How to Write the Penn State Supplemental Essays 2018-2019
Pennsylvania State University, better known as Penn State, is a public, land-grant university, with its flagship campus in University Park, Pennsylvania. Penn State has an additional 19 campuses across the state of Pennsylvania. Penn State – University Park is ranked #59 in National Universities by US News, and #20 in on US News’ Top Public Schools list.
University Park offers a traditional, idyllic college town campus, and is home to 40,552 undergraduates. Of these students, 57% hail from Pennsylvania; the remaining 47% of students are geographically diverse, from all 50 states and 137 countries.
Penn State’s acceptance rate in 2017 was 50%. The middle 50% of accepted students have an SAT from 1250-1430, and an ACT from 28-32. Penn State accepts the Common Application, the Coalition Application, and also offers their own admissions platform, MyPennState.
Penn State requires two 500-word supplemental essays for all applicants. The first asks you to list or discuss activities other than academic work that you’ve been involved in over the last several years. The second asks you to choose “something about yourself, your experiences, or your activities” that testifies to your ability to succeed at Penn State.
Additional prompts are required for applicants to the following specialized programs at Penn State: B.F.A in Acting, Theater Studies, and the combined BS/MBA program.
Students applying to the B.F.A in Acting must write a response (no word limit) to the question “Why do you want to be an actor?”
Students applying to the Theater Studies program must write a 3-5 page research essay on a significant theatre artist of the 19th or 20th century.
Students applying to the BS/MBA combined degree program must write six additional short responses. Five separate prompts, each with a 200-word limit, ask about: your significant experiences; your career aspirations and how the BS/MBA would help you achieve them; your leadership and collaboration skills; your commitment to cultural competency in a global community; and the adjustments you will need to make to transition from high school to college. An additional prompt with a 150-word limit asks you to describe your biggest commitment.
Both the Common App and the Coalition App include a section for listing activities and experiences, you should ensure that your response isn’t just a paragraph-form resume or activities section. Instead, strive to give life to your activities, or discuss something that you could not fit into the activities section.
As you might guess, it’s better to “discuss” your activities than to just “list” them. Don’t be tempted to impress the admissions committee with sheer volume—with a really long list. Instead, focus on high-quality, meaningful elaborations of your activities.
So, how can you go about doing this? First, let’s consider your higher-level approach.
One strategy for this prompt is to use a theme or thesis to unify a discussion of 2-4 concrete experiences. For example, a theme of helping others realize their dreams could unify an essay where you discuss your role as team captain, your involvement in a service organization, and your internship at a hospital. This theme does not need to be explicitly stated as a topic sentence. It can be woven through the essay in more subtle ways—for example, in the analysis, you could offer how each experience has shaped you.
Another viable tactic is to focus on one activity, or maybe two activities if they are intimately related (your roles as student council president and as liaison to the town’s school committee). In an essay that uses this approach, you should try to adopt a “showing not telling” narrative style: pick a moment and immerse the reader in your first-person experience. For example, swap out “I was nervous” (telling), for something that shows that nervousness by describing how it felt (“As I entered the room, my palms began to sweat and my heart started to race.”).
Finally, it can work to pick a smattering of things that you’ve done to show your diversity as an applicant. In this case, it might be difficult to find a “unifying theme.” Instead, you can play up the contrasts between your various examples: you could emphasize the fast-paced efficiency you’ve honed as a volunteer EMT before switching gears to describe the meticulous precision you’ve developed as a classical pianist.
The approach that you pick should be dictated by the experiences that are most meaningful to you. If you think a few of your activities work together to paint a picture of who you are, go with the first strategy. If you’ve been super committed to one activity and have a lot to say about it, then consider going with the second strategy. If you feel like you’re “all over the place,” the third might be the fit for you.
Once you’ve chosen your higher-level strategy, this essay should be pretty straightforward. Give concrete examples of what makes these activities meaningful. Furthermore, try to show how they’ve shaped you by discussing not only the activities themselves but also by giving concrete examples of their impact elsewhere in your life.
If you choose to discuss your after-school job as a receptionist at a dental clinic, describe a day in the office in detail. Show the reader the skills you’ve learned. Then, you might describe how you’ve used the organizational skills you gained through work to improve your academic time management.
Remember that the most effective versions of this essay will bring your on-paper activities—and you—to life for the admissions committee.
One of your main objectives in all college essays should be to depict yourself as a strong addition to your college of choice’s community. This prompt makes that purpose really explicit—but it also is challengingly open-ended. To conquer that challenge, you’ll need to think carefully about your strengths and show them to the reader using specific examples.
