How to Write the Princeton University Supplemental Essays for 2019-2020–Tips for Using Research, Finding Inspiration and Creating Winning Essays

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.

“Goodbye To All That”

“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.

How to Write The Dartmouth University Essay Prompts for 2019-2020

Dartmouth’s prompts for prospective members of the Class of 2024 are up and ready to write. I include the prompts in this post, below, with some early analysis, but before we get to them, the usual caveats: These prompts are ready to write, as are Stanford’s short essays, U Virginia and a range of other universities, linked here–(Prompts from Stanford to Urbana-Champaign that are Ready to Write, Right Now) , but that does not mean that the Common Application portal is ready. If you set up an account with the Common App before August 1st (or thereabouts), it will be deleted, along with any information you uploaded. The Common App will go offline for 2-3 days at the end of July, then come should come back online for 2019-2020 on August 1st.

So write as many of the confirmed 2019-2020 essays as you like, but upload nothing . . . yet. Also note that the essays I feature and link are those that I have personally confirmed are live for 2019-2020. However, most essays posted on university web sites today are those from last year and may change for this year. So come back to CollegeAppJungle to check for confirmed prompts. . . I am updating as I confirm them)

With that, Here are Dartmouth’s essay prompts for 2019-2020:

Writing supplement prompts included in Dartmouth’s application for admission to the Class of 2024

Updated June 25, 2019

Dartmouth’s writing supplement requires that applicants write brief responses to two supplemental essay prompts as follows:

1. Please respond in 100 words or less:

While arguing a Dartmouth-related case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1818, Daniel Webster, Class of 1801, delivered this memorable line: “It is, Sir…a small college. And yet, there are those who love it!” As you seek admission to the Class of 2024, what aspects of the College’s program, community or campus environment attract your interest?

This is a standby prompt that has been featured on the Dartmouth application for years. One simple reason–Daniel Webster’s connections to Dartmouth. A second reason–it’s also a classic why you want to go to our college question. Sadly, you only have 100 words, so let’s call it a paragraph response. And the prompt suggests that you should do your due diligence before writing, looking at the programs and majors at Dartmouth to prepare, and say something specific about what you are going to do at Dartmouth that ties into your interests and goals. . . As an example, if you were interested in, oh, Political Science and government, how you plan to leverage your studies under Dr. Muirhead in the Department of Government, to examine the changing nature of political rhetoric and offer solutions to the problem of political dialogue today . . . . (Note my link . . . and try to find a link of your own that ties in to your own interests and that gives you that key sentence or three on specific things you might do at Dartmouth.

And for more on Mr. Daniel Webster, and some background on writing for Dartmouth, scroll down this old post, past the Yale prompt, to find my discussion of Webster and of Dartmouth: Daniel Webster fights for Dartmouth.

2. Please choose one of the following prompts and respond in 250-300 words:

A. The Hawaiian word mo’olelo is often translated as “story” but it can also refer to history, legend, genealogy, and tradition. Use one of these translations to introduce yourself. 

Well, many legends are based on some kernel of truth, so if you want to be cheeky, perhaps you could write about yourself as a future legend.

Turning to some background for this prompt, history, of course, is not all that old compared to the vast scope of human history–it was pretty much invented by Herodotus as a kind of storytelling mixing what we call fact with other things we would call legend as well as myth–Herodotus wrote the foundational history of the Persian Wars between the ancient Greeks and the Persian empire under Darius and Xerxes. Of course, Herodotus also wrote of those interesting creatures he had heard lived in Libya, like the hoop snake, which bits its own tale and gets about by rolling, and let us not forget his description of the baselisk. Sadly, these animals have never been seen outside of folklore and the pages of Herodotus, who also discusses the geneology of rulers and passes on juicy tales that straddle legend, history and anecdote–like the story of Xerxes ordering that the sea be whipped for to punish it for destroying his pontoon bridge in a storm. So at its origins, History in the Greco-European sense shares a lot with the word mo’olelo. It started as a real mashup. Maybe your essay could take something from that example.

