How to Write the Princeton Supplemental Essays 2020-2021

Padya Paramita

Unpacking the Princeton Supplemental Essays 2020-2021

Having held that coveted number one spot in the US News Ranking of Best National Universities for the last few years, it should come as no surprise that to get into Princeton University, you need to bring your A-game. Obviously your grades, scores, and extracurricular activities matter a great deal. But don’t underestimate the power of well-written answers to the prompts offered by the Princeton supplemental essays 2020-2021

Take the time to perfect your answers to the Princeton supplemental essays 2020-2021 so that admissions officers are not only impressed by the quality of your writing, but also believe that you’re a strong fit for an institution as selective as Princeton. To help guide you through the Princeton supplemental essays 2020-2021, I have outlined each of the prompts, ways to strategize your answers to them, and additional tips for your responses. 

Prompts for the Princeton Supplemental Essays 2020-2021

While none of the questions directly ask why you want to attend Princeton (because let’s face it, almost everybody wants to attend Princeton) they do help the school gauge your areas of interest, your academic and extracurricular strengths, and the ways through which you’d contribute to the campus community. Let’s take a closer look at each of the Princeton prompts and ways you could approach them.


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

It might be difficult to pick only one of your activities for the Princeton supplemental essays 2020-2021, or the right extracurricular might jump out to you immediately. In either case, it’s okay if this activity doesn’t highlight the one that looks the most impressive to others. When analyzing your supplemental essays, Princeton wants to know “what you care about, what commitments you have made and what you’ve done to act on those commitments.” What’s key here is that you choose the activity which has had the most influence on you, and allowed you to have an impact on others in return. Choose an activity that has helped your growth, developed your career interest, or is the one activity you look forward to the most every week. 

The key words in this prompt are “particularly meaningful.” Remember to address what makes this activity stand out to you among the others. Has it helped you hone your leadership skills? Has it catalyzed your motivation to work with others? Is this what you want to do for the rest of your life? 150 words is extremely short, so don’t spend all of your words summarizing the activity. Throw in a short anecdote, or focus on describing ways that this activity stands out over the rest when it comes to holding that special spot in your life.


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.)

Admissions officers want to know how you choose to spend your time without the structure of school. While you definitely shouldn’t talk about how you spent all summer binging a TV show or sleeping 13 hours a day, admissions officers will also know you’re exaggerating if you say you worked 150 hours a week over the summer. You only have 150 words to describe the last two summers, which means only 75 words per summer! It’s important to get to key details and tangible achievements without wasting words, and share a few additional details as allowed by the remaining space. 

If you had a job, what parts were the most challenging and gratifying? If you spent your summer learning a new skill or honing skills that you already had, what did you enjoy the most about it? Is this something you want to continue beyond the summer? Make sure you don’t repeat what you’ve mentioned in the previous prompt – differentiate your experiences. Each question in the Princeton supplemental essays 2020-2021 is an opportunity to convey additional information about yourself and add more depth to your application. 

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

These questions might throw you off a little. After all, how can you figure out what Princeton is even looking for? Don’t panic. You definitely don’t have to come up with responses that you believe are super deep and intellectual. Don’t mention that your favorite book is The Great Gatsby if you think it sounds impressive even though you hated it in English class. As cheesy as it sounds, be yourself. Admissions officers want to get to know you

You don’t have to force yourself to be extra witty, but if you can come up with fun or clever answers to questions that allow for it, such as, “your favorite source of inspiration,” “your favorite line from a movie or a book” or “two adjectives your friends would use to describe you,” that’s great! But let it come to you naturally. Admissions officers have had years of experience reading answers to questions like these. They know if you’re trying to guess what you think they want to hear. At the same time, think about what other applicants would say. Avoid super common answers such as Harry Potter for your favorite book or The Avengers for your favorite movie. Your answers should be unique to you and your tastes.

Download Every Supplemental Prompt Here!




Essay: Your Voice

In addition to the essay you have written for the Coalition Application, the Common Application or the Universal College 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 Coalition Application, the Common Application or Universal College Application.