A strong response will contain three elements: (1) a reflection on your experiences to demonstrate (2) a specific quality or trait that you think (3) will set you up for success in college. You should think of (1) as evidence that you can use to “prove” (2) and (3). Furthermore, you might think that (2) and (3) are really the same element—in the prompt, they are mixed together in the phrase “your ability to succeed.” However, it’s actually really important to disambiguate these components: you need to not only argue that you have a trait but also show that the trait will help you in college.
Keep in mind that you don’t need to structure your essay in the order explained here. Feel free to take the components of your essay “outside the box” of this basic framework.
As you brainstorm, it might be helpful to start with (2) and (3), the more conceptual elements of your response. Ask yourself: What do I need to succeed in college? What are my strengths? Keep in mind that college is multifaceted; it requires a wide range of different tools. A wide variety of traits can enable you to succeed in college: resilience, resourcefulness, interpersonal skills, openness to change, time management skills, empathy, rational thinking skills… you get the idea!
A note before we continue
You might be thinking, “but this essay asks about succeeding at Penn State, not about succeeding at just any college!” While this is true, your overall approach should prove that you are prepared for college. If you can tailor your response to Penn State by highlighting unique aspects of the school that you are prepared to take advantage of, that’s great. However, whatever you do, don’t get myopically focused on Penn State (for example, by focusing on how you are prepared for Penn State’s huge, unique sports culture). Again, the admissions committee really wants to learn about you and about the tools you bring to the table to succeed in college.
Picking a central topic/example
You’ll need to think of an example or examples that demonstrate(s) the trait(s) that will set you up for college success. Though the prompt says that you can pick “something about yourself, your experiences, or activities,” your choice should be something that you can show through a story or anecdote.
Almost any poor topic can be strengthened if you make it more specific:
Don’t pick something too broad, like “I have formed many friendships in different settings.” However, you could write a detailed account of a specific friendship or friend group you formed after switching high schools, explaining how you developed the skills to assimilate in a new social community. Then, you can discuss how, at any college, but especially a big school like Penn State, forming a social network is crucial for academics (study groups, peers to help with homework, collaborators for group projects, etc) and for making the most of your college experience.
Avoid focusing on an experience that virtually all applicants will share. “I made it through high school” is not a strong response. However, you could write about an illness you faced that jeopardized your ability to succeed in school. Through detailed storytelling, you could show the reader that you developed time management skills and perseverance, which you know are absolutely crucial for college success.
Great responses to this prompt can be quite personal since more formal academic and extracurricular activities might already be covered in your application. For example, you could relate difficult family or friendship situations you’ve negotiated to your ability to navigate a diverse and complex college community.
Regardless of which thing about you, experience, or activity you pick, be absolutely sure to avoid generalizing. Many students write a 500—or even 650 word—essay that never uses specific examples. While these essays might sound smooth, they are almost entirely composed of clichés and generalizations. An example might help here.
Example: A student could write something like: “I have volunteered for over five years at my local homeless shelter. This experience has made me more appreciative of what I have, and more determined to give back, and I know I’ll take these values with me to college.”
Note that these sentences do not refer to a specific instance or give concrete examples. They give a general description of one activity and then make generic, high-level assertions about the results of that activity.
A strong essay will push beyond this level of resolution:
- Describe a day at the homeless shelter.
- Show the perspective this has given you by giving an example of how you changed your daily activities or interactions with others as a result of this experience.
- Then link these changes to success in college by discussing how you’ll dive into volunteer opportunities and community organizations. Use specific examples of clubs or organizations at Penn State.
A few words of caution
Some students will have too many things they want to squeeze in here—perhaps you feel like you’ve just left so many crucial details out of your application. However, you should resist the temptation to use this essay as a “catch-all” for everything “not already reflected in your application.” Note that the prompt asks you to share “something” not already included—not everything! This essay should be focused and cohesive, telling a story that proves you can succeed in college.
If you truly feel that important information has been left out of your application, try to incorporate it into your activities section, other essays, or, if all else fails, the “additional information” section of the Common App.
Such an open-ended prompt poses innate challenges: Where to begin? How to structure your answer? What kind of response are they “looking for”? How long should it be?
Let’s deal with the last question first. As a rule of thumb, college applications essays are read incredibly quickly, with just a few minutes allotted to each essay. This means that, with an unspecified length essay, the longer your essay is, the less time each paragraph is likely to get. As a rule of thumb, it’s best not to go over the Common App length (650 words). If you can make a convincing argument in significantly fewer words, that’s fine. However, if your essay is shorter than 250 words you might want to consider adding a few more details.
