Updated: Ms. Rapelye is no longer taking questions.
This week The Choice has invited Janet Lavin Rapelye, the dean of admission at Princeton University, to answer select reader questions about college admissions in the blog’s Guidance Office, a forum for those applicants and their families seeking expert advice. Ms. Rapelye, who received a bachelor’s degree from Williams College and a master’s degree from Stanford University, has 30 years’ experience in college admissions.
In this first installment of answers, Ms. Rapelye responds to questions about the essay, the importance of standardized tests and so-called “geographical diversity.” Her responses will continue each day throughout this week. Readers may continue to post questions using the comment box below, or on the original post soliciting questions.
(On Saturday, after we kicked off this series, the president of Princeton, Shirley M. Tilghman, made some news of her own: she announced she would resign, effective at the end of the academic year.)
Some questions, and answers, below have been edited, including for length and style. — Tanya Abrams
You hear admission officers and counselors talk about how important the essay is and how it shows that you are not just a test score. The importance, however, is still not clear. What exactly does an admission officer think as he goes about an applicant’s essay? What does he look for? What works in the applicant’s favor?
— Emiliano Lopez
Your ability to write well is critical to our decision because your writing reflects your thinking. No matter what question is asked on a college application, admission officers are looking to see how well you convey your ideas and express yourself in writing. It is our window to your world.
Your command of the English language, whether or not you are a native speaker, is important because you will be asked to write extensively when you get to our campuses.
The best applications come from students who have spent time writing their essays, editing their work, and refining their message.
It is important to answer the question that is asked by a specific school, and not just to “recycle” one essay. This is not the time to take an academic paper you have written for a high school course and edit it for the application essay. This is your moment to be authentic.
Let me suggest that you take this opportunity to sit down and write about a topic you care about and know well. If you are stuck, you might begin with this question from the Common Application: “Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.”
Each of you has someone in your life who has played a role in your development, someone to whom you are grateful, and someone you could describe well. That person may be an adult, a child or a peer. Write a draft that you can put aside for a few days or weeks and edit later. Even if this is not the final essay you send to a college, it will get you started, and working from a draft is much easier than staring at a blank page with a blinking cursor.
Please resist the Web sites that give you access to college essays. This needs to be your own work. Your integrity in this process is paramount.
SAT Scores and the Importance of Standardized Tests
To what extent are SAT scores scrutinized? Is there a defined cutoff for the composite SAT score, or is it more about individual module? For example, would a composite score of 2130 that included a 780 math, 710 writing, and 640 critical reading scores be regarded in the same light as a 2130 composite score that included 700 math, 700 writing and 730 critical reading scores?
Can you get into Princeton with a 1730 on the SAT?
— Joe Smith
Despite their biases, inaccuracies, limited ability to measure achievement or ability, and other flaws, why does such a world renown and highly accredited institution like Princeton University require applicants to take standardized tests? Is admission possible without it?
To answer these questions, it is important to understand how admissions officers read an application. At Princeton, every application is given a holistic review. Because we look at the totality of your experience, there is no formula to the process.
We look first at the transcript that is sent by your secondary school, and we evaluate the rigor of your program and the grades you have received. If you are in our applicant pool, we expect that you have taken the most demanding academic program offered at your school. You will be challenged when you get to our campus, and we want to be sure you are well prepared to handle our college courses.
We are looking not just at your potential, but at your performance. If you had a slow start to your studies in high school, we hope to see academic improvement.
We then review the recommendation letters that are sent by your teachers and guidance counselor. We read your essay and assess your extracurricular activities, how you have spent your summers, if you have had a job or were engaged in community service, what you may have done outside of school, and any other supporting material.
Admission officers understand that standardized tests measure quantitative ability, critical reading, an understanding of some subject areas, and writing skills. Combined with your grades, they only partially predict first-year performance in college. They do not predict, however, other values we hold in high esteem at the college level, such as motivation, creativity, independent thought, intellectual curiosity and perseverance.
