How to Write the Penn State Supplemental Essays 2021-2022
Penn State University has one optional essay for all applicants. Applicants to the Schreyer Honors College are required to submit two additional essays, and BS-MBA applicants must submit eight additional short essays.
Admissions officers can have a hard time distinguishing between applicants when thousands of students send in the same test scores and GPAs. Essays are highly valued in the decision process since they allow admissions officers to see your character and values. In this post, we’ll share how you can write essays that will be sure to impress the admissions officers at Penn State.
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Penn State Supplemental Essay Prompts
All Applicants (Optional)
Please tell us something about yourself, your experiences, or activities that you believe would reflect positively on your ability to succeed at Penn State. This is your opportunity to tell us something about yourself that is not already reflected in your application or academic records. (500 words)
Schreyer Honors College Applicants (Required)
Prompt 1: What would you like to do for the next few years if you didn’t go to college? (800 words)
Prompt 2: How will our society be remembered in 100 years? (800 words)
BS-MBA Applicants (Required)
Prompt 1: Why do you want to attend Penn State? (150 words)
Prompt 2: Select the scientific discipline above [below] that is MOST interesting to you. Why do you want to devote 4 years of college studying it? (200 words)
- Astronomy and Astrophysics
- Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Prompt 3: Inclusiveness and Diversity: In an increasingly global community, it is essential that students gain cultural competency. In what way have you demonstrated a commitment to this mission? (200 words)
Prompt 4: Goals: Discuss your career aspirations. How would the Science BS/MBA program help you reach those goals? (200 words)
Prompt 5: Leadership: Please discuss your leadership and collaboration skills. Give recent examples of how they have been demonstrated. (200 words)
Prompt 6: Resiliency: Transitioning to college can be a challenge. Discuss the adjustments you believe you will need to make in order to be successful as you transition from high school to a college environment. (200 words)
Prompt 7: Describe your biggest commitment. (150 words)
Prompt 8: Describe a time when you helped someone else succeed. (150 words)
All Applicants (optional)
Please tell us something about yourself, your experiences, or activities that you believe would reflect positively on your ability to succeed at Penn State. This is your opportunity to tell us something about yourself that is not already reflected in your application or academic records. (500 words)
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.
Schreyer Honors College Applicants, Prompt 1
What would you like to do for the next few years if you didn’t go to college? (800 words)
This might be a future you never considered for yourself if you always imagined going to college, or perhaps you’ve always wanted to stray from the “traditional” path. Either way, the purpose of this question is to see what else intrigues you and how you would choose to contribute to society if you weren’t getting an education. You are given 800 words to elaborate, so this should be a detailed and well thought out response.
Admissions officers don’t want to hear that you would play video games in the basement for the next four years. They are looking for engaged students who will enrich their community, so your essay should highlight these qualities in yourself. There are many different ways you could spend your time, but you need to have a strong connection and explanation as to why you want to devote the next few years to whatever you have chosen.
Let’s look at a few sample essays:
- A student who loves his Spanish class could write about how he wants to spend the next few years travelling around Spanish speaking countries to become fluent in the language and experience the culture first-hand. He might discuss how he plans to start in Spain and work at a restaurant in Madrid because the cuisine looked so good when he researched it for a project. Then he might go to Costa Rica and camp in rainforests with wildlife. His last country might be Argentina, where he would get a full-time job to gain experience working in a large city.
- A student who has always dreamed of being a music producer would explain how she would fly to LA with a suitcase, her guitar, and a dream. She would share the battle between excitement and fear inside of her as she applies for jobs at record labels and gets to sit in on her first recording session. While she knows that it’s a difficult career path, her passion will help her persevere. She would be vulnerable about her aspirations and dreams, but her interest in music production would shine through.
- A student who values his family more than anything else might discuss how he would stay home and work for his family’s business. He could talk about the expectations his family always had for him to work alongside his dad, uncle, and cousins. Maybe he would describe what a typical day would look like if he stayed at home: his little sister waking him up in the morning, driving to the store with his dad, catching up with customers, learning how to manage the company’s finances from his uncle, and heading home to enjoy dinner with his whole family after a long day at work.
What do all of these examples do well? They have personal reasons for why they have chosen what to pursue. The first student wants to travel (his what) because he loved learning about Spanish language and culture (his why). These essays also have strong emotional attachments which makes the reader care more about what the student does. For example, the second student includes what she would think and feel as she tries something new, providing evidence to her passion and determination. Finally, by including detailed descriptions about how the student will spend their time, it is clear they are committed and driven individuals. The daily routine the third student describes not only shows what he plans to do, but also his values, such as his family. Remember, you have 800 words so you shouldn’t be afraid to use them all!
