September 20, 2019

Princeton Short Answer Essays

Princeton University


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

Suppose you start by listing out ALL your extracurricular activities or work experiences. Just list em. Here are two interesting ways to play this:

Option 1 – “When you look at my profile at a glance, you’d probably guess that the most MEANINGFUL of these activities was Activity/Experience “C” and that would be a fine guess! And don’t get me wrong, I do love that one for all the reasons you’d expect. But, honestly? The most MEANINGFUL one of those is actually “E” … (gasp). Surprised? Reasonable. Well, lemme explain why…”

Option 2 – “When you look at my profile at a glance, you’d probably guess that the most MEANINGFUL of these activities was Activity/Experience “C” and that would be a fine guess! In fact… you are CORRECT. But… it’s meaningful to me NOT for the reason you may THINK it is………..”

Why do we like either of those options? Because when our natural instincts and assumptions are checked, we take notice. And as an applicant, trying to get the attention of a reader who is reading thousands of similar-looking responses, this is a really good thing.

But besides that, after you’ve primed your reader to take notice, whatever you say next will likely REVEAL something about you. It’s inevitable. “I thought you were going to say X, but then you said surprising thing Y… hunh, this doesn’t fit with my expectations… you, sir/madame, just got more interesting…” is what plays through the reader’s mind. So, you can play with that a bit, and quickly lay out what you believe the predictable version might be, and then spend the remaining 100 words or so THROWING YOUR READER A TWIST that makes him/her take notice.

The best test for whether the “meaningfulness” is there is how obvious and predictable is it to have said that what you did was meaningful. “It was meaningful to me that I saved that kid’s life from an oncoming train.” Yah, but what monster WOULDN’T feel that exact same thing? It’s not to say that it’s not “the correct” emotion or relationship with that event, but it’s not revealing that you think it to be meaningful, because… it’s expected. The “revealing” test goes positive when there’s an aspect of it that ISN’T expected. Test your potential answer for that… see what happens.


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

One cool way to set this up and make ANYTHING you ultimately did seem interesting is… lay out some of the OPTIONS you considered. Not theoretical options that applied to others and not you, actual options that you MIGHT have pursued.

Then, explain what you actually did. And why. And here’s the trick: Prove that you chose to do those things for reasons OTHER THAN in anticipation of this application! Because for many, that’s absolutely why they chose to do certain things, “because it would look good on a college application.” The trick is to convince the reader that you would have done it even if it HURT your chances, because you were unusually committed to the thing, or were hopelessly passionate about it… sell us. Make us believe that your engine operates according to its own will, and not in response to what it thinks admissions committees want…

A Few Details

  • Your favorite book and its author
  • Your favorite website
  • Your favorite recording
  • Your favorite source of inspiration
  • Your favorite line from a movie or book and its title
  • Your favorite movie
  • Two adjectives your friends would use to describe you
  • Your favorite keepsake or memento
  • Your favorite word

Be quick. Don’t get too wordy. Embrace contradictions. If you’re the withdrawn “I hate everything” Goth type, it’ll blow people’s minds to see “Justin Bieber” on this list. Contradictions can happen along MORE THAN ONE dimension here. One version is simply, a contradiction with “a predictable response.” So, if you pick an UNUSUAL example at all, that counts.

But it can also be a contradiction with respect to the image you’re developing overall in your application. If you’re the ATHLETE, or the SCIENCE GUY, or the CLASS PRESIDENT/VALEDICTORIAN gal, or the whatever… it gets MUCH cooler if something on this list BETRAYS our predictions for what “that type of kid” would probably write.

There’s one more. A contradiction WITHIN THIS LIST ITSELF. So, if most of your answers are offbeat… it can be refreshing to have one completely DOWN-THE-MIDDLE response because that will (counterintuitively) be the most daring thing on the list!

Long and short of it is… knock people off balance a bit. But you gotta do this deliberately. There’s an art to it. In other words, there IS a way to swing and MISS, so don’t just put completely random things down.

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of Princeton’s application essays.

Learn more and explore each step of Princeton’s undergraduate application process here.

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