Princeton values community and encourages students, faculty, staff and leadership to engage in respectful conversations that can expand their perspectives and challenge their ideas and beliefs. As a prospective member of this community, reflect on how your lived experiences will impact the conversations you will have in the classroom, the dining hall or other campus spaces. What lessons have you learned in life thus far? What will your classmates learn from you? In short, how has your lived experience shaped you? (Please respond in 500 words or fewer.)
The new Princeton application essay is a complex assignment that will require you to dig deep. At a length of 500 words, this essay is almost a new personal statement in and of itself, which admissions officers will use to understand where you come from, how you view your identity, and what you will bring to campus. Keep in mind that Princeton is looking to build a diverse community, full of people who come from varied backgrounds and offer different ideas. Your task is not just to communicate what important experiences and lessons you have accumulated over the years. You also need to convey that you have the capability to articulate the ways in which your experiences influence your beliefs about the world and the ideas that you will discuss with faculty and peers once in college. In essence, admissions officers are looking to see you do some heavy-lifting with introspection and self-awareness!
To get at what Princeton is looking for, it may help to mentally reframe their prompt slightly. Instead of asking yourself, “What lessons have I learned in life so far?”, ask yourself: “What lessons have I learned from identifying with a particular geographic location, religion, race and ethnicity, cultural heritage, class, gender, sexual orientation, or other specific and niche community?” Then, ask yourself questions such as: “How has being a part of this group been formative to my belief system and identity? What ideas about and within this group have I been exposed to, and which ideas do I feel committed to? Have I disagreed or felt tension within this group? Has my thinking about this group and my membership within it evolved over time? If so, how, when, and why?”
If you’ve experienced a particular conflict related to diversity and identity–for example, a struggle to reconcile religion with a love of science, or holding convictions about reproductive rights while living in a conservative community–you might use these events to frame your narrative. If you feel that you don’t have a unique, compelling story to write about that relates to traditional identity markers, instead consider what other communities and events have shaped the way you think. A complicated family situation that involves strong personalities, a debate club where you’ve had deep discussions of ethical issues, or any other settings where you’ve learned to challenge your own or others’ ideas can be just as good of a starting point for this essay as other identity markers that you might associate with a typical “diversity” essay.
Thinking of answers to the above reflective questions, and affiliated anecdotes or stories that show your growth in action, will help you get a start on this challenging essay. Don’t forget to address the component of the prompt that asks about the viewpoints you’ll share in the classroom and with your future peers at Princeton–for instance, what kinds of ideas you’d bring to a seminar in religious studies, politics, history, sociology, or any other discipline. Because of the length of this essay and the complexity of the prompt, assume that admissions readers are looking for a response that discusses both intellectual ideas AND demonstrates the quality of your character–traits such as courage, compassion, open-mindedness, diplomacy, intellectual maturity, and others.
In my Independent Study, I research how the western imagination creates caricatures of Asians and Asian Americans in the context of science fiction and other speculative media. At the same time, I feel the implications of stereotyping in my daily life. I am a multi-ethnic, third-generation Asian American, raised in a predominantly white, upper-class, conservative suburb. I’m one of two Asian Americans in my class of one hundred and twenty-four people. Since middle school, I’ve fielded questions about tiger mothers and Carnegie Hall, offhand jokes about pre-med and being good at math, and hurtful remarks, from comments about being “whitewashed” to racist catcalling. I’ve felt like an outsider in my own community, and in western society at large.
But in seventh grade, I discovered Latin (and in the summer after, Ancient Greek). The experience of studying classics has transformed the way that I come to the world and allow myself to be defined within it. Initially, I fell in love with Latin because I could apply pattern and logic to language and creative expression. I was also fascinated by the stories, myths, and authors I’d found, and how understanding classical allusions made literature and pop culture become even more vibrant and alive. Classics is exciting because it’s a discipline that I’ve chosen not for its practicality but for the sake of learning for the joy of it. It’s an opportunity for challenging, self-directed work, and engaging directly with a text in the original is far more rewarding than reading the dry, stilted prose of an English translation. I’ve also met some brilliant teachers and peers through learning Latin and Ancient Greek, whom I would not have known otherwise.
In an even broader sense, I’ve come to realize that my interest in classics is not just purely academic, it’s also deeply personal. My study of classics is at least, in some part a reaction to the stereotyping I’ve faced, a way to reject expectations of who I am and what I should be. For me, studying classics is an ironic rebellion. It allows me to claim an intellectual connection to western culture while discarding the identity that the west has constructed for me. In antiquity, there’s so much of what poet and translator Anne Carson terms “otherness.” What I’d be excited to continue talking about with professors and classmates is the value of finding, debating, and analyzing what constitutes otherness, historical and contemporary alike.
To me, classics is more than dead languages, regimented grammar, and fascinating myths. Through my study of ancient languages, I’ve been able to move between my disparate worlds and find meaning, connection, and belonging. In college, I hope to keep exploring the classical texts of ancient Greece and Rome. I also can’t wait to hear from classmates about the personal experiences that inspired them to delve into a field as impractical and “useless” as classics, and to discuss the relevance we see from classical literature, history, politics, and philosophy in our world today.