The best responses to this prompt will tell a story about your love for acting. This story will be engaging and believable and will convince the reader that you are certain that you want to be an actor. This certainty is crucial because an acting degree is highly specialized; it opens up a lot of options, but it also means that you are choosing acting training over more a general professional or academic education. Furthermore, succeeding as an actor requires passion and persistence—as you probably know, making a “breakthrough” is not easy.
The place to start ideation of this story is, of course, inside your own head and heart. Perhaps what you want to focus on will be obvious, but you’ll likely need to do a little brainstorming. Try to unearth your deepest motivations by considering questions like: What do you love about acting? Is there a certain rehearsal, production, or other experience that helped you find this love? Was there a decisive moment when you realized “this is what I want to do”? When or how did you find your inspiration? Is there someone you look up to, whose creative path you want to follow?
These questions are designed to get you to think of narrative answers. However, you might not find that a simple, neat narrative emerges. Some strong responses will involve a series of “moments” that build toward a realization; some might not even involve an “aha” moment, but rather just a slow, steady process of falling in love with theater.
The first and most important strategy discussed here is a very general one. It’s called “showing not telling.” Whatever you do, try to use specific examples and detailed narratives to depict your experiences and feelings about acting.
- For example, instead of saying “The first time I stood on a stage, I felt incredibly happy,” you can write something more like “As I stood on the scuffed-up stage for the first time, all I could feel was an effervescent joy in my entire body.”
A more specific narrative approach is to try and link theater to a broader explanation of what is meaningful to you. This can be accomplished by drawing parallels between on-stage experiences and broader life experiences. This tactic will likely need to employ “showing not telling,” as discussed above.
- You could depict a moment when playing a certain character helped you understand yourself better. Perhaps you stood on stage, reciting Belle from Beauty and the Beast’s lines when she talks about her father; suddenly, you had an epiphany about your own relationships with your parents.
- Rather than just stating “Playing Belle helped me better understand my relationship with my Dad,” show this by describing a moment on the stage, in rehearsal, or an interaction with your father.
- Creating this sort of link between theater and life can powerfully illustrate why acting is so meaningful to you as a person, not just as an actor.
Another narrative approach might be to focus on the history of the acting profession or on a historic actor that means a lot to you. This sort of approach could go something like this:
- Let’s say you want to write your essay about a particular actor who inspires you.
- You could begin by giving a vivid depiction of a moment in a certain actor’s career that really inspires you. Try and take the reader to the time and place in question.
- Then, pair this moment with personal reflection–perhaps a parallel moment in your life, or the moment you learned about this actor (or watched him or her on stage!).
In such a personal essay, there is really no limit to the narrative strategies that might work. Don’t be afraid to take a little risk; this is not a traditional college application essay, and for a creative program a creative, outside-the-box essay can be a good fit.
Even so, keep in mind that each moment or experience you describe should be a piece of “evidence” to support your argument that acting is really what you want to do.
As you probably know if you’re applying, Penn State’s Theater Studies program is centered around the study of the history of theater and the motivations for contemporary theater, as well as critical study of performance. This prompt is designed to assess whether you have the interdisciplinary academic writing and research skills necessary for the program. You can tell from the precise source and citation instructions—and the reminder about grammar—that the admissions committee wants to use this essay to test your scholarship ability.
So what artist should you choose?
The artist you choose is not as important as what you do with that choice in your essay. Don’t spend too much time worrying about making an impressive or outside-the-box choice. Instead, go for an artist that (1) you can find ample sources on, (2) whose story you feel you can fit into 3-5 pages, and (3) who genuinely interests you.
Of course, if you’ve conveyed a strong interest in one particular aspect of theater in another part of your application, it might make sense to choose an artist who fits that interest. If you are passionate about studying early drafts of scripts, then it would be most logical for you to write on a playwright. If your interest is in actors and their methods, then you should consider writing on an actor. However, this isn’t a hard and fast rule—it’s just another strategy that can help you narrow down your choices and can make your application as a whole seem more coherent.
Understanding what counts as a “contribution”
The simplest way to think about a contribution, for the purposes of this prompt, is to focus on ways that your artist innovated, challenged or changed norms, or supported an ongoing effort. This could mean discussing how your artist acted as a trailblazer for certain identities, introduced new artistic techniques, or supported the rise of a project or theater company. Almost any accomplishment can be framed as a “contribution.” In order to do so, you need to focus on the lasting impact or legacy that that accomplishment has created.
You might also wonder: Should I focus more on contributions to theater, or contributions to the world?
