If you don’t know better, The University of Pennsylvania, commonly referred to as “Penn,” may sound like a typical state school. If you were under that impression, let us be the first to tell you that it’s not. It’s a private school (not a state school), an Ivy League institution, and it is world-renowned for its undergraduate programs—especially finance, business, political science, and anthropology. The school itself is in the heart of Philadelphia, one of the wealthiest cities in America when it comes to national history.
Unsurprisingly, getting into Penn isn’t easy. Last year, the acceptance rate dipped down to 9.3%. The student body is geographically, ethnically, and racially diverse. An impressive 47.9% of the class of 2021 identify as students of color.
Like with any Ivy League, it takes a lot more to stand out than an interesting background or the fact that you can juggle while standing on a horse. Successful applicants have killer test scores, excellent grades, and a sense of self that shines through in their application.
The Penn application only has one supplemental question. It’s simple, straightforward, and in the vein of the ubiquitous “Why this school?” essay prompt, but they’ve done something to raise the stakes, and it’s all in the word count.
How will you explore your intellectual and academic interests at the University of Pennsylvania? Please answer this question given the specific undergraduate school to which you are applying. (400-650 words)
As we said, this is a “Why us?” prompt. They want to know:
- That you did your research into Penn in the first place.
- That there is a strong link between your interests and what Penn can offer.
- That you can offer something to Penn that they need.
This may sound transactional, but we think it’s refreshing. So much of the college process is obfuscation. Here, Penn lays it all out.
The thing they have done that is a bit tricky is within that pair of parentheses at the very end. “400-650 words.” That is a major range. Just the way you approach a question, let alone what you write, changes when you have 400 words (3 paragraphs, maybe) vs. 650 words (which is the full length of your college essay!). Most schools “Why us?” essays are 250 words, 150 words, or even as few as 50! With up to 650 words, what is expected of you is very different from a 250-word answer. (And yes, you should use all 650.)
Before you start outlining, though, remember that there are 5 BIG mistakes that you need to avoid in every supplement you write. We’ve dug into them in another post (read it here!), but we want to reiterate them just to make sure they’ve sunk in:
- Saying the name of the wrong school in a “Why us?” essay because you reused essays and got sloppy.
- Not knowing a school thoroughly enough to speak about it convincingly.
- Being vague.
- Being redundant.
- Only answering the question.
You need to keep these top of mind as you work on your Penn supplement because of math: the longer the supplement, the easier it is to mess it up.
Now let’s look at how to avoid making those mistakes in your supplement:
How to Avoid #1 - Sloppiness
Don’t reuse essays. Simple, right? Good.
How to Avoid #2 - Unawareness
Research. Your response to this supplement should include the following:
- What you plan on majoring in, even if you are actually undecided.
- One or two professors in the department your major is part of who you would like to work with, and why you are drawn to them specifically.
- One or two classes you would like to take. At least one of these classes should be part of your major, and none of them should be “100-level” or beginner classes.
- One or two social groups or clubs you would like to join, one of which is related to your course of study.
If this sounds like a formula, it’s because it is. And it works. So use it.
How to Avoid #3 - Vagueness
Vagueness tends to come from one of two places. It’s either because you’re trying to repurpose content (see “How to Avoid #1”) or because you haven’t given yourself the time to process the question properly, to brainstorm possible responses, and then to go through a drafting process. When you’re in a rush, it’s hard to get specific. The way to avoid this is by planning ahead. Sometimes it takes writing a few duds to get to where you should be.
How to Avoid #4 - Redundancy
See numbers 1 and 3.
How to Avoid #5 - Sticking to the Question
STORY. You have 650 words. You better tell a story. Not a story about when you toured campus or visited a cousin who’s a junior majoring in something to do with politics, but a story about your relationship to and with learning. This supplement should be about what you would like to do at Penn, but its central focus is you.
So tell a story and use it to weave together the formulaic bits like listing professors and courses. Just please, please, don’t try to repurpose another essay.
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