist you in navigating the prompts for each of the eight Cornell schools, I have provided an outline, along with helpful do's and don'ts for crafting your responses. Additionally, I have included valuable tips to aid you in effectively tackling the Cornell supplemental essays for the 2023-2024 application cycle.

Cornell Supplemental Essays 2023-2024

Use these supplemental essay prompts as an opportunity to introduce yourself, what you’re passionate about, and your ambitions and goals. InGenius Prep counselor Reba McCutcheon, who worked as the Associate Director for Undergraduate Admissions at Cornell, recommends that you focus on the deeper why as a general rule of thumb. Avoid simply stating that "X happened and now I want to do Y.” Instead, consider what initially drew you to that experience and why it was important to you. What obstacles did you face and overcome? What kept you going? 

For example, if you rescued an injured animal and now want to be a veterinarian, don't explain it in just a couple of sentences. Dive deeper into the story. Share what motivated you to help the injured animal in the first place. Discuss why it was important to you and how it impacted your perspective. Talk about the challenges you encountered and how you persevered. By going beyond surface-level explanations, you can provide a more meaningful and authentic narrative.

Similarly, if you volunteered in a developing country and claim to understand poverty, avoid making such a shallow statement. Instead, explore your experience in depth. Share how it opened your eyes to the disparities between the haves and the have-nots. Reflect on your privilege and how it intersects with the issue of poverty. Discuss why it's important to you to have this newfound understanding and how you plan to use it to make a difference. Acknowledge that there is still more for you to learn and grow from. By following these guidelines, you can enhance the quality and impact of your essays for Cornell University's supplemental application. Having said that, let's now dive into the specific prompts.

Cornell University Essay Question (350 word limit)

In the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War, Ezra Cornell wrote, “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.” For over 150 years, Cornell University has remained deeply committed to Ezra’s vision. Explain how your life experiences will help inform your contributions to a learning community devoted to “…any person…any study.” We encourage you to think broadly about your life experiences, including how local (e.g., family, school, neighborhood) or global communities you’ve been part of have helped shape your perspective.

For this prompt, Reba notes, "There's no need to quote Ezra back to us. We know it." Instead, reflect on your own life experiences and how they have shaped your perspectives. It's not about having your life figured out yet, but rather about how you have reflected on your experiences and what you have learned from them.

Start by considering the various communities you have been a part of, both local and global. How have these communities influenced your outlook on life and your understanding of the world? Reflect on the values and beliefs that have been instilled in you through these experiences. Think about how your interactions with different people and cultures have broadened your horizons and given you a unique perspective.

The admissions officers are not looking for a list of achievements or a comprehensive plan for your future. Instead, they want to see your ability to reflect on your experiences and articulate how they have shaped your character and values. Show them that you are open-minded, curious, and willing to learn from diverse perspectives. Discuss how your experiences have challenged your preconceived notions and pushed you to grow as an individual.

Remember, the admissions officers are not expecting you to have all the answers. They are more interested in your ability to critically think and learn from your experiences. Share how you have continued to learn and grow, even after facing setbacks or obstacles. Discuss how your experiences have influenced your academic and career goals, and how they will inform your contributions to the Cornell learning community.

In summary, the essay prompt is asking for your personal reflections on your life experiences and how they have shaped your perspective. Show the admissions officers that you are thoughtful, introspective, and open to new ideas. Use this essay as an opportunity to showcase your ability to learn from your experiences and contribute meaningfully to the Cornell community.

School-Specific Essay Questions (650 word limit)

When you add Cornell as one of your schools in the Common Application, you have to pick one of the eight colleges within Cornell, instead of applying to the university as a whole. These are: 

  • College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
  • College of Architecture, Art, and Planning
  • College of Arts and Sciences
  • Brooks School of Public Policy
  • Cornell SC Johnson College of Business (Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management & School of Hotel Administration)
  • College of Engineering
  • College of Human Ecology
  • School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR)

Each college asks you to answer one 650-word supplemental essay question. When writing the other essays, your response should be tailored to the school you’ve chosen and demonstrate an unquestionable passion for the field and knowledge of a particular program at Cornell. Without further ado, let’s look at the prompts for each school and the approaches you should—and shouldn’t—take when it comes to your essay.

