How do I get into Princeton?

Posted by Shmoop on 2/12/19 1:00 PM

Is it your dream to rub shoulders with the snobby-yet-dapper elite of the world after years of studying so hard that your brain has started seeping out of your ears? Then Princeton might be the school for you. Getting into this top-dog Ivy, though, is no small feat. You're going to need smarts, writing skills, stellar extracurriculars, great relationships with your teachers, and more luck than a Leprechaun rubbed down in four-leaf clover oil. But never fear—we're here to walk you through this college's application process.


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Princeton University is basically one of the old fogies of America, or rather, one of the most elderly universities in the country—but this great grandfather of all things higher ed still knows how to brandish that cane as a competitive weapon. One of the eight Ivy League schools, Princeton is known for its high standards, illustrious alumni (does the name Michelle Obama ring a bell?), and fierce orange tiger mascot (rawr). If you love an academic challenge, want to frolic about the Garden State, and have astronaut-level ambitions, applying to Princeton might be the right choice for you.

Why do we say you might need a dose of Felix Felicis (a.k.a. Professor Slughorn's "liquid luck") to get into the "Iviest of the Ivies"? Well, the numbers say it all: Princeton is a tough school to get into. In 2017, they only admitted 5.5% of applicants, and only 7% on average over the past five years. That means for every 100 applicants, they let in fewer than 6.

So, how do these unseen admission officers judge who gets a perfect 10—and who gains admittance to the hallowed Princeton campus? Well, we admit we don't know their secret recipe exactly. But we do know that they want students who have more than just stellar grades and SAT scores. The Princeton admissions team is looking to admit students who are well-rounded and who have diverse interests—one-trick ponies need not apply. (Unless that one trick is really, really impressive, like making yourself invisible and stealing the pope's food, like Doctor Faustus.)

Ironically, though, as much as the admissions team at Princeton is looking for someone exceptional, their application is pretty generic. This can make it a bit more difficult than some of the other Ivy League schools to get into. Because the application requirements are so paint-by-numbers, it can take a bit more to stand out.

What are all the components of the application that I'll need to have ready?

The Princeton application requires a lot of stuff. You'll need mostly the same materials as other university applications (we love it when we can save time by using copy + paste). But on top of all that, they're also looking for some extra essays, a counselor recommendation, your mid-year school report, and your 23andMe Results. Okay, we made the last one up, but just barely.

Every single item that you submit for your application to Princeton has to be exemplary. That means you'll have to double-check that you've dotted every i, crossed every t, taken every single AP class your school has to offer, and sucked up really well to those teachers. Well, you don't have to be a suck-up, but it won't hurt.

Because of the mountain of stuff that Princeton wants in your application dossier (a fancy French word for "every piece of paper about yourself imaginable"), you'll want to get started on your Princeton application early to make sure you can get it all done well before the deadline.