On the other hand, while you could be a creative and use some tongue-in-cheek legend-building about yourself and your family, humor is tricky. So more commonly for an essay like this, you would talk about family traditions and inheritance. Maybe you come from a family of public service-oriented lawyers and teachers and you have a sense of mission from them, for example, a tradition of changing the world for the better. Or maybe your family was scraping by in a rural village a generation ago, and you continue their tradition, supported by but grateful to them and working just as hard to advance the family as you advance yourself. What tradition are you continuing or planning to extend? If you have a good answer to that question, this prompt may be for you.
 

B. In the aftermath of World War II, Dartmouth President John Sloane Dickey, Class of 1929, proclaimed, “The world’s troubles are your troubles…and there is nothing wrong with the world that better human beings cannot fix.” Which of the world’s “troubles” inspires you to act? How might your course of study at Dartmouth prepare you to address it?

The danger of this Big Problem prompt is the risk of writing a “Miss America Essay,” which I discuss in earlier posts on the problem essay, like this one–How to Write the Problem Essay. I am planning an entire post on the Problem essay for the coming weeks, and end by pointing out that the passion essay, the second-to-last in this list, overlaps with this essay–if you have actually done something about the problem, which would make that a stronger prompt, therefore. Theory is one thing, acting on principle is another.
 

C. In The Painted Drum, author Louise Erdrich ‘76 wrote, “… what is beautiful that I make? What is elegant? What feeds the world?” Tell us about something beautiful you have made or hope to make.

It’s always a good idea, in my opinion, to know something about the source of a prompt. That in itself may give you some ideas for writing, and in this case, Erdrich writes from the perspective of an Ojibwa, also known as the Chippewa, Native Americans who ranged across what we now call the upper Midwest and the Dakotas into Canada. Now their traditional lands are limited to the reservations noted on this map–Ojibwa Land. So behind a quote like this is a specific life experience, a specific family experience, and the persecution and pain inflicted on a specific culture–in this case, a culture that our culture did its best to destroy for a long time. View the quote in that context, and you get a different shade of meaning.

Notice also that this quote does not ask, How can I leverage my startup idea to make as much money as possible?” Beauty and elegance are not being referenced here as something to monetize. Erdrich is coming from a much different place, and as her quote suggests, takes a view of value arising from community.

Note Erdrich’s family background: her grandfather was a tribal leader, and both of her parents were teachers. I’d like to add that her most recent novel is amazing–Future Home of the Living God-and that she also started and continues supporting a book store in Minneapolis. This is not a person who just goes with the flow.

And a final word on background would have to involve the novel that this quote comes from. It’s a great novel, and to introduce you to it, to the ideas in it, and to Erdrich’s other work and perspective, have a look at this discussion of Erdrich and this novel– NYT on The Painted Drum. And before you move on, have a look at my advice on How to Write about a Quote for U Chicago–the prompts are different, but the general idea is the same–Writing About a Quote.
 

D. “Yes, books are dangerous,” young people’s novelist Pete Hautman proclaimed. “They should be dangerous—they contain ideas.” What book or story captured your imagination through the ideas it revealed to you? Share how those ideas influenced you.

So one suggestion on this would be not to write about classroom standards, something like To Kill a Mockingbird, which is read by most sophomores in America, simply because it is a core (required) book across most of the country.

Of course, adding to that ubiquity problem of a required book, Mockingbird’s ideas are not really all that radical anyway, are they? (Notice that the hero is a super-noble white man, and that the innocent African American he defends is disposed of at the end of the book after the hero does his best. Then we move on to the problems of his too- white neighbor. Doesn’t read so well when you look at its basic elements, i.m.o.)

On the other hand, if a required reading book really did captivate you, that energy might be enough to overcome the ho-hum response of a reader who knows the books that are most commonly read in high school. For me, Catch-22 comes to mind as a required reading book that had dangerous ideas and captured my imagination. Though as I later learned, Heller was using his experiences as a bombardier stationed in southern Europe, and that setting, as platform for critiquing Cold War American and laissez faire capitalism, particularly as represented by the ad agencies for which Heller worked. Yep, he was an ad man. He also said that he had never had a bad officer in the Army Air Corps. Look at Major, Major, then, as a mid-level advertising executive, and consider Milo Minderbinder as a Tech Entrepreneur . . . instead of selling eggs for less than he what he bought them for, while still making a profit, a Milo of today would be telling you privacy is old fashioned and in fact does not exist, while making money off of a service he gives you for “free.” Sound familiar?

