How to Write the Penn State Supplemental Essays 2020-2021
Founded in 1855, Pennsylvania State University is a public research university with campuses throughout the state. The flagship campus, at University Park, enrolls around 40,000 undergraduates, and the university accepts around 56% of its applicants.
According to US News, Penn State is currently ranked as the 57th best university in the country. Penn State offers more than 160 majors, and its Division I sports teams compete in the Big Ten Conference.
The Penn State application includes one optional essay for all applicants, three required essays for applicants to the Schreyer Honors College, and eight essays for the BS-MBA program in the Eberly College of Science. The supplemental essays are a crucial part of your application, so you want to make sure you do your best to write strong responses to each prompt! Want to know your chances at Penn State? Calculate your chances for free right now.
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While this essay is technically optional, we still strongly encourage all applicants to complete it. Writing an optional essay provides admissions officers with more information about you, helps your application stand out, and further expresses your interest in the college you are applying to.
One of your main objectives in all college essays should be to depict yourself as a strong addition to a specific college’s community. A good response will contain a reflection on your experiences to demonstrate a specific personal quality that you think will set you up for success at Penn State. To brainstorm, ask yourself: What do I need to succeed at Penn State? What are my strengths?
You’ll need to think of examples that demonstrate the traits 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 not only survive, but thrive 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 almost jeopardized your ability to succeed in school. Through detailed storytelling, you could show the reader that you developed time-management skills and perseverance, which, as you can guess, 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 aspect of your identity, experience, or activity you pick, be absolutely sure to avoid generalizing. Many students write a 500 word essay that never uses specific examples. While these essays might sound smooth, they are almost entirely composed of clichés and generalizations. Here’s an example so you can get a better idea of what we’re talking about.
A student could write something like:
“I have volunteered for over five years at my local food pantry. This experience has made me more appreciative of what I have, and more determined to give back. I know I’ll take these values with me to Penn State.”
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 what you did at the food pantry.
- 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.
- 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, such as the Lion’s Pantry, which is dedicated to addressing student hunger.
A few words of caution: Some students will have too many things they want to squeeze into this essay. While you may feel like you’ve just left so many crucial details out of your application, 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.
This essay turns the traditional leadership essay on its head. You want to first think on an abstract level, and explain the characteristics of a good follower, whether that’s diligence, humility, responsibility, integrity, or a related trait. If there are some more unusual characteristics you can think of, like punctuality, or situational awareness, feel free to drop those things in as well. You just want to make sure to support these definitions with examples from your own life. Think back to the things you committed yourself to in high school where you didn’t have a fancy title or position, but nevertheless felt devoted to the activity.
Because you have 800 words to work with, you should make sure to have strong anecdotes and specific examples of “effective followership,” which will allow you to craft a narrative plotline. You want to primarily draw from your own experience, but if you know others whom you look up to for their effective followership, feel free to include those examples as inspirations to your own character.
You could think of this essay as an opportunity to highlight a part of your life that isn’t flashy or acclaimed, but that you’re nevertheless passionate about. Maybe you’re someone who naturally likes working in the background, or maybe you’ve come to value being a good follower after realizing that being a leader isn’t always the most effective role for you to claim.
If you want to talk about a club you were a part of, talk about your commitment to it, despite not having any titled leadership positions. Maybe you always volunteered to work the booth at events, and were completely fine with doing the undignified logistics and planning work for others to shine.
Sports are also a great thing to talk about. Maybe you were a part of the soccer team, but weren’t the captain. How did you help foster bonds within your team? Were you someone who always came in early to practice? Were you the yin to the captain’s yang, and helped diffuse tensions through jokes and positive encouragement?
Maybe you held a part time job, where you had to report to a manager. Maybe the manager wasn’t around all the time, and the other employees often took long breaks, and disregarded the needs of the customers who came into your store. You could talk about the difficulty of being in your own situation, where you didn’t think it was fair for you to do more work than others, while also not wanting to neglect the responsibilities of your own job.
Lastly, you want to end on a note of resolution and growth. How did you grow from your time as an effective follower? How do you see aspects of effective followership becoming a part of your college and post-college self?
