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How to Write the Penn State Schreyer Honor College Essays: Show Off Your Critical Thinking Skills

Lauren Kay
Lauren Kay

    The Penn State Schreyer Honors College essays give you the chance to share not just your unique worldview, but also your critical thinking skills. This guide will help you write three well-supported essays that show off your ability to wrestle with complicated topics.

    Note: Schreyer comes up with new prompts every year. As a point of comparison, you can take a look at the 2018-19 prompts, and the advice we gave for them. 

    Word Count Tip: While Penn State hasn’t provided word count limits for these required essays, we recommend staying in the same range as the Common App: 250-650 words per essay.


    Prompt 1

    "Get comfortable with being uncomfortable." What does this statement mean to you and can it affect what you do?


    Step one: Remember the larger, unstated goal for all of these essays: to show how you can succeed at Penn State and beyond. With that in mind, let's get more concrete.

    Step Two: Brainstorm 3-4 times you've been uncomfortable in your life. Maybe it was your first day at math camp. Maybe it was when you first had the idea that you might want to go to math camp. Maybe it's when you went to stay with your cousin in Mexico for a month and had to survive in Spanish and a new culture all that time. Or when you went camping alone for the first time, or when you climbed a really tall tree in a fit of bravado before realizing you had no idea how to get down. Lots of possibilities here; try to withhold judgment as you go. 

    Step three: Sift through your list of experiences with that idea about success in mind. Think particularly about the part of the prompt that asks "can [getting comfortable with being uncomfortable] affect what you do?

    You want to choose the experience that best demonstrates that you were able to "get comfortable" with discomfort, and achieve something more meaningful than you otherwise could have. Whether it's a small anecdote or a heart-thumping epic, that's the experience you want to write up. 


    Prompt 2

    What is fairness in the world? Is merit always the pinnacle of fairness in education?

    In this Penn State Schreyer Honors College essay, admissions readers will be evaluating your ability to think critically. You can argue the second question either way, but it’s important to support your argument with well-reasoned points.

    Step one: Start with the end in mind — brainstorm a list of times when merit is fair in education; and a separate list of times it is not.

    Research & personal experience: You can research the news and recent history for this one, but a personal connection could take this essay to the next level. Consider talking to a grandparent or other adult in your life who might have an interesting story about their struggle for a "fair" education. Think about your own life, too. Did you ever feel that you (or a friend) missed out on an educational opportunity you'd like to have had? What got in the way? Did you ever score an amazing educational opportunity? What allowed you to have the experience?

    Step two: Of all these examples, think about which is the most powerful — simply, which speaks strongest to you? Choose something compelling, because you're going to build the whole essay around it.

    Answer question #2 first: Once you've got your strongest example, you can build your thesis statement around it — merit is/isn't the "pinnacle" of fairness in education. Or maybe something more nuanced: "While merit is important to fairness in education, the more critical factor is access to opportunity."

    Then answer question #1: Once you've got your thesis statement, define "fairness." What aspect of fairness was most interesting to you when you chose your most powerful example above? Delve into this for a sentence or two.

    Finally, choose 1-2 secondary examples that will bolster your thesis, or create a counterpoint to it: While your main example is the engine that's going to prove your thesis, including one or two other smaller examples will give the reader a sense of breadth. These examples can simply bolster your main point, or you can use them to highlight some of the nuances within your idea. For example, if your thesis highlights the pernicious power of unequal access to opportunity in education, you might begin with a counter-example about how merit is important to education. From there, you can show that, nevertheless, access to opportunity is even more critical. 

    Note on sourcing: Since this is an admissions essay, you don’t need a bibliography. However, if you include a very specific fact, like a statistic or a particular historical event, name your source — a history book, news article, or government report. 

    Similarly, if you a story from someone you know, you'll score points by briefly mentioning how you learned about it. ("This is a story my grandfather told me often." Or, "I interviewed my aunt for this essay, and learned the following fascinating story.")


    Prompt 3

    We hear a lot about effective leadership but typically, leadership implies that there are followers. What is effective followership?

    In this question, we recommend a similar approach to Prompt 1. That means —

    Step one: Remember the larger, unstated goal here: to show how you can succeed at Penn State and beyond

    Step two: Brainstorm 3-4 examples of leaders you know personally and admire. This could be family members, family friends, teachers, other students at your school, or maybe a leader in your community, church/temple/mosque, or even a celebrity who gives great make-up tutorials on Instagram. At this stage, if they're a leader of some sort and you really admire them, don't judge, just put the name down. 

    Step three: Now let's sift through this list with that larger filter in mind. Which of these leaders has inspired you to do something meaningful — whether that's a valuable contribution to the world, or being a better human being? And if it's that make-up tutorial person, who taught you to express an aspect of yourself through dramatic shadows and false eyelashes, so be it! The point is to make sure your essay demonstrates your potential, while also being authentic and a good story for the admissions officer to read. 

    Step four: Write the following sentences in any order, on paper or computer (whatever you prefer):

    • 2-3 sentences defining the leader you chose. What do they do? What's your relationship to them? Why are you drawn to/excited by them?
    • 2-3 sentences on how you follow them, and how others follow them. What impact are these followers having on the world? What has the impact been on you? 
    • Finally, 2-3 sentences on your definition of "effective followership."

    Step five: You're finally ready to begin writing your essay. Good news, you've got a fair amount of it written, thanks to Step four. Very important: Make sure you put your definition of effective followership near the start of your essay. You want to show you can clearly answer the prompt, then back up your assertion with a strong, analytical thought-process. 

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