written by
Brynlee Emery

Princeton University Supplemental Essays Guide: 2021-2022

Essay Guides 20 min read
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Not sure how to approach the Princeton supplemental essays? We've got you covered. In this essay guide, Senior Advisor Brynlee shares her tips for success on Princeton's supplemental essays. Engaging Princeton application essays are a crucial part of your application. Our prompt breakdown will show you how to maximize your admissions odds at one of the US's most competitive universities.

For more CollegeAdvisor.com resources on Princeton, click here. Want help crafting your Princeton supplemental essays? Create your free account or schedule a no-cost advising consultation by calling (844) 343-6272.


Princeton Essay Guide for 2021-2022 Quick Facts:

  • Princeton has an acceptance rate of 6%—U.S. News ranks Princeton as a highly competitive school.
  • All of the Princeton supplemental essays are required. You’ll want to spend as much time on the shorter essay prompts as you do crafting the longer application essays.

Does Princeton require supplemental essays?

Yes. Aside from the Common App personal statement, Princeton asks applicants to write six Princeton supplemental essays. In addition to the Princeton essays, you must also submit a graded written paper from any core academic class. You can upload this paper alongside your Princeton application essays in the Common App Portal. You can also mail, email, or send it through the Princeton applicant portal later.

Need help writing your Common App essay? Check out our blog article.

How many supplemental essays do you need for Princeton?

There are seven Princeton University supplemental essays that all applicants must write. While this may feel daunting, take comfort—all of the Princeton essays are on the shorter side.

The first four are slightly longer, with word limits ranging from 150-250 words. The last three Princeton application essays are very short—they're capped at only 50 words. You can view the supplemental essay prompts on the Common App site or on Princeton’s admissions site.

Before you begin writing your Princeton essays, try this writing exercise to find the best essay responses for you. The best essays are those where you sound genuinely passionate and excited about your topic!

Let’s take a closer look at the Princeton supplemental essays 2021.

Princeton Supplemental Essays—Question 1:

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 about 250 words.)
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 about 250 words.)

The first prompt for the Princeton supplemental essays may look different depending on your intended field of study. However, both prompts rely on the same principles.

How do I write my Princeton supplemental essay?

In this first Princeton supplemental essay, you’ll reflect on your academic interests and how Princeton will help you develop and excel in those interests. It is critical to address both of these points. You need to explain how and why you are interested in your chosen major. You also need to show how Princeton will foster those academic passions and help you prepare for the future.

First, you will need to select at least one academic area of interest. If you already know your intended major, that’s a great topic for your first Princeton application essay. Aren’t sure what you want to study? This Princeton supplemental essay does not ask you to commit to a major. You can simply talk about one or more academic subjects that interest you. If you need help, think about subjects in school you enjoyed and if there are subtopics that interested you. You can also look at the list of majors Princeton offers and explore department pages for inspiration.

If you have multiple areas of interest—especially in seemingly unrelated fields, like History and Computer Science, or Sociology and Physics—you can absolutely talk about them both in your Princeton University supplemental essays. Pointing out unexpected ways that your interests intersect can even help you stand out in your Princeton application essays. Remember your 250-word limit, so there isn’t much room to discuss more than one or two academic fields.

Once you have selected the area of study for your Princeton supplemental essays, the next step is to draft a short list of examples. These examples should demonstrate your genuine connection to the subject. You don’t need to include all these experiences in your Princeton essays. However, justifying your academic interests with club participation, independent research, and/or personal experiences will show the admissions committee that you have thought carefully about your future and the role Princeton can play.

Not sure what counts as a “genuine connection” to your academic area of interest? Here’s a hint—salaries, your parents’ wishes, and the perceived prestige of certain majors and careers aren’t it. These things may play a role in your decision, but they are not considered genuine personal reasons for wanting to study a particular topic.

