Who should read this post: Anybody who needs to write a Princeton Application Essay this year; Anybody writing a college application essay dealing with social issue or experience.
This post specifically discusses the Princeton Supplemental Essay prompts used in recent application cycles (2015-2016 and 2016-2017) and in the process also addresses essays about or based on quotes, as well as addressing essays about national problems, essays about ethical matters, essays about culture (and food), essays about social justice, particularly racial and economic matters, and essays about personal beliefs. Much of the content therefore, applies to these topics in general. Some of these topics can lead to highly emotional responses, so keep in mind that this is a college application essay, not a protest speech. Of course a really great protest essay could be good . . . just don’t patronize or insult your audience.
Numerous links to examples and additional reading are included. This is a very long post because I address all the Princeton prompts in it, in detail, so you might want to scroll down to the one or two prompts that most appeal to you–or you might read the whole post and find an idea you had not yet considered.
If you need editing, contact me soon to guarantee yourself and editing slot: Editing Services.
I will address the Princeton Supplement prompts one at a time, repeating each prompt so that you do not have to look it up again. After you have written a draft, you can send it to me as a Google Doc or Word attachment, to firstname.lastname@example.org. I will give you a free sample edit and a price quote–but serious inquiries only, please; I’ll give you enough for you to judge what I can do for you. I will ask you for some information upfront as part of that, but add that I never outsource or share your information with outside entities. Sooner is better than later, as my open spots will book up in the coming weeks.
Preview and Analysis of Princeton Supplemental Prompts for 2016-2017
Note well that the Princeton Supplement begins with this :
In addition to the essay you have written for the Common 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 Common Application. (The underlining is mine.)
If you have a specific person, event or experience that clearly relates to any of the prompts, have at it now. But if you struggle with finding that hook to hang the essay on, I would point out that if you feel connected to something, you are connected. What do I mean? That these days a person who influenced you does not have to be in the same physical space. As one example, I see reading as an experience that connects me to other things, and I definitely choose to read things that connect with my experiences. Therefore, I have a connection with the writer and public philosopher (my term for him) Ta-Nehisi Coates–through his writing. He is often referrred to as an activist, but he sees himself, first and foremost, as a writer (and a dad). I see him as a public philosopher.
So what I am advising here is a flexible interpretation of potential topics; as long as you explained that you feel a connection to the writings of Mr. Coates, which is an experience, or even that you feel a connection to the author himself, through his writing, you meet the topic’s letter and spirit. As long as your essay shows or demonstrates that this changed your view of the world, of course.
Your takeaway here is that, in terms of defining what an experience is, I think almost anything goes–we all live in that global village now, created not just by “the media,” but by our connection to social media. Through it, most of us can be directly exposed to any event, good or bad, in real time, whenever someone streams video. And we can keep reliving these experiences simply by clicking a link or going to Youtube when a video has been posted (Or Vimeo or whatever platform we choose). Viral experiences, that’s us.
In this spirit I include quite a few links, below, to articles and arguments about the Princeton essay topics–and these articles and arguments connect to people, in the end. People like Woodrow Wilson or Ta-Nehisi Coates. So I begin here with a link to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing for the Atlantic Magazine, where he is national correspondent: Coates at The Atlantic.
My purpose throughout this post is to help you get a wider perspective and new ideas for focus as well as for content in these very socially aware Princeton Supplemental Essay prompts.
Princeton Supplement Prompt 1
Tell us about a person who has influenced you in a significant way.
This aligns with an old Common App prompt, which I discussed over the last three years–you can see my archives, or to use this link to see how to write about an influential person: Prompt Three of the Common Application, and have a look at my second entry on the same subject here: The Demons are in the Details.
Princeton Essay Supplement Prompt 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, Politics; Co-Founder, Blackplanet.com. This quote is taken from Professor Wasow’s January 2014 speech at the Martin Luther King Day celebration at Princeton University.