Schreyer Honors College Applicants, Prompt 2
How will our society be remembered in 100 years? (800 words)
This prompt isn’t just asking you to look into the future and write a history textbook. By identifying how you think society will be remembered, you are actually sharing what values you think are most prevalent in our society—whether you agree with them or not. Again, you are given a sizable amount of space, so take some time to consider your answer.
A successful response will include three things:
- What values you believe will be remembered
- What specific events exemplify these values
- How your generation (or you) will impact how society is remembered
Let’s break each of these down a bit more.
First, you want to consider some values that you feel best capture the current state of the world. Asking yourself a few questions might help inspire some ideas:
- What issues do you hear about in the news all the time?
- Are there certain events from the past decade that stick out in your mind?
- What emotions do you feel when you hear about current events?
These questions should help you come up with a list of issues, events, and emotions you can find similarities amongst. If you write about gun control, school shootings, and feelings of terror or hopelessness, you could talk about how society values personal independence over securing the future. If you have vaccines, the pandemic, and resilience, you might believe society values innovation and technology. By the end of this little exercise, you should have two or three values you think best represent our current society.
Don’t feel like you have to address every aspect of society. In fact, since you are only focusing on two or three values, you will need some specific events that epitomize the values you are trying to convey. For instance, if you believe society will be remembered for loving material goods and needing instant gratification, you might cite the rise of fast fashion over the past decade, with specific stores and brands that have led the way, and how the quality is sacrificed for an increase in quantity. Perhaps you feel society will be remembered for destroying the planet because people value themselves more than the environment. In that case, you could talk about the increasing frequency of climate disasters like the Australian wildfires, hurricanes destroying islands, and the California drought. You want to make sure you provide some concrete examples to support why you think the values you chose are prevalent enough to be remembered 100 years from now. To further strengthen your essay, you can include personal connections and your emotional response to the events you discuss.
The last thing you should include is the impact your generation will have on the way society is remembered. For example, maybe you believe that since past generations were selfish and greedy we will be remembered by these values. However, as part of a generation that has grown up seeing the consequences of immense greed, you and your peers will work to level the playing field and lift up those in poverty. After your generation gets a chance to repair the work of your predecessors, you think society will be remembered for showing kindness when it mattered most. Including the role you will play—either you specifically, or as a member of the younger generation—shows admissions officers that you are motivated and inspired to try, even when faced with monumental challenges. Penn State wants Honors students who will change the world. If your essay can prove how you hope to be a part of positively impacting the world, you will show you are a good candidate for the Honors college.
BS-MBA Applicants, Prompt 1
Why do you want to attend Penn State? (150 words)
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.”
BS-MBA Applicants, Prompt 2
Select the scientific discipline above [below] that is MOST interesting to you. Why do you want to devote 4 years of college studying it? (200 words)
- Astronomy and Astrophysics
- Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
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 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 statistics 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 to 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.”
BS-MBA Applicants, Prompt 3
Inclusiveness and Diversity: In an increasingly global community, it is essential that students gain cultural competency. In what way have you demonstrated a commitment to this mission? (200 words)
“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.
BS-MBA Applicants, Prompt 4
Goals: Discuss your career aspirations. How would the Science BS/MBA program help you reach those goals? (200 words)
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, 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.
BS-MBA Applicants, Prompt 5
Leadership: Please discuss your leadership and collaboration skills. Give recent examples of how they have been demonstrated. (200 words)
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.
BS-MBA Applicants, Prompt 6
Resiliency: Transitioning to college can be a challenge. Discuss the adjustments you believe you will need to make in order to be successful as you transition from high school to a college environment. (200 words)
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.
BS-MBA Applicants, Prompt 7
Describe your biggest commitment. (150 words)
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 to 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.
BS-MBA Applicants, Prompt 8
Describe a time when you helped someone else succeed. (150 words)
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.
Where to Get Your Penn State Essays Edited for Free
Do you want feedback on your Penn State essays? After reading your essays over and over, it can be difficult to evaluate your writing objectively. That’s why we created our Peer Essay Review tool, where you can get a free review of your essay from another student. Since they don’t know you personally, they can be a more objective judge of whether your personality shines through, and whether you’ve fully answered the prompt.
You can also improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays. We highly recommend giving this tool a try!