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Dr. Jennifer B. Bernstein

(516) 362-1929

How to Write Great Cornell Supplemental Essays for 2018-2019

Many of my students earn admission to Cornell University (through both early decision and regular decision), so in this post, I want to share with you some strategies for writing great Cornell supplemental essays and a few case studies.

I’ve updated this article to reflect Cornell’s revised supplemental essay topics for the 2018-2019 admissions cycle.

This article is designed to benefit students who are in the college application process and younger high school students who are exploring their options (including trying to figure out possible college majors).

Yes, this article on Cornell admissions is longer than most of the ones you’ll find on the college application process.

That’s because I don’t want to mislead you with oversimplification.

Writing an excellent Cornell supplement requires having a very strong sense of the college and how it will support you in taking the next steps in your intellectual journey.

So even if you’re working on a tight deadline, I encourage you to read all the way through this article.


Some of my students are absolutely certain about what they want to study, but many of them have multiple interests and are still in the process of trying to figure out what they might want to concentrate on in college.

I encourage all of my students to look at the majors and special programs offered by the colleges they’re considering because many times this kind of poking around can help you discover possibilities that you might never have thought of before.

If you’re in the process of applying to college (or about to start), this kind of research can help you come up with interesting ways of clarifying, deepening, and synthesizing your interests. The way you describe the combination of your interests can become a way of differentiating yourself from thousands of other applicants.

If you’re in 9th, 10th, or 11th grade, researching majors and programs can help you discover amazing intellectual possibilities that inspire you to take strategic action.

Understanding the college’s core positioning and research areas can help you start thinking more strategically and creatively about how you might bump up your level of engagement with your interests. In other words, it can support you in strengthening your path to this Cornell school.

In your supplemental application essays and even in your alumni interviews, it’s crucial to show how your path (which you establish through taking action on your intellectual and other interests throughout high school) makes the specific Cornell college to which you’re applying the next logical step (not big leap) for you.


It’s very important to learn more about the different colleges within Cornell because you’re required to apply to a specific school and write a 650-word essay describing your path leading to Cornell and how you intend to use its resources to continue pursuing your interests.

In other words, don’t skip this research. It’s absolutely crucial for making good choices and for writing an amazing Cornell supplement.

There are the Cornell supplemental essay topics for the 2018-2019 admissions cycle.


NEW SUPPLEMENTAL ESSAY TOPIC FOR 2018-2019: “Students in Arts and Sciences embrace the opportunity to delve into their academic interests, discover new realms of intellectual inquiry, and chart their own path through the College. Tell us why the depth, breadth, and flexibility of our curriculum are ideally suited to exploring the areas of study that excite you.”

[PREVIOUS ESSAY PROMPT: “Describe two or three of your current intellectual interests and why they are exciting to you. Why will Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences be the right environment in which to pursue your interests?”]

Notice that there’s an open-ended quality to the wording in this supplemental essay prompt. 

The College of Arts and Sciences doesn’t require you to know exactly what you want to major in just yet. Instead, they’re curious about “areas of study”–questions, issues, and subjects–that “excite you.” Why do you find them so fascinating? 

Two things they don’t ask about but that you definitely should describe in your essay is how these interests emerged and how you’ve taken action on them. The story behind your interests and your process of exploration are of great value

The new phrasing of Cornell’s supplement for Arts and Sciences is significant. They’re looking for students who can articulate their longing to take advantage of the “depth, breadth, and flexibility” of the curriculum, who are excited about discovering even more “realms of intellectual inquiry,” and who have a vision for how they might blaze “their own path through the College.”

I think Cornell has always been looking for these things, but now the language of their supplemental essay prompt is more explicit in emphasizing these qualities. In your supplement, you’ll want to weave these qualities into your discussion of how the curriculum–how specific programs, classes, professors, research centers, and/or groups–are “ideally suited to exploring the areas of study that excite youYou don’t have to include all of these things in your description. 

Scroll down to the CASE STUDY section to learn about how one of my students realized that economics within Arts and Sciences was a better fit for her than the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.


Start by poking around the majors and minors offered through Cornell. Sometimes you might just want to zoom in on things you already are excited about and then think about the connection between your existing path and how you can keep developing it at Cornell. Other times, you might discover new possibilities.