This prompt has a clear potential overlap with prompt 3, below, where I include discussion and links for a variety of social justice topics in relationship to the Princeton ideal of Service. Princeton’s prompt 2, however, suggests a more direct focus on inequality than does Prompt 3, though both prompts provide an opportunity to discuss a range of social justice issues. Economic inequality is obviously an important topic possibility for the disparities identified in prompt 2, and you can see it referenced in our current political campaign, as I am sure you have noticed (If you haven’t, you can go here to get a primer on how income and poverty are playing out so far in the election: spotlight on poverty). And Ta-Nehisi Coates talks a lot about disparities that are hard to resolve as well, so go back to the link above for more, if you wish.
The Challenge for Princeton Supplemental Essay Prompt 2
One problem for many of you addressing Princeton’s prompt 2 is that you live in an American suburb, and while there is plenty of stress in the ‘burbs about finances, work and life balance, life in a place like Danville, CA, or Scarsdale, NY, is relatively good to great overall. So if you live in a place like this, you won’t be face-to-face with the kind of economic troubles that millions of people are facing everywhere from declining Midwestern manufacturing areas to the Central Valley of California, where five years of drought have pushed many out of houses and into tents. You do need to have an awareness of the big picture of any problem, which you will get through reading or watching video or hearing interviews, but be sure to remember that your awareness is mostly second-hand. So have a look here: Fragile Economy and here: Poverty and Drought. Notice how varied the causes of disparity are as you read the articles–a topic in itself. And be wary about appearing patronizing as you discuss the suffering of others.
A word about Princeton Supplemental Essay Prompt 3:
At the least, I see quite a bit of overlap between the idea of service in Prompt 3 and the issue of disparity raised in Prompt 2, and you could write the same essay for both. In addressing either prompt, avoid the black/white simplistic ideas that people tend to float in response to social problems. App readers are not too interested in being harangued. Try to be thoughtful as well as passionate. See below for ideas on Princeton Prompt 3 and more ideas that might help with Prompt 2.
Princeton Supplement Prompt 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 for the University’s 250th anniversary to “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.”
Woodrow Wilson, Princeton Class of 1879, served on the faculty and was Princeton’s president from 1902–1910.
Let me begin by suggesting that the Princeton admissions officer might be a bit more impressed by an applicant who actually showed that she had read the speech. Try this link and give it a few minutes; I recommend taking notes: Princeton in the Nation’s Service.
I will pause for dramatic effect while you read the speech.
Welcome back. This speech will feel archaic to most of its modern readers in its vocabulary and in its Anglo-Saxon, Protestant ideals, but I would say that this is the point. Hopefully you read all the way to the bottom of the page and read the footnote about the fact that Wilson had suffered a stroke and struggled physically to finish rewriting the speech on a typewriter. There is a moral message of a sort right there, folks, about Wilson’s grit as well as his sense of duty. Compare the person making the speech and the content of the speech to many of our politicians and much of what passes for political philosophy today. The contrast is clear.
At the risk of sounding preachy, I would point out that the last few decades have been notable for material excess and personal aggrandizement, often at the expense of others–the upper echelon of Goldman Sachs, for example, has been wildly successful in the terms of our culture, meaning they made incredible amounts of money, but it’s hard to argue that much of their work has been a boon to our society or to the world financial system in general. A quick review of their role in the European debt crisis–they enabled Greek currency manipulation–and their simply fraudulent actions in the derivatives market in the United States makes this clear. I would suggest to you that Princeton is taking a strong stance against the attitude embodied by people who act in the interest of short-term and personal profit over the long-term good for all.
You don’t have to be Anglo-Saxon or Protestant to have a sense of duty, of course–go look up Dharma if you have any questions about that–but clearly Wilson himself in his speech and in his physical situation while writing and giving the speech was embodying a certain spirit of sacrifice. This is important because a prompt like this tells you what your university is looking for in its prospective students: a future Lord of Wall Street needs not apply.
