Example Keepsake Essays

Some students struggle with the Princeton supplement because there are a number of questions and infinite ways one could answer them. But don’t get caught up in the pressure of thinking you have to sound sophisticated for the Ivy League.  As we’ve said before, the supplement is your chance to show your dream school who you really are. It’s personal. So, think of each part of the supplement as a chance to show Princeton a unique side of you.

Part I: The Essay: Tell Your Life Story….in about 500 Words 

The long-answer essay portion gives four options (plus one for engineering students). Before we get into the details of prompt, let’s discuss a few general rules:

  1. Sometimes, a flower is just a flower. Students often feel the need to try and impress schools (especially the Ivys) with elaborate language and complex metaphors, but it really just comes off like you’re trying too hard. They know you’ve done well in English lit—they can read it on your transcript. What they don’t know is what a great friend you are, how brave you have been, or that you’re really funny. So, keep it simple and be true to you.  
  2. Show them something new. The essay can’t be related in any way to anything else you’ve written on the Common App. Don’t talk about your extracurriculars or your classes. Get personal. Think of it like you’re sitting on Oprah’s couch and she’s really trying to pull something kind of intimate out of you in the interview.

1.    An Influential Person

Tell us about a person who has influenced you in a significant way

The trap: Writing about your parents

The solution: Talking about someone who reflects a part of your own personality

Your parents or grandparents might be awesome people, but the second you start talking about the usual suspects (even if it’s under the most special of circumstances) the admissions counselors are going to put you in a box with the boring kids. Don’t be in the boring box.

This essay is all about bragging on a part of your own personality, but doing so without sounding egotistical. Think of this like a really subtle humble brag. So, what’s the best way to tell the admissions counselors that you’re really driven without sounding too full of yourself? Talk about someone who is really driven in life and has made an impact on your life.  

This shouldn't be someone mainstreams famous—it must be someone you actually know and again, this someone should not be a super obvious-someone. This person is probably someone you would thank fifth or sixth in your Oscar speech.

That said, don’t be cliché and try to bring up someone who didn’t actually influence you just because you think it will make you sound humble. Your high school custodian, though perhaps a great person and friendly face at school, probably didn't influence you in a significant way. This person might be close to your family or it might even be a friend who has been going through some trying experience.

2.     The Quote:

“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 of politics, Princeton University. This quote is taken from Professor Wasow’s January 2014 speech at the Martin Luther King Day celebration at Princeton University.

The Trap: Getting philosophical, going on a rant of disagreement

The Solution: Getting political, getting specific

It is really easy to see a quote like this and think that you need to pontificate about the ethics of problem-solving. No. In fact, for this essay, you don’t even need to dive into the idea mentioned in the quote much at all. We advise taking what Professor Wasow said as truth and using it a springboard to a specific issue you will explore.  

The point is, we are at a critical moment in time and discussing issues of today is not simple. This essay is about discussing the solutions to one of those issues. So, pick an issue, like gun control.  

Present the Issue

People spend their entire professions writing about the second amendment. You have 500 words. You don’t have to solve gun violence in this essay (though we trust you will figure it out by the time you graduate). Rather, the point is to show the committee that you understand that these issues are complex and that the solutions are going to require discussion, and perhaps many lifetimes of it.

You should start by laying out one of the aspects of the issue you choose. If you’re talking about gun violence, you might discuss the fact that mass shootings are at a record high and while gun control advocates feel that guns must be curbed in order to stop the carnage, others feel that the only way to stop gun violence is by arming the good guys. 

Take a Side

Now is not the time to stay neutral. Now is the time to get political. Campuses are extremely active right now. They are virtually at the epicenter of all of the action. They don’t want a new admit who is going to sit out. They want someone who is engaged, who has stake in what’s happening, and who will ultimately dig in with their peers with the objective of furthering the dialogue.  

Show the committee that you know how to build an argument and that, most of all, you understand the complexity of the issue.