Majors: Africana Studies, American Studies, Anthropology, Archaeology, Asian Studies, Astronomy, Biological Sciences, Biology and Society, Chemistry and Chemical Biology, China and Asia-Pacific Studies, Classics (Classics, Classical Civ., Greek, Latin), College Scholar Program, Comparative Literature, Computer Science, Economics, English, Feminist, Gender & Sexuality Studies, French, German, German Area Studies, Government, History, History of Art, Independent Major—Arts and Sciences, Information Science, Italian, Linguistics, Mathematics, Music, Near Eastern Studies, Performing and Media Arts, Philosophy, Physics, Psychology, Religious Studies, Science and Technology Studies, Science of Earth Systems, Sociology, Spanish, and Statistical Science

Minors:  Africana Studies, Anthropology, Archaeology, Asian American Studies, Astronomy, Biological Sciences, China and Asia-Pacific Studies, Classical Civilization, Classics, Cognitive Science, Computer Science, Computing in the Arts, Creative Writing, Crime, Prisons, Education, and Justice; Dance, east Asian Studies, English, Feminist, Gender & Sexuality Studies, Film, French, German Studies, History, History of Art, History of Capitalism, Inequality Studies, Information Science, International Relations, Italian, Jewish Studies, Latin American Studies, Latina/o Studies, Law and Society, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Studies, Linguistics, Mathematics, Medieval Studies, Minority, Indigenous & Third World Studies, Music, Near Eastern Studies, Performing and Media Arts, Philosophy, Physics, Portuguese and Brazilian Studies, Psychology, Religious Studies, Russian, Science and Technology Studies, Science of Earth Systems, South Asian Studies, Southeast Asian Studies, Spanish, Theatre, and Visual Studies.

Click here to explore these options in greater detail. It’s actually quite fun to see what’s possible.


NEW SUPPLEMENTAL ESSAY TOPIC FOR 2018-2019: “Affiliated with both the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, The Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management is unique by design. Explain how our approach to business education is the right fit for you, and how your interests, experiences or goals will contribute to the unique composition of the entering class.”

[PREVIOUS ESSAY PROMPT: “How have your interests and experiences influenced your decision to study Applied Economics and Management? Describe how you would take advantage of the Dyson School’s unique opportunities, for example, its affiliation with both the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.”]

There’s a significant change in this AEM supplemental essay for 2018-2019.

You’re no longer asked to just describe your “interests and experiences” in relation to studying in AEM and how you will pursue the opportunities within the program.

You need to present a compelling vision that demonstrates your understanding of AEM’s unique “approach to business education” and why this approach is the ideal “fit for you.” If you’ve visited Cornell and participated in one of their college-specific tours, you can mention how it helped you gan a deeper understanding of AEM’s approach. Keep in mind that AEM emphasizes its “unique location in Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), one of the world’s leading land-grant colleges,” which allows students to “easily combine their AEM major with a focus or double major in the life sciences, environmental sciences, agricultural sciences, or applied social sciences.” Here’s an example they share: 

“It’s not unusual, for example, for a Dyson School student to also be majoring or minoring in a biological science, information science, communication, environmental and sustainability sciences, biometry and statistics, animal science, or food science. And that’s just 7 of the 21 majors in CALS in which a Dyson School student can double major or minor.”

In your supplement, you’ll still need to provide anecdotes related to what excites you about your field and how you’ve taken action on “your interests, experiences, or goals” throughout high school and describe how AEM is going to enable you to take the next steps in your journey.  You can back up your claims about their approach by referring to specific AEM opportunities–concentrations, professors, research groups, and/or projects really intrigue you.  Explain why are they so exciting to you.

Just as importantly, you need to give admissions officers a clear sense of how you envision your “interests, experiences, or goals will contribute to the unique composition of the entering class.” Don’t overlook this last part!  Integrate into your supplement how you envision contributing to the dynamic and diverse community of your “entering class.” You might bring a certain perspective to the mix or an interesting array of interests and experiences. I’d definitely consider giving readers a sense of how collaborating with other students. 


Dyson students major in Applied Economics and Management and can develop concentrations in Accounting, Agribusiness Management, Applied Economics,Business Analytics,Entrepreneurship,Environmental, Energy, and Resource Economics, Food Industry Management, Finance,International Trade and Development, Marketing, and Strategy.

Click here to learn more about Applied Economics and Management.


SUPPLEMENTAL ESSAY TOPIC FOR 2018-2019 REMAINS THE SAME: “The global hospitality industry includes hotel and foodservice management, real estate, finance, entrepreneurship, marketing, technology, and law. Describe what has influenced your decision to study business through the lens of hospitality. What personal qualities make you a good fit for SHA?”

For your SHA supplement, you need to craft a compelling narrative about hospitality, business, and your character.

Where you start your narrative is up to you. Some students begin (after a brief general positioning sentence or two) by describing a formative experience that helped them discover their desire to bring together their interests in business and hospitality. Other students have focused first on their “personal qualities,” especially those related to hospitality and then worked their way into their experiences and interests in business and hospitality. I suggest getting even more specific and presenting Cornell’s admissions officers with a compelling narrative about what specific areas of business and hospitality intrigue you and how the program will help you take the next steps in your journey.