When we shape our class, we look for students who will continually challenge themselves and contribute to a lively exchange of knowledge and ideas in the classroom. We seek students whose interests are varied and who have a record of accomplishment in athletics or the arts. We look for qualities that will help them become leaders in their fields and in their communities.
If one test could measure all these things, our jobs would be easy. Standardized test scores help us evaluate a student’s likelihood of succeeding at Princeton, but by themselves are not accurate predictors. For all these reasons, we have no cutoffs in test scores, nor do we have cutoffs in grade point averages or class rank. We consider all of these measures within the context of each applicant’s school and situation.
Although our most promising candidates tend to earn strong grades and have comparatively high scores on standardized tests, we look at other parts of the application, including essays, to learn more about the kind of student you are and how you approach learning.
Location, Location, Location
How important is geographical diversity to admissions offices? My daughter attends a very small public school in an isolated rural town in Montana. While she will have taken (literally) every rigorous course the school offers, the school doesn’t offer AP courses, dual credit or many of the clubs, courses and opportunities available elsewhere (they just started a National Honor Society last year, for example). People from more urban states tell me she’s got it made because “you’re from Montana.” But I’m realistic: She’s simply not had the opportunities available at larger schools. Will being from a small Montana rural public school help her — or hurt her?
Do college admissions officers take into account that a student who attends a large (public) school faces more competition when competing for slots in extracurricular activities than a student from a smaller (private) school? Similarly, that a student from a small town has less opportunities for internships and jobs than a student from a more metropolitan area?
— Sheila Mehta
These questions touch on two important considerations in the admission process: where you live and the opportunities you might have to excel based on the resources of your schools.
When evaluating applications, we ask ourselves whether students have taken advantage of what their setting offers. In a perfect world, every student would have equal access to the same academic resources and extracurricular activities. We, of course, do not live in such a world.
We recognize that not all high school students are offered the same courses, opportunities or extracurricular offerings. Some schools, public or private, offer International Baccalaureate, a range of foreign languages and Advanced Placement courses; others have more limited offerings. Similarly, some students live in communities that are able to afford extremely robust athletic and arts programs with extraordinary facilities, while others do not.
We give full consideration to any applicant who has been unable to pursue the recommended studies as long as the student’s record shows promise, initiative and intellectual curiosity. We are looking for academic excellence; students who are pushing back intellectual limits no matter what their background might be. Some students have overcome great adversity. Others have had many opportunities, and they have seized those opportunities.
We’re looking for students who have made a commitment to an extracurricular activity or a set of activities. Some students are well rounded in their interests, and others have one well-honed skill. We value both kinds of students. We’re looking for students who will enrich our campus with such talents as music, art, drama, athletics, public speaking, and leadership.
On the question of geographic diversity, it is our hope that we will attract students from all over the United States and the world. We believe that our academic community benefits from the diversity of experiences that students bring with them when they come from geographically diverse backgrounds.
Just being from a remote area, or a city on the other side of the world, however, will not necessarily give you an advantage in this process. Our applicant pool is so large that we can admit only a fraction of the qualified candidates. We will evaluate each student’s academic performance and personal achievements in the context of his or her setting.
Ms. Rapelye has agreed to accept questions through Sept. 26. To pose a question to Ms. Rapelye, please visit our original post or use the comments box below.
Note: this blog post has been updated for the 2016-2017 application cycle. To view the most recent version, click here.
Preppy, stereotypically academic, and in the middle of nowhere – say what you will. As one of the best colleges in the nation, Princeton University is consistently one of the most popular reach schools for rising seniors each year. Because the majority of applicants to the university are already extremely impressive on paper, the essays play an even more important role in gaining acceptance to this prestigious New Jersey school. Fear not, however – Admissions Hero is here to help give you some expert tips on how to tackle the essays for this exceptional Ivy League university.
Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences that was particularly meaningful to you. (About 150 words [250 MAX])
This essay topic is similar to the one asked on the Common App two years ago, before it was updated to its current version last year. Essentially, this question asks you to expand on an activity that you participate in outside of the classroom. Many students choose to talk about their most important extracurricular activity here. However, a strategy worth exploring is to use this space to write about an activity on your resume that isn’t fully explained on the Common Application—for example, instead of writing about a well-recognized organization like National Honor Society (which doesn’t need much of an explanation because it pretty much does the same thing at every high school in the US), you could choose to write about a charity organization that you founded or a club that is unique to your school. The extra words will allow you to talk about your personal experiences in a club/activity that most students can’t speak to, which will not only help you stand out in the eyes of admissions officers but also help colleges understand what your club does.
Of course, if you haven’t done any activities that are particularly out of the ordinary, here would be a good spot to talk about a typical club that you had an atypical role in. For example, if you were the Secretary General of a Model UN conference, you would be able to speak to the unique leadership role of organizing the delegates and other officers rather than simply the act of debating international issues.
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 [250 MAX])
This question alone is a good reason for top students to care about what they are doing each summer. Indeed, Princeton-hopefuls who failed to appreciate the importance of summer activities will find themselves hard-pressed to write about anything of substance.
Students who have taken advantage of both their sophomore and junior summers will be faced with the issue of fitting all of their activities into the limited space provided. There are two potential strategies here. The first is to write briefly about all activities in chronological order, taking note to explain each activity but not dwell on it. The second is to focus on one or two activities that meant the most to you and expand upon them in great detail. This strategy can be especially effective if what you did in your junior summer was a continuation of your sophomore summer; for example, if you did research over both summers, here would be a good place to talk about your work and what changed from year to year.
Students who have not done as much during each summer should try to find one activity or event that they were moved by and elaborate as much as possible. In essence, by emphasizing every detail about the single activity, you are redirecting attention away from the fact that you didn’t do much else. Instead, the admissions officers might just assume that you were so passionate about this one topic that you didn’t bother to mention the various other activities you participated in each summer. Again, if possible, try to pick events that are unique.
Finally, don’t be afraid to mention something that isn’t directly a resume builder. Indeed, just because it’s not overtly academic or extracurricular, doesn’t mean you can’t draw some valuable insights from it. For example, if you are an American student who traveled both summers to Greece to visit family, then talking about the disparity between your experiences there and in the US can be a mature topic to demonstrate your global and cultural awareness.
Your favorite book and its author:
Your favorite movie:
Your favorite website:
Two adjectives your friends would use to describe you:
Your favorite recording:
Your favorite keepsake or memento:
Your favorite source of inspiration:
Your favorite word:
Your favorite line from a movie or book and its title:
There are not really any wrong answers to these questions; indeed, answer them as truthfully as possible. The one exception to this is anything that is controversial/potentially offensive, which should be avoided at all costs. The purpose of these questions is to give the admissions officers some quick insight into your personality. Each answer you give will reflect different parts of your personality and interests. For example, if you say that your favorite recording is an album by Miles Davis, then Princeton will know you are interested in jazz. If you say that your favorite website is the Economist, then Princeton will know that you are interested in the world’s economic affairs. If you say that your favorite source of inspiration is your friends, then Princeton will know that you strongly value friendship. Seems obvious, but many students overlook this fact.
In other words, answer honestly, and if you are not sure what to put for a particular answers (because maybe you just don’t really listen to music), then consider what you would like to tell the college about yourself and pick an answer that conveys that accordingly.
In addition to the essay you have written for the Common Application, please write an essay of about 500 words (no more than 650 words and no less than 250 words). 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.
The next part of the Princeton supplement asks you to write a 650-word essay either answering one of the following questions or responding to a quote. We’ll tackle them one by one.
1. Tell us about a person who has influenced you in a significant way.
When answering this prompt, it is important to choose a person you actually admire because the person you choose will lend insight into the kind of person you are. This is particularly true when you choose well-known individuals. For example, if you choose Bill Clinton, then it can be assumed that you are interested in politics and one day aspire to be like him. If you choose Warren Buffet, then it might be assumed that you are interested in finance or strive to emulate his patient, self-confident demeanor. When you choose well-known individuals, these character traits can be inferred immediately just by reading their names.