  • The Application. Who are you? Where did you go to school? Where do you live? What did you eat for breakfast? These are the kind of deets, along with an essay describing yourself, that you'll have to submit on your basic application. It's dealer's choice: you can send along this info using either the Common Application, Universal College Application, or Coalition Application. This is the same basic information and essay that you'll submit to many different universities.
  • The Princeton Supplement. Princeton didn't become one of the shmanciest universities in the country without asking for more out of its students—and the same goes for wannabe Tigers. That's why you'll need to complete the Princeton Supplement, a series of several short-to-medium-length essay questions about yourself, your hobbies, your activities, and your interests. You'll submit these through either the Common App, Universal College App, or Coalition App.
  • Application Fee or Fee Waiver. You have to pay for the privilege of the Princeton application committee to review every single detail of your life. Lucky you. In 2018, this service set you back $65. If you qualify as low-income, or are a former or active member in the U.S. armed forces, you can apply for a fee waiver through your chosen application.
  • Graded Written Paper. One way the admissions officers will know if you're up to snuff is by taking a peek at your school work. That's right—your grades aren't enough, they want to get into the nitty-gritty. You'll have to submit a graded paper you've written as part of your schoolwork. They prefer papers written in either English or history class. Don't submit your personal reflection from yoga class on aligning your chakras—that won't go over well.
  • Official Transcript. The admissions officers will distill the essence of your academic being from looking at a piece of paper, ascertaining quality and fit from just a bunch of letters. Pretty cool trick, right?
  • School Report. You'll need to ask your guidance counselor at school to submit your school report through the Common App, Universal College App, or Coalition App. This is kind of like your school's report card, and it will help the committee know more about what kind of high school you're coming from. Yeah, that's right, you heard it here first: your teachers don't just grade you, they get graded too. If your guidance counselor doesn't know who you are, we recommend knocking on their office door ASAP so they can put a face to a name. That will also help for the next item on this list, your…
  • Counselor Recommendation. Your school guidance counselor will have to write and upload a letter of recommendation for you. This is different from the School Report, it's an assessment of you, glorious you. Guidance counselors usually have to look after hundreds of students, so get this request in early. And Miss Manners will love you if you send them a thank you card afterwards.
  • 2 Teacher Recommendations. Specifically, you should ask for letters of recommendation from teachers you've had in upper-level core-content classes: that means your AP or IB teachers, for example—not your elective gym teacher (no matter how much they like you). Not sure how to ask for these? Shmoop's got you covered.
  • Mid-year school report. Your guidance counselors will have to submit your grades for your first semester or trimester as soon as they become available. Keep your grades up and be wary of that contagious bout of senioritis going around.
  • SAT or ACT test scores. The SAT and the ACT are like fraternal twins—they share a lot of the same DNA but they have their own distinct personalities. It doesn't really matter which one you chose to take. You can even take both. But whatever you decide, you should take whichever test you want by December (at the very latest) in order to have the score to submit to the school—or earlier if you're applying early action. (But really, you should be gearing up for one of these tests in the winter or spring of your junior year.) When you register for the test, make sure to input the codes to have your scores sent to Princeton—2672 for the SAT, 2588 for the ACT. If the thought of standardized tests makes you reach for the puke emoji every time, we at least have some good news: as of the 2018-2019 school year, Princeton no longer requires ACT or SAT essay scores.
  • 2 SAT subject tests (recommended). The SAT or ACT aren't enough for one of the best universities in the country. Princeton wants to see you've gone above and beyond, like a soccer mom who makes personalized cupcakes instead of the garden-variety orange slices for snack. These subject tests aren't required, but Princeton likes to see subject test scores—it doesn't matter which two subjects you pick (we recommend picking your strongest classes). If you're applying for their Bachelor of Science in Engineering, they recommend taking the Mathematics I or II, and either physics or chemistry exams.
  • TOEFL, IELTS, or PTE Academic Scores. Princeton students come from all over the world, but they all have one thing in common: some command of the English language. Oh, and they also all got into Princeton (duh). So, two things. Anyway, if English isn't your native language and you haven't spent at least three years at a secondary school where the classes are primarily given in English, you'll have to submit your English exam scores.
  • Arts Supplement (optional). If you're an artist (like a real artist, not a "I-torture-my-neighbors-with-my-karaoke-machine-on-the-weekend" artist), and you're planning to go to art school, Princeton wants to see your creative chops. If you're applying for architecture, creative writing, dance, theater, music, or the arts, you can include an example of your work along with your application, for an additional $5 fee (unless you qualify for a waiver). There are different requirements for the different arts, which you can read about here.

As if this pile of paperwork wasn't enough, you may also be asked to interview with a volunteer Princeton alumni to really round out your application. These interviews are less "on the couch with Oprah" and more "job interview." Alumni write reviews after these interviews on whether they think you will be a good fit for the school. (Think: guest judge on American Idol.) These interviews are really important, so make sure your best self shows up—it's a great chance to show how your sparkling personality will add to the student body.

You can read more about the Princeton application requirements here.

What are Princeton's average SAT and ACT scores?

You've likely been taking standardized bubble exams your whole life. Well, little did you know that these exams were preparing you for the mothers of all bubble exams: the ACT and the SAT. And, like an Olympic gymnast who has been practicing a double-back handspring since they were five to prepare to go for gold, your performance on the ACT or SAT is your Olympic moment. And you'll need Olympic scores to get into Princeton.


