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How to Write the University of Pennsylvania Application Essays 2017-2018
Located in the heart of Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania is known for offering its students an exemplary academic experience alongside a vibrant social atmosphere. Participation in on-campus organizations or student-run businesses is second nature to most students, and there is no shortage of activities in West Philly. Additionally, both Temple and Drexel University are nearby, making the area a research and entrepreneurial hub.
Penn is extremely selective — only 9% of applicants in the Class of 2021 were accepted. The middle 50 percent of admitted students had ACT scores of 32-35 and SAT Math and Reading scores of 710-800 and 690-790, respectively.
A member of the Ivy League, Penn is home to 4 undergraduate schools: the Wharton School of Business, the School of Arts and Sciences, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and the School of Nursing.
Penn also offers several highly competitive joint-major and interdisciplinary programs, such as the Huntsman Program in International Studies & Business, that combine studies in multiple schools. Drawing on Penn’s resources in the Wharton School, many of these programs encourage students to think about the business side of different areas of study.
This guide will give you insight into each of the essay prompts. Whether you plan on studying math or gaining a spot in the world-famous Nursing and Management program, we’ll provide you with tips and ideas about how to present your best self to UPenn’s admissions committee.
The UPenn Essays: Normal Admissions vs. Specialized Programs?
Penn has one 400-650 word essay that all of its applicants must write, but those who want to apply to specialized programs, such as the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business or the Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology, will have to write one or two additional essays.
The first question you may have about your application is: what is the relation between your general application essay and your specialized program application essay?
The first thing to know is that these specialized programs are very selective. They are not just looking for the “smartest” students, but rather the students whose particular experiences and goals best fit with what that specialized program has to offer. If you are not selected for a specialized program, it does not mean that you are intellectually inferior — it just means that other students were a better “fit.” For example, the Huntsman program is incredibly selective, admitting only 45 students per year out of an incoming class of almost 2,500.
What this means is that applying for, and not being admitted to, a specialized program will not hurt your application to Penn. In your first essay (which everyone who applies to Penn must write), you will talk about how you will pursue your intellectual interests at Penn through one of its four large undergraduate schools: the Wharton School of Business, the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and the School of Nursing.
Then, if you are applying to a specialized program, you will make a specialized case for why you should go to that school. When you write, you’ll want to make sure that you are not repeating information between these two essays and that each essay can stand on its own. This can be a little bit of a challenge, but if you have what it takes to get into Penn it probably means that you have a wealth of different ways to talk about your interests.
* Students applying to Digital Media Design and Computer & Cognitive Science should address both the specialized program and single-degree choice in their response. For students applying to the other coordinated dual-degree and specialized programs, please answer this question in regards to your single-degree school choice; your interest in the coordinated dual-degree or specialized program may be addressed through the program-specific essay.
This essay is asking a very straightforward question: what do you want to study and why do you want to study that at Penn in particular. With this question, the admissions officers are trying to do three things. First, they are trying to weed out those candidates that are just applying to Penn because it is a “fancy school.” Second, they want to learn something about your intellectual passions and interests. Third, they want to see if you have done your research and started to figure out how you will use Penn to pursue those intellectual passions and interests.
When they ask you to talk about your major within one of the four schools — Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Nursing, and Wharton — you should realize that you are not necessarily talking about these schools in general. Each of these schools contains a multitude of different majors, areas of focus, research opportunities, and Penn wants to know that you have taken the time to research their offerings.
For example, if you are applying to the College of Arts and Sciences, you should not be talking about “Arts and Sciences” as a whole (everything from biology to French literature!). Focus on the major and classes within the school of Arts and Sciences that you want to pursue.
Maybe you want to study at Penn because of its remarkably high number of professors (10!) working on differential geometry — a subject of particular interest to you. You might begin your essay by talking about how you have been interested in differential geometry ever since you asked your high school math teacher, “Okay, we’ve gone over how to find the surface area of a cube, but how would you even begin to find the surface area of something like a plastic bag floating in the air?” You can then go on to talk about the work you’ve done studying new topics in geometry over the summer, the thrill of thinking about how billiard balls bounce around differently shaped boards, and the overlap between your interests and the unique research profile of Penn’s mathematics faculty.
An important thing to remember here is that you need to talk about both your passion for a particular subject area and what Penn has to offer you — both aspects are equally important!