Finally, remember that this is a Princeton supplemental essay—so your answer needs to show a connection to Princeton! Look through departmental websites, chat with current students if possible, and research extracurricular opportunities that connect to your chosen field. Make sure to mention at least one Princeton resource related to each subject you discuss in your Princeton supplemental essay.

Princeton Essay Key Questions:

  • Does your essay identify at least one of your academic areas of interest?
  • Do you demonstrate a meaningful, genuine connection to the academic field you discuss?
  • Does your essay illustrate the role Princeton can play in helping you explore your academic interests?

Princeton Supplemental Essays—Question 2:

Briefly elaborate on an activity, organization, work experience, or hobby that has been particularly meaningful to you. (Please respond in about 150 words.)

Princeton application essays are designed to understand who you are as a person beyond your test scores, grades, and activities. Sometimes, when asked to reflect on a meaningful extracurricular activity, students simply repeat information from their activities list. However, this Princeton supplemental essay does not just ask what activity you’ve been most involved in. Instead, it aims to help the admissions committee understand what lessons you’ve learned from a meaningful activity.

Here’s an example of how not to approach the second of your Princeton University supplemental essays. Say you’re on the softball team, and this year you were elected team captain. This would certainly be a meaningful extracurricular activity! The flip side of this is focusing the essay on how you spent the season perfecting your pitching skills. While it may have been meaningful, it doesn’t show personal growth.

To respond effectively to the Princeton supplemental essays, you could talk about how being the softball team captain helped you to develop leadership skills, such as effective communication and support for team members who lacked confidence. These skills transfer to areas outside of softball, and they represent your own personal growth.

Whatever your extracurricular activity, the focus shouldn’t be on skills specific to the activity. Examples of this include, writing a Model UN policy statement, mastering a challenging piano piece, or repairing a motor. Instead, focus this Princeton supplemental essay on emphasizing lessons and character development that will help you in college and beyond.

Since this Princeton supplemental essay is just 150 words, you should stick to writing about one extracurricular activity. Leave explanations of the activity’s mission and the role you played in the organization to the activities list. Instead, spend most of your words elaborating on your lessons learned.

Princeton Essay Draft Tips:

  • Does your essay identify one extracurricular activity that is particularly important to you?
  • Do you show your reader how this activity helped you grow in a way that can be applied to other contexts?
  • Does your essay reflect on how you may continue to grow in the future?

Princeton Supplemental Essays—Question 3:

At Princeton, we value diverse perspectives and the ability to have respectful dialogue about difficult issues. Share a time when you had a conversation with a person or a group of people about a difficult topic. What insight did you gain, and how would you incorporate that knowledge into your thinking in the future? (about 250 words)

Like many universities, Princeton aims to bring together students who are curious, willing to hear other perspectives, and able to reevaluate their positions. The Princeton University supplemental essays help the admissions team to see if students fit these qualifications. This Princeton supplemental essay allows you to demonstrate how you responded to different perspectives in the past. More importantly, it will show Princeton how you will engage with your classmates in the future.

There are two strong strategies for approaching this third Princeton application essay. First, you could write about a time when you had a difficult conversation that helped you change your thinking on a topic. This approach likely requires considerable vulnerability and humility, but it can be very powerful if done effectively. Second, you could write about a time when you challenged someone’s belief or practice. This approach runs the risk of sounding preachy. However, it can be effective if you discuss your personal stake in the issue and why you felt it was important to speak up.

Whatever approach you select, make sure the tone and topic of your Princeton application essays are appropriate for the goals of this prompt. Debating where to grab lunch with your friends is not exactly a weighty issue! It should also go without saying that your Princeton supplemental essay should not conclude with you advocating on behalf of racism, sexism, or any other form of prejudice.

Beyond your choice of topic, the most critical component of this Princeton supplemental essay is how you illustrate that this experience helped you gain new insights. These insights could be a change in your own perspective, or they could be a better understanding of how others view a complicated topic. You could also discuss how the situation helped you understand your own perspective—especially if you learned something about your values and priorities.

