How to write the Princeton supplemental essays (2023-2024)

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s 50+ Real Supplemental Essays for Ivy+ Schools

Last year, Princeton admitted just 5.6% of applicants, meaning that if you want a shot at an admission for the 2023-2024 cycle, your application has to be just about perfect. 

One element of the Princeton application that many students struggle with is the Princeton writing supplement. It’s tricky to know exactly how to approach these supplemental essays: what can you write to stand out from the thousands of other applicants? What exactly are Princeton admissions officers looking for?

Fortunately, at PrepMaven, we’ve helped thousands of students craft compelling college application essays. It doesn’t hurt that many of our expert tutors have been admitted to Princeton themselves, and so they know exactly what works. 

In this guide, we’ll break down the 2023-2024 Princeton writing supplement, explaining exactly what you need to do to maximize your chances at a Princeton acceptance. 

As you read on, check out our free resource linked below: it contains real, successful examples of supplemental essays written for Princeton and other top schools. 

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Princeton’s 2023-2024 supplemental essays 

This year, Princeton has three fairly intensive supplemental essays and three short answer questions. 

The supplemental essays are as follows: 

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.) 

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.)

Your Voice (all applicants)

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.)

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.)

The first thing to notice is that these essays all fall into well-known categories of the college essay. 

The first prompt, which will vary slightly depending on whether you’re applying to the engineering school or not, is simply a “Why Major?” essay, which asks you to explain your academic interests. 

What’s the key to a successful “Why Major?” essay for Princeton? We’ve written a comprehensive guide on this essay type here that covers all the ins and outs of what schools really want when they ask this question. 

The second prompt is one you’re likely to see from just about any school, and is a version of a Community/Diversity prompt. 

The third prompt is a classic Service essay prompt, which you can also think of as an Extracurricular essay with a slightly more specific focus. 

Read on below for break-downs of each of these prompts!


How to write Princeton’s first essay: “Why this major?”

The key to answering this supplemental prompt about your intended area of study is to answer three key questions: 

  • What specifically are you interested in?
  • Why, using specific details from your life, are you interested in that subject?
  • How, using the specific resources available at Princeton, will you pursue that subject?

Now, if you’ve read our guide on how to write Why Major essays, then you likely already know that you should have a basic template you reuse anytime a school asks you this question. If you’ve already written a Why Major essay for another school, you should be able to save a lot of time by reusing the basic structure of that essay, and simply replacing the school-specific portions. 

If you don’t already have a template, here’s what it should look like: 

  1. Start with a brief anecdote from your life or academic question that interests you. 

The anecdote should show where your interest comes from, the moment you realized you wished to pursue this subject, or simply dramatize an important learning experience related to your chosen field of study. 

You can use this portion of the template for any school that asks a Why Major supplemental. 

  1. Use that anecdote to launch into a discussion of why the subject matter interests you/why you want to pursue it as a major. 

Do you want to study biology? Explain what about it fascinates you: what are the burning questions you hope to answer? What about the process of research or lab work speaks to you? Is there a practical purpose you hope to achieve through your study?

More of a humanities person who wants to study art history? The same rules apply: what about art history captivates you? Where does this passion come from? Why is it something you’d dedicate your life (or at least 4 years) to exploring?

Whatever your major, the rules of the game are basically identical: convincingly convey your passion for a particular subject to the admissions officers at Princeton, and they’ll be far more likely to see you as someone who will seriously pursue your interests–which is, of course, what they’re looking for. 

As with the anecdote, you can reuse this portion of the essay for any school with a similar prompt.

  1. Explain how you’ll use specific resources at Princeton to pursue your academic interests. 

This is the school-specific portion of the essay, which you’ll have to modify for every school you apply to. And the first step here is research: identify specific, unique offerings of Princeton University that you hope to take advantage of. 

Your best friend here will be the departmental website of the program/major to which you’re applying. Invest time in exploring that website: you’ll find all the information you need about curriculum, research, and work opportunities there. 

Then, you’ll take this specific information and focus on 1-2 key points at the end of the essay, favoring depth over breadth. Don’t just rattle off the first 10 things you see on the website: pick just a couple and spend a few sentences on each, explaining how the particular resource aligns with your academic interests and goals. 

Why do it this way? Well, the goal here is to: 

  1. Show Princeton you’ve done your research
  2. Convince the Princeton admissions committee that you really do think they’re a great fit for you. 

By picking just a few specifics and connecting them with your own interests and story, you’ll be able to do both of these things without coming off as inauthentic. 

Some great things to focus on would be: 

  • Research programs
  • Work/internship/coop opportunities
  • Unique curricular offerings
  • Unusual minors or specializations
  • Service learning opportunities 
  • Thesis/honors opportunities

While you’re doing all this, there are a few things you should avoid writing in the Princeton Why Major essay. Some of the Don’ts we list below are just too cliche; others are actually red flags for college admissions committees. 

