I’ve always enjoyed working with students who are applying to Princeton. As a group, they have interesting and engaged minds. Extracurricularly, their accomplishments are varied and distinctive. The Princeton application tries to elicit specifics about those facets of each applicant through its supplement. In the age of streamlined “easy apps” and electronic application review that makes applicants seem more similar than different, Princeton is one of the colleges that seek to learn more about the person behind the papers.
The section entitled “A Few Details” has been a part of the Princeton application for years, and applicants can truly address the categories in just a few words. Complete sentences and lots of explanation aren’t necessary or even encouraged. As a Princeton applicant, you are no doubt intelligent, passionate, and accomplished. Be that same intelligent, passionate, accomplished teenager in this section. Your answers to these details need not all be highbrow, super-intellectual, SAT-word answers. Resist the urge to be someone you are not in this section.
Recently, there has been a lot of press about how a high school student should spend his or her summers to enhance college applications. Princeton asks you to specifically detail your recent summer activities. Whether you travelled extensively, studied intensely, or worked a full-time job, you learned something. Think about those life lessons as you list your summer activities. There may also be material for your longer writing sample lurking in those months of summer vacation.
As a longer writing sample, Princeton offers four choices for candidates to write one essay of about 500 words.
1. Tell us about a person who has influenced you in a significant way.
With this topic, it is easy to tell the reader a lot about the person who has influenced you, yet miss the opportunity to explain how that person’s influence has impacted you. A strong essay does both, with an emphasis on the latter. If you considered answering the Common Application prompt about a place where you are content, this one takes the same sort of balance as the CA prompt.
2. 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 is a great question to answer if you have actively engaged with issues of racial equality over the past four years. Perhaps, you’ve written research papers on the topic, or debated it. Maybe you have worked on political campaigns or been involved in social justice work. If you have felt the sting of racial inequality in your own life– how do you suggest fixing the problem?
3. 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.
4. “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.
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.
The final three topics all address one point: “Tell us about an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world.” Each of these questions is asking you, the applicant, to tell a story. Pick an experience, large or small, that impacted you, and share it with the admissions committee. As you tell your story, ensure that you address its impact on you. Your options in this question allow you to address this in any number of ways, from the most macro, global event, to a smaller, more personal moment. Don’t be afraid to think, draw connections, and demonstrate maturity through your essay.
By Whitney Bruce, who has worked in college admissions since 1996. She has served as a Senior Assistant Director of Admissions (Washington U), Application Reader (University of Michigan), Assistant Director of College Counseling (private prep school in St. Louis), and an independent college counselor. She is happy to advise you as you apply to college.