Essay Scoop: How to Answer Princeton Essays

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Julia de Raadt
Julia de Raadt

Julia has dedicated much of her career to education. Since commencing with Empowerly, Julia has looked after the research team which handles student questions on different topics about college admission.

It’s no easy feat to draft persuasive responses that exhibit what you have accomplished in a limited word count. However, the Princeton essays will ask you to do just that! So here are some tips for responding to the essay prompts in the Princeton application.


In this article, we’ll go prompt by prompt to provide tips on writing your Princeton essays. Most of all, make sure your essays sound like you and convey your personality to the best of your ability!

Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences that was particularly meaningful to you. (About 150 words)

Firstly, keep it simple. Choose a major activity and write about it. Ideally, one that you did not focus on in the Common Application major essay. Keep it to one paragraph since you don’t have much space. As you do, focus on how long you have done it, why it is important to you, and what it means to you. The last two elements of this response are the most important and usually neglected. They just want to know which of your activities in your activity list is the most important to you if you had to choose one.

Please tell us how you have spent the last two summers (or vacations between school years), including any jobs you have held. (About 150 words)

Jobs do not matter as much as they appear to in this essay. It is just important to convey that you have been busy working on something outside of school for the past two summers. Hopefully, that work can be related to your theme and your story. This is not an informative summary, but rather a chance to explain how your summers add additional perspective to who you are. Again this is one paragraph or two very short paragraphs with no introduction or conclusion. We usually recommend 4-5 sentences per summer.

Using one of the themes below as a starting point, write about a person, event, or experience that helped you define one of your values or in some way changed how you approach the world. Please do not repeat, in full or in part, the essay you wrote for the Common Application. Tell us about a person who has influenced you in a significant way.

This is a tricky prompt. You want to stay focused on making an impression on the admissions readers. This time, you’ll do so based on your actual background, stories, and interests. Talking about how someone else influenced you can lead us as readers to learn more about them and less about you. If you do choose this route, we generally ask students to spend one paragraph describing the person and how you worked with them. The rest of the essay is for reflecting on their impact on you today. The key is not the person/event, but rather the lessons and realizations you had as a result of the interactions.

“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, Politics; Founder, This quote is taken from Professor Wasow’s January 2014 speech at the Martin Luther King Day celebration at Princeton University.

This prompt is asking you to discuss complex situations – personal, academic, or otherwise – and you persevered to a solution. If something immediately comes to mind when we say this, it may be a good fit. Princeton is looking for academic horsepower first and foremost. So try to think about how to connect your story to a larger ideal or reflection. Be sure to indicate a connection between this and your goals for the future. Stick with a 5 paragraph structure for this essay to simplify the thoughts in an inherently complex essay.

“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.

This prompt is clearly geared towards having students thinking about the US or their country and how they will serve it in the future. We highly recommend this essay for future lawyers, politicians, or writers who like to think globally. It is again a show of intellectual force but should stay close to your personality. Definitely use “I statements” to reflect on how your thoughts show who you are, think about how your thoughts imply your actions, and what that means for your future. These thoughts in an essay make it easier for readers to connect the dots as they read thousands of essays.

“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.

This essay is similar to the University of California prompt – describe your culture, background, or family. We normally recommend this prompt to students with a unique or underprivileged background. If not, this essay is a reflection on what culture and society mean to you. It should be a fairly academic and introspective piece.

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.

Of all the Princeton essays, this one invites some more creativity. Many students who naturally read a lot love this prompt because there are so many stories from their literature that tie into everyday life. It is a powerful prompt that can use historical or fiction stories to define a value. We usually recommend students focus on 1 or 2 values at the most, each being one paragraph, when answering this prompt. These should coherently string together to form a cohesive message.

In conclusion

We hope these tips have provided some useful insight on how to approach the Princeton essays for your college application. If you’re looking for more guidance or tips on how to improve your writing, don’t hesitate to reach out. In the meantime, download your copy of Empowerly’s Guide to Essays!

Questions? Let us know!