It’s important to note that this program’s motto is “Engaged Scholarship. Thoughtful practice. Citizenship.” This means that the Penn State Theater Studies program truly cares about engaging with the world—not just with the academic study of theater. As such, try not to neglect the “world” aspect of this prompt. Show the reader that you understand that artists are also citizens and that you understand the impact of theater on the world.
Furthermore, the strongest essays will discuss contributions to both. A contribution to theater can, often, be a contribution to the world. For example, if your artist wrote plays that popularized political satire in theater, this could be a twofold contribution: first, it expands the genres that playwrights can explore; second, it plays a broader role in making space for artists to engage politically.
With this understanding of what constitutes a “contribution” and a basic idea of your artist’s life, it’s time to start serious research.
The Research Phase
Once you’ve chosen your artist, it’s time for some homework. Don’t be afraid to start off with a Wikipedia page or similar general article to get a broad sense of your subject’s life. If you already know a lot about your subject, you probably can skip this step. More importantly, you should not use Wikipedia or similar resources as one of your five sources. This phase of research is just intended to help you get started.
You should approach this project in the same way as you would approach any research paper for school. Use whatever methodology you’ve been taught or has worked best for you. Stay focused in your note-taking—the prompt isn’t that complex. Consider grouping your research findings into two categories, as dictated by the prompt: contributions to the wider world and contributions to theater.
Start with a search for scholarly or biographical articles. Remember that only two of your sources can be online! This is because the admissions committee wants to see that you are capable of using more traditional research methods—that is, that you’re not afraid of visiting a library. Unless you happen to have a lot of theater books and biographies on hand, you’ll likely need to visit your local library.
As you conduct your research, be meticulous in your attribution of sources and accuracy. All the usual rules apply, but the stakes here are higher if you make a mistake, because accidental plagiarism or sloppy management of sources will almost certainly doom your application. If you are quoting something, make sure you use quotation marks. If you are summarizing a point, you should still attribute a source unless it is “common knowledge.” Be absolutely certain that you are not copying anyone else’s work—Penn State’s admissions department likely utilizes state of the art plagiarism-catching software, which can detect if you’ve just changed around someone else’s words or phrases.
As you reach a critical mass of sources and information, start outlining your essay.
Writing your essay
There’s no one template that will fit every essay for this prompt since the form of your essay should be dictated by its subject.
However, your essay should start with an introduction that:
- Explains why you chose this artist (as the prompt indicates).
- Depending on how well-known the artist is, it may also make sense to include some biographical details in the introduction.
- Most importantly, your introductory paragraphs should also convey some sort of thesis or central, conceptual claim about your artist’s contributions. In many cases, a strong thesis can be linked to your explanation of why you chose the artist.
A good thesis could be as broad as “[Your artist] shaped America’s social and political atmosphere by writing blockbuster plays about taboo issues,” or as specific as “[Your artist] contributed to theatrical modernism by developing innovative techniques to break down the fourth wall.”
Once you have your introduction and thesis down, you can start in on the body of your essay.
Body paragraph strategy
Build your body paragraphs around quotations, examples, and facts that serve as “evidence.” Pair this evidence with analysis: discuss why that accomplishment or action qualifies as a contribution, what it was a contribution to, and, when applicable, provide context and discussion of its larger significance.
Of course, your essay should not just be a smattering of facts paired with analysis. Instead, you should carefully structure each section. If you are writing on an artist who had a very linear career, this might mean organizing your essay chronologically. If you notice significant themes in your artist’s life and accomplishments, try organizing your essay according to those themes.
For example, you could have a section on an actor’s “challenges to traditional household roles” and a section on her “experimental vocal techniques.” Ideally, you could unite these two sections with your thesis: your claim could be that the artist used experimental acting methods to challenge stereotypes.
Once your essay is written, it’s time for editing and more editing. Here are some key boxes to tick before you submit:
First, check to be sure you’ve met all the conditions imposed by the prompt (ideally, you will have checked these throughout the writing process, so there will be no last-minute surprises):
- Have you written on just one artist?
- Did your artist live in the 19th or 20th century?
- Have you used at least five sources?
- Are only two of your sources online?
- Do you use MLA citations?
- Does your introduction include an explanation of why you chose this artist?
- Is your paper 3-5 pages?
Once you’ve made sure your content 100% fulfills the prompts requirements, do a final technical check.
- Be sure that you’ve perfectly executed your MLA citations.
- Double-check to be sure your quotes are accurate.
- Be sure you haven’t missed any citations or committed unwitting plagiarism in any other way.
