How to Write an Outstanding Cornell Essay (CAS) | Guide & Examples, 2022-2023
Cornell has quite the tangled knot of an essay prompt for you — it’s a little bit “what do you want to study?” (Hard!); a little bit “Why Us?” (Also hard!); with a strange lead that’s a little philosophical for an essay prompt and can be difficult to follow.
Take a look, and, if you want clear guidance for untangling the pieces and making this essay prompt easy to ace, join us for step-by-step suggestions below:
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)
PS: this is the prompt for Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences, which is the most popular of its 8 undergraduate colleges, each of which has its own essay requirements.
(For help with all aspects of your college application, head to our College Essay Help Center.)
Decoding “any person, any study:” it means “Show you’re an interesting person who will pursue their academic interests wherever they lead”
Let’s start off confident and strong. Don’t get tripped up by this prompt’s unusual intro.
History time: The "...any person... any study" motto is derived from founder Ezra Cornell's 1868 speech at the university's dedication. The full quotation was:
"I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study."
The university has shortened it to place emphasis on the two most important elements: any person, and any study.
Interpretation time: We believe the mission statement boils down to:
- Any person — that Cornell is open to people from all walks of life, all income levels, races, religions, and genders.
- Any study — that Cornell is a place that offers the freedom to pursue academic interests wherever they lead.
What this means for your essay: To us essay coaches, this means that your essay should showcase three things:
- Your interesting, unique personality and interests, and how they intersect with
- Your intellectual curiosity and particularly
- How your interests will be a great match for Cornell.
Cornell wants to know if you’ll be a good fit for their campus and likely enroll
Alright. This essay question is just a “Why us” essay dolled up with the any person/any study piece.
We’ve written a detailed article that you should read right now: The Simple “Why Us” Essay Strategy that Works. It covers everything you need to know in more detail than we will here.
But the highlights are:
- The point of this essay is to show Cornell you really want to go there and will likely enroll (see also Demonstrated Interest: Why Showing Colleges You Like Them Gets You In).
- Though it looks like one, this isn’t a “Why major” essay, which requires a different technique.
- You’ll need to articulate your college-related interests and
- Show how they match what Cornell has to offer (aka get Googling).
- Write it all up straight-forwardly.
Step 1: Brainstorm detail on your academic/career-related interests
Again, we go into more detail in our “Why Us” article, but your starting place for this essay has to be you. Spend time brainstorming and researching your own interests — in particular, what fields of study interest you, what extracurriculars you love, what careers you are drawn to, and where your intellectual curiosity takes you.
You can brainstorm 3-5 of these, giving yourself good detail to use in your essay, by asking questions like:
- What most fascinates you about the interest?
- What first got you interested in it?
- How does this interest relate to your ambitions (if any)?
- Are there classes related to this interest that you’d like to take at college?
- What big questions do you have about this interest?
- What are you most curious about within it?
Note that you can organize your thoughts for free in the Dashboard using our guided Why Us Brainstorming module (after creating an account).
At the end of this process, you should have 2-3 great interests with lots of detail that you can use as fodder for this essay.
Note, the question asks for your “areas of study.” That’s “areas” plural, meaning at least two. If you really, really only have one, that’s probably okay if you do a fabulous job writing it up. But aim for at least two.
We broadened the brainstorming piece to include “extracurriculars” and “careers that appeal to you” because that should help you think broadly and get to your very best interests. But, once you’re choosing between interests, it’s best to stick as close to the exact prompt wording as you can, if you can.
Step 2: Get into detective mode and figure out what Cornell has to offer that matches your interests
For each of your interests, dive deep so you can paint a detailed picture of how you’d pursue that interest on campus.
Your primary research will be on Google, but you can also include information from the campus newspaper, campus visits, any admissions people who came to your high school, any friends you know who go there, or anything else at all.
Mostly, your research should involve two things:
- looking into the course catalogs, particularly more advanced, more interesting and unique classes, as well as
- at department news sites, talking about what students and professors have achieved.
Step 3: Put the two pieces together using a straightforward, clear style (Example)
Don’t get fancy with clever metaphors or philosophical musings.
Talk about what your academic interests are and how you’ll pursue them on campus, using your research. That’s it. As simple and clear as you can be. If you don’t have a college essay coach, get someone to review your work for clarity only (not content).
I'm an English history nerd and an entrepreneur. You might be wondering how those two things go together. The answer is that I create "History Book Princess" greeting cards which I sell on Etsy. (I’ve almost reached my goal of being able to cover the cost of a hostel in London this coming summer.)
These two interests are why I’m so eager to go to Cornell. As a history nerd, I’m drawn to the depth of Cornell’s undergraduate history program. As an entrepreneur, I’m 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 opportunities that will help me develop business skills.
I got into History — specifically, Tudor History — because of Cate Blanchett. I loved the clip of her in Elizabeth: The Golden Age that we watched in History class, showing her leading a victory against the Spanish Armada. That led me to the full movie, which led me to reading three (yes, three) books on Elizabeth’s life (I’ve since read even more), which led me to becoming a Tudor fanatic, branching out to learn more about Henry VIII, his wives, Mary Queen of Scotts, and more.
I’m even doing my senior project as a research paper on Elizabeth’s poetry and how it balances portraying herself as a “mother” to her subjects and a “prince” willing to defend her realm.
As for the greeting cards, they started with an eight-year-old I regularly babysit. She told me princesses were only in Disney, not in real life. As a semi-joke, the next time I came to babysit, I had drawn three images of real-life princesses doing amazing things — one of them was Elizabeth I leading her army against the Spanish. The concept grew from there.
At Cornell, I’m equally excited to go even deeper into my Tudor obsession by focusing on Medieval Studies, but also to gain new perspectives on more and more varied cultures, thanks to Cornell’s academic distribution requirements. Finally, given my business’s mission of showing real-life examples of female heroism, I love the idea of being involved with the Public History Initiative, showing how history can help us imagine and create the world we want.
In addition, I’d love to continue pursuing entrepreneurial knowledge by taking advantage of the SC Johnson College of Business minor, joining Entrepreneurship Club, and seeing how my Etsy shop evolves as I encounter new ideas and follow new interests.
- This is 416 words.
- The essay has lots of specificity in 3 areas:
1. What intellectual passions the student has pursued,
2. How they developed those passions,
3. What Cornell has to offer and how the student would take advantage.
- The essay shows a dynamic student who pursues intellectual curiosity, takes initiative, and has a strong contribution ethic — these are 3 of the 5 Traits that colleges look for in applicants.
Helpful info on all the “other” stuff you’ll consider as you apply to Cornell (and other schools)
A few helpful resources for the non-supplement parts of your application:
- Activities list: here’s how to write your activity list descriptions so they really impress.
- Applying early or regular: Cornell offers “Early Decisions” as well as “Regular Decision.” Read our guide to early/regular decisions — it's a great overview of this decision at any school.
- Whether to submit test scores: Cornell’s CAS program is test-optional. Read our test-optional article to learn how to think about submitting scores or not.
Feeling inspired? A great place to start is at our College Essay Help Center.
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