The 6 Princeton Supplemental Essays: How to Respond

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s Supplemental Essay Spreadsheet

Many top-tier universities and colleges in the U.S. now require applicants to submit at least one additional essay.

Princeton University is one of these colleges. It actually requires students to respond to 6 short supplemental prompts.

What are the prompts for Princeton’s supplemental essays? And how should you respond to each?

We’ve got the answers to these questions in this post. We also give readers access to a great resource: the most selective 50 U.S. colleges and their supplemental essays for 2020-2021, in one easy-to-read spreadsheet. Grab it below.

Here’s what we cover:


The 6 Princeton Supplemental Essay Prompts

Princeton University requires applicants to submit responses to 6 supplemental essay prompts. We recognize that this sounds daunting, but keep in mind that the word length of these essays is relatively short.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • 1 150-word response
  • 2 250-word responses
  • 3 50-word responses

Princeton also requires applicants to submit one graded academic paper as part of their application. (We will not be addressing this in this post.)

Prompt #1: Extracurricular Activity and Work Experience

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

Prompts #2 and #3: Your Voice

Please respond to each question in an essay of about 250 words.

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?*

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

Prompts #4, #5, and #6: More About You

Please respond to each question in 50 words or fewer. There are no right or wrong answers. Be yourself!

What is a new skill you would like to learn in college?

What brings you joy?

What song represents the soundtrack of your life at this moment?


How to Respond to the 6 Princeton Supplemental Essay Prompts

In this section, we’ll provide our advice for responding to each of these supplemental essay prompts.

Essay Prompt #1: Extracurricular Activity and Work Experience

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

Because they only have 150 words to respond to prompt #1, students should feel comfortable taking this prompt fairly literally. 

They should discuss the following in their response:

  • Relevant details of this activity, organization, work experience, or hobby, including their role (past/present), responsibilities, and/or general relationship to it
  • A brief discussion of why this was/is meaningful

Keep in mind that admissions officers will be most interested in learning about why this is “particularly meaningful to you,” as this will give them the most information about who you are as an individual.

For that reason, we encourage students to select an activity, hobby, organization, or work experience likely to:

  • generate a lot of thoughts
  • reflect at least one of their personal values or beliefs and/or
  • showcase something that matters to them

If you’re having trouble brainstorming why this has proved meaningful to you, think about this activity, organization, work experience, or hobby in relationship to:

  • what you believe in
  • what makes you you
  • what you’re passionate about and/or
  • your professional aspirations

When writing this response, aim for declarative, concise sentences. Creativity is never off the table here, either! You might wish to include brief anecdotes, but be mindful of the fact that you only have 150 words and want to leave ample room for the discussion of why this is meaningful to you.

Here’s an abbreviated example of how you might respond to this prompt:

I never thought I had the courage to be someone else convincingly. Yet when I auditioned–by chance–for my school’s production of “Spring Awakening,” I had an awakening of my own: theatre is the medium for telling other people’s stories, and I wanted to tell those stories. Since that first show, I have participated in multiple productions with my drama team and am currently president of the core group…

Essay Prompt #2: Your Voice

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? (250 words)

Students can once again feel comfortable approaching this prompt fairly literally. Princeton offers a lot of information here about what it’s looking for in applicants. In a nutshell, they want to bring students to their campus who aren’t afraid to have tough conversations with others, especially those with differing perspectives.

What’s more, admissions officers are looking for applicants who can demonstrate a certain level of self-awareness about what it means to have “respectful dialogue.” They want a response here that demonstrates your capacity to reflect on a difficult conversation and use what you’ve learned in the future.

This is very much in line with Princeton’s mission to encourage pluralism and respectful conversations, as Princeton President Eisgruber emphasized in his speech on the “art of disagreement” in 2017.

Here are our thoughts on how to proceed with this prompt, given these considerations.

First, you don’t have to choose a conversation that went well. Maybe, for example, you had a discussion with friends about politics that went sideways–either due to your own input, another’s, or a combination of the two. The importance will lie in your ability to pinpoint valuable insights from this experience and be honest about what happened. 

“Difficult” is also a relative term. Choose a conversation that felt personally difficult to you, for whatever reason. You’ll also want to highlight why this was difficult for you in your response, although you don’t need to spend a lot of time doing so.

If you’re having trouble coming up with something, call up a friend and discuss a difficult topic! Observe what happens. Take notes. Pay attention to insights.

In your response, you’ll want to spend less time discussing the conversation and more time discussing how you responded, what insights you acquired, and how you’ll use these lessons in the future. 250 words may sound like a lot, but they go by fairly quickly.

In fact, your essay should be dense with what we call “I” statements: sentences that convey your specific opinions, beliefs, emotions, and observations. Here are some example “I” statements similar to what you might want to have in this prompt’s response:

  • I learned from this experience just how quickly people are apt to leap to hasty conclusions, but not for reasons that seem obvious.
  • I am still learning what it means to listen, especially when listening to someone’s thoughts that differ from mine.
  • I now strive to incorporate my awareness of fear–and how much it can influence our thinking–in all of my interpersonal interactions.

As always, be concise and use declarative sentences in your response. The ideas are what matter here, so give them room to shine.

Essay Prompt #3: Your Voice

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

Princeton’s motto is all about serving humanity: “In the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity.”

This prompt means that college admissions officers are looking for applicants who can reflect similar commitments to public service and civic engagement. Even if you don’t have a long history of volunteering, now is the time to discuss your ability to engage with these ideals, now and in the future (‘will intersect”).