This essay is composed of two different parts. You want to begin with the first question, on fairness. Something along the lines of “equal treatment” is the standard answer, but ideally, you want to speak to what fairness means to you. Is there an example you can give, from your own life? Or a vision of fairness you have, for the world you live in, whether fairness in education or class mobility or access to information?
For instance, say you’re on the volleyball team, and most of the girls who make the cut are taller than average. Try-outs are based on skill, but height gives a player an undeniable advantage, and it’s not something one can control. So, is that fair? Or, maybe you’re a student in New York City, where there’s been talk of eliminating the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT), a merit-based exam that’s historically led to lack of Black and Latinx representation. If these communities don’t have the resources to perform well on the exam, that’s not necessarily fair, and it shuts them out of a high-quality educational opportunity. However, the alternative presented of holistic admissions with quotas doesn’t necessarily seem fair either (a student with worse grades might get chosen over someone with better ones). These are both examples that could illuminate your discussion of what “fairness” means.
The second part of the question is also tricky, and requires serious thought on what you believe the objectives of education should be. Education, specifically higher education, is often talked about as the ticket to upward mobility. However, you may have heard of the “myth of the meritocracy,” or the “myth of the American Dream,” in which those of certain racial and economic backgrounds have a much harder time attaining upwards mobility than others.
The Schreyer Honors College is committed to educational equity and diversity. According to Penn State’s “Strategic Plan for 2016-2025,” the goals of the university include recruiting and supporting a diverse student body, as well as evaluating and rectifying “organizational structures, policies, and practices that cause differential impact and limit access and opportunities.” Essentially, this boils down to creating a university that brings in more students from low income and underrepresented minority backgrounds.
Knowing Penn State’s position and commitment, you want to now tackle the second part of the prompt. Should we look at educational opportunity as solely merit-based? Or should there be other factors that are evaluated as well?
This would be a great time to talk through your own experiences in education, and the ways that you have benefitted or have been disadvantaged from the kind of schooling and resources you had growing up. You could also do some research on the demographics of higher education, or on the state of public education in America.
Lastly, you want to tie your vision of fairness in education into your vision of fairness in the world. The prompt seems to be asking, “Why all the concern about diversity and inclusion?”
Here, it would be great to, again, bring in yourself. What kind of workforce do you see yourself going into? What kinds of conversations on fairness and equity do you want to have in college? How do you want to bring about change? Whether you discuss a specific program at Penn State that will help you achieve your goals, or simply explain how the values of the community will empower you, make sure you also connect your ideas back to Penn State.
This essay wants you to think about your own personal growth, and how you are able to go above and beyond by getting out of your comfort zone. Schreyer Honors College is acknowledged as one of the top undergraduate programs in the United States, and you want to demonstrate upstanding character and courage to paint yourself as an applicant who deserves a spot in the college.
First, you want to brainstorm times in which you’ve exhibited courage and pushed into discomfort. If nothing comes to mind immediately, go through your extracurricular activities and work experiences. Was there a time in which you had to really stretch yourself? Here are some examples:
- Did you set a goal of running a half marathon, even though you’d never run more than 3 miles?
- Did you have to help customers who were rude and disruptive at your job?
- Did you have to deal with serious relational conflicts in a club?
- Did you join the debate team even though you were terrified of public speaking?
If applicable, you could also think about your identity, and brainstorm moments you were made uncomfortable because of it. Did you ever feel out of place in certain social situations, whether because of your race, gender, sexuality, or class? Were you ever misunderstood by your family?
There’s plenty of ways for you to talk about discomfort, but the key is to always tie it into ways in which you’ve grown as a person as a result.
Think about these moments of discomfort, and how you responded. And like the other essays, strong anecdotes are key to driving the narrative flow of the essay.
The last part of the prompt, “…can it affect what you do?” beckons the question, “How will discomfort continue to play a role in your life?” Here, you can look forward to your potential time at Penn State and the Schreyer Honors College, and ways that you can continue to thrust yourself into productive discomfort. “Never settle” is a cliche that is often thrown around, but the idea behind it could also fit into this prompt.
What are your goals, how are they pushing you beyond your comfort zone, and how can Penn State and the Honors College support you? You could talk about your desire to research genome editing to prevent birth defects, as you have a sibling with cleft palate. You understand that this field is highly “uncomfortable,” however, as it’s new research and involves tough ethical questions. You want to have these tough conversations to make sure this research is actually benefiting society, and you look forward to taking Science, Ethics, Policy, and Law to learn about these implications.