Princeton has a longstanding commitment to understanding our responsibility to society through service and civic engagement. How does your own story intersect with these ideals? (Please respond in 250 words or fewer.)
Princeton’s core informal motto is “Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of humanity”, and like many colleges, the university’s goal is to educate the next generations of leaders who will use their knowledge and careers to serve others and improve the world. As such, Princeton’s service essay is not just asking you about how you engaged in community service during the past three years of high school. Rather, this essay is looking for thoughtful reflection about your perspective on service (as formed through your life experiences) and where you see service fitting into your vocational goals and your life in college and beyond.
In this essay, you should avoid cliches like describing a desire to “give back” to others and instead discuss how you have employed your unique talents and ideas to better your community. This essay should also not just be about doing, but about learning, thinking, and questioning as well. If your service even fits into a larger narrative about your academic passions and how you intend to use those in the service of humanity, that could be a great basis for this essay! As an example, an essay about doing basic tasks at a food pantry and becoming aware of an issue of food insecurity in your community is not particularly nuanced or remarkable. A much stronger topic and response could be about an advocacy project a student conducted at his school to improve nutrition and food options at the cafeteria for students with special dietary needs. A topic like this might not only showcase a student’s critical thinking, compassion, and skills as an activist, but also could tie into a career goal of becoming a superintendent who fights for educational equity in his local school district.
Overall, keep in mind that a cookie-cutter essay about gratitude and simple volunteer positions will not be a large plus to your application. More importantly, you must reflect upon how your activities, ideas, and aspirations align with Princeton’s central mission and motto.
After each shift at the local free clinic where I volunteered for two years, a physician would lead a discussion with the interns about how the night went, what we’d learned, and a topic of interest.
One night, our head physician distributed copies of Dr. Sayantani DasGupta’s essay “Narrative Humility” as a preface to a short talk on international medical NGOs. In reaction to medical cultural competency training that implicitly aims for “cultural mastery of the marginalized,” DasGupta offers the concept of narrative humility—an acknowledgement that patients’ stories are not objects to be mastered, but “dynamic entities we can engage with, [while] remaining open to their ambiguity and contradiction.” She wrote that the listener must self-evaluate and self-critique her expectations and identifications with the narrative and its speaker.
I clicked with DasGupta’s essay. The traits she highlighted have grounded me when it comes to service and all contexts: listening to others receptively, embracing unfamiliarity and ambiguity, and observing one’s own thoughts and reactions. Her essay helped me see connections between not only service and medicine, but my own role in the world as someone who wants to use writing as a form of service.
As a writer, I want to challenge the view of people and environments as props or foreign “others.” I’m interested in learning, hands-on, how to cultivate stories, connect with the stories of others, and serve global causes. I hope to refigure traditional, reductive portrayals, and create pieces that embrace complexities, both systemic and personal.
More About You:
Please respond to each question in 50 words or fewer. There are no right or wrong answers. Be yourself!
1. What is a new skill you would like to learn in college?
2. What brings you joy?
3. What song represents the soundtrack of your life at this moment?
When answering Princeton’s short questions, you can show off light-hearted sides of yourself–your friends, family, hobbies, quirks–which can either reinforce aspects of your application narrative (e.g. intellectual passions) or reveal new parts of your multifaceted life. It’s important to give authentic and, as always, specific answers to these. However, there are two crucial points to bear in mind. The first is to maximize the word count. You have 50 words, so this gives you a few sentences to express yourself fully and show your personality, creativity, and sense of humor. An answer that is just one word or a few words long is a missed opportunity! Secondly, before you lock in your concepts for these three responses, ask yourself: Am I giving an answer that many other applicants might give? Additionally, am I expressing myself in a way that distinguishes me from other applicants? For instance, talking about the joy you get from hanging out with your family or friends may feel true to you, but it will not necessarily help give your admissions reader unique insight into yourself. Be specific, use an authentic and conversational voice, and think carefully about the final impressions you want to make on your reader!
Sample: What is a new skill you would like to learn in college?
I’d love to learn ceramics. It seems like the grown-up version of getting to play in the mud, and I would hope to make some functional mugs, bowls, and plates. The Princeton Ceramics Studio seems like a wonderful place I’d frequent where I could try out both hand-building and throwing pottery on the wheel.
Sample: What brings you joy?
I’m pretty much renowned (or I should be) for my after-school snacks. I make “lazy macaroni and cheese” where I take leftover plain pasta, put tons of grated cheese and black pepper on it, and microwave it until the pasta is stuck together into cheese-coated globs. I am equally creative with the toaster and will toast up all kinds of things, like takeout saag paneer on a tortilla.
Sample: What song represents the soundtrack of your life at this moment?
Right now my friend and I are spending a decent amount of time practicing a jazz piano duet called “Memory” for a school talent show. Another friend from a summer program taught it to me, so it’s a song I associate with friendship. But the song itself evokes ephemerality, so it’s a little bittersweet and reminds me to cherish every moment with my friends in our senior year together.
