This post covers how to write successful Princeton University Supplemental essays for the 2019-2020 application year. I include a review of the history of these prompts, the writing situation, and examples of strategies with links to key information for writing successful essays.
What is New for This Year in The Princeton Supplemental Essays? Not Much–Princeton has put up the same prompts that they have been using for several years with no real changes.
Overview for Writing a Successful Princeton Supplemental Essay
The last time Princeton made a change in their essay prompts was in 2017, when they dumped their Woodrow Wilson, “Princeton in the Nation’s Service” speech as the focus for an essay. Unfortunately, Wilson, former Princeton as well as U.S. president, has, or had some baggage. He was a kind of walking paradox whom some have described as a Progressive Racist–see here for more: Woodrow Wilson’s segregation policy.
The Wilson Speech essay was replaced by another speech essay, this one by Princeton professor Omar Wasow, who spoke about social and economic disparities, on the occasion of Martin Luther King’s Birthday. Replacing Wilson with Wasow was obvious response to student concerns, but more important for defining your writing situation, essay prompts define an ethos that the university wants to represent. In that sense, the spirit of service in the old Woodrow Wilson prompt lives on, here defined by a concern with inequality and racism–and presumably a desire to change things for the better, i.e. serving the community. More about that when we get to Prof. Wasow’s essay prompt, below.
Analysis of Princeton Supplemental Essay Prompts and Key Strategies
And now for the prompts themselves: read on for an annotated discussion and how-to advice for each of the Princeton Supplement options:
Princeton Prompt Option 1–Tell us about a person who has influenced you in a significant way.–
I have discussed this topic at length in several other posts–the person of influence is a tried-and-true subject–so click here for much more detail on this topic: Writing About a Personal Influence (part 1) .
Princeton Prompt Option 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 of politics, Princeton University and co-founder of Blackplanet.com.
This quote is taken from Professor Wasow’s January 2014 speech at the Martin Luther King Day celebration at Princeton University. Does this mean you need to write an essay on race or race relations? Not necessarily–it’s more advice about what I would call atmospherics–keep in mind that our country, which was supposedly post-racial during the Obama presidency, has rediscovered its problem with race as well as with economic inequality, and the disappearance of President Wilson from the prompts roster at Princeton is one sign of that. You might want to have a look at Professor Wasow’s background and the speech that inspired this prompt, and to delve into the online community he started, Blackplanet, as you think about this one.
If you go with this topic, keep in mind the potential pitfalls of writing about disparities and problems of race and money– looking arrogant or paternalistic or simplistic or self righteous as you insert yourself into the problems of others. So if you choose to write about culture or disparities, try to do so without looking like some kind of imperialist in a pith helmet.
Economic inequality has been a problem since, well, forever, but it snapped into sharp focus with the Great Recession as many more people fell out of the middle class and foreclosure was the first word that popped up when you typed in “real estate.” Here we are a decade later, and though jobs are up and Wall Street is on a tear, inequalities have only grown(while the banks have grown bigger). If you have an interest in these matters and already have something to say on the subject that will not sound too preachy, it can help to drop informed references to the ideas of experts and social critics.
For example, you can find interesting commentaries on many aspects of inequality in the U.S. of A, in Vance’s look at white, rural poverty in Hillbilly Elegy or in Coates’ take on the effects of racism in Between the World and Me.
Keep in mind that writing effectively about topics like poverty and race pretty much demands a preexisting interest in things like politics and race, as well as sociology and economics, and that you should have done some reading outside of class–you know, current events, topical books like those I linked above, online discussions, TED talks, etc. And while reading books like those I link can be useful, you are writing an essay about a personal concern here that happens to be social as well’ you are not writing a a book report or an essay for class. Personal experience is key. Keep that in mind.
The best personal statements have a personal connection, to your experience, interests, and moral sense–as well as to your past involvement. So don’t suddenly become a civil rights advocate or advocate for the poor just in time to write this essay. For some more guidance on how to write about a topic like this, my old post on the service essay for Princeton actually (and perhaps ironically) works well– click to the right and scroll down to find the quote about not being a hand wringer, and read from there.
Princeton Prompt Option 3–“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 and chair, Department of Philosophy, Princeton University.