SHA offers concentrations in Finance, Accounting, and Real Estate (with tracks in Corporate Finance/Financial Consulting, General Financial Management, Hospitality Controllership, Security Analyst/Investment Banking, Design, Development), Hospitality Leadership (with tracks in Human Resources, Law, Managerial Leadership, and Entrepreneurship), and Services Marketing and Operations Management (with tracks in Beverage Management, Corporate Food and Beverage Operations, Information Systems Management, Revenue Management, Services Marketing Management, and Specialty Operations). You can also minor in Real Estate.

Click here to venture into the world of the School of Hotel Administration.


SUPPLEMENTAL ESSAY TOPIC FOR 2018-2019 REMAINS THE SAME: “Cornell Engineering celebrates innovative problem solving that helps people, communities…the world. Consider your ideas and aspirations and describe how a Cornell Engineering education would allow you to leverage technological problem-solving to improve the world we live in.”

This supplemental essay prompt is like other “why us” essays but with a twist. Cornell’s previous supplement asked you to describe “an engineering idea you have, or about your interest in engineering.” That prompt was kind of flat and broad. Now Cornell is telling you they want to learn more about your perspective on and experiences with innovation, problem solving, and using engineering to benefit others.  They don’t ask you to describe your path leading up to Cornell’s engineering program, but you should definitely share it!

Many of my students describe how their specific areas of interest within engineering emerged and how they’ve taken action on them over time (through Science Olympiad, Science Fair projects, and summer programs). Then they describe examples of how they’ve identified and solved problems. Maybe you haven’t had a chance to work on projects related to your big goals in engineering. If that’s the case, describe the types of problems you want to help solve through engineering.

The next step is to build your narrative bridge to Cornell. What professors, research centers, and/or student projects at Cornell will help you contribute to the vision they describe in the essay prompt?

At Cornell, you don’t have to know exactly what you want to specialize in within engineering (though you do need to effectively position yourself in your supplement) because “the first three semesters typically consist of what’s known as the Common Curriculum, which includes foundational courses in math, science, and engineering concepts. Students are ready to begin specializing by the beginning of the second semester of the sophomore year, applying to their major of choice in a process called “affiliation.”

CLICK HERE to check out the article I wrote on applying to engineering programs. Scroll down to the 4th tip to learn more about trends in undergraduate engineering programs.


The college offers majors in: Biological Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Civil Engineering, Computer Science, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Engineering Physics, Environmental Engineering, Independent Major, Information Science, Systems and Technology, Materials Science and Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Operations Research Engineering, Science of Earth Systems.

The college offers minors in: Aerospace Engineering, Applied Mathematics, Biological Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, Business for Engineering Students, Civil Infrastructure, Computer Science, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Engineering Entrepreneurship, Engineering Management, Engineering Statistics, Environmental Engineering, Game Design, Industrial Systems and Information Technology, Information Science, Materials Science and Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Operations Research and Management Science, Science of Earth Systems, Sustainable Energy Systems.

Click here to learn more about engineering at Cornell.


SUPPLEMENTAL ESSAY TOPIC FOR 2018-2019 REMAINS THE SAME: “How have your experiences influenced you to apply to the College of Human Ecology. How will your choice of major impact your goals and plans for the future?”

This Cornell supplement is similar to the one for Arts and Sciences. You should describe your interests, how they’ve emerged, and how you’ve taken action on them. You also need to present admissions officers with a vision of how the resources within HumEc (specific professors, research centers, projects, and other opportunities) will help you take your work to the next level.

However, you have to remember the way HumEc positions itself as an “applied liberal arts college.”

There is a more pre-professional edge to the College of Human Ecology, so they’re also interested in learning more about how you envision your experience in the major is going to help you fulfill your “goals and plans for the future.

Scroll down to the CASE STUDY section to learn about how one of my students figured out HumEc’s Policy and Management major was a better fit for exploring his interests in politics and economics than Arts and Sciences.


HumEc features programs in Design and Environmental Analysis; Fashion Design and Management; Fiber Science; Global and Public Health Sciences; Human Biology, Health and Society; Human Development, Nutritional Sciences; and Policy Analysis and Management.

The focus of these programs is on “the interaction of humans with their biological, economics, and physical environments,” and there’s a strong emphasis on interdisciplinary thinking and acting. The college is structured around the belief that  “the challenges facing individuals and societies today are generally too complicated to be understood from a single perspective,” and need to be considered through a combination of “psychological, sociological, economic, design, and scientific” approaches.