For A.B. Degree Applicants or Those Who Are Undecided:
As a research institution that also prides itself on its liberal arts curriculum, Princeton allows students to explore areas across the humanities and the arts, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. What academic areas most pique your curiosity, and how do the programs offered at Princeton suit your particular interests? (Please respond in 250 words or fewer.)
The main quality that Princeton looks for in this essay and across their writing supplement—and indeed across your entire application—is intellectual vitality. Admissions officers are seeking evidence that you’re passionate about ideas and that you are ready to not only study hard, but also create original knowledge and make dynamic contributions to the classroom as an undergraduate. A simple answer that includes basic information about why you like your intended major and cursory references to Princeton’s programs will not stand out among thousands of essays. Your response for Princeton’s “why this school” essay must demonstrate a depth and maturity of thinking, and it should be as specific and personal as it can possibly be.
As an example of how this looks in practice, admissions officers may unfortunately overlook the application of a prospective English major who writes about how she “has always loved to read” and names a few literature courses at Princeton that interest her. Instead, they may be more drawn to the application of a student who has read far beyond the required curriculum in high school classes, is especially intrigued by climate fiction, and enthuses about her desire to compare and contrast themes of environmental politics and nature in the literature of different countries. If this particular student then went on to talk about Princeton’s Comparative Literature program, Environmental Studies minor, and other resources for aspiring environmental humanists at Princeton, this would constitute a strong, unique response. When you write your Princeton “why this school” essay, try to think outside of the box. Showcase your curiosity, how you want to evolve your existing knowledge, and what you really love within your field of interest. If possible, reflect upon how your multiple intellectual passions interact with each other, and describe how that intersection will make your course of study unique and will make you a better thinker and student overall.
Admissions officers want to make sure you are familiar with what makes Princeton different from other Ivy League and top-tier schools. Traits that are key to this university are the emphasis on rigor and challenge, the focus on liberal arts as opposed to pre-professional interests such as business, and the expectation that all students engage in graduate-level writing and research, usually through junior papers and the famous senior theses. For your intended academic areas, you should also be familiar with what makes Princeton’s particular department different from other departments at other prestigious institutions, and describe why Princeton’s resources are a great fit for your interests and goals. Perhaps as a multidisciplinary artist, you can’t wait to contribute to Atelier courses at the Lewis Center for the Arts, or because you want to read beyond the Western canon of literature, you’re excited about the unique intensive East Asian Humanities Sequence offered by the Department of East Asian Studies. Find what Princeton offers that truly excites you, and connect those offerings into your own projected path of study and professional goals.
When it comes to talking about how much I love poetry, I am usually an emotional mess. All poetry is important to me. From listening to my Paradise Lost audiobook on the bus, to navigating the derangement of Catullus 64 with my one Latin IV Honors classmate, to reading the lines penned by the middle schoolers I tutor that sizzle with genius, I love poetry in all forms, from all times. How can I explain what it means to me? Not to be dramatic, but interacting with poetry makes me feel connected to the spirit of humanity that transcends time, space, and death.
Yes, there are academic topics I love other than poetry (ancient civilizations, science fiction, conservation, Asian American history, esoteric religious movements). But when I envision studying at Princeton, I see intensive, rigorous writing being a constant of every semester. I’d try to max out on workshops with the Lewis Center for the Arts and opt for a creative senior thesis, taking advantage of the English major’s Creative Writing track. I’d hope to work with Professors Meredith Martin and Joshua Kotin, and contribute to research for the Princeton Prosody Archive. I’d edit for the Nassau Literary Review and dabble in slam poetry with Ellipsis. I’m excited by the potential of a deep immersion in the world of verse, translation, and literary history in the next four years, while, through general distribution requirements and cross-listed courses for the English major, still bringing balance into my path of study.
For B.S.E Degree Applicants:
Please describe why you are interested in studying engineering at Princeton. Include any of your experiences in or exposure to engineering, and how you think the programs offered at the University suit your particular interests. (Please respond in 250 words or fewer.)
The same advice as above applies: describe your academic interests in a mature and nuanced way, and highlight specific combinations of unique resources offered by Princeton that will support your continued journey exploring your passions. This prompt also explicitly asks for you to discuss your experiences with engineering. Admissions officers are looking for students who have a deep excitement for their passions in STEM and who have taken extra initiative to learn about engineering through the resources that are available to them. Thus, you should describe the specific ideas, problems, and questions you’ve had while studying engineering in the classroom or through your extracurriculars, and discuss how these experiences have inspired you and led you to want to pursue engineering in college. If you’ve been fortunate to be involved in a research project, independent study, or internship, highlight what you’ve gained from these experiences and how you hope to build on them. If you haven’t had access to these opportunities, still take time to describe how you’ve invested yourself into preparing yourself for the rigors of studying engineering in college–do you watch (or better yet create) lots of YouTube videos on aerospace engineering and the aviation industry? Have you signed up for free courses online on materials science? Have you tried DIY projects at home or taught yourself skills like coding? Demonstrate your knowledge and include the ideas that you’re drawn to in your supplemental essay, and go beyond boilerplate responses about LEGOS, Minecraft, or robotics.