It certainly wouldn't hurt your admission chances if you were an Olympic athlete. (Image Source)

Here are some cold, hard facts on the kind of scores Princeton is looking for. [EW1] The average SAT score at Princeton is 1500. The 25th percentile score is 1430, meaning that 25% of admitted students got at 1430 or lower. The 75th percentile score is 1570, meaning 75% of students got a 1570 or lower—that's nearly perfect. The numbers for the ACT are also as astronomically high. The average ACT score for the class of 2022 was 34. The 25th percentile ACT score in 2018 was 31, the 75th was 35. So, two points off perfect. No pressure.

If you're wondering whether to submit the SAT or the ACT, it doesn't seem to matter either way (as long as your scores were good): 65% of students submitted the SAT, 54% submitted the ACT. The essay components of these exams are not required.

Your SAT or ACT scores, as well as your GPA, are extremely important for Princeton admittance. Consider these the minimum bar you'll have to reach in order to get in—without them, you won't be admitted. Kind of like no shirt, no shoes, no service policy. But even if you have them, it might not be enough.

What are my chances of getting into Princeton?

Your chances of getting into Princeton are low, no matter who you are. Even if you have perfect exam scores, stellar grades, knock-out essays, and excel outside the classroom at saving whales/scoring free kicks/painting murals/performing in your high school musical, it won't be enough—you'll also have to have a bit of luck. In 2018, 35,370 students applied to Princeton and less than 2,000 were admitted. But if you're up for rolling the dice, we recommend you consider Princeton a reach school.

Princeton, like other Ivies, is like a vampire with a boring palate: once it gets a taste of one bloodline, it prefers to draw from that same family. If your parents attended Princeton, your chances go up a bit—they admitted about 30% of so-called "legacy" students in 2018. This meant that about 14% of the entering class for the 2018-2019 school year had Princeton-flavored bloodlines. But that means you're still far from being a shoe-in. Even if you're a legacy, you still have to work hard to get in.

The average GPA for 2018 admitted students was 3.91 out of 4. If you have a lower GPA, you'll have to have higher SAT or ACT scores to make up the gap. 8% of admitted students had a perfect 4.0 GPA in 2018.

How do I improve my chances of getting into Princeton?

Just because something is a longshot, doesn't mean you shouldn't give it a go—that's why people buy lottery tickets, right? But unlike the lottery, there are things you can do to improve your chances of winning a Princeton admission. And, as a bonus, these things will also help you get into other schools should you not find the Golden Ticket.

  • Take tough classes. Princeton isn't just looking for you to have a 4.0 GPA. If your course load is all Interpretive Dance, Intro to Needlepoint, and Pogo-sticking, that won't cut it (although your high school sounds super fun). Princeton wants you to show you can get A's in advanced classes in core subjects, like AP or IB classes, in English, Math, foreign languages, science, and history. Even better, if you can take classes at a local college or university while you're still in high school, that will make you stand out from the crowd.
  • Write your own essays. Admissions counselors read hundreds of thousands of essays every year. Their Spidey senses start tingling the second they get their hands on an essay that has the merest whiff of inauthenticity. Trust us, they've seen it all—and they'll know if your mom wrote your essays.
  • Tell a story about your life. You might be worried because your high school didn't offer AP classes, or you had to work so you weren't able to be captain of the varsity baton-twirling team. But honestly, that's fine. You should use your essays to tell a story about how you used all of the opportunities available to you to your best advantage. If you do have a job, how did you use it to learn new skills? If you weren't captain of the baton-twirling team, did you practice baton-twirling on your own time? Put all of your accomplishments in context.
  • Show commitment. The Princeton admittance committee is looking for students who pick something and stick to it, even if it's hard. Like Rocky Balboa. Or a contestant on the Voice. Or getting to the center of a Tootsie Pop.