Remember that this Princeton supplemental essay also asks you to think about how you will use your insights going forward. Your response will look different depending on your situation. However, think about how you will behave or think differently in the future. You may continue to behave in the same way, or your new insights could push you toward new patterns. Whatever you choose, remember to be genuine, vulnerable, and honest about your thoughts and emotions during and after the situation.

Princeton Essay Draft Tips:

  • Have you chosen a situation appropriate to the tone of the Princeton supplemental essay 2021 prompt?
  • Does your essay demonstrate vulnerability and reflection as you recount your difficult conversation and its aftermath?
  • Do you illustrate new insights that influenced your perspective, informed future actions, or changed your relationship with another person/group?
  • Does your essay look forward to how you may approach future conversations differently?

Princeton Supplemental Essays—Question 4:

Princeton has a longstanding commitment to service and civic engagement. Tell us how your story intersects (or will intersect) with these ideals (about 250 words)

Like other Princeton University supplemental essays, this prompt gives you a few options. You can discuss how you have been committed to service and civic engagement throughout high school, or you can talk about the ways you will use Princeton’s resources to engage in these pursuits. The best approach to this Princeton supplemental essay will combine these options and talk about your past, present, and future civic engagements.

As you think about service and civic engagement, be sure to articulate your reasons for engaging with these goals. Long-term, formal volunteer work is fantastic to include. If you don’t have an experience like this, you can also talk about more informal projects. The bulk of your service work may be one-time experiences, like helping a neighbor weed her garden or tutoring junior high students in math. These are absolutely examples of service and civic engagement. However, unless you clarify your underlying reasons for doing these activities, you run the risk of sounding disorganized.

Instead, you could frame your Princeton supplemental essay around your commitment to the community. State your goal to make yourself available to help wherever you see a need. Supplying these examples with a broader organizing narrative helps you to sound more intentional and thoughtful in your behaviors.

Begin this Princeton supplemental essay 2021 question by establishing your history of civic engagement. Then, connect those experiences to ones you will have at Princeton. No matter your intended career field, there are plenty of ways to use this Princeton supplemental essay to establish your interests in service and/or civic engagement. For some majors—looking at you, political science!—this Princeton supplemental essay 2021 prompt makes it easy. Connections between your academic field of study and opportunities for civic engagement may not be as clear in some other majors, but this offers you the chance to be creative!

When writing your Princeton application essays, you do not necessarily need to connect your academic interests to your service experiences. Perhaps you are planning to study physics but also have a long-held interest in advocating for victims of sexual assault. Using your Princeton essay to tie together seemingly disparate interests can help Admissions Officers understand your complexity and depth. Unexpected responses in your Princeton application essays can even be stronger than those with obvious connections between major and civic engagement.

Finally, remember that this Princeton supplemental essay 2021 prompt asks you to illustrate your involvement in service and civic engagement in the context of your own story. Your Princeton application essays should ultimately be about you, so don’t just write an essay about a particular service project. The focus of the essay should be on how this project aligns with your personal values, how engaging in this pursuit has helped you to grow as a person, and how you hope to make a difference in this cause using Princeton's resources.

Princeton Essay Draft Tips:

  • Does your Princeton supplemental essay identify at least one area in which you are civically engaged or involved in service work?
  • Does your draft highlight your values and motivations for getting involved in your cause?
  • Have you highlighted specific Princeton resources that can help you be successful in pursuing service and/or civic engagement in college?

Princeton Supplemental Essays—Question 5:

What is a new skill you would like to learn in college? (50 words max)

The final three Princeton University supplemental essays only allow you 50 words, and while the other Princeton essays give you some wiggle room in your word count, that is not the case here. This is a common tactic amongst highly selective colleges. When approaching these Princeton supplemental essay 2021 questions, remember that writing very short—yet compelling—responses is far more challenging than writing longer essays. Every word of these shorter Princeton essays should be chosen carefully.

