Carnegie Mellon University Supplemental Essays Guide

Not sure how to approach the Carnegie Mellon essay prompts?’s guide to the CMU supplemental essays will show you exactly how to write engaging Carnegie Mellon essays and maximize your chances of admission. If you need help crafting your answers to the Carnegie Mellon essay prompts, create your free account or schedule a no-cost advising consultation by calling (844) 343-6272.

Carnegie Mellon Supplemental Essays Guide Quick Facts:

  • Carnegie Mellon has an acceptance rate of 17%—U.S. News ranks Carnegie Mellon as a competitive school.
  • We recommend answering all CMU supplemental essays comprehensively and thoughtfully.

Does Carnegie Mellon have supplemental essays?

Yes. In addition to the main essay prompt in the Common App, you’ll also have to answer additional Carnegie Mellon essays. Three of the Carnegie Mellon essay prompts are required, while the final prompt is optional.

Need some help writing your Common App essay? Get great tips from our Common App essay guide.

What are the Carnegie Mellon essays?

The Carnegie Mellon supplemental essays are available on the Common App site. You can also visit the Carnegie Mellon admissions page to view the Carnegie Mellon essay prompts as well as a full list of application requirements.

How many essays are required for Carnegie Mellon?

There are three required Carnegie Mellon essays in the 2021-2022 Common App. There is also one optional prompt to explain circumstances surrounding test scores. We recommend that most students just answer the first three Carnegie Mellon essay prompts. Students should only complete the fourth Carnegie Mellon essay prompt if they have extenuating circumstances related to standardized testing.

How do you answer the Carnegie Mellon essays?

The Carnegie Mellon supplemental essays can make a huge difference in admissions. To help you maximize your admissions odds, we’ve provided each of the Carnegie Mellon supplemental essays below.

In this guide to the Carnegie Mellon essays, you’ll find a breakdown of how to approach each of the Carnegie Mellon essay prompts as well as tips for creating an application narrative that will stand out in admissions.

Carnegie Mellon Supplemental Essays – Question 1 (Required):

Consider your application as a whole. What do you personally want to emphasize about your application for the admission committee’s consideration? Highlight something that’s important to you or something you haven’t had a chance to share. Tell us, don’t show us (no websites please). (300 word maximum)

You may notice that this Carnegie Mellon essay prompt feels similar to some of the Common Application Personal Statement prompts. The good news is that if you’ve already completed your Personal Statement—which you should do before writing any CMU supplemental essays—this Carnegie Mellon essay prompt should be relatively straightforward. The bad news, however, is that you’ll need to be careful to avoid repeating information from your Common App essay. You might think of this prompt as a second Common App essay—that is, it should enrich the rest of your application by providing crucial insight into your identity.

This Carnegie Mellon essay prompt is your opportunity to show a different side of yourself–something that you have yet to highlight in your other materials. Although the prompt encourages creativity, when it says, “tell us, don’t show us,” it means just that. Do not include links to external resources, even if they show something you could never say with words. If you were hoping to include links to an artistic portfolio, don’t worry! Although this CMU supplement essay might not allow it, CMU has a separate program for those who wish to apply with an art portfolio.

Use dynamic, descriptive language

The instruction to not “tell” the admissions team rather than “show” them extends only as far as this CMU supplement essay prompt says it does. When they say, “don’t show us,” they simply mean, “no links.” This instruction does not mean that your CMU supplement essay has to be matter-of-fact. You can still paint a compelling picture with your words!

While your chosen topic should enrich your overall candidate profile, this topic does not necessarily need to relate to the rest of your application. This is your time to cover some new ground! If you’re struggling to come up with a topic for this CMU supplement essay, go back and look at the topics you considered (yet didn’t select) for your Common Application personal statement. What topics intrigued you most, even if you didn’t end up choosing them? What elements of your identity will help you enrich the CMU community? Do you have a niche hobby or interest? A unique personal story? This is an excellent time to talk about any of those areas.

If you still can’t think of a topic, spend some time brainstorming the things that matter to you. Make lists of your interests, identities, hobbies, and other key characteristics. Your CMU supplemental essays should show the non-academic side of you, so take advantage of this opportunity! You can also draw inspiration from prompts you’ve answered for other colleges (so long as you don’t repeat information from your Common Application or other Carnegie Mellon supplemental essays).

CMU Supplemental Essays Key Questions:

  • Is the topic of your first CMU supplement essay authentic?
  • Does your essay avoid repeating information found in your other Carnegie Mellon supplemental essays?
  • Do you avoid including links to external material?
  • Does your first CMU supplement essay enrich the other parts of your application?

