"I got into Cornell off the wait list. A lot of people were like, "Oh, you just got into Cornell because your dad donated a building." No. Okay. I got into Cornell because I'm smart. I'm smart enough to have a dad who donates buildings to things."
Andrew Bernardof "The Office"
It would appear that the Harvard and Dartmouth grads who write for The Office are gleefully taking shots at Cornell University via "The 'Nard Dawg." But if your parents didn't donate a building to Cornell, you'll need to make the most of the lone supplemental essay they require that asks you to write a 500-word essay about your chosen course of study.
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Lots of schools require applicants to respond to a similar prompt, but very few allow you up to 500 words to do so. If you've really investigated Cornell, you'll know that's not surprising. Ezra Cornell, who founded the school, once said, "I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study." Today, there are over 70 academic majors and Cornell has a reputation for academic intensity. Successful applicants have to show not only that they've excelled in academics, but also that they're excited about the academic opportunities waiting for them at Cornell.
Here are the prompts (we'll return with advice down below):
Please respond to the essay question below (maximum of 500 words) that corresponds to the undergraduate college(s) to which you are applying.
College of Agriculture and Life Sciences:
How have your interests and related experiences influenced your selection of major?
College of Architecture, Art, and Planning:
How does the major you would like to study in the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning match your intellectual, academic, and career interests? Discuss any activities you have engaged in that are relevant to your chosen major.
College of Arts and Sciences:
Describe your intellectual interests, their evolution, and what makes them exciting to you. Tell us how you will utilize the academic programs in the College of Arts and Sciences to further explore your interests, intended major, or field of study.
College of Engineering:
Engineers turn ideas (technical, scientific, mathematical) into reality. Tell us about an engineering idea you have or your interest in engineering. Explain how Cornell Engineering can help you further explore this idea or interest.
School of Hotel Administration:
What work and non-work experiences, academic interests, and career goals influenced your decision to study hospitality management? How will these contribute to your success at the School of Hotel Administration?
College of Human Ecology:
What do you value about the College of Human Ecology perspective as you consider your academic goals and plans for the future? Reflect on our majors that interest you as you respond.
School of Industrial and Labor Relations:
Describe your intellectual interests, their evolution, and what makes them exciting to you. In your essay please address how the ILR curriculum will help you fulfill these interests and your long-term goals.
Back to the advice…
If you apply to Cornell just because it's an Ivy League school and autumns in upstate New York are spectacular, you'll be in for a rude awaking when you arrive and realize a) Cornell's academic workload trumps that of most of the other Ivies and b) spectacular autumns in upstate New York are but a teasing precursor to the spectacularly terrible winters that follow.
Successful applicants choose Cornell in large part because they're drawn to their chosen academic program. These students have well-developed academic interests. They can tell you what their favorite classes have been, what subjects they have to know more about and why they find those topics so interesting. They like to learn and can't wait to dive in and do more of it at Cornell.
Whichever prompt above you're responding to, focus on these important areas:
1) Show the origins and development of your academic interests.
Cornell needs to know that you're not selecting a major simply because that's one of the questions on the application. They expect you to have defined academic interests and they want to know the story of those interests.
Origins of interest sound like this:
"I've never seen my father angrier than the day I took our family television apart just to see how it worked. I was 12 years old, and Monday Night Football was just about to start. It wasn't the first time I'd done something like that, but it was the first time I wasn't able to put something back together quickly. It took me three hours, but I did it, just in time for my dad to see his beloved Giants lose. I never made that mistake again, but I've also never stopped trying to learn how things work."
The development of interests sounds like this:
"My junior year of high school, I volunteered to lead a fundraiser to send our soccer team to Europe to compete in a tournament. And while I enjoyed organizing the car wash and the donation drive and the now much maligned "shrimp-a-thon" (Sizzler doesn't really mean it when they say, "All you can eat shrimp," by the way), what I really enjoyed was crafting personal emails to ask for donations, and writing the regular update newsletters I sent to people who were supporting us, and updating the travel blog I wrote during our stay in Europe. Every day, I thought about new ways to share our story with people who might be interested. Yes, we raised money. But we also raised interest. People who had never cared about our team started caring. We developed a following of loyal supporters, and 18 guys who had never been to Europe finally got to go because of it. That experience was the first time I started to understand the power of the well-written word."
