College essays are hard to write, especially when they’re for competitive Ivy League colleges like the University of Pennsylvania.
Here’s the deal:
College essays are 100 times easier to write when you have examples of what is both good and bad.
By the end of this post, you’ll have a better understanding of how to approach the question, “Why Penn?” in your application. We’ll walk you through exactly what makes this admissions essay effective and what could have been better.
Let’s start with why this essay works.
Why this admissions essay works:
1. The student opens with a succinct and clear direction of where the essay is heading. He gets straight to the point and dives right into the meat of the essay.
2. The second paragraph demonstrates to an admissions counselor that this student has done his research on the school—in turn showing the counselor that this student is a serious applicant. Demonstrated interest is crucial in today’s competitive admissions scene to stand out from the rest of the pack.
3. The student breaks down his key message into three subsections: academics, extracurriculars, and student life. By doing so, the student stays true to the first paragraph in providing a clear direction throughout the entire essay.
3. Paragraphs 4-5 are particularly effective because they epitomize demonstrated interest; in this case the student draws on his own experiences visiting the school campus.
4. In paragraph 5, the student starts explaining to the admissions counselor how he can fit into the Penn community; as important as it is to convey to the counselor that you’ve done your research, arguably the most important part of “Why X?” supplements is helping the reader understand where you fit into the school community. The student answers this question by talking about his previous world experiences.
5. The student concludes with a short and sweet ending and draws on a cultural food item of Philadelphia, where Penn is located. What this essay demonstrates well is the fact that while introductions and conclusions are important, the main content of the essay is the most important component of all. Students often get bogged down trying to think of attention grabbers and clever ways to open and close their essays; as a result they end up not developing the meat of their essay well enough to demonstrate to the reader that they have done their research and can fit a specific niche within the school’s community.
How this Why Penn essay could have been better:
The student did a great job demonstrating to the reader that he had done his research; however, the essay itself could have been more creative in its approach. The introduction and conclusion are succinct and effective; however, a more unique introduction would have drawn the reader in faster. The student made up for this with the quality of the content of the essay.
Since first setting foot on campus two years ago, I have found that Penn has always stood out in my search for the perfect university. Every aspect, from the flexible academics to its urban environment, to the diversity of the student body seems to readily match the setting in which I hope to immerse myself over the next four years.
Academically, I hope to continue pursuing my interests in economics and business, international studies, and French. Unlike many other schools, Penn openly encourages such breadth of study, believing the skill sets developed through different subjects to be universally interdependent and pragmatic in the real world. Through Penn’s one-university system, I would work towards my B.S. in Economics through Wharton while simultaneously taking courses in international studies in the College, and even have the opportunity to hone my accent in France for a semester. In 2012, I would graduate from Penn knowing my education over the past four years helped build my foundation as a better critical thinker who can apply core business and teamwork skills in any field.
All the while, I would be actively building on my high school extracurricular experience at Penn. I plan to continue my studies in economics outside of the classroom through Penn’s Undergraduate Economics Society both to continue improving my leadership skills and to join the club’s campaign to stimulate interest in economics on campus, an objective of mine at my high school since my junior year. I would also like to take part in editing and writing in the club’s unique International Undergraduate Journal of Economics. To stay active, I hope to join the Men’s Club Tennis at Penn, and I look forward to building on my experience with elementary-age children through the West Philadelphia Tutoring Project.
But perhaps above all, it is the student community at Penn that has attracted me the most. My first time strolling down Locust Walk with my family seeing all the club representatives left and right trying to convince students to join their causes was just amazing. There was an air of perpetual excitement and community, a feeling that Penn’s student body is extremely tightly knit. In October, I was even lucky enough to shadow two Huntsman Program freshmen on my third visit to campus. Staying overnight with a student from Morocco concentrating in French, but who was studying Spanish, as well as a student from Oregon targeting German, I found that I felt very comfortable living and learning in the diverse environment at Penn.
Sitting in on several classes, I also discovered Wharton’s unique MGMT 100 course to be perhaps the ideal class to tie together my experience in teamwork, interest in community service, and enthusiasm to immerse myself in a real-world business environment. Armed with an open mind and experiences from my travels to a multitude of countries across Asia, North America, and Europe, as well as my volunteer work at events such as the International Children’s Festival and the East African Center’s Evening for Africa, I believe I will bring a very unique and worldly perspective to campus, an outlook I hope to share and broaden working with some of the brightest students from around the globe at Penn.
With so many new doors to open, I know a college experience at Penn will prove challenging, yet undoubtedly rewarding. I look forward to a fulfilling four years of hard work, fun, and cheese steaks.
Photo by Haque, Abul, Photographer (NARA record: 8467822) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
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* Students applying to Digital Media Design and Computer & Cognitive Science should address both the specialized program and single-degree choice in their response. For students applying to the other coordinated dual-degree and specialized programs, please answer this question in regards to your single-degree school choice; your interest in the coordinated dual-degree or specialized program may be addressed through the program-specific essay.