If you are interested in one of Penn’s specialized programs, you still need to write an essay about how you intend to pursue your intellectual interests at Penn, regardless of whether you are admitted to a specialized program or not. The trick here is to write an essay that communicates the full force of enthusiasm and excitement for a plan of study at Penn that does not hinge exclusively on admission to a specialized program, such as Huntsman (discussed in more detail below).
Maybe you have been fascinated with international relations and diplomacy ever since you started learning French and playing Massive Online Multi-player strategy games that required weaving complex treaties with people from many different parties. You can write a great essay about how you hope to use Penn’s resources to pursue a major in international relations, and how you especially look forward to studying abroad — maybe to meet some of the people who you have been collaborating with from all over the world.
Then, if you are interested in the intersection of business and international relations, you might use your Huntsman essay to talk about your abiding interest in logistics (perhaps related to your work in gaming) has drawn you to the problem of how conflicts in international law might affect the efficiency of global shipping supply chains.
The College of Engineering’s special programs in Digital Media Design and Computer & Cognitive Science are something of a special case.
For these two programs, your statement of why you fit into them belongs in this general admissions essay, not in a separate prompt. As such, you need to treat this essay like an application for a specialized program that also addresses the major you will pursuing outside these specialized programs. This means you will need to cram a lot into this essay. The trick in these cases is to use your essay to show how the distinctive intellectual interest that you are pursuing in the College of Arts and Sciences or the College of Engineering will be augmented by the addition of these specialized programs.
For example, if you are applying to Computer & Cognitive Science, you might also be applying to the College of Arts & Sciences to study Linguistics. You can start the essay by talking about how language has always fascinated you: you always wanted to dig deeper than the rules listed in your grammar books. Why — you ask — do we say “the big red house” and not “the red big house?” Maybe part of what drove you to start learning Spanish and Russian was to see if rules of syntax in English also applied to other languages.
Then, you’ll pivot in a new paragraph to talk about how your interest in syntax also makes you interested in Penn’s program in Computer & Cognitive science. Your interest in word-order might go beyond human-made languages and extend to the languages machine intelligences are starting to create. In order to show the admissions committee that your passion for computing is no less than your passion for learning new languages, you might talk about the work you did programming a chatbot or creating a little video game to help you study your Latin declensions. If you are applying to any of these interdisciplinary programs, you want to show the admissions committee that you have already started to think across disciplinary boundaries.
What if you are not particularly interested in any of Penn’s specialized programs? That’s perfectly fine! Not applying to those programs will not hurt your application or make you seem like an “unambitious” student. After all, most of the specialized programs are focused on the intersection between the business school and other areas of study. Returning to our math example above, maybe you are just fascinated with geometry and not particularly concerned with its applications on Wall Street? That’s perfectly fine! But for those with a sincere interest, Penn’s specialized programs offer unique interdisciplinary possibilities. The rest of this article will tackle those prompts.
Finally, though this essay asks you to discuss the “specific undergraduate school” you are applying to, that does not mean you cannot mention (in a short paragraph, maybe at the end of the essay) some of the social and cultural reasons that attracted you to the city of Philadelphia and its surrounding social and cultural possibilities. Maybe you are a history buff fascinated with Benjamin Franklin or maybe there is an exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of art that you have been dying to see. You won’t spend all your time in class at Penn, and it can’t hurt to offer a glimpse of your extracurricular interests in this essay. As Penn says, “Your essays tell us what sort of person you are — and provide a glimpse into the intangibles you might bring to our community.”
Specialized Program Prompts
The first thing to do if you are considering applying to any of Penn’s specialized programs is research. Go to their websites and read those “mission statements” and “about us” sections! More than that: go deeper and see what kinds of classes are offered and what the faculty who teach these classes research. If you can, talk to an alumnus of one of these programs. Or stroll through YouTube and see if there is a video posted from events and conferences sponsored by these different programs.
The more details you have about these programs, the better you will be able to talk about how your specific interests line up with what these programs have to offer. If you want to apply to the program in Life Sciences and Management, it will not be enough to say that you are interested in “life sciences” because you really enjoyed your AP Biology class, and that you are interested in “management” because you’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur who finds “practical solutions to real world problems.” You’ll need to get specific and show that you’ve really done your homework and that your interest in these interdisciplinary fusions is more than just a passing phase.