Those examples are specific and, more importantly, believable. These students aren't telling us that "Engineering is interesting because I've always been fascinated with math and science," or "I learned about communications by taking AP English." They're giving us specific, real examples to show where their academic interests came from.
2) Focus on your genuine interest, maybe even excitement, for the subject matter.
When you're sharing your stories, let the reader hear your genuine interests. True engineers get giddy when they talk about engineering. Seriously, they do. Students who really love politics don't believe that talking about it ever gets old. A real Civil War buff can talk for hours about her favorite battles. Look for examples of you showing your true passion for the subject matter, something you weren't just doing to get a good grade. Even if it seems silly, like the fact that you and your fellow math geeks solve problem sets together on the weekends, that's perfectly valid. In fact, most math majors would tell you you'd be right at home with them.
3) Tie these interests to Cornell.
Any student who really has this kind of academic passion would investigate the academic programs of her chosen colleges. These students don't talk about the classes they'll have to take in their chosen major; they talk about the classes they'll get to take in their chosen major.
Successful Cornell applicants can tell you with some clarity how they'll be spending their academic time at Cornell, why their chosen course of study is the right one, and what they're most excited about when it comes to learning, particularly at Cornell.
It's just one essay. But at Cornell, it's a crucial one. So talk about how your academic interests got started and how they developed. Focus on your real passion and let the reader see just how much intellectual enjoyment these subjects bring you. And most importantly, tie those interests to Cornell and show why it's there you want to pursue them.
Andrew Bernard likely didn't do these things, but then again, his dad donated a building. The rest of us have to get in the old fashioned way.
Note: Before you follow our tips, we recommend you read our "How to" guide here: Download HowToUse30Guides
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Filed Under: Advice for specific colleges
The College of Arts and Sciences (AS) is the largest of Cornell’s undergraduate colleges, and also contains the widest range of majors, from Africana Studies to Statistical Science to Philosophy to Astronomy. Unlike the other colleges at Cornell, there’s no common thread running through AS. For that reason, it’s especially important that your supplement be as detailed and specific as possible to the field of study you wish to pursue. Bring in examples of how your experiences throughout high school led you to your desired major.
For example, if you want to major in computer science, try writing the essay about the apps you’ve developed or the meticulous manner in which you organize sections of code. When explaining your interest in government, don’t try to connect your experiences in model congress to something completely unrelated, like art history — maximize your message by focusing specifically on what’s relevant to the field of study. If you aren’t yet positive about a major, take advantage of the opportunity to explain what you’re considering through your “intellectual interests.”
In transitioning between the two parts of the prompt, illustrate why specifically you chose the major you did. This provides a logical pathway from your interests to why you wish to study at Cornell. Try to isolate a specific moment in your life, or a series of moments, that made you absolutely certain that you wanted to devote your education and career to this particular course of study.
An uncommon example could be: You went on a trip to the Middle East, participated in an archeological dig, and discovered a piece of ancient Roman pottery that was determined to have been used by Constantine in the fourth century. Ever since, you’ve strived to pursue a career in archaeology, so you can continue making connections with lost civilizations. Don’t feel intimidated if you haven’t done anything “crazy,” either. As long as the experience is important to you — that’s all that matters. The ultimate goal is to humanize yourself in the eyes of the admissions staff.
The second part of the prompt asks, “Why Arts and Sciences?” Make sure to provide concrete examples of courses, concentrations, clubs, and/or research opportunities that have drawn you to AS. That being said, be careful not to appear as though you’re just quoting the website: elaborate on how each of the examples you provide will be meaningful to you and help you advance your academic interests and goals! Also, try to avoid dropping names of professors, unless you’ve had personal contact with them. Instead, refer to the course they teach or the research they’re doing.