Note: this blog post has been updated for the 2015-2016 application cycle. To view the most recent version, click here.

The University of Pennsylvania is one of the most distinctive Ivy League schools. Penn has a vibrant social life and prides itself on its interdisciplinary education. Penn also has many specific programs that have separate essay questions beyond that of the College of Arts and Science. This post will walk you through navigating the basic Penn essay as well as the individualized essays for specialized programs.


1) Long Prompt

The Admissions Committee would like to learn why you are a good fit for your undergraduate school choice (College of Arts and Sciences, School of Nursing, The Wharton School, or Penn Engineering). Please tell us about specific academic, service, and/or research opportunities at the University of Pennsylvania that resonate with your background, interests, and goals. (450-600 words)

This essay is essentially a “Why Penn” essay – Penn is trying to gauge if you actually want to go to the school or if you are just throwing in an application. This question however is a bit more focused, as Penn asks you to frame your answer through the lens of the school to which you are applying. Your essay therefore, will naturally lean towards speaking about academics. As such, you want to first explain what your specific academic interests are, but more importantly how Penn will allow you to pursue them. Simply saying that you are interested in business because of its ability to galvanize economic growth and that you thus want to study at Wharton is not enough – you could study that same topic at any business school around the country. You need to incorporate why Wharton is the only business school for you.

For those of you that have dreamed about Penn your whole lives and have visited multiple times, this should be relatively straightforward. Hone in on one or two aspects of the school to which you are applying and emphasize how that matches your personality and interests. Perhaps during one campus visit you sat in an electrical engineering class with a quirky teacher whose lesson of the day was on applications of electrical engineering. Using the vehicle of the classroom is an effective (and interesting) way to convey your interest in how Penn might foster the “real world applications” of what it teaches.

For those of you that have never visited Penn, this might seem a bit more difficult. A good way to still write an effective essay is to discuss a few core aspects of Penn (it’s okay if they are widely known) and explain how your personality fits in to them. For example, Penn prides itself on interdisciplinary education. Following the Wharton example above, you might choose to speak about how Wharton’s close intersection with the College of Arts and Sciences (and how Penn offers the ability to take classes between the two) will allow you to pursue, say psychology as well, adding a “human element” to your business education. This fundamentally distinguishes a Wharton business education from that of another school, and can be seen as a compelling reason as to why you want to attend.

This is a relatively long essay, so after you have successfully answered the core academic component of this question, if you still have some space you can allow your essay to flow into other aspects of the Penn life, making this a true “Why Penn” essay. For example, concluding your essay with a paragraph that remarks a bit on what you expect to do outside your school socially can be an effective way to introduce yourself not just as a participant in the classroom, but an active member of the community. You can be creative here; throwing in a small joke about the terrors of an engineering major and how you plan to unwind with Friday night salsa dancing (provided you actually do) with the Penn Latin and Ballroom Dancing Club can be a lighthearted way of including yourself in the Penn community. Be careful not to go overboard here, however.

2) 7 Year Bio Dental

Please list pre-dental or pre-medical experience. This experience can include but is not limited to observation in a private practice, dental clinic, or hospital setting; dental assisting; dental laboratory work; dental or medical research, etc. Please include time allotted to each activity, dates of attendance, location, and description of your experience. If you do not have any predental or premedical experience, please indicate what you have done that led you to your decision to enter dentistry. (250 words)

This question is relatively straightforward; you literally need to express you background with medicine. If you have a hefty amount of research or clinical experience under your belt, be sure to convey what you did as accurately as possible (Penn will have a hard time believing you dabbled in some heart surgery). You also want to describe the experience of what you did and explain how it further fostered your interest in medicine. A good way to do this is through an anecdote. For example, perhaps continuously delivering medication to patients in the ER began to give you an acute awareness of problems facing patient care, motivating you to enter the field to truly improve the way that patients are cared for.

If you have absolutely no background in medicine or research, you should first question if you actually want to commit to a 7-year program in the first place (especially one as difficult to get into as Penn’s). If you are set on the decision, however, this essay is of crucial importance to legitimize your application amongst an applicant pool of relatively outstanding students with actual medicine backgrounds. As the prompt suggests, focusing on why you ultimately are deciding to enter dentistry is a proper way to answer the question. You can also use an anecdote here; perhaps you have a family relative that suffered from a health problem you are hoping to study in further detail in the program. That can serve as a powerful organizing tool to explaining your entry into medicine.