Carnegie Mellon Supplemental Essays – Question 2 (Required):

Many students pursue college for a specific degree, career opportunity or personal goal. Whichever it may be, learning will be critical to achieve your ultimate goal. As you think ahead to the process of learning during your college years, how will you define a successful college experience? (300 word maximum)

Out of all of the Carnegie Mellon supplemental essays, this one might be the most complex. Let’s break down this Carnegie Mellon essay prompt together!

This prompt uses the framework of learning to ask how you will define a “successful college experience.” As you approach this Carnegie Mellon essay prompt, think about how you define this prompt’s two key concepts: learning and success. Both of these topics are vast—learning can come both in and out of the classroom, and success can’t be measured by just one metric. Think about your hopes for your future and what you hope to learn in college. How will Carnegie Mellon help you achieve these goals? The strongest CMU supplemental essays will answer all parts of this prompt.


Like your other Carnegie Mellon essays, you might start this CMU supplement essay by brainstorming. Make lists for each of the following questions: Why do you want to go to college? What is your “ultimate goal”? How do you define learning? How do you define success? Finally, how can you use this CMU supplement essay to show why you belong at Carnegie Mellon?

In your other Carnegie Mellon supplemental essays, you might have addressed your educational and career goals. This CMU supplement essay, however, lets you think about these goals in a broader sense, focusing both on academic and non-academic aspirations. A good approach is to break the essay down into two sections: one where you talk about your concrete career goals and how CMU will help you achieve them, and another devoted to the less inherently academic question of your “ultimate goal.”

Let’s start by discussing your academic goals. To recap: this CMU supplement essay asks about your “ultimate” goal for your academics and future career. Think about what interests you and how CMU will help you engage with these interests. For example, you might discuss CMU’s opportunities for undergraduate research. Better yet, you could discuss how CMU’s variety of centers and institutes enables cross-disciplinary work. Be as concrete as possible. The best Carnegie Mellon essays will illustrate in specific terms the reason why CMU—and CMU alone—will help you achieve your academic and career aspirations.

Define “successful college experience”

Now, let’s shift to the less academic side of this prompt. Start by thinking about the following questions: why do you want to go to college? What do you hope to get out of CMU? How do you define a “successful college experience”?

Think about what you want out of your college experience and how CMU will help you attain it. Maybe you want to forge relationships with your peers through one of CMU’s many clubs and organizations, or maybe you want to meet your future writing partner in a CMU economics lecture. Use specific details to emphasize why your “successful college experience” should be at CMU.

If you’re struggling to define a “successful college experience,” try thinking about your future–a future where you’ve presumably attained your “ultimate goal.” In twenty years, what will you remember from your college days? Will it be the exhilaration you felt watching your peers play basketball or baseball? Or the memory of reconnecting with your Scottish roots at Spring Carnival? Do some research on CMU’s specific offerings, and use this essay to discuss why these offerings will enrich your life on campus.

Of all the Carnegie Mellon supplemental essays, this is the place to visualize your ideal college experience as well as the many ways you might “learn” at CMU. At CMU, you’ll have the opportunity to learn from those around you both inside and outside the classroom. The “ultimate goal” you describe in this CMU supplement essay, therefore, should extend beyond classes alone. Use the second of the Carnegie Mellon essay prompts to show how CMU will give you the tools to become the kind of professional, person, and community member you hope to be.

CMU Supplemental Essays Key Questions:

  • Do you describe your “ultimate goal” in both a professional and personal sense?
  • Does your essay define your idea of a “successful college experience” at CMU?
  • Do you use specific details to explain why CMU will help you attain your personal and professional goals?
  • Does your essay add context and nuance to the other elements of your application?

Carnegie Mellon Supplemental Essays – Question 3 (Required):

Most students choose their intended major or area of study based on a passion or inspiration that’s developed over time – what passion or inspiration led you to choose this area of study? (300 word maximum)

You should begin this Carnegie Mellon essay prompt by choosing an intended major from Carnegie Mellon’s offerings. Do your research—you don’t want to spend 300 words gushing over your passion for studying zoology when Carnegie Mellon doesn’t offer it as a major. However, you can discuss how your experience as a volunteer at the Central Park Zoo developed your interest in pursuing Biological Sciences at the Mellon College of Science.

