written by
Claire Pince

University of Pennsylvania - Penn Essay Guide 2020-2021

Essay Guides 9 min read
Photo courtesy of University of Pennsylvania

In this University of Pennsylvania Essay Guide, Bullseye advisors and Penn students Arham and Claire will cover how to approach the 2020-2021 Penn supplementary essays. For more guidance on personal essays and the college application process in general, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.

Since 1740, the University of Pennsylvania—or Penn— has carried on the traditions of its former president Benjamin Franklin in promoting entrepreneurship, innovation, multidisciplinary learning, and community engagement. Nestled in West Philadelphia, the campus retains the feel of a college-town while bearing access to the plentiful opportunities the city has to offer. The school’s undergraduate population is approximately 10,000 students, and its acceptance rate for the class of 2024 was 8.07%.

Life at Penn

The phrase “work hard, play hard” is often used to describe life at Penn. As a student at Penn, one can expect rigorous academics to be accompanied by a plethora of social traditions, such as nearly going deaf at the “Econ Scream” in the Quadrangle freshman year or marching down Locust Walk while sporting a cane and a chewed up styrofoam hat to celebrate the transition into senior year.

Beyond the traditions featured on campus, Penn students take every chance to build traditions of their own in the vibrant city of Philadelphia. Artists will find their home in the Philadelphia Museum of Art or Magic Gardens, foodies in Chinatown and the Italian Market, nature-lovers in the plentiful parks, history buffs in Old City, and so on. Back on campus, Penn prides itself on its “one university” policy, allowing students to take classes across different schools while providing a liberal arts foundation for all undergraduates.

The University of Pennsylvania offers a rigorous academic experience and extensive opportunities for networking and professional development. The Admissions Office is highly selective, so a stand-out essay is key to setting yourself apart. Recall that Admissions Officers only take about 10 minutes to read an application on average—make those 10 minutes count.

The Admissions Office looks for highly motivated, intellectually curious candidates with a deep interest in the interdisciplinary education offered at Penn. The supplementary essays are intended to assess what your passions are, both inside and outside of the classroom, and how they might be enriched by the opportunities available at Penn. In answering these questions, specificity is key.

Supplementary Essay Prompts

1. 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)

Arham: This prompt is a fusion of two of the most common college essay topics: how did you decide your major/concentration, and why is the University of Pennsylvania the best place to pursue that interest? There are four distinct undergraduate schools at Penn: the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Nursing, Penn Engineering, and the Wharton School of Business. Regardless of what school you end up applying to, Penn heavily emphasizes interdisciplinary studies; make sure the emphasis is on your specific undergraduate school, but feel free to discuss any other courses/facets of the university that you’re interested in.

When tackling the first half of this essay, don’t feel pressured to have a serious explanation for your academic passions! To explain my interest in economics and game theory, I opened with a discussion about the excessively competitive games of Saturday-night Scrabble in my family. From there, I outlined how I became acquainted with the principles of scarcity, leveraging others’ tiles, and the Nash Equilibrium. Afterwards, I connected that to more serious extracurriculars that showed the development of my passion.

The most important thing is to have a unique story: no matter what you’re interested in, there are undoubtedly thousands of other students with the exact same academic interests. To stand out in the eyes of admission officers, I recommend having not only a uniquely engaging story for how you developed your academic interest, but also an impressive array of extracurriculars that highlight how you’ve already applied those passions.

Personally, I discussed how the principles of economics and public policy intertwined during my legislative internship with my local Congressman, where I learned how business principles could address cyclical poverty. Any unique anecdotes are beneficial — they simultaneously develop your character and your interest in the chosen subject.

The second half of this essay is nearly a traditional “Why Penn?” essay, with one major caveat: instead of generally discussing the university, you have to isolate why you want to attend the specific undergraduate college that you selected.

There’s two ways to demonstrate interest here: the first is highlighting specific classes you’re interested in or professors you want to work with, and the second is discussing the co-curricular opportunities available in your specific college. In general, Penn’s students tend to be relatively pre-professional compared to other Ivy League schools, so it’s more than acceptable to discuss how a specific college paves the path to your dream career (of course, this reasoning should be more sophisticated than, “University of Pennsylvania has clout”).