This essay is asking a very straightforward question: what do you want to study and why do you want to study that at Penn in particular. With this question, the admissions officers are trying to do three things. First, they are trying to weed out those candidates that are just applying to Penn because it is a “fancy school.” Second, they want to learn something about your intellectual passions and interests. Third, they want to see if you have done your research and started to figure out how you will use Penn to pursue those intellectual passions and interests.
When they ask you to talk about your major within one of the four schools — Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Nursing, and Wharton — you should realize that you are not necessarily talking about these schools in general. Each of these schools contains a multitude of different majors, areas of focus, research opportunities, and Penn wants to know that you have taken the time to research their offerings.
For example, if you are applying to the College of Arts and Sciences, you should not be talking about “Arts and Sciences” as a whole (everything from biology to French literature!). Focus on the major and classes within the school of Arts and Sciences that you want to pursue.
Maybe you want to study at Penn because of its remarkably high number of professors (10!) working on differential geometry — a subject of particular interest to you. You might begin your essay by talking about how you have been interested in differential geometry ever since you asked your high school math teacher, “Okay, we’ve gone over how to find the surface area of a cube, but how would you even begin to find the surface area of something like a plastic bag floating in the air?” You can then go on to talk about the work you’ve done studying new topics in geometry over the summer, the thrill of thinking about how billiard balls bounce around differently shaped boards, and the overlap between your interests and the unique research profile of Penn’s mathematics faculty.
An important thing to remember here is that you need to talk about both your passion for a particular subject area and what Penn has to offer you — both aspects are equally important!
If you are interested in one of Penn’s specialized programs, you still need to write an essay about how you intend to pursue your intellectual interests at Penn, regardless of whether you are admitted to a specialized program or not. The trick here is to write an essay that communicates the full force of enthusiasm and excitement for a plan of study at Penn that does not hinge exclusively on admission to a specialized program, such as Huntsman (discussed in more detail below).
Maybe you have been fascinated with international relations and diplomacy ever since you started learning French and playing Massive Online Multi-player strategy games that required weaving complex treaties with people from many different parties. You can write a great essay about how you hope to use Penn’s resources to pursue a major in international relations, and how you especially look forward to studying abroad — maybe to meet some of the people who you have been collaborating with from all over the world.
Then, if you are interested in the intersection of business and international relations, you might use your Huntsman essay to talk about your abiding interest in logistics (perhaps related to your work in gaming) has drawn you to the problem of how conflicts in international law might affect the efficiency of global shipping supply chains.
The College of Engineering’s special programs in Digital Media Design and Computer & Cognitive Science are something of a special case.
For these two programs, your statement of why you fit into them belongs in this general admissions essay, not in a separate prompt. As such, you need to treat this essay like an application for a specialized program that also addresses the major you will pursuing outside these specialized programs. This means you will need to cram a lot into this essay. The trick in these cases is to use your essay to show how the distinctive intellectual interest that you are pursuing in the College of Arts and Sciences or the College of Engineering will be augmented by the addition of these specialized programs.
For example, if you are applying to Computer & Cognitive Science, you might also be applying to the College of Arts & Sciences to study Linguistics. You can start the essay by talking about how language has always fascinated you: you always wanted to dig deeper than the rules listed in your grammar books. Why — you ask — do we say “the big red house” and not “the red big house?” Maybe part of what drove you to start learning Spanish and Russian was to see if rules of syntax in English also applied to other languages.
Then, you’ll pivot in a new paragraph to talk about how your interest in syntax also makes you interested in Penn’s program in Computer & Cognitive science. Your interest in word-order might go beyond human-made languages and extend to the languages machine intelligences are starting to create. In order to show the admissions committee that your passion for computing is no less than your passion for learning new languages, you might talk about the work you did programming a chatbot or creating a little video game to help you study your Latin declensions. If you are applying to any of these interdisciplinary programs, you want to show the admissions committee that you have already started to think across disciplinary boundaries.
What if you are not particularly interested in any of Penn’s specialized programs? That’s perfectly fine! Not applying to those programs will not hurt your application or make you seem like an “unambitious” student. After all, most of the specialized programs are focused on the intersection between the business school and other areas of study. Returning to our math example above, maybe you are just fascinated with geometry and not particularly concerned with its applications on Wall Street? That’s perfectly fine! But for those with a sincere interest, Penn’s specialized programs offer unique interdisciplinary possibilities. The rest of this article will tackle those prompts.
Finally, though this essay asks you to discuss the “specific undergraduate school” you are applying to, that does not mean you cannot mention (in a short paragraph, maybe at the end of the essay) some of the social and cultural reasons that attracted you to the city of Philadelphia and its surrounding social and cultural possibilities. Maybe you are a history buff fascinated with Benjamin Franklin or maybe there is an exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of art that you have been dying to see. You won’t spend all your time in class at Penn, and it can’t hurt to offer a glimpse of your extracurricular interests in this essay. As Penn says, “Your essays tell us what sort of person you are — and provide a glimpse into the intangibles you might bring to our community.”