If I may quote from Wilson’s essay, this section, by establishing what Wilson saw as the purpose of the university, also reinforces what the university still sees as its purpose:
“Princeton was founded upon the very eve of the stirring changes which put the revolutionary drama on the stage, –not to breed politicians, but to give young men such training as, it might be hoped, would fit them handsomely for the pulpit and for the grave duties of citizens and neighbours. A small group of Presbyterian ministers took the initiative in its foundation. They acted without ecclesiastical authority, as if under obligation to society rather than to the church. They had no more vision of what was to come upon the country than their fellow colonists had; they knew only that the pulpits of the middle and southern colonies lacked properly equipped men and all the youth in those parts ready means of access to the higher sort of schooling. They thought the discipline at Yale a little less than liberal and the training offered as a substitute in some quarters a good deal less than thorough. They wanted “a seminary of true religion and good literature” which should be after their own model and among their own people.
It was not a sectarian school they wished. They were acting as citizens, not as clergymen . . .”
It’s not an accident that this speech tweaks one of its rivals, Yale, and Princeton clearly sees itself as a liberal institution in the traditional sense of the word, producing people of wide-ranging knowledge and overall excellence who will practice the Aristotelian virtues of service and thought. So may I strongly suggest that your essay for this prompt show you as a thinking and active member of American society who is concerned with the state of the world and the welfare of his or her fellow citizens. (To be fair to Yale, I think Harvard has more suspects behind some of our recent economic troubles.)
On the other hand, you don’t want to come off as a hand-wringer or platitude fabricator as you demonstrate your sense of duty and your awareness of the Big Picture, and your essay should not fall into the trap of being too self-referential; its focus should be more on what you observed than on what you felt, on what should be done rather than on how to point fingers.
You should also not offer simplistic solutions to the problems which you discuss–just look at the Occupy movement, which morphed into all kinds of weirdness, especially in places like Oakland, as various violent elements like the so called black-maskers and so-called anarchists infiltrated the scene–they were not always the same people– and caused trouble. Seriously, smacking with a hammer a waiter who’s trying to stop you from breaking the window in the restaurant he works at is not fighting the Man, and the Eat the Rich slogans do not have a lot of traction as prescriptions for change.
Anger isn’t a solution, nor are platitudes. Though anger is necessary to get a movement for change started. It just has to be channeled into something other than violence. Ask Nelson Mandela, or Gandhi or Reverend King. So try to avoid both overt anger and platitudes if you write about economic justice and social well-being. And keep in mind that in this country, having a shot at a decent income and quality of life is intertwined with that line you likely memorized about the pursuit of happiness.
I would add to this that if you are writing about social and economic justice, you wouldn’t want to appear as if you suddenly noticed the income gap last week. A sense of commitment should be clear in your essay, and not just clear in the nice things you say. Hopefully you have either a track record in some sort of work or volunteering, and the best thing would be if it were in addition to your required community service hours.
But wait, you say–don’t we have a problem with racism? How can I volunteer there?
I leave that to you to figure out, but I would also have a look at the Black Lives Matter movement for some ideas for a social justice theme. Just type in the search term and start clicking, or follow my lead and have a look at this article, which does a great job giving some perspective on the BLM movement: Black Lives and the Police. Of course, if you have had not interest in this in the past, or do not have some kind of feeling about it, it is a terrible topic for you–app readers do not like the essays that leverage somebody else’s suffering to get into college, and the BLM movement would not exist if not for a lot of suffering. So you need to have some genuine interest and find the right angle that does not seem too self-interested but is more interested in the topic. Avoid lecturing about the obvious.
In keeping with that, I would add that you also want to think outside the box and perhaps avoid the kind of binary opposites that have developed around the movement–try to find something original to say. As an example, I look not just at the idea of racism, but at the idea that the police have become militarized–in particular, I have pondered, but not researched, how many police officers have done tours of duty in occupied cities and had to shoot at people who look like civilians . . . whatever you do, try to be thoughtful. People will have strong emotional reactions that are not entirely predictable. Take my last statement–some veterans (and friends/family of vets) might become instantly irritated or angry at it; others would nod their heads and say they knew what I meant. Remember that this essay is for admissions to a university, not to a protest group.
For other topics in the realm of social justice, I start with economic justice–as seen in the fast-food strikes, in which workers in hundreds of cities walked out of their jobs or took their day off to ask, en masse, for a living wage in recent years. Start here, for information: Fast Food Strike. Then there is the Walmart food drive–for its own employees. Probably you have heard or read about it, but here’s a decent summary: Food Drive.