The Huntsman Program in International Studies & Business
From their website:
The Huntsman Program in International Studies & Business is a unique, four-year interdisciplinary undergraduate course of study that integrates business education, advanced language training and a liberal arts education. Huntsman students earn two degrees — a B.A. in International Studies from the School of Arts and Sciences and a B.S. in Economics from the Wharton School. Huntsman students specialize in the area of the world in which their target language is spoken and graduate with a nuanced understanding of the political, economic and cultural complexities in a changing world.
One key aspect of the Huntsman curriculum is choosing a country/culture, and then engaging in focused study for the next four years. Though this question may seem to be asking about all international issues, and though it may be tempting to try to synthesize global commerce in 500 words, what this essay really wants you to do is talk about a specific international issue from the perspective of a particular cultural or regional focus.
The key is to analyze that issue from both the perspective of politics and from the perspective of business. Even if you are focusing on a very specific issue, this is a lot of ground to cover in just 500 words. Another way to give your essay focus is to talk about an issue that you have some kind of connection to or interest in because of your own history or experience. Maybe you come from or have relatives in the region that you are discussing? Maybe you have traveled to or worked in that region? Maybe you live in a neighborhood that has a lot of immigrants from a particular region?
It is, of course, possible to write a thoughtful essay about a topic and region that you only know through a collection of diverse and carefully studied sources. But it can help your readers better understand your own personal interests if you can offer some kind of narrative as to why you are writing your essay on one particular issue when there is a whole world of problems to consider.
For example, maybe you have family ties in Venezuela and are worried about the political and economic turmoil that country is currently experiencing. A compelling essay might discuss the challenges that come from threatening sanctions in order to get the Venezuelan government to open up its borders to foreign aid. Might sanctioning oil only cause further economic hardship for the citizens of Venezuela? Are sanctions an effective means of responding to repressive regimes? When and how can governments intervene in trade policy for humanitarian ends?
The meaning of your analysis lies not only in the larger trends you are observing but also in the hospitals without medicine and the collapse of currency. An especially compelling version of this essay does not just engage in a cold analysis of international governmental and business relations, but also discusses how those problems impact the lives of real people.
For another less politically charged but no less complex example, you could have a deep interest in how Chinese business has traditionally been conducted without enforced contracts.
Maybe you do not have any family ties in China, but you read about this strange aspect of Chinese trade in the Wall Street Journal and wondered whether that editorial writer was just dealing in cultural stereotyping (“they are irrational!”) or whether there was something about the structure and practice of Chinese contract law that made it different from (if not necessarily better than) United States contract law. Perhaps your work in the Huntsman program will prepare you to help multinational corporations understand the nuances of informal contract law in China, perhaps even understanding how those informal structures might grant them greater flexibility.
Of course, if you do write about a region that you do not have any personal connection to, you will also want to demonstrate more than a passing interest in that region. As you write this essay, you should also find space to mention how you have been studying the Chinese language for the last three years and expect to continue studying it at Penn.
One last word on how the Huntsman curriculum might help you “resolve” the issue: if you are talking about a complex problem, you are not going to propose a “solution” in the space of a 500-word essay. Instead, you want to talk about how that curriculum will help you acquire the skills necessary to collaborate and further study the problem. In the Venezuelan example, you might point to the limitations of sanctions given that country’s history of seeing the United States as an “imperialist interloper.”
In the Chinese example, you are exploring the nuances of communication and how promises are formed and sustained, not suddenly convincing China to take up a whole new legal framework. A mature essay avoids simple and grandiose solutions and shows that you are intellectually curious and open to the sustained inquiry and collaboration needed to tackle tough problems.
LSM: The Roy and Diana Vagelos Program in Life Sciences and Management
From the LSM website:
LSM is an undergraduate dual-degree program administered jointly between Penn’s College of Arts & Sciences and the Wharton School. Each year, the program enrolls approximately 25 exceptional students and offers them the opportunity to pursue an interdisciplinary curriculum combining bioscience and business, leading to the completion of two degrees: a Bachelor of Arts in a life science major, as well as a Bachelor of Science in Economics. To ensure that every student learns how to apply their knowledge, the program provides the means for him or her to find two required, paid internships, one centered in scientific research, the other in business or public policy. Completion of the LSM program is an ideal starting point for students intent on careers in the life sciences sector by preparing them for the advanced training we anticipate they will then go on to pursue through MD, PhD, MBA, JD, and/or other graduate programs. LSM is suited to students with interests in healthcare; biomedical, agricultural, and environmental research and development; public policy; and the financial and strategic management of life science organizations.
