written by
Shru Bharadwaj

Princeton University Essay Guide 2020-2021

Essay Guides 5 min read
Photo courtesy of Princeton University

In this Princeton University Essay Guide, we will cover how to approach the 2020-2021 Princeton supplementary 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.


Applying to Princeton University

Princeton University, located in the quiet but charming town of Princeton, New Jersey, is one of the most of the prestigious institutions in the world. Ranked #1 in the country by US News, Princeton is particularly well-known for its strong undergraduate focus, rigorous academic experience, and unique social scene within its eating club system. The university received over 32,000 applications for the 2019-2020 season and admitted only 1,823 students, yielding an acceptance rate of just over 5%. Princeton is the second smallest Ivy League university, with about 5,000 undergraduate students total.

This year, Princeton was one of the first schools to announce the elimination of their Early Action deadline in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, instead establishing a singular application deadline of January 1st, 2021 for the Class of 2025.

Princeton University Supplemental Essay Prompts

The Princeton University supplemental essays can be tricky because of how straightforward some of the prompts are — don’t overthink them, and be honest and creative with your answers! The supplement consists of two short-answer essays, one longer essay, and a section entitled “A Few Details” that asks applicants to list a few of their favorite things.

After many years, Princeton has released a new set of supplementary prompts for the Class of 2025. Take advantage of this opportunity to make a fresh impression on the admissions officers, and make sure that your essay is one they will remember for years to come.

Activities: Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences that was particularly meaningful to you. (Response required in about 150 words.)

The key phrase in the first Princeton University essay question is, “particularly meaningful to you.” with emphasis on the meaningful. They are not asking for you to re-summarize the most impressive-sounding activity that you listed in your Common Application — they’ve already seen that. What they want now is a story.

That being said, with only 150 words, you don’t have a lot of space. So it’s all the more important to choose a powerful story, and to tell it well — every sentence matters. Pick an experience that your life wouldn’t be the same without. The best essays are unique and personal.

Also, don’t feel constrained to the bullet points on your resume! In my supplement, I wrote about something that I hadn’t even mentioned on my Common Application. My essay was about how horrible I am at the Indian classical instrument that I play but have stuck with it because I love music and the community that comes with it. My story came from a place of humor as well as heart, allowing the admissions officers to understand who I was as a person beyond my resume.

Your Voice: Please respond to each question in an essay of about 250 words.

● At Princeton, we value diverse perspectives and the ability to have respectful dialogue about difficult issues. Share a time when you had a conversation with a person or a group of people about a difficult topic. What insight did you gain, and how would you incorporate that knowledge into your thinking in the future?

The America of 2020 is deeply polarized. Now more than ever, the next generation must promote unity through respectful dialogue. In this essay, Princeton University is looking for future leaders who know how to engage with people who are different from them and learn from their experiences.

Think of a time when you found yourself in a difficult dialogue. Be careful not to sound too preachy in this essay — for example, try not to write about getting someone you disagreed with to “see the light.” With the right spin, that essay could be effective. However, it may be more compelling if you speak about a time where you had to engage with a more complicated issue — maybe one for which you weren’t completely sure of your stance.

In your essay, demonstrate that you are capable of understanding nuance and addressing delicate situations with consideration. Show that the perspective of the other person meant something to you. Explain what you learned from this experience and how this conversation has informed your understanding of the world.

● At Princeton has a longstanding commitment to service and civic engagement. Tell us how your story intersects (or will intersect) with these ideals.

Princeton University’s unofficial motto is “Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.” Clearly, the university values philanthropy and community service. Now, you only have 250 words to discuss your service experience, so my advice is to focus on a specific moment or lesson from your experience serving others. Describe that moment, what you were feeling, and how important that experience was to you. Just make sure the experience is DIFFERENT than the one you wrote about in the “Activities” prompt!

Now remember, everybody’s version of service is different. Yes, your volunteering experiences could be great to talk about here, but it’s totally understandable if you did not have the luxury of working for free during high school. Working a part time job after school is service (if in a restaurant, the most literal form!); looking after your siblings so your family can save money on daycare is service. Focus on what is most important to you. I might sound like a broken record saying this, but remember that the most effective essays are honest essays.

More About You: Please respond to each question in 50 words or fewer.

What is a new skill you would like to learn in college?

● What brings you joy?

● What song represents the soundtrack of your life at this moment?

I think Princeton put it best here when they said, “there are no right or wrong answers. Be yourself!” My only advice for this section is to have fun! None of these answers will make or break your admission, so don’t try to be someone you’re not. Fifty words is much shorter than it seems (a sentence or two at most). A clever or humorous answer is always appreciated, and if it pops into your head, witty commentary in parentheses couldn’t hurt. You do you!


This Princeton University essay guide was written by Shru Bharadwaj, Princeton University ‘24. If you want to get help writing your Princeton application essays from Shru or other Bullseye Admissions advisors, register with Bullseye today.

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