How to Get Into Princeton

Padya Paramita

How to Get into Princeton

You may have your eyes set on the number one ranked school in the country: Princeton University. But you’re obviously not the only one. With an acceptance rate of only 5.8%, Princeton denies tens of thousands of students every application cycle. So, the question is, how do you distinguish yourself from the other talented candidates? Where do you begin to tackle the question of how to get into Princeton?

Acceptance letters to Princeton are naturally not possible with just any application. The university looks for candidates who stand out not only in academics, but in extracurriculars - admissions officers carefully evaluate your leadership positions, tangible achievements, and community involvement. To find out exactly how and where you should be pushing yourself, I’ve guided you through an overview of academic requirements at Princeton, gone over how to ace your extracurriculars, offered tips for writing your essays, and finally, outlined the dates and documents needed to ensure you’ve done all you can to conquer your query of how to get into Princeton.

Campus Life and Academic Overview

Located in Princeton, New Jersey, this prestigious university is home to 5,200 undergraduates, 96% of whom live on campus in one of the six residential colleges. Each of these colleges is unique, offering a variety of academic, social, and cultural programs for students, including academic advising. While residential pride is fostered among residents for the first two years, students are allowed to live in a junior or senior dorm for the latter two years, unlike at a university such as Yale, where undergrads call the same residential college their home throughout their four years in school. 

When you apply to Princeton, you don’t have to select a separate school or program. The questions asked by the Common App use phrasing such as “would you most likely pursue” and “do you think you would like to major” to emphasize that these aren’t decisions that will be set in stone throughout your college career, and are easily modified. However, you do have to indicate whether you think you want to earn a Bachelor of Arts (A.B.) or a Bachelor of Science in Engineering (B.S.E). While you do have to write a separate supplemental essay for a B.S.E. (which we will get to shortly), you’re again not tied to your decision, and if you decide you want to get an A.B. later, you’re always allowed to change your mind.

Academic Requirements

Grades Princeton Looks For

When thinking about how to get into Princeton, the most important factor to keep in mind is that you need to excel academically. Your application must demonstrate that you have taken advantage of your high school’s resources. Students admitted to Princeton often rank at the top of their class and bring very impressive numbers - the average GPA is 3.9. You need to constantly stay on top of your assignments and make sure that you’ve excelled in the most challenging classes, such as AP or IB courses.

When at Princeton, you’ll have to deal with its notorious grading curve, and admissions officers are looking for students who can keep up with the rigor. One of the ways that the school determines your strengths in the classroom is through the requirement of a graded paper, preferably in English or history. This component should be taken seriously – choose a piece of work that accurately portrays your abilities and of course, one where you scored well! 

Testing Requirements

Princeton also requires either your SAT or ACT score and unsurprisingly, the school’s median numbers are quite high:

  • Math 750-800
  • Reading and Writing: 710-770
  • ACT Composite: 33-35

You need to aim for the high 1500s in order to have a fair shot in a competitive pool like Princeton’s. Moreover, the school also “recommends” that you submit your numbers from two SAT subject tests (which means that you should, unless absolutely impossible). Engineering applicants are recommended to submit their scores from either Math I or II, and either Physics or Chemistry subject tests. Scoring well in these can speak to your strength in certain subject areas, so take advantage of these exams.

That being said, the SAT score is a number based on a single day’s performance, so admissions officers will be paying more careful attention to your GPA since you have accumulated it throughout your four years in high school. If you know early on that you want to shoot for a school of Princeton’s caliber, make sure that you work hard starting as early as the ninth grade.

Letters of Recommendation Requirements

Admissions officers also want to know how you’re likely to add to the classroom environment, and they gauge this from your letters of recommendation. Princeton states:

“Please ask two of your teachers who have taught you in higher-level courses (e.g. AP, IB Higher/Standard Level, A-levels, etc.) in different academic areas of study to complete and send the teacher recommendation forms, available on the Coalition Application, Common Application, and Universal College Application websites. The subjects should be in core academic areas, such as English, foreign language, humanities, social sciences, natural sciences or math.”

Alongside ensuring that your recommendations meet the specified criteria, you should also choose teachers who know you well and can speak elaborately about how you’re an asset to their classroom. Princeton actually wants to see you follow these instructions about core academic areas of interest - so don’t try to bend these requirements!

Extracurriculars  

When it comes to how to get into Princeton, you need to optimize the space of the Common App activities list. The school wants to know how you will take advantage of its nonacademic resources, such as the Frist Campus Center, whose mission is to “provide opportunities for all components of the Princeton community to be involved in campus life and to create an atmosphere for individuals and groups to interact and learn from one another.” When planning what to participate in, build your leadership skills and think about how your work can bring community members together.

For Princeton applicants, membership in common clubs isn’t enough, as it “looks for students who make a difference in their schools and communities.” The admissions officers are on the lookout for applicants who have paved their own way, tailored their extracurriculars to fit their specific interests, and taken charge given the resources in their arsenal. Whether you’ve had a job where you’ve really thrived or you’ve built a robot that solves an issue in your area, Princeton uses your activities list to understand how you’re likely to take advantage of its resources.

Personal Statement

And while the Common App doesn’t give you space to go beyond a couple of sentences in the descriptions, if you’ve got an activity or experience that has really defined you as a person, you can take advantage of the 650-word space given by the Common App personal statement prompts. Princeton wants to “know what you care about, what commitments you have made and what you’ve done to act on those commitments” and writing an essay that depicts your dedication towards something you genuinely care about is a great way capture that. 