- Do a final read-through for grammar, style and spelling issues.
- If possible, have a teacher or someone familiar with academic writing review your essay.
This question is really tough. It doesn’t give hints about what qualifies as a “significant experience,” and it only gives you 200 words. Furthermore, the main Penn State supplement asks you to discuss your non-academic activities, so you’ve likely already covered a lot of “significant” experiences there.
Cracking the code of this essay requires a step back. Remember that this essay is for the BS/MBA program only. This offers a bit of insight into what the admissions committee is looking for. They want to understand your maturity and what makes you tick because one of the primary admissions considerations for a combined degree program is whether you are mature enough to commit now to a five or six year (the length depends on your amount of AP credit) academic path.
Your goal here should be to give the reader a more complete picture of who you are—and also to show them that person is mature and ready to make long-term decisions. The only “wrong” answers for this prompt are ones that make you look immature, or overlap too much with other responses on any part of your application.
Brainstorming and choosing an experience
This might all sound good in theory, but you’re probably still wondering: what kind of experiences should you list?
Think about the experiences that have really shaped you. If possible, it would be great if these experiences have also shaped your desire to pursue a BS/MBA. While the focus of the essay should not be on “why I want to do a BS/MBA” (that’s not the prompt), it’s a plus if your essay tells some sort of story about your interest in science or business.
Strong responses can reference:
- Interpersonal experiences – an illness or crisis in your family, or something significant that has occurred within your friend group or wider social circle.
- Academic experiences – this could be a great place to discuss a teacher or course that has really helped solidify your academic or career interests
- A travel experience – as long as you go beyond avoid the most obvious clichés and describe the specifics of how a journey changed you, this can be a good option.
- Miscellaneous experiences that don’t really fit anywhere else in your application: a one-weekend meditation retreat; a conversation with a stranger; a visit to an exhibit or play; an article you read; a crime or tragedy you witnessed as a bystander.
A word of caution
With a short, conceptual prompt like this, there’s always a risk of falling into vague clichés. However, these can always be avoided if you dive into specifics.
- Instead of saying “I could never have imagined…”, describe your feeling of surprise or amazement in original, personal terms.
- Instead of saying “It was transformative…”, describe how you were transformed.
- Instead of saying “…shaped who I am today…”, depict the specifics of who you are today.
The word limit here is very short, so your response has to be to-the-point. Helpfully, the prompt lays out a clear formula for you: you need to link the resources provided by Penn State’s Science BS/MBA to the attainment of your career goals. Sounds simple, right? It will be if you use plenty of specifics.
Remember that one significant factor in admissions decisions for combined degree programs like the BS/MBA is whether the admissions committee thinks you’re really committed to this path. As you probably realize, it’s a big decision to decide as a high school senior that you want to pursue a degree after your bachelor’s—much less to pick the exact program. The admissions committee does not want to give a coveted spot to someone who will change their mind about following through on the MBA after a year or two of college. This means that you need to show both specific long-term goals that fit with the program and deeper motivations that will carry you through five or six years of rigorous education.
Getting clear on your goals
First, dig down and describe your career goals in as much detail as you can—while still conveying a broad, bold vision for your future.
A weaker strategy:
- Some students focus on something like achieving a particular rank in a certain company by a certain age. However, this type of career aspiration isn’t the best choice: it is too arbitrary and too specific and doesn’t convey a lot about your underlying values.
A stronger strategy:
- Think about a particular problem you’d like to solve or a legacy you’d like to leave.
- Perhaps you want to bring truly affordable solar cells to a mass market.
- Or, perhaps your goal is multi-tiered: you want to forge a path for minority women in biotech startups in the short term, and in the long term you want to move to the public sector, using your entrepreneurial experience to address inequality in healthcare outcomes.
Even if your goals are currently quite vague, you can still make them sound clear and worthwhile. For example, maybe you know that you want to do something at the intersection of chemistry and entrepreneurship, but you’re just not sure about the specifics yet. That’s fine! If your goals are still vague, you’ll just have a little more work to do in the other sections of your response.
The deeper motivations behind your aspirations
Once you’re clear on what your career aspirations are, spend a little bit of time reflecting on why you hold these aspirations. While the prompt doesn’t explicitly state that you need to explain why you hold the career aspirations you’ve stated, the best answers will at least allude to your deeper motivations. As noted above, if you show what drives you, then you provide additional assurance to the admissions committee that you’re really committed to completing the BS/MBA program.
Since you don’t have very many words, so you’ll probably need to integrate this explanation of “why” with your explanation of the goal itself.