Getting into Princeton is going to be a bit like scaling Mount Everest. You have to prepare for years, make sure you pack enough oxygen, and get really lucky with the weather. (On the bright side, you have a much lower probability of losing a finger to frostbite in the attempt.) But nobody climbs Everest alone (except that is, Reinhold Messner). These days, people climbing Everest have expert guides, Sherpas who help them carry all the necessary equipment, and you go up with a team. You can think of Shmoop as your guides and Sherpas, showing you the way up the extremely steep and scary (though less deadly than Everest) mountain.

There are a bunch of resources on the site you can use to prepare, pack, and climb Mount Princeton Admissions. From AP resources so you can get perfect 5's across the board to what books you should be chowing down on, we've got you covered. Check out some of our suggested resources below:

  • One of the most important elements of your college application is the record of every class you've taken in high school and your grades—your transcript. No pressure. As we've already noted, Princeton wants to see that you're taking stellar classes on your transcript. That means you should be challenging yourself at every turn, not just coasting by on Introduction to Cookie-Making. Check out our article on how to Beef Up your Transcript, Even if You're a Vegetarian for more deets on this process.
  • Ah, summer vacation…a time to kick back, relax, perfect your handstands. Sure, that's fine—but not if you're trying to get into Princeton. A stand-out college application requires you to use your summer vacays wisely. You should be digging into some fat books, taking extra coursework, or taking on a meaningful summer job. We've got a ton of ideas of how you can use your sunny summer break to make your Princeton application shine in our article How to Spend your Summer Vacation.
  • Princeton loves well-rounded people. Having good grades, impressive sporty accomplishments, and volunteering to build homes for orphaned endangered whales with cancer are all good things. But part of being well-rounded also means having read, like, a lot of books—not just the ones on the required reading list. We've got a good selection for you to start with on our Manageable College-Bound Reading List.
  • Dunking contests. Eating contests. The Birdbox Challenge. These are all admirable feats (well, except maybe the last one), but there are better ways to stand out on your college admissions applications. Princeton is looking for people who have showed off their smarts in a competitive environment. We've rounded up some of the best arenas for you to demonstrate your braininess in our article Win a Bunch of Competitions.

What other schools should I consider?

Princeton is an elite school. It's like the university version of Welton Academy, minus the very silly school uniforms and no-girls-allowed policy. Princeton is academically competitive, a great place to network, and not for slackers. If that kind of kick-butt-ery appeals to you, then there are other schools you might want to consider other elite schools like Princeton. After all, if you're preparing to apply to Princeton, you're probably a good candidate for some other schools of similar caliber.

  • Harvard University: Princeton and Harvard Universities are often mentioned in the same breath, and with good reason. (Not literally in one breath—that'd be too many syllables.) They're both extremely academically competitive schools with low admittance rates and excellent opportunities for networking. If you're interested in really challenging yourself, Harvard might be another school for you to consider. Harvard is in a somewhat more urban environment in the Boston area, as opposed to Princeton, which is tucked away in a small town (although, it is a train ride away from NYC). Harvard also has slightly lower faculty-student ratios than Princeton, which means if small class sizes are important to you, Harvard might be a better fit.
  • Amherst College: Amherst is at least as preppy as Princeton, but that's not why we're recommending it here. If you're looking for an academically competitive school in a suburban environment, Amherst might fit the bill. Like Princeton, it's hard to get into Amherst and once you're there, be prepared to work. But Amherst benefits from being in a consortium of other schools, giving you access to a broader course schedule (and social life!).
  • Tufts University: Tufts is a little easier to get into than Princeton. But, like the Princeton student body, students at Tufts are ambitious and hard-working. It's also located in a suburban environment, a train- or bus-ride away from the nearest big city, Boston. If you're looking to study hard far from the distractions of a big city, Tufts might be a good fit for you. Oh, and if having a former circus animal as your mascot appeals to you, Tufts also fits the bill: its mascot is Jumbo the elephant, in tribute to early benefactor P.T. Barnum.

For more on college admissions, meander on over to College 101, a resource on everything you need to know about getting into college.

Topics: college, College Prep, princeton, ivy league

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