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. How will an education from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) at Cornell University specifically serve to support your learning, growth, and the pursuit of your goals?

Since CALS is an undergraduate institution unique to Cornell, there are many Cornell-specific programs and opportunities you can draw from to portray your interest in CALS. You can choose from its 20 program offerings in the life sciences—from Animal Science to International Agriculture and Rural Development—and dive straight into studying the discipline of your choice on day one. These majors are more niche, so the reader must take away a demonstrated fit for the particular program through your writing. 

When considering your choice of major and the college community at CALS, it is important to recognize the significance of both. Take the time to thoroughly research what CALS has to offer and identify what aspects you are genuinely excited about. Reflect on how these interests and related experiences have influenced your decision to pursue a particular major. Highlight your commitment by making a clear connection between the work you’ve done in the particular field and your choice of CALS major. Why is CALS the place to explore your passion for life sciences rather than the Biology or Environmental & Sustainability departments at the College of Arts and Sciences?

In your essay, it is crucial to focus not only on the experiences you have had thus far, but also on how you have reflected on them and continued to learn from them. Admissions officers are interested in seeing your growth and development as an individual. Discuss how your experiences have shaped your perspective and influenced your goals. Highlight the lessons you have learned, the skills you have acquired, and the knowledge you have gained.

College of Architecture, Art, and Planning

How do your interests directly connect with your intended major at the College of Architecture, Art and Planning (AAP)? Why architecture (B.Arch), art (BFA) or urban and regional studies (URS)? B.Arch applicants, please provide an example of how a creative project or passion sparks your motivation to pursue a 5-year professional degree program. BFA applicants may want to consider how they could integrate a range of interests and available resources at Cornell into a coherent art practice. URS students may want to emphasize their enthusiasm and depth of interest in the study of urban and regional issues.

As high school students, it is understandable that you may not have extensive experience in your intended major. However, what truly matters is your passion and desire to learn. The admissions officers at Cornell University are looking for students who are enthusiastic about their chosen field of study and who are eager to explore and expand their knowledge.

When writing your essay, it is important to showcase your genuine interest in your intended major. Talk about what specifically draws you to the field and why you are excited to study it at Cornell. Discuss any experiences or encounters that have sparked your curiosity and motivated you to pursue this particular area of study. Whether it's a class you took, a book you read, or a project you worked on, explain how it ignited your passion and made you want to delve deeper into the subject matter. Demonstrate your commitment to learning by highlighting any steps you have taken to explore your chosen field. This could include attending workshops or seminars, participating in related extracurricular activities, or conducting independent research. Show that you are proactive and resourceful in seeking out opportunities to further your understanding and skills in your intended major.

Additionally, emphasize your willingness to learn and grow. Discuss how you plan to take advantage of the resources and opportunities available at Cornell to enhance your knowledge and expertise. Whether it's through internships, research projects, or collaborations with faculty and peers, show that you are excited about the prospect of continuous learning and development.

Ultimately, the admissions officers want to see your genuine passion and enthusiasm for your intended major. Even if you don't have extensive experience, your desire to learn and explore the field will make a strong impression. So, don't be afraid to showcase your curiosity, eagerness, and dedication to your chosen area of study in your essay.

College of Arts and Sciences

At the College of Arts and Sciences, curiosity will be your guide. Discuss how your passion for learning is shaping your academic journey, and what areas of study or majors excite you and why. Your response should convey how your interests align with the College, and how you would take advantage of the opportunities and curriculum in Arts and Sciences.

For this prompt, Reba says, "Be curious! It’s not just about the specific major you choose, but rather about the opportunities, curriculum, and campus community within the College of Arts and Sciences and the university as a whole." Take the time to reflect on your passions and interests, and think deeply about why certain subjects excite you. What is it about a particular field of study that captures your curiosity? What drives your desire to learn more? Spend time reflecting on these questions and exploring the reasons behind your interests. Is it the potential for discovery and exploration? The chance to make a positive impact on the world? Or perhaps the opportunity to challenge established ideas and contribute to the advancement of knowledge?