This might mean sharing a short anecdote about your first-hand experience of rising sea levels and then connecting that experience to your desire to work on solar power to cut carbon emissions. Or, you might briefly describe a personal medical experience which gave rise to your desire to improve medical technologies.
What the BS/MBA program offers
Once you’ve established what your aspirations are and why you hold them, it’s time to focus on Penn State’s BS/MBA program. This means doing more than just talking about the basics of the program (the fact that it allows you guaranteed admission, or that it could potentially shorten your time in school).
Visit Penn State’s BS/MBA website and carefully scour it for details that fit your goals. Pick just a few specific features of the program and talk about them in your response. These can include a particular course, a professional training resource, a research program, an interdisciplinary opportunity, or even a particular professor (but be careful not to just name-drop–explain the professor’s work and its relation to your interests in detail).
Link the skills, competencies, or background that these resources provide to the attainment of your career goals. This means getting a little technical. Do you need to learn a certain management strategy to succeed as the founder of a biotech startup? Great! Talk about that specific strategy and how you’ll learn about it in a given course offered through Penn State’s BS/MBA.
Remember, this is your chance to demonstrate a few things. Firstly, you can show commitment and enthusiasm: you’ve done your research because you’re genuinely interested in the program. Secondly, you can show mature and realistic goal-setting: you know what is necessary to achieve your goals, and you can concisely articulate the steps you will take along the way.
All that’s left is to put it all together. Your essay does not need to follow the exact order described here. However, you should make sure that all the components (your goal and deeper motivations, Penn State’s BS/MBA resources, and how those resources will help you achieve your goal) are present. Try to use vivid, concise language, with strong verbs, specific details, and personal touches.
Penn State’s BS/MBA sees itself as a training ground for future leaders on the frontiers of both science and business. They want to admit students who can work with and lead others.
“Leadership” and “collaboration,” the words used in the prompt, have become overused buzzwords in college applications. This means that one of the keys to a successful response to this prompt is to avoid just repeating these words and various synonyms. Instead, you focus on the “examples of how they have been demonstrated.” It’s possible to write an exceptional response to this prompt without ever actually using the word “leadership” or “leader.”
Before you choose your examples, note that the prompt asks for a “recent” example. Ideally, this means in the last two years. You should definitely not go further back than your freshman year of high school. Additionally, try not to repeat activities or experiences you’ve discussed in detail elsewhere in your application.
You can pick more than one example, but keep in mind that this essay is very short. Offering a quality, detailed depiction of your leadership in just one situation is definitely preferable to just listing every leadership role you can think of.
If you hold formal leadership roles, this is definitely a great place to discuss them. However, don’t just list off and briefly describe your titles. Instead, describe what your leadership role involves. If you’re president of a club, describe a “day in your life”—use vivid language to bring your responsibilities and skills to life. If you’re on student council, pick a particular debate or initiative and use a detailed depiction of that situation to exemplify the leadership and collaboration skills that you’ve developed.
If there are no obvious formal leadership roles for you to cite, or if you’ve already discussed them in your Common App essay or other supplemental responses, then you should think outside the box.
Effective but unconventional responses can include:
- A depiction of how you’ve worked with peers on group projects.
- A leadership role you’ve taken on in your family.
- An instance when you took charge in extreme situations (getting lost on a hike, for example).
Writing the essay
Once you’ve chosen your example(s), double check to make sure that these examples are conveying skills–this is, after all, the point of the essay.
If you choose just one example, your essay should focus on depicting a “moment” in that experience that demonstrates the skill that you are claiming you possess. An example of this:
- You could depict a moment of conflict in your local church choir, which you chair.
- Demonstrate how you used your interpersonal skills to calm the situation, your strategic thinking skills to propose a solution, and your organizational skills to execute that solution.
- A strong version of this essay wouldn’t just state what you did. Instead, it would set up the moment with detailed descriptions of what you felt, said and did.
If you choose to use more than just one example, here are a few ways to organize those examples. They can:
- Complement one another to show different facets of your leadership and collaboration.
- Perhaps you’ve been class president (requiring clear communication as a leader), worked in a restaurant as a chef (requiring a lot of collaboration), and interned with a local politician (where you found yourself leading other unruly interns by setting a good example).
- You can unite these examples under the thesis that you are a good verbal and non-verbal communicator who knows when to give directions and when to collaborate with others.
- Work together to convey a common thesis about your leadership.
- Maybe in all your leadership experiences, you’ve found yourself in the position where you have to hold others accountable for their mistakes. You could give several examples of different instances (different roles) where you’ve developed the skills to do so.
- Have shared content.