This reads like some kind of tricky A.P. essay. Breaking it down, the important things are “things’ from “culture” that will make life meaningful. Let’s start with culture itself–
Culture gives everything from a world view to food to ideas about who should wear what on their head and when; it is a kind of agreement about what is real and how to act. And like fish in water, we do not really understand our own culture until we live in another. For many of you, this probably happens every day, as you go from one culture at home to another at school and with friends. This essay is probably the easiest for those who have that kind of experience. On the other hand, as our current president argued in a speech in Poland, there are a set of ideas that may loosely be described as Western–but I don’t think that the president’s speech actually reflected ideas like empiricism, openness to new ideas . . . free thinking . . . . which I consider hallmarks of Western Civ, at least as ideals for the last four hundred years.
Not that our civilization lived up to those ideals, but still. Certainly the Western or European culture that arose in Rome and led to the Enlightenment created a set of important ideas, one of them being expressed in the clause, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . . ” Notice how that piece of paper in which the colonists declared independence is basically just a set of ideas. That’s what we are. But back to the president’s speech: you don’t have to argue for a war of cultures to describe the influence and nature of your culture.
But there is also the culture of your personal background and family, which include food, values, religion, et al. If you are really into philosophy, are a Competition Civics type or Lincoln-Douglas debater, you may be better primed than most to write about the broad idea of culture I defined in the paragraph above; if not, you might start at home, and consider your culture there. Or you could start with a thing in our culture that is important to you. For me, that would be a library. Check out this for some examples of great writing on libraries: 12 authors on libraries. For you, it might be a turntable and the history of hiphop tied to that. Make it personal and avoid preaching.
Princeton Prompt Option 4. 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.
Examples for Writing A Successful Princeton Supplement About Quotes
If you searched “Essays that start with a quote,” in addition to finding a number of college application essay books, you’ll also find web pages explaining how clichéd and terrible these essays are. If you were cynical, you might draw the conclusion that this essay is a trap. An optimist might argue that Princeton is trying to breathe life into a venerable style of essay. My view is, it depends on what you do with it. Anything which is treated witlessly can become a cliché.
The first thing to think about with this prompt: starting with a quote can be hackneyed and the quote intro can also be used thoughtlessly or clumsily–for example, by jumping from the quote to a more-or-less unrelated idea in such a way that the quote is really an excuse to start an essay more than a true starting point.
The idea is that the opening quote should be integrated into or lead naturally into the opening paragraph and so flow on through the rest of the essay. It might be best to look at a few examples of folks who know how to work a quote into an essay–you might try reading some Montaigne, or for a modern idiom, you could try this link, to Paul Theroux’s the Old Patagonian Express, and read pages 3-6, which don’t begin with a quote, but he soon uses multiple quotes and you can see a good example of quote and content being integrated there.. This three-page section of the book has been excerpted as an essay and gives a good example of thought and action as Theroux looks at himself in relation to others engaged in the same activity.
I also suggest that you visit the New York Review of Books, which always has an article which discusses a series of new or recent titles and puts them in perspective. Have a look at my posts on writing about books, starting with this one, and you may find some useful passages for your purposes in this quote essay–be aware that the NYRB articles are meant largely to discuss books but many wander far afield in ways that may give you ideas on writing an essay tying your own life to what you have found in a book.
In the same vein, In the link here, you will find an NYRB discussion of Michael Lewis’ Boomerang, an especially good book and article for those of you interested in the social and economic problems that led to Occupy, back in the day, and that in part also fueled our current political fire –it’s a good model for how to discuss a book both in relation to oneself and to the larger world, which is part of what they want from you in this prompt. Of course, you should also be able to show yourself doing something beyond simply observing. It would help, of course, if you were a participant in some sort of action, though the author shows his own ability to think and does act on his principles by reporting on the book and the world around us.
Here are two more specific examples from Joan Didion; both are a factor of magnitude longer than the 500-word essay, but they still give you the flavor and an example of how to work with quotes. Notice that some of Didion’s essays could be cut down to a three-paragraph excerpt and, with perhaps a sentence or two of more direct exposition, work as a short essay, like the one you want.
“On Self Respect”, in which Didion quotes from herself to get things going. Cheeky!
For those of you writing the Princeton Engineering Essay, I will be posting on this very soon, so please come back to read my discussion of the Princeton Engineering prompt–you might as well write your supplemental first and then do the research that an engineering essay requires.