Also, you should use examples. Unfortunately, when discussing gun violence, there are a myriad of those to draw from. Again, get personal and share from your own life experiences.

Note: If you are a person of extreme privilege and you find that you don’t have an issue to write about that affects you personally, then write about that.

3. The Other Quote

“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 and director of the Behrman Undergraduate Society of Fellows, Princeton University.

 The Trap: Getting on a soapbox

The Solution: Drawing from your own experience

Be cautious when choosing this essay. We think this one has a big red flag, but inevitably, each year, someone attempts to answer it, so here’s our two cents:

First of all, when they say culture, they don’t mean art, books, or film. The point is not to talk about how privileged you might be.

The point is also not to use this philosophical quote as an excuse to try and get really ~deep and esoteric~. Instead, identify where your culture is different from everyone else’s and try to draw from that experience.

Perhaps you’re the only person in your community who speaks English, or maybe you grew up dressing in clothes that represent your religious or ethnic tradition. In this essay, the goal is to bring us into your home.

One of our students, Alexa, is Russian-Ukrainian. Her room was essentially a reflection of her culture with her own personal flair. She had pictures of her favorite fashion trends on the walls, a local Ukrainian paper from the town in which her family still lived, and photos and other artifacts that painted a picture of who she is. Alexa didn’t talk about the metaphor inside of the art on her walls, she just gave the reader a descriptive story that let them into her life. By the way, she got into Princeton but decided to go to Harvard instead.

4. The Other Other Quote

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.

We honestly don’t know why you would choose this essay. It’s a boring question, but if you must, here’s what we recommend:

Don’t be cliché

The classics are cliché. Part of this exercise is introducing something new to the committee. Don’t talk about Jane Eyre or Anna Karenina, unless that’s who you are and what you’re genuinely passionate about. What else is cliché, you might ask? Anything on the New York Times bestseller list and probably most things on your English lit reading list, too. Sorry. 

Tell a Story

The tone of your response should be sensitive and introverted.  Tell the reader the story of why you chose that quotation and (in case you didn’t see it the several other times we wrote it in this post) get personal.  

5. Engineering

The Engineering prompt is different than the others. If you’re interested in studying Engineering at Princeton, reach out to us. Most importantly, do your research on Princeton before answering this essay.

Part II: Short Answer


Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences that was particularly meaningful to you. (Response required in about 150 words.)

The key word here is meaningful, not most-impressive, not time-consuming, but meaningful. Did we mention that you should get personal? So, as you already know because we’ve now beaten you over the head with it, Princeton wants to know who you are, how you feel, and what you care about, not what you do. Spoiler alert: Every top college wants to know the same.

Last year, we had a ballerina, Malika, who did ballet for 25 hours each week. We would not advise her to write about ballet because it was everywhere else in her application. Instead, someone like Malika should choose something much smaller in her life, perhaps even a small interaction she once had. Introduce a new side of yourself, ideally one that is empathetic and compassionate. Be aware, however, do not feign altruism, either. Show us your best traits and dig deep. This one has to be for real.


Please tell us how you have spent the last two summers (or vacations between school years), including any jobs you have held. (Response required in about 150 words.) 

There are no tricks here. Just answer the question, embellishment free. If you were a camp counselor, you were a camp counselor, not an “interpersonal relations associate.”

A Few Details  

Some general advice: Make this funny. Much like the USC short-answer portion, this one is rapid-fire, honest question-answering. No explanations.

  • Your favorite book and its author

Be authentic. Go with your gut reaction. Just please, NOT the Great Gatsby  

Be funny. No news sites, unless you really and truly do frequent them.

Okay, let the record show that we think this is such pretentious wording. What is a “recording,” anyway? Your favorite song??

  • Your favorite source of inspiration

Pinterest. Kidding. (Or are we?)