Your personal statement also doesn’t have to be limited to an activity - has there been an incident that changed how you view the world? Has your background particularly shaped your perspective? You want to make sure this essay portrays you as an applicant who is different from others. So, carefully choose your topic, and go over many drafts to make sure you submit your best work.

Supplemental Essays

An important step in your journey of exploring how to get into Princeton involves taking advantage of the school-specific supplemental essays. Princeton asks several questions to get to know you better, such as how you spend your time outside the classroom and where your passions lie, in order to determine the attributes you can bring to campus that others can’t. Read more about how to approach each of the prompts in detail here. The questions are:

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.)

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).

A Few Details

  • 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

Essay: Your Voice

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 Coalition Application, the Common Application or Universal College Application.

Tell us about a person who has influenced you in a significant way.

“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.

“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.

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.

When it comes to writing these essays, it’s extremely important that you stay authentic to yourself - especially for the short questions. Your responses should lean towards the individual and unique – don’t try to play it safe and stick to answers that sound generic. Admissions officers will appreciate it much more if they feel organic passion and commitment towards the activities and interests that you’ve outlined.

For the “your voice” section, you must pick the prompt that’s right for you. Since you’ve got the choice, think carefully about which of these inspires your strongest writing, especially because the response has to be so long. Write in a way that still conveys who you are and how you can contribute to Princeton’s campus. If you can’t think about a person or issue that matters greatly to you, write about your culture. If you don’t feel drawn to your culture, find a quote that inspires a moving, personal response. One way to strategize how to get into Princeton is to take advantage of the flexibility that the college has provided.

Engineering Essay*

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.

*This essay is required for students who indicate Bachelor of Science in Engineering as a possible degree of study on their application.

The Engineering essay appears in the Common App when you choose BSE as the degree you would like to pursue:

This is a more standard “why school” essay than the one for all applicants. If you’re applying to multiple undergraduate engineering programs, you might encounter similar prompts for other schools. So, it’s all the more important that you really dig deep into the Princeton website to explore what you like about its engineering offerings specifically. For a school as selective as Princeton, you don’t want to write a response that could be substituted for an application to any other university! 

Requirements and Deadlines

When thinking about how to get into Princeton, you must prioritize the deadlines. It’s extremely important that you follow instructions and stick to the assigned dates for required scores, recommendations, and other documents.

The single-choice early action (SCEA) deadline for Princeton is November 1, while the regular decision deadline is January 1. 

Knowing these dates can help you start working on filling out the Common App, writing all of the required essays, and allow you to provide your recommenders enough time to write their letters. The material you need to submit for your Princeton undergraduate application is outlined in the table below: 

Requirements for the Princeton Application Deadlines and Notes
Common App personal statement The word limit is 650 words.
Princeton-specific essays These will appear on the Common App once you’ve chosen Princeton as one of your colleges.
Graded paper Princeton wants to see a paper you have written, preferably from your English or history class.
Official high school transcript This must be submitted directly from your school.
School report This should be submitted by your counselor to summarize your academic performance, including your official transcript.
Counselor recommendation This letter is very important to help you stand out from your peers.
Two (2) letters of evaluation from teachers Princeton asks that these letters come from two of your teachers who have taught you in higher-level courses (e.g. AP, IB Higher/Standard Level, A-levels, etc.) in core academic areas, such as English, foreign language, humanities, social sciences, natural sciences or math.
Mid-year report If you are deferred from SCEA, this is due February 15. For RD, this should be submitted whenever mid-year grades are available.
SAT or ACT The last tests students can take for SCEA are the November ACT and November SAT. The last tests students can take for RD are the December ACT and December SAT.
SAT subject tests (recommended) The last test students can take for SCEA is the November session and the last test students can take for RD is the December session.
Interviews (optional) Depending on availability, once you have applied, you may be invited to interview with an alum. Interviews take place after the admission office has received your application.
Arts supplement (optional) If you are an excellent artist, writer, designer or musician, consider submitting a portfolio of your work; guidelines: https://admission.princeton.edu/how-apply/application-checklist/optional-arts-form.
Financial aid documents U.S. citizens and permanent residents applying for aid must fill out the FAFSA and signed tax returns of parents and the student. Deadlines: Early Action: November 9 Regular Decision: February 1

Use the table to mark your calendars and make sure you’ve sent all of the necessary documents and scores. Once you’ve submitted your application, Early Action applicants are notified in mid-December, while Regular Decision applicants are notified by late March or early April. For either round, you have until May 1 to accept Princeton’s offer if you are accepted.

Next Steps:

  • Explore the college website - While none of the questions directly ask why you want to attend Princeton, you still need to know what makes the school unique beyond just its ranking. Even if it doesn’t come up in your supplemental essays, you’ll almost certainly be asked the question if you’re invited for an interview. So, before sitting down to work on your application, carefully consider what appeals to you from the various majors, extracurricular organizations, and specific Princeton offerings, such as eating clubs and the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding.
  • Apply early action - While the overall acceptance rate for Princeton last year was 5.8%, the early action acceptance rate was 13.9%. So statistically speaking, you have a greater chance of admission if you get your materials ready by November. Single-choice early action also effectively communicates your interest, without requiring a commitment to attend if you’re admitted in case you want to explore other options. That being said, the university is still extremely competitive, and if you’ve got your eyes on how to get into Princeton, you need to bring your absolute A-game.

There’s no specific answer to the question of how to get into Princeton. Obviously, the college’s standards are high. You need to not only make sure that you stand out in your academics and extracurriculars, but you need to take advantage of your essay components, particularly the supplemental essays, to discuss how you would contribute to campus. Continue excelling in and out of the classroom, and make sure that you research the school to know what it’s looking for. Approach the process with an individualized angle that separates you from other applicants. Good luck!

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