Navigating the College-Specific Essay

Stacked undergraduate applications for the College of Arts and Sciences

By: Heidi S. Lovette, Assistant Director of Admissions, and Devon N. Jones, Assistant Director of Admissions for Diversity

It’s that time of year again—application season! Many students have already started working on their college applications, and admissions representatives are gearing up to review them in the coming months. Arguably one of the most time-consuming aspects of the application process is writing the college-specific essay. We know this, and want to help you craft the best essay possible! Part of the process is truly understanding what a prompt is getting at. Take a look at the verbiage, what it’s asking, how the question(s) is phrased—all of these things and more can tell you a lot about what the institution is looking for in potential admitted students, and can help you determine your response. In general, admissions folks want to learn about your background and interests, and you wouldn’t believe how much discussion on our end goes into crafting the prompts you respond to.

Here at Cornell, students apply directly to one college or school and are required to submit a response to the unique Writing Supplement prompt for the one they apply to. Many students wonder what we want to see in these essays. We’ll use the new College of Arts & Sciences (A&S) Writing Supplement as an example, and share with you some of the thinking behind our prompt.

It reads:

Students in the Arts and Sciences embrace the opportunity to delve into multifaceted academic interests, embodying in 21st-century terms Ezra Cornell’s “any person…any study” founding vision. Tell us about the areas of study you are excited to explore, and specifically why you wish to pursue them in our College.

Note the plurals: “academic interests,” “areas of study,” and “pursue them.” There is no core curriculum in A&S; instead, students have the unprecedented freedom to choose from among 4,000 university-wide courses and 40 majors within the college. Our students are intellectually curious and a third of them double-major, so this is a great place for scholars who have a deep interest, multiple interests, or who are undecided and want to explore.

Note the active engagement: “embrace,” “delve,” “excited to explore,” and “wish to pursue.” A&S students are inquisitive, appreciate the active learning initiatives here, and also have strong, motivating interests outside of the classroom.

Note the focus on you: “areas of study you are excited to explore” and “why you wish to pursue them” here. Avoid generalities or simply regurgitating anything from the Cornell website; we want to hear about your interests and how you plan to broaden your horizons here at A&S.

Note the focus on us: “specifically why…our College.” We want to know what, in particular, you have learned in researching Cornell that makes you want to further your intellectual pursuits among the world-class faculty, engaged community, and incredible research facilities here in our college. If your primary academic interest is in a field of study available in more than one college at Cornell (i.e. Biology, Computer Science, Environment & Sustainability, or Information Sciences), we are particularly interested to learn why you have chosen to apply to A&S.

The college-specific essay can be as important as the general essay in telling us about you since it allows you to tie your multiple interests to the research you have done about Cornell, and to make a persuasive case for why you want to join our Cornell community. We hope you’ll use the tips and information above to help guide you through your essay responses. As always, we’re here to help and welcome any questions you may have. Happy writing!