In your response, demonstrate your genuine passion for learning and how it is shaping your academic journey. Discuss the specific areas of study or majors that excite you and explain why they align with your interests and goals. Highlight the unique opportunities and resources available within the College of Arts and Sciences and how they would support your intellectual growth and development. Don't be afraid to delve into the details and provide specific examples that illustrate your enthusiasm. Share anecdotes or experiences that have sparked your curiosity and motivated you to explore further. Whether it's a thought-provoking book, a captivating lecture, or a meaningful conversation with a professor or peer, explain how these encounters have influenced your passion for learning and your desire to pursue a particular field of study.

Remember, by focusing on your "why" and sharing your genuine enthusiasm for learning, you will demonstrate to the admissions officers that you are a curious and engaged learner who will make valuable contributions to the intellectual community at Cornell University. So, take the time to reflect on your passions, explore your interests, and let your curiosity guide you in shaping your academic journey.

Brooks School of Public Policy

Why are you drawn to studying public policy? Drawing on your experiences, tell us about why you are interested in your chosen major and how attending the Brooks School will help you achieve your life goals.

According to the Inaugural Dean, “The Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy brings together scholars across disciplines to tackle the biggest public policy challenges we face as a society, both in the U.S. and globally. Our mission is to make positive change in the world.” If you’re a student who is interested in having a say in how policy gets passed and implemented, you might want to check out the newly opened Brooks School at Cornell.

Reba recommends that you start by asking yourself: "What do you want to change, improve, or create? And why?" To write a successful response, it is essential to delve deep into your motivations and aspirations. Take the time to reflect on the issues that resonate with you and the impact you want to make in the world. This reflection will not only help you clarify your goals but also provide valuable insight into your dedication and passion for public policy.

Think about the societal challenges that you find most pressing and the areas where you believe change is necessary. Is it the lack of access to quality education? The need for healthcare reform? The urgency to address climate change? Or perhaps the importance of promoting social justice and equity? Identify the issues that ignite a fire within you and inspire you to take action. Once you have identified the areas you want to address, consider why these issues matter to you on a personal level. Reflect on your own experiences, observations, or encounters that have shaped your perspective and fueled your desire to make a difference.

As you reflect on your why, consider the long-term impact you hope to achieve. How will your chosen major in public policy enable you to create meaningful change? Think about the knowledge, skills, and resources that the Brooks School of Public Policy at Cornell University can offer you to support your goals. Whether it's through rigorous coursework, experiential learning opportunities, or access to influential networks, highlight how attending the Brooks School will equip you with the tools to make a tangible impact in your chosen field.

Remember, the admissions officers want to see your genuine passion and commitment to public policy. By spending time reflecting on your why, you will be able to articulate your motivations with clarity and conviction. So, take the time to dig deep, explore your personal connections to the issues, and let your passion shine through in your essay.

Cornell SC Johnson College of Business

What kind of business student are you? 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 convey how your interests align with the school to which you are applying within the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business (the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management or the Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration).

Like any other “why this school” essay, the Johnson School prompt wants to know why you’ve chosen Johnson over other undergraduate business schools, and how you would be an asset to the incoming class. In other words, you have to elaborate on what makes the Dyson model ideally suited to your learning style, or the School of Hotel Administration perfect for your future career, and explain the reasons why you will be a valuable addition.

Reba also cautions, "Writing that you intend to make millions and become a hedge fund manager isn’t really in the spirit of Cornell (Ezra was a humble man). " Instead, ask yourself: Are there aspects of business that you would like to change, improve upon, or totally remove?  

If you're applying to Dyson, you have to show that you’ve done your research on facilities and opportunities exclusive to Dyson. One of the key ways of doing so is to demonstrate your understanding of the unique Economics and Management B.S or ask yourself how you’d benefit from this degree over a B.S. in economics from another school, for example. What features will prepare you for a career as an entrepreneur or financial analyst? If you’re planning to apply to this school, you should already have ventured into the world of business. Talk about any entrepreneurial initiatives you’ve taken, any business-related summer programs you’ve attended, and mention if you have any unusual goals that can distinguish you from other prospective business students. Expand on the skills and values you picked up on the way. Dyson students are allowed to double major with a major at CALS so if your passion for business has a life sciences aspect to it, you should include that in your essay!