The prompt also includes the phrase “your story.” We see this phrase often in supplemental essay prompts. It’s often used as a catchphrase for your specific set of life experiences that make you you. So keep this in mind as you brainstorm material for your response.

Ask the following questions as you brainstorm:

  • What acts of service have I completed recently? 
  • What does service mean to me? 
  • How have I been involved in my various communities as a citizen?
  • How do I want to be involved in my community in the future from a service standpoint?
  • What is service going to mean to me in the future? Does it have anything to do with my professional aspirations?
  • What does it mean to me to have a civic duty?

Keep in mind that “service” doesn’t just mean community service. It can involve anything that has to do with helping others on any scale. You don’t have to have started a non-profit organization to answer this question sufficiently!

Remember that the most important part of your response will be active reflection. Give ample room, for example, to “I” statements like the following:

  • I wish to be a teacher because of education’s capacity to cultivate values.
  • My experience teaching Spanish to local inmates has taught me how significant language is on any scale.
  • While I have had limited opportunities to engage in community service in high school, I look forward to grounding all of my scholarly pursuits in civic engagement, especially when it comes to fundamental human rights.

Students who wish to discuss a specific experience with service may wish to start with an anecdote, as in the following example.

That Thanksgiving, I assumed I would be taking part in the usual lineup of holiday festivities: baking all day, watching football, and socializing with relatives. But when my father suggested we volunteer at the local soup kitchen, things took a different turn.

Regardless, this essay should give readers a clear understanding of how an applicant has engaged with service (or will be engaged with service). Keep in mind that this essay prompt is under the heading of “Your Voice,” so make sure you are writing from a place of honesty, even if you have yet to develop a relationship to civic engagement or public service.

Essay Prompt #4: More About You

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

Prompts #2 and #3 are ones that encourage deep reflection on specific values. With the next three prompts, Princeton is urging applicants to simply flaunt their authentic selves. Hence the injunction to “be yourself” here.

Keep this in mind as you approach each of the three final prompts.

You also don’t have much room at all–a 50-word limit will go by very quickly. Aim to be direct, concise, and as specific as you can with all three of these prompts.

With Prompt #4, we recommend thinking about your current skillset first, then identifying what you feel is missing or what you really wish you had. “Skill” is a broad term, so build a list that includes the following:

  • Academic or research skills
  • Interpersonal or social skills
  • Professional skills
  • Artistic skills
  • Leadership skills
  • Any other proficiency or talent that you might have

You don’t have to discuss a large-scale skill, like “diplomacy” (although you sure can). Nor do you have to discuss an academic skill, as academics are only part of the college experience (although you sure can).

Choose a skill that showcases a specific side of who you are, and then think about why you wish to acquire this skill in college. You will likely only have room to discuss the “what” and the “why,” given the 50-word limit.

Here is an example:

I have always relished independent research, but I recognize the value of working with others on scholarly projects. I thus look forward to learning how to truly collaborate with my peers inside and outside of the classroom and to value diverse, contributing voices.

Essay Prompt #5: More About You

What brings you joy? (50 words)

It is easy for students to overthink this question. Yet we recommend approaching this question quite literally.

What makes you happy, every time? Build a list of things that make you smile or flood you with that feeling of exhilaration.

This list should include things that feel both “big” and “large.” It can span anything–activities, experiences, sights, sounds, a specific person–as long as it is authentic.

Here’s an example list:

  • Watching my favorite sports team win a championship
  • Making someone else happy
  • Cooking a difficult recipe
  • Random dance parties
  • Setting goals
  • Spending time with my grandmother
  • Minimalism
  • Jane Austen
  • Rollerblading  

Ultimately, choose the item that showcases a distinct and new part of who you are in relation to your responses to the other essay prompts. It’s also important to think about why this item brings you joy, as you will have room to mention this reasoning (but not much more than that).

Here is an example:

Every time I open my “Slow Fires” Cookbook–a compilation of exquisite Michelin-star recipes–my pulse quickens. Each recipe I create, which often requires an entire challenging day of chopping, stirring, and monitoring, brings me joy for what it teaches me about the power of flavor and perseverance in the kitchen.

Essay Prompt #6: More About You

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

Once again, try not to overthink this question. 

We recommend starting by identifying some of your favorite songs. Do any of these feel particularly meaningful to you at this given moment? If so, why?

It can also be helpful to think about common themes in your life at this moment in time and match them to specific songs. Choose a theme that represents a side of you you have not necessarily discussed at length in your application.

Here’s a sample list of such “themes:”

  • Self-awareness
  • Personal challenge
  • Hope
  • Community
  • Dedication
  • Achievement

Once you’ve chosen a song, identify the “why” behind it and any other relevant context. You will likely only have room to identify the song, its “why,” and very brief context.

Here’s an example:

“Where is the Love” by the Black-Eyed Peas reflects my desire to let compassion guide all of my decisions and actions and commitment to a career in public service. It also never fails to make me dance.


Download Our Supplemental Essay Spreadsheet

Princeton’s supplemental essays may not be the only ones on your list. If you’re applying to several top-tier colleges, we’ve got a great resource for you.

We’ve compiled the supplemental essay prompts for the most selective 50 U.S. colleges and universities in one FREE easy-to-access spreadsheet!

Here’s what you’ll get:

  • The supplemental essay prompt(s) for the most selective 50 U.S. colleges / universities
  • Word limits for each prompt
  • Application deadlines for each (early and regular)


Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.