- You could choose several examples of your experience leading in a high-pressure office setting. Here, the uniting theme is where the examples actually take place.
- If a lot of your experience has been with biology research, you could choose several examples of times when you’ve collaborated or taken on a leadership role in a laboratory setting.
- If you choose to thematize something like this, be sure that you’re still highlighting skills that you’ve gained, not just the setting or shared content of your experience.
“Cultural competency” is defined as the ability to appreciate and accurately interpret other cultural traditions and the actions and words of people from other cultures.
This might lead you to ask: what counts as another culture?
- There are some obvious cases—someone who actually comes from a different country, or from a radically different part of this country.
- However, there are often many cultural divisions within a single community. Your school might include students from a variety of racial, ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
A word of caution
This prompt does not ask about a time when you talked with someone who was different from you—it asks about your “commitment to this mission.” Your goal should really be twofold:
- To show that you understand what “cultural competency” means.
- To show that you’re committed to it.
To accomplish these goals, you need to describe significant, lasting interactions with people who are different from you. Furthermore, The best responses will go above and beyond: they will show how you have tried to help others gain cultural competency, too.
Picking an example
Great responses could involve describing just a single, big effort you’ve made. Some answers are really obvious fits: maybe you’re involved in a club that focuses on race relations at your school; maybe you’ve done mission trips with your church that have required you to listen to and respect local knowledge and requests. In a case like either of these, you can easily write a detailed, “showing not telling” account of this experience that will fill the 200-word limit. Describe actual interactions that show your interest in understanding and working with people from different backgrounds.
If you don’t have one “big” example, then choose a few smaller ones. You could discuss choosing to do a history presentation on the history of immigration to the US, anti-racist political activism you’ve been involved in outside of school, and efforts you’ve made at your summer food service job to communicate better with foreign tourists who speak limited English. Try to thread these different experiences together to depict an interest in cultural inclusiveness that cuts across different features of your life.
Because this essay is for the BS/MBA program, you’ll likely get bonus points if you can tie cultural competency to success in science or business. If applicable, you could discuss your research on the differential health outcomes for people of different ethnic backgrounds in your city, or your internship with a transnational business that has required you to expand your cultural skills.
However, if there’s no real link between your cultural experiences and business/science, don’t force it. Your first priority here is to demonstrate that you’re committed to cultural competency.
Pitfalls to avoid
Regardless of whether you focus on just one experience or several, be very mindful of avoiding clichés and vagueness. It’s incredibly easy to write a 200-word essay on a topic like this that never really gets into the specifics of your experience. A vague essay might show that you know what cultural competency is, but it won’t tell the reader anything about your real-life commitment to it. Avoid general, cliché phrases like “I have interacted with many people who are different from me,” or “I have learned so much from…” Instead, show that these things are true through specific examples.
Another risk is stereotyping or making over-generalizations about cultural groups. The last thing you want to do is to end up sounding culturally insensitive as you respond to a prompt about cultural competency.
You can avoid this danger by focusing on your own experience, goals, motivations, and growth. What strategies have you developed to interact with those who are different from you? What have you learned about yourself? How have these experiences shown you the importance of multicultural acceptance? If possible, have a parent, teacher, or other third party review your essay to be sure it doesn’t include any accidentally offensive material.
As a final note: Crucially, this prompt assumes that inclusiveness and diversity are good things; it states that cultural competency is “essential.” This means that it is not a viable option to write an essay disputing that these things are important. Even if you personally do not care a lot about diversity or inclusivity, you should think carefully and write thoughtfully about the value of interacting with those who are different than you.
The BS/MBA program asks high school seniors to commit to graduate study when they are only seniors in high school. This is a tall order—after all, you haven’t even assimilated to college life yet! That’s exactly the point of this prompt. Many students struggle in their freshman year since there is so much to adjust to. As a student in a dual degree program, you won’t have the luxury of floundering; the admissions committee wants to be sure that you’re prepared to gracefully navigate this transition to Penn State.
To start out, brainstorm the major differences between your life as a high school student and the experiences you expect you’ll have in college. If you really don’t know what to expect, try to talk to friends or acquaintances who have already transitioned to college, or peruse some articles on the topic.
Here are a few of the major differences between high school and college for most students. Use this list as a jumping off point to consider what changes will be the most challenging for you.
- Moving away from home
- Having a less structured schedule and more freedom
- Larger class sizes, at least in introductory courses (this will definitely be true at a large school like Penn State)
- Acclimating to a completely new social environment
- Establishing healthy habits on your own
- Picking your classes and your major
- Communicating with professors
- Navigating a massive campus
- Managing your own finances.