Additionally, Hotel School majors are expected to have some service experience. Draw upon your service mindset. Why is service important to you? For example, for many Hotel School students, service is not just about the act of serving others, but about the opportunity to make a positive difference in people's lives. It is about going above and beyond to exceed expectations and create memorable experiences. Service is a way to show empathy, compassion, and a genuine desire to meet the needs and desires of others. Reflect on your experiences that align with this service mindset.

College of Engineering

Essay 1: How do your interests directly connect with Cornell Engineering? If you have an intended major, what draws you to that department at Cornell Engineering? If you are unsure what specific engineering field you would like to study, describe how your general interest in engineering most directly connects with Cornell Engineering. It may be helpful to concentrate on one or two things that you are most excited about. (Max: 250 words)

When writing your essay for the College of Engineering, Reba advises, "Don't regurgitate your transcript or resume. We've already seen that." Instead,  focus on highlighting one or two specific things that excite you. Think about the areas of engineering that genuinely spark your interest. Is it the potential to design innovative solutions to real-world problems? Or maybe it's the opportunity to contribute to advancements in technology and improve the lives of others. Whatever it may be, delve into these passions and explain why they draw you to the field of engineering.

Furthermore, consider how engineering principles impact your daily life. Engineering is everywhere, from the bridges you cross to the smartphones you use. Reflect on the ways in which engineering principles have influenced your experiences and shaped your perspective. For example, you could discuss how the principles of structural engineering contribute to the safety and stability of the buildings you encounter, or how electrical engineering plays a role in the functionality of the devices you rely on.

By demonstrating your understanding of the transfer of knowledge between engineering principles and everyday life, you will showcase your ability to connect theory to practice. This not only highlights your knowledge and passion for engineering but also emphasizes your potential to make a meaningful impact in the field.

Essay 2: Choose either Question A or Question B.

A. Describe an engineering problem that impacts your local community. This could be your school, neighborhood, town, region, or a group you identify with. Describe one to three things you might do as an engineer to solve the problem.

While you’re not expected to write a report and solve the problem fully, your solutions will need to be feasible. If not feasible, explain that you understand it’s not currently feasible and how you intend to study to discover how it might one day become feasible. Imagine what you still have to learn.

Consider outlining the steps you would take to study the problem and identify potential solutions. This could include conducting research, consulting with experts in the field, and engaging with the affected community to gain a deeper understanding of their needs and challenges. By outlining your proposed approach, you demonstrate your ability to think critically and problem-solve effectively. Furthermore, emphasize the importance of continuous learning and growth. Acknowledge that there may be gaps in your knowledge and understanding of the problem, but express your commitment to filling those gaps through further education and experiences. Highlight specific resources or opportunities at Cornell Engineering that would support your learning and development in addressing the problem.

By demonstrating your humility, curiosity, and proactive mindset, you showcase your potential as an engineer who is not only capable of solving problems but also dedicated to making a lasting impact on your local community.

B. Diversity in all forms is intrinsic to excellence in engineering. Engineering the best solutions to complex problems is often achieved by drawing from the diverse ingenuity of people from different backgrounds, lived experiences, and identities. How do you see yourself contributing to the diversity and/or the inclusion of the Cornell Engineering community? What is the unique voice you would bring to the Cornell Engineering community?

For option B, Reba notes, "One of the best contributions to bring is being open to others and their perspectives. You’re entering college to learn about academics, people, social aspects, and about yourself. Focus on what you can receive as well as what you can give." Upon reading your response, admissions officers should be confident that you are not only a strong candidate for an engineering degree, but also that you’re specifically geared for success as a future Cornell-educated engineer. The university wants your answer to the Cornell supplemental essays 2023-2024 to reflect your strongest personal attributes, and this essay is an effective way of showing what you care about while demonstrating knowledge of Cornell’s engineering offerings. 

College of Human Ecology

How have your related experiences influenced your decision to apply to the College of Human Ecology (CHE)? How will your choice of major impact your goals and plans for the future? Your response should show us that your interests and aspirations align with CHE and your choice of major.

