* 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.”
Specialized Program Prompts
Every high school student has to go through the tough process of filling out college applications. The dreaded exams, essays, and details required make the admissions process a grueling one. And there’s always one question that students find is the hardest: “Why us?” We asked some students from UPenn to tell us their best strategies to tackle that difficult question:
penn120: “Everyone applying to a liberal arts college is going to be thinking the same, relatively broad thing: I like the balance of courses and I don’t know what I want to do yet so I want to take a variety of classes. You have to make the essay school-specific. What can you say about the school (that isn’t cliche) that really applies to you? Think about why you are applying to the school in the first place, and brainstorm, choosing a few ideas that you can elaborate on in an essay. Your essay should not be about why the college is a “good school,” but why it would be a good fit for you, and moreover, why you would be a good fit for it. Say what you are going to bring to the community, whether it be through activities, study abroad programs, research, etc. Do your research on the school and point out specific programs that interest you.”
Mizo: “For many “Why” essays, I had a template that greatly simplified the college application process. Basically, the first two paragraphs of my essay discussed my passion and how I, in and out of school, took initiative to explore my passion. My last paragraph tied back to the college I was applying for, as I discussed what offerings the college had that would allow me to delve deeper into my passions—which classes I would take, which professors I would love to learn from, which clubs I would participate in, etc. This template allowed me to answer the question, demonstrate specific knowledge on the school, and show parts of myself I may not have had the opportunity to address in the rest of the application.”
whartonschool19: “Penn is a very diverse campus, both in regards to the student body and the offered academic programs. When writing about Penn, many prospective students tend to generalize what interests about them; they focus too much space on describing the city of Philadelphia, the actual location and setting of the campus, the types of students that attend the college, and how “the great academic standing of Penn will help me be successful in the future.” Try to avoid using these types of topics to discuss your interest. To successfully write the “Why Penn” essay, look your intended major and look back at your high school career to see what types of activities, classes, and extracurriculars you were involved. Try to see how these aspects highlight your interests and goals and look for specific programs and opportunities Penn offers that will help you further explore these these interests and help you develop them.”
PennBen: “Research your chosen school (SAS, SEAS, Wharton, or Nursing) or program in detail in order to gain a sense of the opportunities that the school/program offers. Show that you’re driven and organized by communicating your genuine passion and connecting it to your personal experience and well-thought-out future plans. “Genuine” is the key word in this instance, since most of the people reading your essay will have read hundreds if not thousands of other essays and will be extremely adept at sniffing out anything that doesn’t “sound right.” Penn students are generally ambitious and innovative, so it helps if your reasons for applying relate to your experiences or future plans.”
lilk16sen: “Unique research about a school, if you can mention something the school prides themselves on and feels it’s part of what separates themselves from other schools it will help you dramatically. It isn’t too hard to find as it is usually featured prominently on all websites and pamphlets the school will use.”
GoQuakers: “There are tons of clubs and organizations at UPenn that you can mention in your essay. I personally wrote about my interest in the Wharton Undergraduate Media and Entertainment Club and Wharton Women. I know that a fantastic campus organization to target if you’re a writer is the Kelly Writers House. You can also discuss the amazing faculty and diversity of the student body. Whatever the case, DON’T be general. Paint the admissions officers a picture of how you will fit in at UPenn.”
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