When writing your Princeton supplemental essays, be creative. Try to go beyond the most immediate answer you can think of! Of course, you will learn to research, read, and manage your time in college, but what are some more unique skills that you’d like to learn? Your answer to this Princeton supplemental essay prompt can be academic in nature (“I’d like to learn how to read Medieval French and how to conduct formal archival research”) or non-academic (“I hope to master my grandmother’s spaghetti sauce recipe using only the utensils I keep in my dorm room”). Either way, this Princeton supplemental essay is all about a specific, concise answer!

Your chosen skill for this Princeton supplemental essay should also reflect your core values. Perhaps if you go the Medieval French language and history route, developing that skill could help you achieve your goals of honoring the past and bringing little-understood experiences to light. If you want to master your grandma’s spaghetti sauce, that effort could align with your values of prioritizing family, expressing your creativity, and being thrifty using the things you already have.

When thinking about this Princeton supplemental essay 2021 prompt, note that you do not need to try and impress those reading your Princeton essays—they would much rather hear about a skill that you genuinely would love to develop rather than a skill that you think would impress them. After all, genuine responses to your Princeton application essays help your Admissions Officer to understand you better.

Bearing the word count in mind, you do not need to worry about explaining every detail of your response to this Princeton supplemental essay prompt. You should include enough detail that your reviewers know what you are talking about, but you can leave things a little ambiguous if it suits your purposes. It can often be effective to use figurative language to describe your chosen skill, how it interests you, and why you want to learn it in college. To go back to the spaghetti sauce example—you might describe to the Princeton supplemental essay readers what the sauce smells like, what different components taste like, and what the emotional experience of eating it with your grandmother feels like.

Princeton Essay Draft Tips:

  • Have you selected a new skill that you want to develop in college—not a skill you already have?
  • Does your essay invite the reader in with sensory details to illustrate why this skill is interesting to you?
  • Is your chosen skill something that you genuinely want to pursue, or have you selected something based on what you think your reader will find impressive?
  • Does your essay fit within the very small word limit?

Princeton Supplemental Essays—Question 6:

What brings you joy? (50 words max)

Like other Princeton supplemental essay 2021 questions, the word limit challenges you to say something interesting and genuine with significant constraints. Since this Princeton supplemental essay asks you to respond to a rather profound question, it is critical that you find an answer that resonates with your readers and avoids clichés.

Let’s start with those clichés: responding with an obvious answer like, “my family,” or “nature” without any specific details virtually guarantees that your Princeton application essays will be the opposite of memorable. Princeton University supplemental essays like this—where many people would respond similarly—don’t tell your Admissions Officer anything unique about you. Instead, cliché responses imply that you rushed through your Princeton essays and wrote down your first thought. Even worse, it could suggest that you assumed this Princeton supplemental essay 2021 prompt was not important.

A far better approach for the sixth of the Princeton supplemental essays would be to focus on small and unique details. Instead of “my family,” you could write about the secret look you share with your sister when something funny happens or the specific meow your cat uses when he wants you to pick him up. Rather than sweeping statements about nature, you Princeton University supplemental essays like these should be used to discuss the feelings you have when you wake up early to see the sunrise. Whatever your approach, focus on specific and sensory details that paint a picture for your reader.

At its core, this Princeton supplemental essay question asks how you see the world and interact with it emotionally. This means there are very few things that are wrong to talk about here. As with all Princeton University supplemental essays, no matter what you choose to discuss, highlight as many details as possible, and trace your emotional experience of joy for the reader. These strategies will help you use your own voice and provide insight into who you are. Princeton essays that successfully accomplish this will be the most persuasive and compelling!

Princeton Essay Draft Tips:

  • Does your draft have a clear answer to the Princeton supplemental essay 2021 prompt?
  • Do you have sensory details supporting your answer?
  • Does your draft highlight your emotional experiences?
  • Does your essay comply with the word limit?