The College of Human Ecology prompt asks to see connections between the development of your interests and your choice of major and career aspirations. The tricky thing about this prompt is that the College of Human Ecology happens to cover quite a few different fields that don’t necessarily have obvious relationships to each other. It’s probably a good idea that you know what “human ecology” actually means and are fully informed about programs such as Nutritional Sciences or Apparel Design before sitting down to write your essay. 

Again, it’s not just about listing your experiences, but rather, it's important to reflect on how those experiences have shaped you and what you have learned from them. Take the time to delve into the impact your chosen major will have on your goals and plans for the future. You need to focus more on your commitment to the specialized department you’re interested in rather than human ecology as a whole since that is too broad of a topic.

By focusing on your why, you will be able to articulate your motivations with clarity and conviction. Emphasize the importance of your major not only to your personal growth and development but also to the betterment of society. Highlight the ways in which your major can address the pressing issues of our time and create a more just, equitable, and sustainable 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.

ILR, affectionately known as ‘I Love Reading’, is more than just reading. ILR students need to be passionate about the topics, ready to dive into the curriculum. ILR is not solely focused on the theoretical aspects of business; it takes a unique approach by examining the dynamics of the workplace and the intersection of labor and management. As a result, ILR students are equipped with the knowledge and skills to identify and address the changes and improvements necessary in the workplace.

Just like with other prompts for Cornell supplemental essays 2023-2024, you need to build a narrative showing how your interests overlap with Cornell’s offerings. Since you have plenty of space in this essay, you should draw on anecdotes that affirm your interest in people and policy in the workplace. Conduct research and think about how your goals can benefit from taking certain electives or working with a distinguished professor. 

Highlight what sparked your interest in the industry—was there one particular incident or did your concern for topics related to workforce policies develop over time? Was there a high school club or internship that contributed to expanding your knowledge of employment policies? Moreover, think about why you want to attend a school that specializes in Industrial and Labor Relations rather than major in economics at the College of Arts and Sciences. By narrating a unique story that shows why this is the perfect college for you, you can help admissions officers gain a clearer picture of your passion for exploring work, employment, and labor policy issues over the next four years.

Additional Tips for Writing the Cornell Supplemental Essays 2023-2024

Now that you’ve taken a look at the prompts for the Cornell supplemental essays, here are a few tips to help your brainstorming process: 

  • Keep the specific school in mind: It’s not unheard of for students to apply to a less competitive Cornell school such as the College of Arts and Sciences in hopes of later transferring to Dyson or Cornell Engineering. Make sure your essays don’t leave admissions officers doubting whether your interest in the school that you’ve applied to is authentic. Don’t write about your love for life sciences or chemical engineering if you’re applying for an English major at the College of Arts and Sciences! Make sure your essay reflects your particular school choice and its unique offerings.
  • Don’t repeat your personal statement: Your answers to the Cornell supplemental essays 2023-2024 are supposed to provide admissions officers with more context on your background and passions. That might be difficult to execute if your supplemental essay covers the same topic as your personal statement. It could be tricky to find a new angle—especially when the prompt for the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning is very similar to one of the Common Application personal statement prompts—“Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time.” If you’re applying to the AAP school and you’ve picked this prompt for your Common App, you have to come up with something completely different. Cornell will not appreciate two 650-word essays that overlap in content.
  • Avoid generic statements at all costs: Cornell received the most applications out of the Ivy League schools this year. And the number isn’t getting any smaller. In order to excel in your Cornell supplemental essays 2023-2024, you have to connect all the factors that make a Cornell education appealing to you. Specifics will allow admissions officers to understand what makes you unique. Stating general facts about the facilities won’t help your case since admissions officers already know that great resources exist at their university!

When crafting your responses to the Cornell supplemental essays 2023-2024, it is crucial to showcase how obtaining a degree from one of Cornell's specialized undergraduate schools will benefit you. Regardless of which college within Cornell you are applying to, it is important that your essays display a deep understanding of the curriculum and highlight any relevant experiences. This will ensure that the admissions officers recognize your genuine interest in the university and that you are not simply applying for the prestige of attending an Ivy League institution.

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