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How to Write a Compelling Penn State Essay

When you start your Penn State application, you’ll need to decide whether to apply with Penn’s school-specific application, the Common App, or the Coalition App.

Let’s look at the options:

The Penn State Application:

  • Includes a Penn State essay that allows you to talk about your interest in attending PSU. If you really want to go to Penn, this is a chance to talk about why that’s important to you.


The Common App or Coalition App:

  • Can be used for many schools at once. If you’re applying to a lot of schools, using one of these applications can lighten your college admissions workload.

If you decide to use the Common App or Coalition App, here are our essay writing guides:


Now let’s take a look at the Penn State essay prompt.

Please tell us something about yourself, your experiences, or activities that you believe would reflect positively on your ability to succeed at Penn State. This is your opportunity to tell us something about yourself that is not already reflected in your application or academic records. We suggest a limit of 500 words or fewer.

To write a compelling 500-word Penn State essay, you’ll need to answer two questions:

  • What do you hope to achieve at Penn State?
  • What experiences have prepared you to achieve these goals?

This guide will help you develop a strong topic that answers both questions.


Step One: Define success at Penn State

The prompt asks about your ability to “succeed at Penn State.” This is tricky, because every applicant will have different goals for college. So, start by defining what success at Penn State means to you.

What are your goals for Penn State? What do you want to learn and achieve while you’re there?

You may want to include:

  • Academic goals
  • Experiences that will prepare you for your career goals (like research, internships, volunteer experiences, or relevant student groups)
  • Personal goals – do you want to pursue an interest or value that is important to you?

As you come up with your definition for success at Penn State, explore the PSU website. Try to identify specific examples of opportunities that will allow you to pursue your goals.

Let’s look at an example student’s brainstorming list:

  • My definition of success at Penn State:
    • Double major in Linguistics and Psychology
    • Explore interest in a career as a speech-language pathologist
      • Research at the Center for Language Science
      • Internship at the Child Study Center in the Department of Psychology


Step Two: Identify experiences

Once you’ve defined success at PSU, it’s time to identify an experience that has prepared you to succeed.

Try to think of experiences where you overcame similar challenges to the ones you’ll face as you pursue your goals at PSU. How will your goals challenge you?

  • Let’s revisit the example student. Pursuing a double major will be academically challenging.
  • Here’s the past experience she chose to write about:
    • When I struggled in my Calculus class, I asked for help from my teacher and started a study group with my classmates. This taught me to be resilient in the face of academic challenges.

Once you’ve picked an experience to write about, you can start to add more details about how it has prepared you to succeed at Penn!

Need help with your common app essay? Sign up to get our free guided brainstorming tools!


Prompt’s Essay Specialists reviewed 13,000 admissions essays in 2018, helping thousands of students submit their applications with confidence.

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