It’s by applying the dangerous ideas of a book from yesterday to the issues of today that will make your essay fly. So to speak. I have posted on writing about books before–take a look at this for more: How to Write About Books.
 

E. “I have no special talent,” Albert Einstein once observed. “I am only passionately curious.” Celebrate your curiosity.

First thought–Yeh, right Albert. Second thought is that this prompt writer was obviously using Albert as an easy way to come up with a prompt–using any gnomic quote by Einstein pretty much lends any prompt an air of respectability.

But Einstein’s curiosity indeed worth exploring, so the second thought is, Sure Albert. No special talent at all. One thing that aided Einstein’s curiosity was his stubbornness–and his youthful arrogance and certainty. Einstein struggled for a long time, and was working as a patent clerk in Bern, Switzerland (third class, no less) when he had his annus mirabilis. This is a pretty good explanation of that “wonder year” and what he came up with—Einstein’s 1905 and that Equation. His great biographer, Walter Isaacson credits Einstein’s stubbornness and rebellious streak as his greatest assets–along with a “childlike sense of wonder” which is pretty much what that quote describes. Well, those and the fact he was a genius. That stuff about him being slow learner is mostly hogwash. In particular, Albert was far ahead of his peers in math.

But you get the drift of this prompt–celebrate your curiosity here by showing either your unique way of looking at the world–again, see Einstein (and some more tasty quotes)–or the things you have explored through your curiosity. The key in the latter case is to create a narrative center, rather than presenting a laundry list of ideas or activities. This needs to be more a “compare” than a contrast essay, and your interests need to have some central drive that unites them. Oh, and they should be interesting in themselves as well, or you need to make them seem interesting. Which if they interest you should be doable.

The issue with making your curiosity itself interesting is in actually making yourself interesting as you do so, without obviously trying to present yourself as such. What you are doing through curiosity should in a sense speak for itself. And if you like physics and math, you could hitch your wagon to Albert, just be sure not to use his quotes quite as naively as this one is being used–you want to do more than write a cliche in your essay. Here are some other nice quotes by Albert, and if you feel like doing some reading, a great intro to Einstein and that miracle year is E=Mc2 : A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation.

If you can honestly say two things, this prompt is good for you: 1) That looking back, you can see how curiosity has shaped you and, 2) That it will be interesting to write about and to read.


 

F. Labor leader Dolores Huerta is a civil rights activist who co-founded the organization now known as United Farm Workers. She said, “We criticize and separate ourselves from the process. We’ve got to jump right in there with both feet.” Speak your truth: Talk about a time when your passion became action.

So this is a social justice prompt if I ever saw one. Your passion becoming action, therefore, should not be leading, oh, a rebellion against a teacher you thought was too hard a grader. Your passion should probably be a bit selfless. As usual, some background to those in a prompt can help frame the prompt: Dolores Huerta is, first, a labor activist–and a union organizer. It’s interesting to note that, in the late stages of their decline in the U.S.A., unions are having a bit of a moment as we head toward the 2020 election. Which is connected to that whole income inequality thing you may have been hearing about. If you have not been hearing about it, take this as an opportunity, and click to read: Why the Rich are so Much Richer. If your plan for dealing with that is to ignore it while also getting the right education solely, or mostly, to have the highest-paying job possible, then this prompt is not for you.

And my, there are a lot of things to get passionate about changing lately. The whole issue with our ongoing weather and its changes, for example–as discussed here.

As for this prompt’s background–Having grown up in California, and seen the labor movement at a time when workers had to fight just to keep from being poisoned by what they were required to apply to grapes, it makes some sense to know who Dolores is–and who her cofounder of the United Farmworkers was. You might start here: Dolores on PBS.

And for people who act on passion, you should know who this is: Greta Thunberg. I will be writing about her again soon, when I do more on the Problem Essay. But have a look now. Something to think about as you plan for your future. If you have taken a stand on a problem that really matters, then this is a good subject for you. But beware of preaching–describing what you have done, and using the right details, is the best way forward here. leave the soapbox in the garage.

I think that is a good place to leave this post. Think hard, write well. And it’s okay to simultaneously work for your own future while doing things that will make everybody’s future better.