Don’t: 

  • Reference money as a primary reason for your major choice.
  • Say you have no idea.
    • It’s fine to be undecided! But even then you should discuss what kinds of things interest you and why. 
  • Randomly Princeton name-drop professors or classes just because you came across them on the website.
  • Forget to include a specific story, question, or hook to get the reader interested.

And that’s it! Do all of the above, and you’ll have the first of Princeton supplemental essays locked down tight–plus, you’ll have a great template for any other schools that ask the same question. 

Ready to get started? A great resource to begin with is our collection of real, successful supplemental essays. For stellar examples of the “Why Major” essay, check out the last supplemental essay for Princeton, as well as the first sample essay for UPenn. 


How to write Princeton’s second essay: Diversity/community

Here’s the second supplemental prompt:

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.)

If you haven’t already, you’ll soon come to recognize this essay prompt, as well as the language of “lived experience,” which will come up more and more often. The Oxford dictionary has a pretty straightforward definition here, but all that “lived experience” really means is your first-hand experience of the world, as opposed to things you may have read, heard, or learned. 

At heart, this kind of prompt is asking you to discuss how–based on specific elements of your life–you view your role as a potential member of Princeton’s diverse community. We call this the Diversity/community essay, because those are really always two sides of the same coin. 

With the Princeton Diversity/community essay, there are 2 basic options for structuring your response:

  1. Discuss community through the lens of your identity. 
  2. Discuss community through the lens of other events/activities/pursuits in your life. 

Which path you take will actually be easy to decide: 

If your identity (racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, religious, etc.) has significantly influenced your worldview or experiences, go with option 1. 

In other words, if you know you have something meaningful to say about how your identity has shaped you, that should structure your response. This might mean writing an essay about how discrimination or systemic biases have affected you or your family; it could just as well, however, mean writing about specific experiences you’ve cherished as a member of a particular culture. 

A few great examples from recent essays we’ve worked on: 

  • An essay that focuses on a student’s biracial background and how she learned to use others’ ignorant/racist comments as opportunities for starting difficult conversations. 
  • An essay exploring how a first-generation immigrant served as a translator for his parents. 
  • An essay from a young woman exploring how she navigated the contradictions between her feminist views and the emphasis on tradition within her religion. 

If your identity has not significantly experienced how you view the world, go with option 2. 

If you don’t feel particularly connected to a specific identity, or if you can’t think of specific ways that your identity has affected you, you should instead focus on other elements of your life that have shaped your view of community. 

Think about what you want out of a community: then, think about what aspect of your life (an extracurricular, a hobby, a social circle) has shaped that desire. Tell that story. It may sound a bit tough to thread that needle, but it really isn’t so bad: here are a few really successful topics from recent students in response to this kind of prompt:

  • An essay about how a student’s participation in yearly music recitals with strangers shaped how he views community as a place for everyone to share their gifts/talents. 
  • An essay from an avid hiker about how his experiences maintaining hiking trails taught him to think of community as a shared, daily effort in the service of others. 
  • An essay from a student who moved countries multiple times reflecting on what in each place contributed to creating a cohesive community. 

All the examples are different, but share one thing in common: using your personal experiences to reflect on your role in a diverse community. 

For successful examples of Diversity/community essays, check out the first Princeton essay and the first three UMich essays in the free collection below!


How to write Princeton’s third essay: Service

Princeton’s third supplemental essay is an essay on the topic of service and community engagement–another fairly standard kind of supplemental essay you’re almost certain to see pop up again! 

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.)

You’ll notice the word count here is much shorter than that of Princeton’s second supplemental essay, so you’re really just going to have enough time to tell a short story and then reflect on why/how service matters in your life. 

This essay can be quite difficult if you haven’t directly engaged in service-oriented work. If you have, then your job is a lot easier: as with the other essays, tell the story of the service you’ve done, then reflect on the lesson you learned. Ideally, work in a brief discussion of how you plan to continue this kind of service at Princeton. 

If you don’t have anything that’s directly related to service, you might want to interpret the prompt more broadly: formally or informally, how has your life been affected by service? Have you or your family benefited from someone else’s service? Have you had obligations or responsibility to family or loved ones? Do you feel strongly about a particular social issue? 

Any and all of those would work. For now, though, we recommend taking a look at a real response to this prompt below, which helped get one of our star tutors into Princeton. 

Over the pandemic, I tutored two middle school boys. Now, I love kids, but middle schoolers are not my number one favorites. They are often dismissive of authority and it’s very hard to hold their attention for longer than two minutes. So working with them on Zoom for an hour became my new challenge.

