How to Write the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) Supplement 2019-2020

The University of Pennsylvania is an Ivy League school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with just over 10,000 undergraduate students. While all of the undergraduate programs are impressive, the school gets especially high praise in the fields of finance, business, and anthropology. Penn is also known for the Huntsman program, which has an acceptance rate so low that the school no longer reports it. The acceptance rate for the class of 2023 was 7.4%.

Important note: This blog post addresses the two Penn specific essays that all undergraduate applicants must submit. There are additional essays for students applying to coordinated dual-degree and specialized programs. Be sure to look into the specific essay requirements if you’re applying to a specialized program.

Now onto the supplements. Last year Penn had one only writing supplement, which was a 650-word “Why Us” prompt. Penn changed the game this year, and their supplement is now split into two questions. The format and wording of these questions make it clear that Penn wants all applicants to be incredibly precise with their answers. These are very pointed questions, and at the risk of sounding harsh, if you don’t know the answers to them then Penn might not be a good fit for you.

Your dedication to attending Penn, and only Penn, needs to jump off of the page. You’ll achieve this by talking about Penn-specific offerings that are strongly linked to your interests and background. The first question is below:

How did you discover your intellectual and academic interests, and how will you explore them at the University of Pennsylvania? Please respond considering the specific undergraduate school you have selected. (300-450 words)

Something that should jump out at you right away regarding this prompt is that there is no mention of the word “undecided.” Some schools will include something to the effect of “if you are undecided or open to the many possibilities of our academic catalogue, please explain.” But not Penn. An important takeaway from the wording of this question is that they don’t want you to be undecided, and they’re not looking for students that plan to figure out their academic interest while at Penn.

The first part of the question asks: “How did you discover your intellectual and academic interests?” This is where you’ll delve into what we call an origin story, which is a story about how your academic interests came to be. Some people have known from a young age what they want to major in, while others stumbled upon a potential path while in school. Either way, you’re being asked to share that story. If you grew up begging your parents to take you to local buildings and structures and you studied their design, that could be the impetus for your desire to major in architecture. You don’t need to write a novel (be mindful of word count) but explain how your academic interests came to fruition.

Your origin story should lead directly into the second part of your response, which is where you tell Penn what you plan to major in. Here, you’ll address this part of the question: How will you explore them (meaning your intellectual and academic interests) at the University of Pennsylvania?

Look at Penn’s majors and choose the program that is most closely related to your academic interests. If you don’t know what you want to major in, think about the classes that you’ve enjoyed the most and projects that you worked on that you found interesting. Once you’ve decided on what you plan to major in, do a deep dive into the course offerings. Saying that you want to major in architecture isn’t enough, you need to explain why you want to major in architecture at Penn.

Let’s stick with the architecture example. Look at the course offerings of your desired major and find upper level courses that you want to take. If you’re bored looking through the catalogue, you’re not looking at the right major. It’s important to write about upper level classes (200 and above) because introductory level courses are offered everywhere, and are not Penn specific. If you’ve taken Visual Art in high school, you might consider Visual Studies (ARCH 521-102). If you’re more interested in architecture from specific time periods and/or places, you might look at Modern Architecture in Japan: Culture, Place, Tectonics (ARCH 711-004.)

Whatever you choose to write about, you need specific reasons as to why you want to take that class. Look until you’ve found two classes (and this will require digging up syllabi) that touch on areas of the field that you’re interested in. Maybe you’ve taken an online class, read a book, or done a summer program that is somehow related to the subject matter of a certain course.

In addition to writing about classes, you should look for professors whose work you really care about, research opportunities, lectures, and any other Penn specific academic findings that interest you. In other words, what can you study at Penn that you can’t study elsewhere? We understand that this sounds overwhelming, but it’s something that you can only find by spending a lot of time with the website, talking to current students, stalking social media, and talking to alumni and/or professors if you can. The more research you do, the better. Penn is very proud of their academic offerings, and this supplement is your opportunity to show them that you’re going to take advantage of their resources should you get in.

The second question is below:

At Penn, learning and growth happen outside of the classroom, too. How will you explore the community at Penn? Consider how this community will help shape your perspective and identity, and how your identity and perspective will help shape this community. (150-200 words)

The second part of this question is an intimidating read, but the question is actually very straightforward and they have set up a structure for you. They’re asking what you plan to do outside of the classroom while you’re at Penn, and how you’ll contribute to that group/community.

Start by looking at Penn’s student clubs and organizations. The extracurricular activity that you choose to write about should be an extension of your activities from high school. You can join any club you want once you get there, but for this supplement you need to find something that is related to what you’ve been doing and explain why you plan to continue doing it at Penn. This might require a bit of digging on your part. We found a few different links online: try starting here or here. If you can talk to current students about group they’re involved with, even better.

As for what you’ll contribute to the community, or as its worded above “how your perspective will help shape this community”, write about how what you’ve been doing in high school makes you a good fit for the club. This essay is not just about what you’ll gain from joining a club, it’s about what you have to contribute to the existing members.

A few final tips:

  • Don’t forget to look into the requirements for specific programs

  • Don’t reuse information from other supplements

  • Edit, edit, and edit some more.


If you want help brainstorming and writing your supplement, contact us here.