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How to Write Strong UPenn Essays 2020-21: Why UPenn and Community

Lauren Kay
Lauren Kay

    Admissions readers want to understand why the college you’re applying to is a good fit for you. This guide will help you write UPenn's two required essays — the 450-word limited "Why UPenn?" and the 200-word limited "Community" question.  

    Question 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)

    Step one: Identify Your Interests

    First, write a list of 2-3 interests you want to explore in college, in and out of the classroom.

    This should include your intended major, but it can also include interests you want to pursue on the side. For example, maybe your main academic interest is history, but you also want to explore your interest in economics.

    Step two: Why Penn?

    Now it’s time to connect your interests to UPenn’s resources. Explore the website for the undergraduate school you are applying to, and look for opportunities that interest you.

    How will you pursue your interests in the classroom? Are there courses or concentrations that you’re excited to take? Are there any professors who you really want to take classes with? Is there an independent study opportunity that would allow you to do a “deep dive” into a unique interest?

    How will you explore your interests outside of class? Are you excited about any research, internship, or study abroad opportunities? Are there clubs or student groups that you want to join? Are there on-campus events you want to attend? Maybe you want to participate in the Community Engagement Internship program, attend a writing workshop at the Kelly Writers House, or learn about environmental sustainability during the summer abroad program in Berlin.

    Have you visited UPenn? If so, try to talk about this in your UPenn supplement. During your visit, what moments or conversations helped you understand that UPenn was a good match for your interests? Maybe you enjoyed visiting a certain class, talking to a student about their experiences, seeing a research lab, or talking to a professor about the curriculum.

    Note: as you brainstorm "outside of the classroom" opportunities, remember that you'll use these thoughts and ideas for not just this question, but also question 2 (below). 

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

    Interest: Biology

    • Ecology and Evolutionary Biology concentration for Biology majors
    • Talked to a student who enjoyed the Field Botany course
    • Study abroad – Tropical Biology program in Costa Rica
    • Independent study – explore my interest in ecological informatics

    Interest: Spanish language and Latin American culture

    • Latin American and Latino Studies classes available to non-majors
    • I enjoyed visiting La Casa Hispanica in the Modern Languages College House
    • La Vida Magazine

    Step three: Your Core Message

    Finally, summarize your response to the UPenn essay prompt in a 1-2 sentence Core Message, similar to a thesis statement. This will help you introduce your key points.

    Let’s take a look at the example student’s Core Message:

    • “The resources in the College of Arts and Sciences will add depth to my biology education and allow me to explore my interest in Spanish language and Latin American culture.”
    • Why this works: It introduces the student’s intellectual and academic interests and connects them to the undergraduate college to which they are applying.

    Include your Core Message near the start of your UPenn essay – somewhere in your first 3-4 sentences. Then, you can start adding more details.


    Question 2: 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 good news about this shorter prompt is that your research and brainstorming for the first question should generate most of what you need for this one. This question is pretty much a continuation of "Why UPenn," but with an emphasis on what you'll contribute outside of the classroom. 

    You can take this in any direction — so long as its authentic and genuinely exciting to you. For example, you might highlight simply that you're a good friend, and how that will impact those you meet on campus. You might highlight your love of poetry or intramural sports, and how you plan to pursue those activities with like-minded friends.

    As with the first essay, the two key aspects here are (1) being extremely specific to UPenn (get to know the website), and (2) showing that you've got a lot to offer, and will make a positive difference to campus culture. (To be clear, this doesn't mean you have to portray yourself as an extraverted dynamo, if your natural mode is shy, quiet steady-progress maker. The more you are your authentic self here, the stronger an impression you'll make on the admissions team.) 

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