How to Write the Princeton Engineering Essay for 2019-2020

Who should read this prompt: Anybody applying to study undergraduate engineering at Princeton. I have discussed the other parts of the Princeton supplement here: Princeton Essays for 2019-2020--so see that link if you need help with the other essays. Also scroll down to see my contact link at the bottom of this post if you need editing and essay development help. With that, on with the discussion of the Princeton Engineering Essay for 2019-2020:

Princeton has a bonus for those of you who want to major in engineering: The Supplemental Engineering Essay (Whoo-hoo. Am I right?)

Actually, I think it does have its charms. For example, it’s the closest thing to a grad school essay you’ll find unless or until you apply to grad school, and while you are primarily talking about yourself, you are focused on your interest in engineering instead of struggling to explain your culture or a time you overcame failure. So that’s the bright side of things.

Here are the key elements to this prompt: 1) your experiences per engineering. 2. Princeton, or more accurately, what you know about Princeton and its engineering program. And 3) somewhere in there your ambitions and vision for what engineering can do for the world. Don’t forget that engineering solves problems in the interest of humanity. Or it should. With that, here’s the prompt:

Engineering Essay*

If you are interested in pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Engineering degree, please write a 300-500 word essay describing why you are interested in studying engineering, any experiences in or exposure to engineering you have had and how you think the programs in engineering offered at Princeton suit your particular interests.

*This essay is required for students who indicate Bachelor of Science in Engineering as a possible degree of study on their application.

Anybody who knows much about constructing a good essay knows you need to consider your audience and purpose, so before I explain how to deal with this prompt in detail, a few words on its purpose and your audience: Princeton has a problem: it needs to sort and separate a giant cohort of highly qualified students with nearly-identical looking GPA and test scores into those who are admitted and those who are not. And places like Princeton have been getting too many folks who want to be engineers, who are great test takers, super at math, good at enough other stuff to qualify, but who show up when admitted and turn out to be lacking in practical skills–starting with people skills, which are totally fundamental to working on any kind of team, engineering or otherwise, not to mention those who have been so busy mastering high-level math and physics that they have not really spent any time actually building stuff–and engineering is all about working in teams and building stuff.  

So keep that background in mind as a kind of frame for your purpose in writing the essay. The essay itself does not need to focus on your super-high social engagement, but if you have the chance to show yourself working with others, that is a plus. And if not here, then in our activities descriptions.

Of course, the voice you create in the essay itself–your writing–conveys a lot about you as well. You are using this essay to establish who you are, your ethos. Not familiar with this idea? Have a look at this linked site for a decent explanation–Tactics to Establish Ethos. As you read that link, you might wonder why I am sending you to a site on persuasive thinking–which means that need to remember that this essay actually is an argument, an act of persuasion, and the thesis of your argument, which you will never state directly in the essay, is this: (Please) Admit me to Princeton.

To assist you in succeeding in your mission, I would advise you to start by taking a step back and asking what your motivation is as a prospective engineer? If you just like gadgets and building stuff, great–authentic enthusiasm always helps an essay come alive. But now you have to ponder what things you have done that you can drop into this essay that show “why you are interested in studying engineering,” and that show “experiences in or exposure to engineering you have had.” For many, this goes back to being a kid with legos, but of course the rule of thumb is that you want long-term engagement, and while engineering stuff since you were a kid with legos definitely shows long-term interest, more recent things are also key in any college essay. Andy yes, I do see essays every year that start with legos and end with a prospective engineer, so please move past the lego state quickly.

Essays focused on activities in elementary or middle school, please: no. Of course if you were building robotic devices in elementary and middle school and are still doing that now, great, but the earlier the experience, the more it should be stated or sketched out quickly, as background for your current activities, and you want to develop recent stuff in greater detail as you (hopefully) show an expanding range of experiences and deepening commitment, and an ongoing continuing engagement with designing stuff, building stuff or just thinking like an engineer.