I tried many tactics. When fun warm-ups, writing prompts, and Zoom games all failed, I was officially stumped. I couldn’t understand why they found me so uninteresting. I decided to pay closer attention to the passions they mentioned. Instead of imposing my own ideas, I listened to what they had to say.

It turned out Lucian loved running. Getting him to read was like pulling teeth, but I found a Jason Reynolds book called Ghost, part of a series about a track team. We would spend ten or fifteen minutes at the beginning of each session reading it aloud to each other, and while he seemed to be engaged, I couldn’t tell exactly how much he was enjoying it. But when we finally finished, he asked me shyly, “What did you say the next one was called?”

Sajiah proved to be tougher to please. He wasn’t swayed by any books I suggested to him, no matter the topic. He often hummed or rapped while working, which I found to be endlessly annoying, until I started listening to the actual words. I Googled the lyrics and noticed that he particularly enjoyed Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa. So we began a project investigating the origins of hip hop, and created a website as the final product. He loved finding out more about the music he listened to every day, and I loved seeing him so happy with his work.

I don’t pretend I saved the world by helping these boys, but I am proud of the creative way I found projects and topics they genuinely enjoyed investigating. I hope to continue working with children as a form of civic engagement throughout college and beyond; if I can help students like Sajiah and Lucian, it’ll be well worth it.

There’s a few key things to notice with this essay. 

First, it’s about a small, simple act of service. You don’t need to have started a non-profit or spent years volunteering: something as simple as tutoring two students can work perfectly well for this Princeton essay. 

Second, it treats this act with the appropriate level of seriousness. If your act of service isn’t on a large scale, don’t try to make out as if it is: something as simple as “I don’t pretend I saved the world by helping these boys, but I am proud of the creative way I found projects and topics they genuinely enjoyed investigating” will feel much more honest and convincing. 

Finally, this essay is a story. All the best essays are! Don’t just give us the broad strokes: really show us the details of whatever service work you’ve done. Once you’ve shown Princeton’s admissions officers that story, they’ll be far more likely to believe that you actually do take service seriously. 

The third Princeton supplemental essay doesn’t have to be difficult: stay honest, stay direct, and tell your story. 

To read other responses to this very prompt (and many other sample supplemental essays), download our collection below. And if you’d like the guidance of one of our expert tutors (some of whom wrote the very essays in that packet), just contact us


Princeton’s 2023-2024 short answer questions

In addition to the three essays above, Princeton asks you to respond to three short answer questions, each in a bite-size 50 words or fewer. The questions are below: 

  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?

For these, the simplest advice is best: be yourself. Don’t overthink these! While the longer essays are quite important and will require multiple drafts and redrafts, you won’t need to put the same level of work into these short answer questions. 

You should, however, use up the 50-word limit they give you. Don’t just give Princeton a one-word answer to these questions. Instead, use the opportunity to show them as much of your personality and character as you can within 50 words, ideally by explaining each of your answers. 

So, for short answer prompt 1, don’t just say, “I want to learn public speaking skills.” Instead, elaborate on why: the explanation is always more interesting than the answer itself. 

The same applies to the other questions: convey your passion, tell us an anecdote, or just show us how your mind works. These are low stakes, but still worth your careful time and attention–this is Princeton, after all. 


Next Steps

If you’re applying to Princeton, the place to start is our comprehensive guide to the Princeton application for the 2023-2024 cycle, which you can find here. That guide doesn’t just cover what Princeton’s application requires of you: it uses the latest statistics and insights from our own Princeton undergraduate tutors to walk you through exactly what you’ll need to do to have a shot at Princeton.

Once you’re ready to start writing supplemental essays for Princeton and your other schools, we have two main pieces of advice. 

First: read real, successful sample supplemental essays that helped get students into Princeton and other hyper-selective schools. Most people don’t really know what schools like Princeton actually want from the supplemental essays, and the best solution is to spend lots of time reviewing sample essays. We’ve collected dozens of these essays in the free resource below. 

Second: get expert help. Whether you’re a brilliant writer or just an okay one, you’ll benefit tremendously from the advice of someone who’s already successfully navigated the college application process. Our college essay coaches aren’t just writing experts who can make your essay shine: they’re trained to know exactly what schools like Princeton expect to see

Check out the free sample essays below, and, when you’re ready to start writing, contact us to get paired with a college essay expert. 


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Mike

Mike

Mike is a PhD candidate studying English literature at Duke University. Mike is an expert test prep tutor (SAT/ACT/LSAT) and college essay consultant. Nearly all of Mike’s SAT/ACT students score in the top 5% of test takers; many even score above 1500 on the SAT. His college essay students routinely earn admission into their top-choice schools, including Harvard, Brown, and Dartmouth. And his LSAT students have been accepted In into the top law schools in the country, including Harvard, Yale, and Columbia Law.