Princeton Supplemental Essays—Question 7:

What song represents the soundtrack of your life at this moment? (50 words max)

This Princeton supplemental essay 2021 prompt is fun—a less existential version of some of the other Princeton supplemental essays! As with the other subjective Princeton University supplemental essays, there are no right or wrong answers. However, do stick to just one song. The rest of your 50 words in this Princeton supplemental essay should explain why that song is the soundtrack of your life.

One good strategy is to use this Princeton supplemental essay to highlight something interesting going on in your life now—an important relationship, an exciting milestone, or a particularly emotional experience. For example, maybe after your summer job working for a local daycare center, the soundtrack of your life is best represented by the theme of a popular children’s TV show. Maybe you have a favorite song that helps you de-stress before big exams. Whatever you choose for this Princeton supplemental essay, your Admissions Officers want you to use this Princeton supplemental essay 2021 prompt as a demonstration of the personal significance you attach to a particular song. Make sure you share some context!

Less effective strategies for this Princeton supplemental essay include listing very popular songs for the sole reason that they’re popular, responding with a non-specific reason (i.e. “it makes me want to dance”) with little explanation, or simply not providing any context to your response at all. Always remember that these Princeton University supplemental essays should show the admissions committee something new about you.

Princeton Essay Draft Tips:

  • Did you identify one song to discuss in your Princeton supplemental essay draft?
  • Have you provided context or an explanation for why this song is the soundtrack of your life?
  • Does your answer to this essay tell your Princeton essays reviewer something new about you?

What does Princeton look for in supplemental essays?

In short, the Princeton University supplemental essays aim to offer your reader insight into who you are, how you think, what observations you have about the world, and how you can enrich the Princeton campus community. Princeton wants you to be thoughtful, honest, and creative in your responses.

Remember that what makes your Princeton supplemental essays unique and memorable is not the experience you write about itself, but the details you share and the language you use to express yourself. The more detailed your essays, the more your Princeton supplemental essays will reflect you as a unique individual rather than one of the thousands of applicants. Princeton essays are most effective when they help Admissions Officers to feel a personal connection to you and an investment in your future success.

Keep in mind that while many of these tips can apply no matter what school you are applying to, you are writing Princeton supplemental essays. Remember to anchor your experiences, hopes, and goals in each Princeton supplemental essay 2021 response to the resources that will be available to you as a Princeton student. The more specific you are in referencing Princeton opportunities that interest you in your Princeton application essays, the better. In other words, mentioning individual professors or classes, hinting at research questions that fascinate you, and explaining how particular clubs and organizations can help you grow as a scholar and as a person will serve you better in your Princeton essays, as opposed to just listing resources for which Princeton is famous. You want to use your Princeton supplemental essay 2021 prompts to demonstrate to the admissions committee that you’ve explored the website beyond the first page!

Don’t brainstorm topics for the Princeton supplemental essays based on what you think the reviewers will want to hear. It sounds cheesy, but choose to write your Princeton essays on topics that genuinely matter to you!

Princeton Supplemental Essays—Final Thoughts

You are more than a collection of statistics, and the Princeton University supplemental essays are meant to help the admissions committee understand what unique skills and characteristics you can offer the Princeton community. While there are many Princeton supplemental essays to write, thoughtful execution of these Princeton essays can help your application stand out. Use this guide to help you approach your Princeton application essays carefully and intentionally, and be sure and have one or two people read over them before you submit your Princeton supplemental essay 2021 prompts. Whether from your college advisor, your school counselor, a teacher, or a trusted friend or family member, external feedback on your Princeton University supplemental essays will help you to ensure that you are putting your best foot forward by the time you submit your application. Best of luck!


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This 2021-2022 essay guide for Princeton University was written by Brynlee Emery, Georgetown ‘19. For more CollegeAdvisor.com resources on Princeton, click here. Want help crafting your Princeton supplemental essays? Create your free account or schedule a free consultation by calling (844) 343-6272.

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