However, always remember that the bulk of these inferences are done after reading what you have to say about these individuals. Therefore, no matter whom you choose, you must remember that whatever you write about them, you are essentially saying those same things about yourself. So if you choose your father because he is a man of moral values, as evidenced by the fact that he could not tell a lie about chopping down a cherry tree, then you are essentially telling Princeton that one of your personal values is honesty. Use this to your advantage in conveying what matters to you most. By striking the correct balance between talking about your role model and yourself, you can achieve the perfect balance of self-divulgence and humility.
2. “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, Blackplanet.com This quote is taken from Professor Wasow’s January 2014 speech at the Martin Luther King Day celebration at Princeton University.
This prompt lends itself especially well to a more academic analysis of political issues that are most prominent today. Indeed, it can be highly rewarding to analyze either a domestic or international issue because doing so will allow you demonstrate your knowledge of the world. However, remember to bring yourself into the analysis – in stating your position on the situation, what does that say about you? The issue you are discussing is undoubtedly complex – which perspective will you discuss from? Whatever you answer, be cognizant of the fact that you are indirectly talking about yourself.
Another way to approach this prompt is to discuss a morally gray position that you have found yourself in the past. Perhaps you weren’t sure whether a decision would be right or wrong, and on top of that you also weren’t sure if doing the right thing would benefit you in the end. It would be valuable to discuss your mindset and reasoning when recounting what occurred. However, one warning regarding taking this approach to the essay—because the quote mentions “one of the great challenges of our time,” you should be sure to pick a situation that is adequately severe enough such that it fits the tone of the quote. If you pick something a bit on the insignificant side, then you run the risk of seeming immature.
3. “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.
For students with a proven track record in community service, this essay prompt is right up your alley. Use this prompt to talk about how you were able to help out your community; indeed, the word “nation” need not be taken so literally, so long as you can demonstrate that your actions had a sizable impact on a group of people.
However, if you are a student with an interest in politics or international relations, then this prompt can also be beneficial. Use this essay to talk about your experiences in working for the government or the UN, or talk about that one time you were able to analyze another country’s political situation from a different lens. Whatever you choose to write about, the most important thing is to talk about how the experience changed you.
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.
To borrow from last year’s Admissions Hero advice on this question:
This essay prompt lends especially well to applicants who have strong cultural backgrounds. In particular, children of immigrant parents have a powerful story to write—so long as they can include specific details as to why their immigration story is unique to them. Feel free to talk about how cultural customs, celebrations, or wisdom has shaped your life for the better. Even if you aren’t from an immigrant background, you can still approach this essay. Perhaps you come from a multicultural, diverse hometown—how have the people you encountered changed you? Maybe you are particularly interested in various aspects of pop culture—has any particular piece of work affected you on such a basic level that it has come to represent who you are? There are many varied, interesting ways to approach this essay; indeed, such is the nature of culture.
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, title and author at the beginning of your essay.
This prompt is basically Princeton’s way of providing you with an option to write any essay you please. Basically, because you are able to choose your own quote, you can take any given essay and appropriate it for the Princeton application—as long as you choose a quote that adequately fits the essay. If you decide on this option, try to choose a quote that has a similar tone and level of meaning as the ones provided to you above. Bonus points if your quote is Princeton-related—not really crucial, but it will definitely show off your love of the school if you can find one. Either way, once you have your quote, feel free to use an essay from another school’s application here.
Hopefully, after reading these quick tips regarding the Princeton supplement, you have a better idea of where to start. Feel free to take these ideas in whatever direction you please, and for more Princeton essay ideas check out last year’s blog post.
Zack was an economics major at Harvard before going on indefinite leave to pursue CollegeVine full-time as a founder. In his spare time, he enjoys closely following politics and binge-watching horror movies. To see Zack's full bio, visit the Team page.