For this CMU supplemental essay, think about the experiences that have fostered your interest in a given major. Did a specific moment make you realize a passion for a given field? Or did a set of experiences help you develop an interest over time? What other factors have influenced your academic development?

Start with a story

To give some insight into how I would approach this Carnegie Mellon essay prompt, here’s a snippet of an essay I wrote when I was applying to colleges.

“My fascination with the stock market all began at the tender age of seven. A flurry of red and green numbers and arrows emerged on my TV screen accompanying the words S&P and Dow Jones.

This excerpt is only two sentences, but I used the remainder of my response to explain how I later joined a youth investment program, won a stock trading competition, and became the treasurer of two organizations. In essence, I would use this anecdote to show how I became interested in my chosen field, then use the following sentences to reveal how I nurtured this interest throughout high school. Finally, I would tie everything together with a statement like “That day in 2008 changed my life; I still have the same set of encyclopedias, but now I am ready to embark on a future in finance beyond the pages.”

Keep in mind that this CMU supplement essay should focus on you rather than on CMU. By painting a clear picture of your academic development, you can help admissions officers envision who you’ll be on CMU’s campus. Don’t worry if you don’t directly connect your interests to CMU’s programs in the third of your CMU essays; however, if you have the space, feel free to include one or two sentences about how you would develop these interests at CMU.

CMU Supplemental Essays Key Questions:

  • Does CMU offer the intended major you discuss?
  • Do you use an interesting anecdote to explain how your interests in this major developed?
  • Does your essay show how you’ve actively nurtured this interest over time?

Carnegie Mellon Supplemental Essays – Question 4 (Optional):

When it comes to deciding whether to submit standardized test scores, occasionally applicants want us to better understand the individual context of their decision. If you’d like to take advantage of this opportunity, please share any information about your decision here. This is an optional question for those who may want to provide additional context for consideration. (150 word maximum)

In most cases, students should complete all “optional” prompts to maximize their admissions odds. But for this CMU supplement essay, you should respond only under one condition: you have extenuating circumstances surrounding your test scores.

Essentially, this prompt lets you explain any circumstances surrounding your test scores. This can be particularly useful if external factors influenced your ability to study for or take standardized tests, particularly given the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether you chose to omit your score under Carnegie Mellon’s test-optional policy for Fall 2022, were unable to take the exams, or scored lower than you would have due to unforeseen circumstances, this prompt lets you elaborate further. However, you should only fill it out if you have a legitimate reason.

Don’t use this Carnegie Mellon essay prompt to describe how you tend to procrastinate on TikTok or Netflix. However, if you had to work full-time to support your family during COVID-19 or lost a family member to the pandemic, you may well use this prompt to help contextualize your scores for the admissions team. Regardless, with only 150 words to work with, ensure that you convey your thoughts concisely and clearly.

CMU Supplemental Essays Key Questions:

  • Do you clarify any extenuating circumstances that influenced your test scores
  • Does your essay provide essential context for understanding your test scores (or your decision not to submit them)?
  • Does your essay reflect well on your commitment and work ethic?

Are the Carnegie Mellon Essays Important?

As with all school-specific supplements, the CMU supplemental essays are a critical component of your application. However, don’t let that scare you! Strong Carnegie Mellon essays can make a major difference in admissions, particularly if you have lower grades or test scores. A well-crafted set of Carnegie Mellon supplemental essays will help your application stand out to admissions officers.

Think of every Carnegie Mellon essay prompt as an opportunity. The CMU supplemental essays are your chance to address the admissions team on your own terms. At the end of the day, what do you want your readers to know about you? How can you use the Carnegie Mellon essay prompts to tell them why you belong at their school?

Carnegie Mellon Supplemental Essays: Final Thoughts

Completing the CMU supplemental essays can seem daunting, but don’t let them discourage you from applying. At the end of the day, the Carnegie Mellon essay prompts are not intended to trip you up. Rather, view each CMU supplement essay as an opportunity to further introduce yourself to the admissions team.

Use this Carnegie Mellon essay prompts guide to help you approach each CMU supplement essay with confidence. After completing your CMU supplemental essays, make sure to revise—you might even ask a counselor, advisor, or other trusted adult to help you proofread for spelling, grammar, and clarity. Good luck!

This 2021-2022 essay guide on Carnegie Mellon was written by Juliana Furigay, Columbia ‘23. For more resources on the college admissions process, click here. If you need help crafting your answers to the Carnegie Mellon essay prompts, create your free account or schedule a no-cost advising consultation by calling (844) 343-6272.