This essay prompt is common across many colleges, as it’s used to differentiate candidates based on their level of interest in the school. Due to the small word count, you will need to express interest in Penn State with room for naming only 2-3 major things that you like about it. As this prompt is given through the BS-MBA program, you should definitely focus on that at some point in the response.
Because of the limited space, it is not enough to respond to this prompt with generic sentiments about Penn State, such as location or its strong sports culture. To start addressing this prompt, you may have to do some research (the school’s site is a great starting point). Specifically, Penn State’s BS/MBA program has Student Profile videos on YouTube. These are a great place to start to gain a better understanding of the reality of being a student in this program.
While researching Penn State, dig into programs and extracurriculars that pique your interest, as well as your major’s departmental offerings and available concentrations. If anything catches your eye, explore it further until you feel confident speaking about the opportunity in detail, and how it helps you achieve your goals.
Here’s a good and bad example:
Bad: Penn State’s amazing BS/MBA program appeals to me because the business models around curing diseases such as pediatric cancer have always fascinated me.
Good: I am really intrigued by the BS/MBA program because I am heavily invested in raising global awareness of pediatric cancer via a sustainable business model. I plan to pursue my passion for this both in and out of the classroom, researching cell malfunctions in labs while helping organize events such as Penn State’s annual Thon. I look forward to dancing during Thon weekend to help bring awareness to and raise money for a cause I care so deeply about. I plan to continue organizing events and initiatives that address this issue after college as well, by organizing non-profit concerts and corporate presentations. With both a science background and a business-oriented skill set, I will amass the tools I need to continue bringing awareness to pediatric cancer cures and research.
The former response is vague, and the resource mentioned can be found at almost any school. This latter response demonstrates a genuine interest in a unique opportunity at Penn State and links it to personal aspirations.
A commonly forgotten component of the “Why School” essays are extracurriculars and social life. College isn’t only about academics, but also what you do outside of the classroom. You should also look into extracurriculars or clubs that you want to join, and tie them into your current interests.
For example, you could say something along the lines of: “As someone who is very environmentally conscious, I started a month-long educational initiative through the Eco Club at my high school, in which the rest of the board and I hosted workshops on how to live more sustainably. Some of my favorite topics were slow travel and how to reduce waste while eating out. At Penn State, I look forward to joining the Bridge Initiative; becoming a volunteer consultant will allow me to continue educating others on how to reduce our environmental impact.”
This essay calls for your to narrow down your interest in the BS-MBA program to the specific discipline that you plan to pursue during the program. Although you can pick up to three from the selection provided, you can only write about one – so choose carefully. Research the different divisions on Penn State’s site and then make an informed decision about the discipline that most appeals to you.
When discussing why you are passionate about a subject, it is important to show, rather than tell readers why you feel that way about it. Be sure to use vivid imagery and specific details to describe experiences you’ve had with the subject and how you want to pursue it in college. You can talk about the curriculum, such as specific classes you want to take, or research projects you want to join. And you can bring in other factors relating to the subject as well, such as clubs or extracurriculars. Below are good and bad examples:
Bad: “I’ve always been interested in the nutritional content of the food I eat. In high school, I gravitated towards the sciences but was most passionate about AP Chemistry. In college, I wish to bring my two interests together to pursue my ultimate goal – a career in the food science industry.”
Good: “I love food. But even more than that, I love exploring the science behind my favorite meals. As soon as I learned how to read, I pored over the nutrition label on the packaged foods in our pantry. I longed to for answers to questions that no one around me seemed to care about, such as what riboflavin was, how my Cheetos were always the perfect shade of neon orange, and why bread could become toast but not vice versa. At Penn State, I hope to finally find the answers to my copious chemistry-related questions and use my findings to gain a new perspective on the molecules I consume for energy. In addition to the chemistry discipline, I plan to join extracurriculars such as the Food Chemistry Club, where I can immerse myself in the world of food processing at a deeper, scientific level.”
Bad: “I love probability and chance, so naturally, I became interested in statistics as a potential discipline during my time at Penn State. I plan on joining an existing research project or even starting my own project to create a project, applying what I learn from Penn State’s renowned statistic department outside of the classroom.”