The College of Human Ecology considers itself an “applied liberal arts college” in that programs focus on more contemporary issues related to the subjects and their applications (versus concentrating mainly on “the historical and theoretical aspects of a subject” the way some majors in traditional Arts and Sciences programs).

Click here to learn more about Human Ecology.


SUPPLEMENTAL ESSAY TOPIC FOR 2018-2019 REMAINS THE SAME: “Tell us about your intellectual interests, how they sprung from your course, service, work or life experiences, and what makes them exciting to you. Describe how ILR is the right school for you to pursue these interests.”

This Cornell supplement is also similar to the one for Arts and Sciences. Many my students who’ve earned admission to ILR have described specific leadership experiences within student organizations, independent research projects, and even internships or shadowing people within the field of human resources and labor relations have sparked their interest in the field. They often have an underlying focus on problem solving and conflict resolution. Everyone’s supplement is different, but make sure you understand how ILR positions itself.


All students in ILR major in Industrial and Labor Relations. The college is comprised of six departments: Economics; Human Resource Studies; International and Comparative Labor; Labor Relations, Law and History; Organizational Behavior, and Social Statistics.

The ILR School emphasizes its mission to “generate and disseminate leading-edge knowledge to solve human problems, manage and resolve conflict, and establish best practices in the workplace, and to inform government policy.” Their goal is to “prepare leaders, inform national and international employment and labor policy, and improve working lives.”

Click here to learn more about ILR.


SUPPLEMENTAL ESSAY TOPIC FOR 2018-2019 REMAINS THE SAME: “Why are you drawn to studying the major you have selected? Please discuss how your interests and related experiences have influenced your choice. Specifically, how will an education from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and Cornell University help you achieve your academic goals?”

The CALS supplement is also similar to the Arts and Science supplement except that they’re asking you to describe how both CALS and Cornell in general will help you reach “your academic goals.” It’s really important to show that you understand the unique features of CALS and how essential they are to pursuing your interests.

Scroll down to the CASE STUDY section to learn about how one of my students figured out CALS was a better fit than Arts and Sciences.


CALS features majors in Agricultural Sciences, Animal Science, Applied Economics and Management, Atmospheric Science, Biological Engineering, Biological Sciences, Biometry and Statistics, Communication, Developmental Sociology, Entomology, Environmental Engineering, Environmental and Sustainability Sciences, Food Science, Global and Public Health Sciences, Information Science, Interdisciplinary Studies, International Agriculture and Rural Development, Landscape Architecture, Nutritional Sciences, Plant Sciences, Science of Earth Systems, and Viticulture and Enology.

CALS prioritizes the process of translating “robust and responsible scientific exploration into sustainable innovation for the public good.” The college stresses that “the questions we probe and the answers we seek focus on three overlapping concerns: natural and human systems; food, energy and environmental resources; and social, physical and economic well-being.

Click here to learn more about CALS.


I started working with one of my former students when she was in 11th grade. She was interested in politics, communications, science, and environmental issues. She felt she was being pulled in too many directions and was overwhelmed. I pointed her to Cornell’s Communication major (which is housed in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences), which has strengths in “Communication, Environment, Science and Health; Communication Media Studies; Communication and Information Technologies”; and “Communication and Social Influence.” She got really excited to realize she didn’t have to choose between her interests. Cornell’s Communication major would allow her to bring them together in new ways. As she learned more about the professors and courses, she got ideas for actions she could take as a junior in order to build on her previous experiences and thereby establish a clearer, more compelling path to CALS. She was accepted to Cornell during early decision.

Another student was interested in politics and economics, which he could have easily pursued within Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences, but he was intrigued by what he discovered about how the College of Human Ecology’s interdisciplinary Policy and Management major would enable him to bring together the study of “economics, statistics, government, sociology, and ethics” in order to analyze “problems in the public domain, ranging from the processes of making, implementing, and evaluating government policies to the ethical evaluation of contemporary social problems.” He was accepted to Cornell.

A lot of high school students tell me they’re interested in economics, but to effectively position yourself for Cornell and other schools, you really need to have a sense of what aspects and approaches to it are most compelling to you. I recently helped one of my seniors figure out if she wanted to apply to the economics program in the College of Arts and Sciences, which “focuses on developing a set of analytical tools that can be applied to a broad range of problems,” or the Applied Economics and Management major that is part of both the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the SC Johnson College of Business, which concentrates more on “business-specific skills–accounting, marketing, finance, management, and human resources and organizational behavior.” She was realized that even though she’s interested in business, the program within Arts and Sciences made more sense for her based on her previous experiences and her longing to also explore humanities-oriented options.


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