Framing challenges in terms of “adjustments”
Once you’ve identified the differences between high school and college that matter the most to you, you’ll need to frame these as “adjustments.” How will you need to change in order to succeed at college?
- If you’re really close to your family members, you’ll need to develop patterns for staying in touch with them, and also find a new support system at college.
- If you are used to a super-structured school day, followed by extracurriculars, you’ll need to develop time management skills to make good use of the time between classes that is almost inevitable in college.
Your goal here isn’t to argue that you already are prepared for college. Rather, it’s to show that you know what you need to do to succeed in college. The admissions committee wants to see that you have a strategy.
Of course, ideally, you can also show that you have the basic tools to implement this strategy. For example, if you focus on adjusting socially, you might talk about strategies you used to adjust socially to your high school and discuss how you plan to scale those strategies up for your transition to college.
In such a short response, your goal should not be to exhaustively list all the adjustments you’ll need to make to successfully transition to college. Instead, pick two or three and use personal examples to show that you’ve thought through this question carefully and have a solid plan in place to manage your transition.
Like many of the BS/MBA prompts, this one is intended to assess your maturity level and understanding of what commitment means. Again, the admissions committee wants to be sure you’re ready to commit to a set path for the next five to six years of your life. They want to see that you have a track record of taking on responsibility and not balking when things get tough.
Picking a “commitment”
The prompt’s phrasing (“your biggest commitment”) dictates that you choose just one commitment—and it needs to be one that is obviously substantial. If it’s not the sort of thing that a reader would automatically think of as “big,” you need to be able to convincingly argue that it is, in fact, a sign of substantial responsibility in 150 words or less.
Strong options include:
- Family or interpersonal commitments.
- Significant leadership roles that you’ve taken on, or even academic commitments (a heavy course load, for example).
- Outside-the-box choices could also work here. For example, maybe you’re an avid rider; in that case, you could discuss the weighty commitment of ensuring the health and happiness of your horse.
It’s also possible to choose more abstract commitments.
- Perhaps you’ve committed to interacting with friends and family with absolute honesty. Perhaps you’ve made some sort of religious or spiritual commitment.
- These sorts of more personal, somewhat vague responses can work—if you ground them in concrete examples.
- If you’ve committed to complete honesty, describe a case where this commitment was difficult to keep.
- If you want to discuss a spiritual commitment, be sure to depict the role of that commitment in your everyday life—for example, through prayer, community service, or scriptural readings.
- If you’re not able to give these sorts of concrete depictions of what an “abstract” commitment in your life means, then it might be best to stick with a more straightforward topic for this essay.
As you’ll doubtless notice, the general supplemental questions ask about your activities and experiences, as do other questions in the BS/MBA-specific part of the supplement. This means that you will have already covered a lot of ground, and likely already discussed a number of things in your life that qualify as commitments. Though it might seem difficult, try not to double up on anything you’ve already discussed in detail (it’s fine if you’ve mentioned it in passing).
Writing the essay
Once you’ve chosen a topic, it’s time to begin writing. Though there are many ways to go about filling your 150-word limit, the best responses will include specific depictions that show why this commitment is the “biggest” in your life. It’s easy to use up 150 words with generalizations. Instead, try to depict a “moment” that exemplifies the weight of your commitment. If you’re talking about your commitment to caring for an ailing parent, this could mean describing in detail a moment of crisis when you were there for them. If your topic is academic, this could mean putting the reader into your head at a moment when you were stretched to your limits by your courses.
If no single “moment” can convey the significance of your commitment, you can take a higher-level approach. If you’re writing about a leadership role you hold, this might mean describing the broader pool of people who depend on you, or the what the consequences would be if you fail to fulfill your responsibilities. Though this approach is slightly more “zoomed out,” you still should use specific examples and vivid details whenever possible.
Words of caution
While your goal is to convey that you are comfortable taking on responsibilities and have a track record of following through, you don’t want to make yourself sound too overburdened. Particularly if you talk about a family or personal commitment, use caution. The admissions committee should not discriminate against applicants with personal or familial struggles, but there is a chance that they might subconsciously worry that you have too many burdens to succeed in an intensely rigorous academic program.
You don’t need to explicitly address this concern (don’t say something like “I am committed to taking care of my mother, but this won’t detract from my ability to do well in college”). Instead, try and show that this commitment is not an obstacle by subtly emphasizing how you’ve already balanced it with myriad other responsibilities. For example, you could briefly describe how you’ve managed to help care for your ill mother while succeeding in high school and at multiple extracurriculars.
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