This question is similar to the Huntsman question, as it requires to you to synthesize your interests and explain why LSM is the program for you. This program attempts to bridge the constant gap between scientific innovation and marketable solutions. An effective way to answer this is to point to a problem within a lab setting and explain how management overhauls can address it.
For example, you could focus on the problem of managing the profitability of important drugs in low-margin markets. An example would be a cure to dengue fever that targets extremely low-income individuals in developing natures. As such, research efforts are dampened by a perceived lack of profitability amid large R&D expenses. An LSM education could provide the insight into the management side of life sciences to effectively raise the margins of a new drug that would motivate investment and seed funding to ultimately bring about a cure for millions of individuals.
But if you go this route, you should also be wary of talking in a vague way about how “management” magically improves efficiencies. You will want to try to be specific about the organizational changes that you think might be helpful. In the dengue fever example, maybe you are interested in studying how leaders in marginalized countries might be incorporated into the drug’s distribution channels — perhaps both decreasing the need to build expensive new distribution infrastructure and hopefully securing the trust of community users.
As you compose this essay, you should be aware that it asks you to be both as specific and as original as possible. You may be really excited about how gene therapies might allow HIV patients to forgo the onerous task of taking antivirals every day. On the business side, this new treatment could potentially reduce costs and lessen the number of trips patients have to take to the doctor — an especially relevant consideration for people in rural areas and people with limited mobility. But instead of just saying what we’ve said in the previous two sentences, there might be a more inventive way of approaching your prompt.
What if you started your essay by presenting the script for a fictional advertisement for your new therapy? After you’ve talked up its benefits of gene therapy in your fictional TV spot, you might add a paragraph reflecting the particular challenges of getting patients to accept new treatments. The challenges facing gene therapy are not just technical challenges to be solved in the lab; there are also public relations challenges in a world where people are skittish about genetic engineering that need to be solved by an effective business communications strategy. Maybe the reason you are applying for the LSM is that you are interested in all the challenges that come with bringing a new treatment to the market from advancing through clinical trials to selling the treatment to doctors and patients.
The benefit of this particular “creative” option for the essay is that it is not simply “off-the-wall,” attention grabbing for the sake of nothing more than surprise value. If you are writing about communication strategies and your essay presents itself as part of that communication strategy, then the form and content of your writing synergize. If you use a creative gimmick in your essay, it needs to amplify, rather than obscure, your central claim.
M&T: The Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology
Please complete both prompts.
From the M&T website:
The Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology, affectionately called the M&T Program, is the oldest coordinated dual degree program at the University of Pennsylvania. The Program combines academics from two phenomenal Penn assets, Penn Engineering and the Wharton School, into one unique educational experience. Students enrolled in the M&T Program pursue degrees from both schools concurrently, creating a truly interdisciplinary learning experience. This combination enables our students not only to understand engineering and business concepts, but also to understand the integration of the two and how this intersection distinctively shapes our world.
As with the other specialized essay, it is important for you to focus on how your interests in business and technology compliment and amplify each other. If you started a small phone repair business, you might talk about how part of what made your business successful and interesting to you is how, as you repaired your customers’ phones, you also tried to teach them a little bit about how the underlying technology works.
A good strategy for this essay is focus; you don’t want to attempt to synthesize all of engineering with management in a general way. Instead, start with an area of engineering and highlight how good management might help solve some specific problem in the field.
For example, you could analyze challenges that come with making green energy affordable. Many homeowners have recently been able to start getting solar panels on their houses because they now have the option to finance their purchase: instead of having to pay thousands of dollars up front, they can pay solar companies a monthly fee for a fixed number of years.
You might be particularly interested in thinking about how other green technologies might be able to take off with different financing options. Is it possible for wind companies to replicate SolarCity’s success with financing in order to expand the use of turbines? What kind of technology would need to be invented in order to make wind turbines small enough to find a place in small homes?