Personally, I applied to the Business Economics and Public Policy concentration at the Wharton School, and I discussed how Wharton uniquely prepared me to use business principles to deal with deficits in public policy. After highlighting the academic side of Wharton, I discussed clubs I was interested in, including Penn International Impact Consulting and the Wharton Public Policy Institute. Once again, the advice to remember here is to be specific and unique: the admissions officer should leave with the impression that Penn is your top choice.

Claire: This prompt is your opportunity to express what your intended area of study at Penn is and why. You are required to apply to a specific school, but what you choose to talk about in this essay is in no way binding — many students change their minds. If you are unsure of what major best suits you, highlight the options that interest you most. I, myself, applied into the School of Engineering and ended up transferring to the College of Arts and Sciences — another great thing about Penn is that there is a lot of flexibility in terms of changing course paths.

There is no prescription for what portion of the word count should go towards answering the first and second question of the prompt. That said, I would suggest spending more time talking about your interest in Penn. I organized my essay into three topics — gender and STEM, global experiential learning, and research — focusing on each of my different interests, and then connecting them back to Penn.

The key to nailing this prompt is to avoid writing an essay that could easily be submitted to another school, save for exchanging the name. Let your passion speak for itself, but do your research when answering the second part of the prompt. Learn more about the curriculum of the school you’re applying to, courses available for your major(s) and minor(s) of interest, professors whose research intrigues you, and extracurricular activities or opportunities in Philadelphia that would enrich your educational experience. Once you do your research, you should have more to write about than you have room for — pick a few highlights, and be specific as to how they relate to your interests.

This essay should in no way read like a list. For example, I originally applied into the Bioengineering major and hoped to study abroad, so I highlighted my interest in the Global Biomedical Service Program. This program is unique to University of Pennsylvania and connected my intellectual interests with my high school experiences in community service as part of the National Honor Society.

If you are applying to a coordinated dual-degree and/or specialized program, there will be separate question prompts tailored to the individual program. If you are applying to such a program, be sure to avoid redundancy with your other essay. Dual-degree and specialized programs are especially competitive, so drawing on relevant experiences and showing a commitment to the program is essential.

2. At Penn, learning and growth happen outside of the classrooms, 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)*

Claire: The University of Pennsylvania community is rich with diversity and not only encompasses Penn students and faculty, but also extends to communities of Philadelphia and even across international borders. Imagine how you may fit in at Penn, and how you might stand out. What voice are you bringing to campus? What issues are important to you? What life experience do you bring to the table, along with your intellectual passion? And how might engaging with the Penn community broaden your horizons?

The value you bring to campus extends beyond your intellectual contributions in the classroom. Whether you’re meeting students of all walks of life in your classes and extracurricular activities or navigating the challenging social transition that comes with dorm life your freshman year, you will constantly be learning.

In my essay, I emphasized my interest in feminism and involvement in my high school Feminism Club. Then, I discussed how I hoped to make use of the resources at Penn to continue to further my understanding of feminism as a woman in STEM. If you have toured Penn, this is an ideal place to draw on your experience of the campus community. Keep in mind that this prompt is notably shorter than the first, so conciseness is especially important.

Arham: Now that you’ve discussed the more academic side of your application, Penn’s admission officers want to know what you bring to the community. This essay is a place to showcase your non-academic passions.

There’s no formula to this essay — just talk about what you’re eager to experience on campus and in Philadelphia. It’s important to consider what you bring to other students, and this is a good place to highlight the whimsical side of your personality. You might talk about sports that you played in high school (even if you weren’t competitively involved in them!), cultural groups, extracurriculars that you can carry into Penn, or miscellaneous traditions that you want to experience.

In this essay, I talked about my four years of playing pickup basketball at the local park, being a member of my school’s Muslim Student Association, and finding the best Philly Cheesesteaks next to campus. I also alluded to some of my extracurricular hooks, including speech and debate. I knew that, as a member of the USA Debate Team, Penn would want me to bring that talent to campus, so I talked about how I wanted to develop a team that could champion Worlds. Finally, I discussed some co-curricular activities that I wanted to try out in college, like student government, to show admission officers that I was interested in expanding my horizons. Remember, the goal is to showcase your unique side—feel free to go off script.


This essay guide was written by Arham Habib (University of Pennsylvania ‘24) and Claire Pince (University of Pennsylvania ‘21). If you want to get help writing your UPenn application essays from Arham, Claire, or other Bullseye Admissions advisors, register with Bullseye today.

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