Note that this longer essay prompt basically has two parts - “using one of the themes below as a starting point” to then write about how the person or event in focus has shaped your views. You need to address both points in your response and it needs to be as long as your personal statement, making this supplemental essay particularly tricky.

Option 1

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

Since you have more space for this essay, you can take your time to explore the impact the person you’re writing about has had on you. Because you have so much space, your response should be a fully developed narrative and story. Before you sit down to write, critically think about your selection. The question doesn’t mention that the influence they’ve had on you has to be in the positive direction. While you can write about someone you look up to, you can also write about someone you have disagreed with. 

You may write about a family member, a peer, a role model, you name it. Throughout your essay, show the ways their presence has affected your life through anecdotes. Admissions officers want to know exactly how this impact has played out in your life. Have they helped you decide the course of your life you want to take? Are they someone whose values you want to emulate? Did something happen which may have shifted your relationship in a positive or negative way and subsequently changed the way you view the world?

And while the word limit is generous, don’t go overboard with describing what the person looks like or what their occupation is. It’s an essay for your college application so the majority of the writing should be dedicated to the role they’ve played in your life, why it has been so significant, and outlining the ways they have done so. Even though the question explicitly asks about someone else, your essay needs to be clearly about YOU and how your values have changed as a result of their influence in your life. 

Option 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.

Don’t get thrown off by this prompt in the Princeton supplemental essays 2020-2021 just because it’s framed as a quote and not a question. It’s not asking for your response and reaction to the quote - it’s still a supplemental essay for your college applications and should center around you. An easy mistake to make here would be to get carried away and start writing about all the disparities in the world and general solutions to them. Don’t fall into that trap!

Of course, it’s more than okay to write about a current issue, as long as it’s connected to you. It could be a problem that you feel a personal connection to or want to work to solve, such as the gender pay gap or climate change. So instead of writing it like a paper for your Economics class, with little to no personal connection, talk about why you connect to the issue and why you believe you could tackle it. Remember that this is a longer prompt. If you can’t talk about this for over 500 words in a genuine way with personal meaning, it is best to stay away from this question. There’s no need to find a cause just for this essay.

It doesn’t have to be a global issue. You could feel challenged by a disease that has been passed down in your family, or a lack of communication between the local authorities and your neighborhood. Remember not to exaggerate the adversity, however. If you don’t think you’re significantly impacted by a disparity as your peers might be, don’t write about this topic. You have three other options to choose from. 

Option 3

“Princeton in the Nation’s Service” was the title of a speech given by Woodrow Wilson on the 150th anniversary of the University. It became the unofficial Princeton motto and was expanded in 2016 to “Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.”

This prompt is geared towards understanding students' involvement service. If you're someone who's passionate about community work, and have dedicated yourself to improving your community, this is the place to expand on it. Write on this topic if you've developed an initiative to help out your community, or you're genuinely passionate about service and have demonstrated it through a Girl Scout Gold Award for example.

Remember that Princeton is one of the most selective universities in the world. Simply writing about a service trip abroad, or single community service participation won't do. Only write about this topic if you're genuinely passionate about community involvement, and have conveyed sustained commitment towards it.

Option 4

“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.

The obvious angle to answer this prompt would be to write about your own culture. Princeton greatly prides itself on offering admission to students from a wide range of backgrounds, and opting to writing this essay is a great opportunity to inform admissions officers about your background, family, and traditions that might be meaningful to you. You don’t have to write about every aspect of your culture - you’d have to write a whole book! Read the quote in the prompt more carefully. Talk about where you’ve found the most value when it comes to your culture - is it the food? Is it the holidays? Is it the way it has taught you to view connections to family and other people?

Of course, if you want to write on a topic out of the box and not adhere to the most common angle of discussing culture, you can find other ones. The word “culture” isn’t restricted to your own ethnic background. If you’ve studied in a foreign country or are intrigued by the literature from another culture, you could also write about that. Where do you find a connection between yourself and that culture? You could also write about the culture in your school, neighborhood, or city. What is it about one of these environments that you find the most valuable? 