I must add at this point, that these two items would be nice examples for an essay, but they don’t offer much in the way of solutions to the bigger problems, though I would say that a higher minimum wage would be a good start. I add that I am aware of the argument for inflationary effects, but many economists see no problem for the greater economy with a national minimum wage somewhere between twelve and fifteen dollars an hour. I don’t have time to get into the whole we-are-competing-with-the-whole-world/race to the bottom thing in this post, though you might want to bring it up in your own essay.
Did I mention that many fast food workers have trouble getting a second job because fast food joints–the big corporate ones–expect their workers to work a varying schedule, filling in wherever they are needed in a given week? Makes it tough to fit a second job in when you can’t schedule time more than a week in advance.
It is also worth looking at the Occupy movement in its early days, for the spirit of the thing and the reasons for anger–have a look at this link in the New York Review of Books for a good discussion of Occupy if you are interested: In Zucotti Park. This may seem like ancient history to you, but aspects of Occupy are in the other movements of the last few years.
A few other things to remember about this speech involve Woodrow Wilson himself. He was an internationalist who believed strongly not just that the United States participate in international affairs, but that we be, well, a bit Arthurian, a leader yet seated at a Round Table–he did want a League of Nations, after all . . . so if you are an isolationist or tend to speak like the more hysterical members of the Tea Party movement, Princeton seems to suggest in presenting Wilson’s speech that you might want to go elsewhere for school. Yale, I guess. Or tone it down.
In concluding our discussion of this prompt, I mention my view that the Tea Party and the Occupy people share a fundamental American concern for fairness and equality, and that I look forward to some sort of shared agenda arising from these populist movements, especially if things get worse. If you do prefer tea to coffee, so to speak, you might explore that kind of common value, which would prevent you from coming across like, well, Sean Hannity. Woodrow Wilson would not have been a fan of the Tea Party; in using his speech, Princeton is taking a stance that is both principled and political. Keep that in mind.
Princeton Supplement Prompt4
Using the quotation below as a starting point, reflect on the role that culture plays in your life.
“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, chair of the Council of the Humanities and director of the Program in Humanistic Studies, Princeton University
Pretty stuffy-sounding phrasing, but this is a great prompt, and not just for people from specific and clear ethnic backgrounds. Music, architecture, dance, literature, all the artifacts around us represent culture. Cars are culture (and also capture the often paradoxical nature of it, the good and the bad: with the car, independence and mobility, really the entire American way of life, set against urban sprawl, traffic deaths, pollution and climate change.)
Clearly, culture is an enormously broad subject, so I am going to focus in this post on one area of culture everyone shares: food. (I’ve already written about books–about writing about books, about books as culture–elsewhere, both in my links for Princeton this year and in other examples in my archive).
Whether your mother (or father–things have changed) makes sauerkraut or brews beer or has kimchee fermenting away or simply cooks anything with regularity, you are in touch with culture as food. Just look at holiday meals, how they are used to pass on traditions, and not just in the form of recipes. This is a rich source of personal experience for essays.
I’ll start my links with Roi Choi, who is a pioneer of the new-wave food truck industry, and who recently published a cookbook that is more autobiography than recipes; here’s an interview with him: L.A Son. The early part of this interview pretty much shows what I mean about food and culture as Choi talks about kimchi and how his native Korean culture is, for him, rooted in food.
Also roaming the greater L.A. area is one of the great food writers of today, Jonathan Gold, food critic for the L.A. Times and fanatical hunter for cheap and interesting ethnic food. Here are a couple of appetizers that give a good taste of his writing–pay close attention to his use of detail and the casual but tightly written style he has evolved:
Jonathan Gold on Tacos
Jonathan Gold on Udon
And consider your own family’s food traditions as an expression of culture and get writing. I recommend starting when you are just a bit peckish, to stimulate your descriptive skills, dining only after the first draft is done.
Princeton Supplement Prompt 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.
I have written about how to write about books a whole buncha times, so I will bounce you back to this post on Harvard prompt about books and then let you click around there and elsewhere in my archives: How to Write About Books.
You will notice that the New York Review of Books comes up in links, which I would use.