  • Your favorite line from a movie or book and its title

Look up a line from Shrek 3 or something of that ilk. Again, we're joking. These aren't serious. You're not getting into Princeton or rejected from Princeton because of this question. Be genuine.

Again, be honest. (But we all know that Wall-E is really the greatest)

  • Two adjectives your friends would use to describe you

If you are one of our students, this wouldn’t be a question because you would have already texted your friends to ask.

  • Your favorite keepsake or memento

This one should tug at the heart strings.

Why is this a question? We don’t know, but don’t make it pretentious.  

If you have any questions, and you probably should have questions, give us a call. 




Writing Tips

1. Identify a Keepsake

First, you’ll need to determine which keepsake you will write about. Keepsakes, mementoes, souvenirs, and heirlooms are very similar. A keepsake is something with sentimental value. A memento is a reminder of a past event. A souvenir is something kept as a reminder of a person, place, or event. An heirloom is an object that belonged to a family member. So from my perspective—mementoes, souvenirs, and heirlooms are all keepsakes.

2. Brainstorm

Hold your keepsake in your hand, or position your body so that you can study it. Equipped with several sheets of blank paper and a pen, write everything that flows into your mind pertaining to your keepsake. Keep writing thoughts for at least ten minutes.

Ask yourself questions: What is the keepsake? Where did the keepsake come from? How long have I had it? Why is it special or significant to me? Why do I keep it?

Listen as the keepsake tells you the story.  Your job is to be the conduit and write the story on paper.

3. Organize your Thoughts

Some writers don't organize their thoughts before they start the writing process, but I do, and if you are a first-time writer, organizing your thoughts may help you with flow. My two favorite techniques are bubbling and outlining. You can learn more about bubbling and outlining by googling the terms.

4. Start Writing

In my workshops, I always encourage writers to give their stories a working title (i.e. Paul's Truck, My Daddy's Rifle, The Sun Catcher, Julie's Tiffany Lamp).  The title will allow you to dive in the deep water of your story without first defining your keepsake or memento.

Now, just start writing sentences based on your topics and notes. Just write. Elaborate on the topics. Tell your story and resist the urge to edit your work.

5. Develop a Hook

Now that you have some words on paper, it's time to start the polishing process.

Master storytellers place their strongest writing at the front of their story. It's called "the hook," and just like you hook a fish, the objective is to hook your reader in the first few sentences. I suggest you start your story with some action or interesting dialogue.  You may have to play with the beginning several times before you get it just right. That's what writers do—write, rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite.

Several years ago, I took an online writing class from Eva Shaw.  She urged the students in the class to pick up a copy of a Reader's Digest and flip through the pages. She said, "Pay attention to the way the writers start their stories." I did it, and it really helped me understand "the hook" concept.

If you are still struggling with the beginning of your story, pick up Ava's Man by master storyteller Rick Bragg and read his prologue.  Look at the way Olive Ann Burns started her classic Cold Sassy Tree.  Look at the first chapter in Janisse Ray's Ecology of a Cracker Childhood.

6. Revise More

After you draft your story and select a strong beginning, edit it. Slowly read your story aloud (over and over again) and fix problems. Make sure your subjects and verbs agree. Check for consistent verb tense usage. Look at spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and grammar. Remove unnecessary words, sentences, and paragraphs. Search for stronger words to replace dull words. Construct smooth transition sentences and paragraphs. Think about the sequence of events in your story and consider moving paragraphs around to make the story flow better. Use strong, action verbs. Really work on your descriptions.  Add in dialogue to break the monotony of the story.

7. Revise Again

Set your story aside for a couple of weeks, then pick it up and revise it again. Share your story with a friend or another writer and ask him or her for suggestions.

At the end of Project Keepsake, I included a chapter titled, "Writing About Keepsakes" that goes into more detail about the writing and revising process.  I included examples in the chapter that will help you understand each of the tips.  I also facilitate workshops and coach aspiring writers on this topic.  To schedule a workshop at your church, school, or club, contact me.

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