Which does not mean that you have to be one-dimensional. Here is one engineer’s path to and through M.I.T. to give you a look at somebody else’s learning curve: Learning to Think Like an Engineer.

So as you figure out how to build this essay, try to find a way to look engaged, hands-on (as possible), and don’t forget, interested in the welfare of others–both in terms of dealing with any team members, but also in a larger sense, in building devices or creating engineered solutions to human problems.

After all, solving human problems is what engineering is really all about:  building bridges both virtual and real, giving the rest of us tools that make our lives better, or even coming up with new technology that saves lives–which can, in the end be about pretty basic ideas, like building a hand-powered water pump that is super-durable, or even figuring a way to know when hand water pumps in isolated communities have stopped working–see what I mean here to see an example of engineering thinking that is aimed at solving a simple problem that plagues millions of people: How Do You Solve a Problem Like a Broken Water Pump. I repeat my point here: It’s about thinking like an engineer, and using that to solve problems. Get that into your essay.

Your next consideration: showing how “the programs in engineering offered at Princeton suit your particular interests.”

This calls for research into your area(s) of interest, looking not just at majors and classes, but at specific interesting research. Of course, this means you need to understand the basic structures of a university and of the school of engineering at Princeton as well as the basic understanding of majors and minors. To get you started, I am going to splice in an explanation on college majors or concentrations and the academic structure of a typical university:

Majors, Schools and Colleges

Here’s the basics of a higher-ed structure: all universities are divided into smaller units that house  specific areas of study.  These subdivisions within the university as a whole are called colleges or schools. Something like a college or school of engineering is pretty much self-explanatory, but most universities also have very broad colleges/schools, like Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences, which includes everything from a Comparative Literature major to Astronomy and Chemistry and Anthropology majors.

  Engineering departments and the hard sciences tend to be housed in more independent structures–in the case of Princeton you have the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences that will be your major focus for this engineering essay, (and that link there a first link for your research) but it helps to look at other schools and disciplines you can draw on or mention to add a bit of a cross-curricular, holistic vibe to your essay. (More on that in another post to be published on my blog, soon).

Now that you have looked into yourself and your motivations for being an engineer, you need to do some research into what is going on in the engineering school, not just classes, but research programs–who is doing them, where and how, and their results, which means you need to look for everything from press releases and blogs to individual websites for institutions, specific projects, and as you figure out who is doing the work the pages of specific professors, grad students, and when possible, undergrad students. Find something interesting and keep clicking. Oh, and of course, also look into courses that you would be particularly interested in and figure out what exactly you would be doing in them.

In looking at your potential courses, you are also looking at areas of study. Your main area of study is traditionally defined by a Major, which is referenced as a “Concentration” at Princeton and some other schools (Remember that cross-curricular reference just above? Calling your major a concentration emphasizes that it is a focus that is embedded in your studies across a range of subjects . . . ) This is, of course, where your interests and the academic structure of schools and colleges meet. And here is a link of areas of study tied to departments at Princeton: Degrees and Deparments. There are a range of “concentrations” available for engineers, so do some reading and clicking to see what seems to fit. (Keep in mind that a statement in an essay is not a contractual obligation, btw. You can change your mind later. Right now, you need to write an essay and find some stuff to put in it.)

I suggest getting to know a bit about programs other than engineering as well as taking a deep dive into the engineering school’s website and research to find things of interest. Just remember that most of the essay should be about you, and in the end tie your interests to what is on offer at Princeton.

To wrap things up, here’s a place to find some more cool stuff on current Princeton engineering stuff: Princeton Engineering Research. Be sure to click on multiple links and read, then keep clicking through linked pages for more information on who is doing work, where with whom . . . And also have a look at this: Undergraduate Engineering Research.

This discussion and the links should get you started. Contact me if you want help developing winning essays. I modestly describe my editing skills and essay development program The Best in the Business–

Contact Me for Essay Development and Editing.