This post specifically discusses the Princeton Supplemental Essay prompts used in recent application cycles (2015-2016 and 2014-2015) 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) and essays about personal beliefs. Much of the content is, therefore, germane to these topics in general.
Numerous links to examples and additional reading are included. This is an update to last year’s post on the same prompts, with some new links and other changes to make your essays relevant for this year. It is also 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 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.
Note well that the Princeton Supplement begins with this admonishment: In addition to the essay you have written for the Common Application, please select one of the following themes and write an essay of about 500 words in response (no more than 650 words and no less than 250 words). Please do not repeat, in full or in part, the essay you wrote for the Common Application. The underlining is mine.
Many people are choosing a “second string” Common App essay because of the way some of Princeton’s prompts overlap with the Common App prompts, and because of the very obvious way that the word count requirements fit the Common App this year. Using an essay you opted not to use is okay only if you think it’s equal in quality to the one you chose or if you can work some more on it to improve it. If this app matters to you, of course. If it’s just a lark, don’t sweat it too much.
The rest of this post is for people who want to put in some work to have a great essay. If that’s you, read on.
Princeton Supplement Prompt 1
Tell us about a person who has influenced you in a significant way.
I really don’t have anything to say about this prompt beyond what I have already said about the same prompt on the old Common App, which I discussed over the last two years–you can see my archives, or to save time, use this link to see what I gave you on Prompt Three of the Common Application, which is in the same topic zone, and have a look at my second entry on the same subject here: The Demons are in the Details.
Princeton Supplement Prompt 2
Using the statement below 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.
“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 Ghandi 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.
For recent background on economic justice and its history in the last few years, I would start with this month’s fast-food strike, 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. 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
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 Prompt 3
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 bacgrounds. 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 saurkraut 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:
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 4
1.Tell us how you would address the questions raised by the quotation below, or reflect upon an experience you have had that was relevant to these questions.
“How can we unlearn the practices of inequality? In other words, how do we increase our capacities not just to act without racism but to actively promote racial equality?”Imani Perry, Professor, Center for African American Studies, and Faculty Associate, Program in Law and Public Affairs, Princeton University.
This prompt asks for a very personal response. I am revising this post in the week after the death of Nelson Mandela; though imprisoned when I was in high school and college, he was still a presence in my life, here, in America, and in addition to your own experience, I’ll just add that there is no better model of how to address this prompt than Nelson Mandela.
The book Conversations with Myself is a good introduction to his life, and if you have seen the recent movie, you really should also read this, which shows even more clearly how he lived the idea of racial equality, moving from his involvement in often violent resistance to apartheid to his stance against revenge and violence when he left prison. It shows both his incredible will and discipline and his humanity, his quirks and foibles. A good, quick introduction to the book and to Mandela’s life is in this review, from The Guardian: Conversations With Myself.
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 at the beginning of your essay.
Michel de Montaigne, the guy who developed the essay as a literary form, also initiated many of his essays with a quote that conveyed an idea which he would develop throughout the essay, and he would weave in more quotes as he went, so this essay prompt harks back to the beginnings of the form. Too see some stuff from him, I send you now to another link in which I mention this hero of letters, where I also provide a second link to a good article about his life and essays,. Montaigne himself is a great source of quotes. By the way, if you read an essay, say, today, and really liked it, and could use it, that fits the prompt’s requirement that you have read this in the last three years. That’s called inspiration and it’s totally authentic, if you do it right.
Now to the central problem of 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. And don’t force the book and your experience together. You can write a great essay which references your life to knowledge found in a book, but it is vital that the quote–and the book–relate somehow to your experience in an honest way. See my discussions of writing about books which may help you with the thought process, though rather than finding a way to link a book to a book, you look for a single book to relate to your life. Be sure that the quote you used is not taken out of context, and that you deal with the essay or book as a whole.
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.
Alternatively, you can write a quote-based essay that is more obscure than an 8th Grade Confessional Poem Using Only Adverbs. Be sure not to make your reader have to figure out what the quote has to do with everything else in the essay and if you use multiple quotes, be sure that they are suitable and relate to what is around them.
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. 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 who believe in the idea of economic justice, or even if you think our financial system should be run in a more ethical or simply open and clear way–the article linked here is 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.
That’s all for now, folks. Good luck and good writing (and reading).