List any activities which demonstrate your ability to work with your hands. (250 words)

This essay is attempting to gauge your physical capabilities as a doctor. Tallking about your experiences in Woodshop, Robotics, etc., can be a good way of demonstrating your ability to work with your hands. If you were relatively hands-off in high school with respect to your activities, pulling an example from outside of school can help you answer this essay. Perhaps you are the one in your family that eagerly assembles Ikea furniture, or are an avid fan of Legos. Keep in mind that you don’t need to appear capable of brain surgery at this point in your life; you simply need to illustrate to Penn that you are comfortable connecting your brain and your digits.

What activities have you performed that demonstrate your ability to work cooperatively with people? (250 words)

This question is a lot more open-ended. You can speak about anything from a leadership position, to a community service role, to even your experiences at home with siblings. If you still feel the need to highlight your interest in medicine, you can try to answer this from a medical perspective. Perhaps you had a relatively hectic administrative position in a hospital ER – your ability to calmly and collectively perform tasks with others in this stressful environment can highlight your teamwork abilities as well as emphasize once again your passion for medicine.

Please explain your reasons for selecting a career in dentistry. Please include what interests you the most in dentistry as well as what interests you the least. (250 words)

This essay is more specific than a simple “Why Medicine” essay. You need to explain why dentistry as a field appeals to you. You can focus on a modern problem in the field and explain how you hope to pursue it at Penn. Alternatively, you can have a more human-answer and explain why patient care in the industry is important to you and how you hope to take your education and make some impact in that area.

Be careful, however, that this essay does not too strongly overlap with your essay about pre-dental experience. If you had no experience to begin with, you likely wrote about how you developed an interest in the field. Make sure you don’t use the same topic for this essay.

Do you have relatives who are dentists or are in dental school? If so, indicate the name of each relative, his/her relationship to you, the school attended, and the dates attended (250 words).

This is also straightforward. If you have relatives, mention them. If you do not, don’t stress too much. You won’t be disqualified for a lack of legacy.

3) Huntsman

In light of your personal interests in language, business, and international affairs, please discuss a current global issue and explain how the Huntsman Program would allow you to explore it in greater depth. (500-700 words)

Huntsman is probably the most specialized program at Penn, and this question is probably the most intense of the entire Penn app. Huntsman is a program between the Wharton school and the College of Arts and Sciences that allows students to develop skills in a certain language while pursuing a business and international relations degree from both schools. The key aspect of Huntsman is that you choose a country/culture and you heavily focus on it during your four years. Thus, this question is attempting to gauge your interests in business, international relations and the specific culture you would like to study all through the vehicle of a global issue. As you can see, this is a pretty hefty essay to cohesively address all of those aspects.

A really successful way to answer this, however, is to hone in on one cultural aspect of the country you want to study, and relate that aspect to some business/economic issue facing the rest of the world. For example, you could have a deep interest in Chinese concept of “guanxi” and focus on its ability to address the communication/relationship problems of an increasingly globalized economy. The Huntsman program would allow you to further explore this Chinese cultural nuance and apply it to improve synergy between multinational giants. The key to this question really is to indicate an understanding of a culture beyond what any random person would know. For example, the world knows that Germany is famous for its engineering abilities; the world, however, is not privy to the concept of the German “Geist,” a philosophical concept explored in nineteenth century literature that expresses the cultural German conservatism. Make sure that your answer definitely addresses all parts of this question, including the culture/language, your interests in business, and your interests in international affairs.

4) LSM (Life Sciences & Management)

LSM seeks students who are enthusiastic about combining science with management. What excites you about this combination? What advantages and opportunities does the combination provide, and what needs does it address? Be as specific and original as possible in addressing these questions. (400-650 words)

This question is similar to the Huntsman question, as it requires to you to synthesize your interests into a general “Why LSM” answer. This program attempts to bridge the constant gap between scientific innovation and marketable solutions. An effective way to answer this is to point to a problem within a lab setting, and explain how management overhauls can address it. For example, you could focus on the problem of managing the profitability of important drugs in low-margin markets. For example, a cure to Dengue Fever would be targeting extremely low-income individuals in developing natures. As such, research efforts are dampened by a perceived lack of profitability amid large R&D expenses. An LSM education could provide the insight into the management side of life sciences to effectively raise the margins of a new drug that would motivate investment and seed funding to ultimately bring about a cure for millions of individuals. Be sure that whatever problem you choose illustrates your knowledge of the issues facing the medical field you want to pursue.


Check out Part 2 of How to Tackle the Penn Supplement Essays, in which we  cover the essays for the Jerome Fisher Program, Networked and Social Engineering Program, Nursing and Healthcare Management Program, and the VIPER program!

Zack Perkins

Zack Perkins

Zack was an economics major at Harvard before going on indefinite leave to pursue CollegeVine full-time as a founder. In his spare time, he enjoys closely following politics and binge-watching horror movies. To see Zack's full bio, visit the Team page.
Zack Perkins