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Writing the Cornell Supplemental Essays 2020-21: the CAS Essay

If you’re applying to Cornell University’s College of Arts and Sciences, you’ll need to write a supplemental essay explaining why. This guide will help you develop strong content that shows your enthusiasm for Cornell.

Note: if you’re applying to a different Cornell college, check the links at the bottom for more Cornell supplemental essay writing guides.


Now let’s take a look at the 2020 Cornell College of Arts and Sciences prompt. (Note that it's unchanged since last year.)

Students in Arts and Sciences embrace the opportunity to delve into multifaceted academic interests, embodying in 21st century terms Ezra Cornell’s “any person … any study” founding vision. Tell us about the areas of study you are excited to explore, and specifically why you wish to pursue them in our College. (650 words)

Let's start by thinking about what the admissions office means by "...any person... any study." This motto is derived from Ezra Cornell's 1868 speech at the university's dedication. The full quote reads "I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study." Cornell has shortened it to place emphasis on the two most important elements: any person, and any study.

  • Any person means that Cornell is open to people from all walks of life, all income levels, races, religions and genders.
  • Any study means that Cornell is a place that offers the freedom to pursue academic interests wherever they lead.


Step One

For the purposes of this essay, "any person" is you! So take a few moments to brainstorm about what makes you intellectually unique. Ask yourself:

  • What two things am I most passionate about? How are they different? How are they similar?
  • What do I usually know more about than anyone else in the room?
  • Which of my high school accomplishments am I most proud of?
  • If I could be a world renowned expert by studying two different fields at Cornell, which fields would I pick?


Step Two

Explore the College of Arts and Sciences website and take notes on the features of the curriculum that you like. Maybe you love that the Africana Studies major has a concentration in politics, or that 2/3 of your classes will be in subjects outside of your major. Make a list of specific classes, programs and resources.

Let’s look at an example student’s brainstorming list!

What makes me unique:

  • I'm an English history nerd and an entrepreneur. I can talk your ears off about the Tudors, and I make "History Book Princess" greeting cards to sell online.

What I'm interested in at Cornell:

  • History Honors research project
  • Undergraduate Medieval Studies courses
  • Academic distribution requirements will give me a new perspective on different cultures
  • Attending the Big Ideas in the Humanities panels
  • Over 1100 Cornell student groups will allow me to try new things, like joining the Entrepreneurship Club
  • The University-Wide Business Minor program


Step Three:

Develop a Core Message for your College of Arts and Sciences Essay. This is a 1-2 sentence statement that summarizes your response to the prompt.

Let’s revisit the example student. Their Core Message might say something like this:

  • “As a history nerd, I am drawn to the depth of Cornell’s undergraduate history program. As an entrepreneur, I am excited by the ability to combine my history major with a business minor. The College of Arts and Sciences will allow me to pursue my passion for the past while exploring learning opportunities for my future.”

Why this works: The student summarizes their response to the entire prompt and makes it clear why they appreciate these features of Cornell.

Once you have your Core Message, include it somewhere in your first few sentences to provide direction to your essay. Then, your path for the rest of your essay will be clear: add more specific details about the ways that Cornell’s curriculum will allow you to pursue your interests!

Looking for one of the other Cornell supplemental essays? We’ve got all the Cornell essay prompts here!


Click here for our guide to the Common App essay

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