written by
Austin Bennett

Carnegie Mellon University Essay Guide 2020-2021

Essay Guides 6 min read
Image courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University

In this Carnegie Mellon University essay guide, we’ll be diving into some tips to help future applicants best represent themselves in the Carnegie Mellon University supplemental essays. For more guidance on personal essays and the college application process in general, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.

Carnegie Mellon University, named for steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, is a private, co-educational institution with a highly-selective undergraduate experience. It is well-known for its “work hard, play hard” culture, cutting-edge interdisciplinary research, and ever-present Scottish pride. Located in Pittsburgh, PA, the college boasts top-tier programs in Computer Science, Drama, Fine Arts, Business, and Engineering as well as general excellence in other fields.

Many students pursue college for a specific degree, career opportunity or personal goal. Whichever it may be, learning will be critical to achieve your ultimate goal. As you think ahead to the process of learning during your college years, how will you define a successful college experience?

At highly-selective research universities like Carnegie Mellon University, opportunities are abundant for those who seek them out. For this prompt, the admissions committee is asking how you’ll take advantage of the resources that’ll be available to you, but with a little twist: the unwritten question here is, “Why is Carnegie Mellon the best place for you to pursue these goals?”

Your answer to this prompt should cover the following questions:

  1. What do you hope to gain from your undergraduate experience and education?
  2. How can Carnegie Mellon University help you achieve these goals?

Like all “why college” prompts, your response should be focused on one thing: detail, detail, detail! In fact, you should be so specific that you wouldn’t be able to use this essay to describe any college other than Carnegie Mellon. Examples of topics to touch on could be the great opportunities for interdisciplinary research, uniquely diverse student body (because of the home college system), or wacky traditions such as “Booth & Buggy” - but make sure to do your own research to determine how Carnegie Mellon, specifically, fits your academic goals.

When I applied to CMU, I was hoping to study Computer Science and Mathematics. In my essay, I wrote about how the unique connection between the Math and Computer Science departments at CMU - something that the school prides itself on greatly - would help me in my academic pursuits. Additionally, I wrote about the benefits of a theory-heavy curriculum and the genuine effervescence surrounding CS on campus. In terms of word-count distribution, I spent about 100 words defining my goals and about 200 words talking about how Carnegie Mellon was uniquely equipped to help me reach them. I’d generally recommend these word counts as a guideline, but you should strike whatever balance helps you answer and connect those questions to the best of your ability.

The most important thing to remember about this prompt is that highly-selective colleges like Carnegie Mellon want to admit students who will make the most of their college experience, not those who are just leveraging their degree into a high-paying job. In this essay, if you can show them that your goals are clear and that you’ll make great use of the resources available to achieve them, you’ll put yourself in a great position!

Most students choose their intended major or area of study based on a passion or inspiration that’s developed over time – what passion or inspiration led you to choose this area of study?

One unique aspect of Carnegie Mellon University’s admission process is that instead of applying to the college as a whole, each applicant applies to a specific school, such as the Mellon College of Science - or in some cases, a specific major, like Information Systems. For this reason, genuine passion in the field to which you’re applying is incredibly important, and this essay is a great place to show it off to the admissions committee!

Think of this prompt similarly to how you would consider the “what fascinates you” or “what are you passionate about” questions, but with a storytelling twist that reveals your exploration of the field. For example, maybe you’ve had a telescope in your room since you were a kid, and that’s led to a passion for astrophysics with some stargazing on the side; or perhaps, you keep a journal and you’ve always loved singing on stage - hobbies that ultimately led to a passion for screenplay writing and directing.

Now, you may not have a straightforward path with your subject of choice, and that’s completely okay - just write about what sparked your interest in it, and why you’ve continued studying it. I, personally, didn’t start programming regularly until the 10th grade. So, in my application to the School of Computer Science, I wrote about my lifelong love of math, and how that translated to structuring code - a topic which quickly wrote itself!

The most important thing to remember about this prompt is that there are thousands of ways to write it, but the best responses scream “I love this subject!” If you’re lost, one exercise that you can try is to write a love-letter to the field for which you’re applying (i.e. how you met, why you love them, and what you hope the future holds). It’s corny, but it’s a great way to elicit words that show genuine passion - something that every admissions officer loves to see - as well as have some fun with this essay.

Consider your application as a whole. What do you personally want to emphasize about your application for the admission committee’s consideration? Highlight something that’s important to you or something you haven’t had a chance to share. Tell us, don’t show us (no websites please).

It’s not too often that colleges invite you to share an essay on whatever topic you feel would best represent you, but in this prompt, they do exactly that. If there were ever an essay prompt that allowed you to speak directly to the admissions office, this is it, so don’t just give them a throwaway essay - share an essay that represents your most authentic expression of self.

Since you have no set topic, this essay should be the one that makes your application jump off of the page. Perhaps you’re trying to hammer home some overarching theme in your application, or share an essay that you wrote for another app that isn’t included on the Carnegie Mellon University app. Maybe you’re even trying to explain some extenuating circumstances that the Common Application’s Additional Information section just couldn’t cover — it doesn’t matter what you ultimately choose, as long as the reader learns something new about you in an engaging way.

In my application to Carnegie Mellon University, I chose to share a modified version of my favorite supplement, an essay about my siblings that spoke to the importance of community — an overarching theme from my application. Although it wasn’t a very conventional supplement (in fact, it was structured more like a second, much shorter common app essay), it worked, because I wore my heart on sleeve, provided some new insight into my application, and spoke on a subject that I was passionate about.

Frankly, the admissions officers are really only going to know what you tell them about you on the application. So show them a side of you that they haven’t yet seen. Not only will these essays show that you are multidimensional, but, hopefully, you’ll end up sharing a piece that really matters to you beyond the college application process.


This Carnegie Mellon University essay guide was written by Austin Bennett, Stanford ‘24. If you want to get help writing your Carnegie Mellon application essays from Austin or other Bullseye Admissions advisors, register with Bullseye today.

Carnegie Mellon University essay guide
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