Good: “Why do people fear airplane rides more than their daily commute when they are statistically more likely to die on the road than in the air? How do we predict which team will win a championship while factoring in nationwide attitudes towards them? I constantly juggle predicaments of probability in my mind; by choosing the statistics discipline within Penn State’s BS/MBA program, I hope to find an outlet for my myriad of inquiries. I plan to use the strategies from my coursework to embark on my own research project, creating a machine that can juxtapose statistical improbabilities with public perception. I can flesh out this idea at HackPSU, teaming up with my peers make a machine that can measure people’s attitudes while calculating statistical probabilities in the real world. I can further develop my project via Invent Penn State, where I will take advantage of the company connections at my disposal to ensure my lifelong passion becomes tangible.”
“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, such as 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 have been and will continue to be 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.
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 respect and interact with the locals and their culture. In these cases, you can describe actual interactions with specific individuals 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.
Bonus points: because this essay is for the BS/MBA program, it’s even better 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.
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.
Remember that one significant admissions factor for combined degree programs is whether the admissions committee thinks you’re really committed to this path. The admissions committee doesn’t 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 5-6 years of rigorous education.
To get started, dig down and describe your career goals in as much detail as you can—while still conveying a broad, bold vision for your future.
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.
Instead, 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 unclear, you’ll just have a little more work to do in the other sections of your response.
Once you determine your career aspirations, 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 the reasons behind your career choice, the best answers will at least allude to your deeper motivations. 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.
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). For example, instead of saying “I plan to join Penn State’s BS/MBA program to get a deeper understanding of both science and business,” say “I plan on taking advantage of the BS/MBA’s hands-on professional development initiatives. I plan to network with pharmaceutical companies during the career-oriented field trip, discussing the business model behind products from companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer.”
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.
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.” Show, don’t tell comes heavily into play here – 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 the president of a club, you could 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 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).
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 (and how you resolved it) 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. You can:
Use complementing experiences 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 member of the waitstaff (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.
Emphasize 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.
Find a unifying theme of your leadership.
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.
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
However, these are all general challenges that will affect most students – so you should also keep in mind any extenuating circumstances you might personally have that could foster more challenges specific to your situation. Noting these will add dimension to your essay as it will set you apart from others and keep your response sounding specific and genuine.
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 2-3 and use personal examples to show that you’ve thought through this question carefully and have a solid plan to manage your transition.
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. Or, maybe you’ve made some sort of religious or spiritual commitment. 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 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).
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, such as when you had to take them to the hospital. 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, such as the night before a big test.
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 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.
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. Use caution especially if you talk about a family or personal commitment. 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.
Overall, try to sound passionate and enthusiastic despite the weight the commitment holds in your life. Focus on the good parts to show your resilient and committed character, showing what you get out of the experience rather than just what you put into it. For instance, if you took piano lessons every day for 12 years, you could talk about how you have conquered a really difficult piece or composed your own piece. If you care for an ailing parent, talk about how this has strengthened your relationship with them, and how you are more capable and independent as a result of helping them out. Admissions officers want to see that you are able to handle a rigorous program, and showing examples of your optimistic attitude in the face of challenge can offset some of their worry about if you will fare well in the program.
College admission essay prompts are designed so that admissions officers can learn more about you – this prompt, however, is asking you to speak about yourself through the lens of helping someone else. You need to show rather than tell admissions officers about a time you helped someone succeed. You must also strike a balance between relaying their story with your own narrative within a small word count.
Typical examples of helping someone can happen within volunteer organizations, a tutoring role, sports coaching, or your family. Think about these situations and about the people who depend on you. Ruminate on how helping them succeed has personally affected and changed you. Did helping your younger brother with his math homework ignite your passion for teaching? Did helping a senior at your local senior center spark a friendship that crossed generations? Has coaching a student with learning disabilities inspired you to campaign for more inclusivity in sports and the world at large.
Your setup for this prompt should roughly follow the following format: A specific, vivid scene with you and the subject of your response and then a smooth transition into a bit of background as to what you did for them and how they succeeded. Then, discuss how the experience affected you and wrap it up with a sentence or two on how you plan to take the lessons you learned with you to the BS/MBA program, Penn State, your future career, or your greater approach to life in general.
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