Regardless of the way you interpret the word “culture,” convey the ways in which the culture holds meaning to you and impacts your daily life so that admissions officers get a clear picture of life in that particular setting. This option naturally connects to what your worldview may be, so it should be more effortless to tie back to how your values have been shaped accordingly.

Option 5

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.

Considering the section titled “A Few Details” asks about your favorite quote from a movie or book and then this prompt asks you to use one of your favorite quotes from an essay or book as an inspiration, you have to be strategic. If you’re attached to the idea of writing about a quote from the book for this essay, use a line from a movie in your answer to the previous section. But note that the quote shouldn’t be the main focus of your essay – it’s the starting point. The heart of your response should share how an event or experience influenced your values or approach to the world. 

The quote can definitely be directly connected to the issue you’ve chosen to write about. There’s no shortage of quotes on discrimination, aspirations, and growth. But it can also be a quote from a character or writer who has taught you something. Whichever route you decide to take on with your choice of quote, make sure that the essay is about you. This is the closest that the Princeton supplemental essays 2020-2021 get to a “topic of your choice” prompt. You need to pick a unique and memorable quote - one that is not recognized as cliché. Remember to discuss in detail the ways your perspective has shifted, and use specific examples where you felt this change occur. 

For expert tips on how to strategize your supplemental essays, check out this podcast featuring Nikki Champlin, a writing expert from Yale and the Iowa Writers' Workshop:

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 if you’ve indicated Bachelor of Science in Engineering as a possible degree on your application, and with good reason. Princeton wants to know whether you are genuinely interested in the field of engineering, and specifically in the Princeton School of Engineering’s offerings. This is a much more standard supplemental essay prompt than the one above. Most engineering programs will require a similar essay, so don’t write a response that could be substituted for an application to any other school. Your answer must be as specific as possible to Princeton’s engineering offerings. 

Don’t go overboard with all the reasons you’re interested in studying engineering. Focus on one or two of your most impactful activities and experiences, such as working in an engineering lab over the summer or building a robot at school. Again, you must be specific! Shallow motivations won’t win over Princeton’s admissions officers. If you want to excel with this question, you need to research concrete examples of what appeals to you. For example, you could talk about how working with the Princeton Engineering Education for Kids student organization combines your love for engineering and working with children. 

Admissions officers are looking for students who are passionate about their major, involved community leaders, and truly interested in Princeton. This essay is a great chance to show that you check all of those boxes.

Additional Tips for Writing the Princeton Supplemental Essays 2020-2021

  • Be authentic - Every step in your application should be genuine, including in your answers to the Princeton supplemental essays 2020-2021. Don’t write about topics or issues that you believe a Princeton admissions officer might want to see. In fact, those answers might just end up being too cliché and not help you stand out in any way at all. Admissions officers will appreciate it much more if they can feel organic passion and commitment for the things that you’ve described.
  • Choose the essay option that’s best for you - For the longer Princeton essay, you have the option to choose from the four topics. Use your choice well. Pick a topic that you believe will bring the best essay out of you and help paint an accurate picture of your personality. If you can’t think about a person or issue important to you, write about your culture. If you don’t feel drawn to your culture, find a quote that you can play off of and spin into an essay about something that you actually feel invested towards. Take advantage of the flexibility provided.
  • Don’t repeat your personal statement or your activities list - The goal of the Princeton supplemental essays 2020-2021 is to provide further information on who you are and what you’re all about. There’s no point repeating what you’ve said on the rest of your application because admissions officers want each component to add something new. Princeton has even specified on the longer essay prompt that you must not repeat your personal statement. If you can’t follow these instructions, your application is basically on its way to the reject pile. You don’t want to lose even before your essays have been read!

The Princeton supplemental essays 2020-2021 might throw you off because unless you’re applying to the School of Engineering, you don’t get a chance to elaborate on why you believe Princeton is the right school for you. However, there are ways you can convey to admissions officers that you’re a great fit for the school by bringing out characteristics that the school values and highlighting them in your essays. Don’t underestimate the difference powerful supplements can make. Good luck! 

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