As you write, you should also be mindful of the fact that M&T asks you to identify “potential engineering and business paths.” The M&T program is asking you to talk about the specific majors that you might choose, classes you would especially like to take in engineering and finance and economics, professors who you might want to work with. Maybe you would like to propose a project for one of Penn’s Summer Undergraduate Research programs?
Because Jerome Fisher heavily emphasizes leadership abilities, this essay is trying to gauge how you work with others. While writing, you want to be careful that the leadership you choose to highlight is legitimate leadership — it is not enough to just have a “leadership” position plopped on your activity list. Simply stating that you were elected student body president is not enough; this essay wants to know what you did in this position that demonstrated your leadership potential. For example, maybe you noticed that in your school many students expressed a desire to volunteer, but they did not know where they could go to start getting involved. Maybe you reached out to local organizations and created a new “Volunteer Fair” event that paired willing students with local organizations.
Keep in mind for this question that your display of leadership also does not need to be tied to a specific position. If you have relatively little leadership on your resume, you can definitely write about a time when you (as a regular club member) went beyond your regular role and took some initiative to help the club. Maybe your chorus group was holding a carwash outside the school one day, but the water happened to be cut off that day. Thinking quickly you suggested that the group go across the street and convince the restaurant owner to let you guys use their hose and parking lot.
Also, when you talk about “leadership” — a buzzword topic that pops up on a lot of college applications — you should be aware that leadership does not always mean a heroic action that you undertook as an individual. In complex business settings, leadership means doing lots of listening and mediating between different stakeholders; it means finding new ways to make people in your organization feel like they are valued, and it means training others to lead in your stead.
If you were student body president, what did you do to make sure that your successor could continue to build on the work that you and your colleagues started with the Volunteer Fair? In the band carwash example, maybe you lead by listening to the concerns of the restaurant owner and got her to see that she had a stake in the car washes success as well as you?
NHCM: Nursing and Healthcare Management
From the NHCM’s website:
In the NHCM program, you’ll study simultaneously in both schools and graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and a Bachelor of Science in Economics. Your work will include science and clinical courses, along with general education courses in the Arts and Sciences. We designed the curriculum to boost expertise in patient care and deepen your knowledge of how to manage the way that care is delivered.
Nursing is a caring profession. Nurses handle patients when they come in the door, dressing wounds and calming anxieties long before the doctor appears. Nursing programs are justly proud of the way that they train their students in both the art of medicine and the art of empathy. The interesting challenge of this essay lies in speaking to the intersection between this deeply personal field that focuses on one-on-one interactions and the often depersonalized technocratic work of “management,” which looks to maximize systematic efficiencies. How to write an essay that situates your interests at the intersection of these apparently opposite fields
For most nursing programs, the traditional essay dives into two aspects: (1) your training in science that prepares you to understand the technical aspects of working with individual bodies, and (2) your capacity for empathy and the humanistic training that allows you to treat each body as a full person. You will certainly need to address both of these topics in this essay. To do so, you might talk about a particular harrowing experience you had while shadowing a nurse at your local ER. When a patient came in after falling down the stairs, you saw how the nurse’s knowledge of applied physiology helped them maneuver the patient’s body without aggravating his head injury. But in order to learn that the patient’s head was injured, the nurses also needed to communicate with a panicked sister-in-law who was also the nurse’s best source of information. The good nurse must be both scientist and humanist in order to care for the individual.
But in order to apply for the NHCM, you will need to add one more aspect to your essay: the management aspect. This includes the problems of budgeting, classification, scheduling, billing, and medical device supply chains that create an environment where healthcare professionals can do their best work. The trick is to show how these managerial concerns are actually intimately tied to the individualized caring that nurses do.
For example, you might write about how you know that long shifts for nurses have been shown to result in high levels of burnout and more patient dissatisfaction. In order to make sure that the nurses are always at the top of their game (as they were when you shadowed the nurses who dealt with the head trauma), maybe you have an interest in developing new scheduling software that breaks up shifts into smaller segments and tracks the fatigue that nurses accumulate over the long term. After all, maybe it was something more than personal brilliance that allowed the nurse you were following to do their job particularly well; maybe they were also at the beginning of their shift, still fresh from a day’s rest and physically capable of navigating a complex situation.
VIPER: The Roy and Diana Vagelos Integrated Program in Energy Research
From the VIPER Website:
The VIPER program engages students in energy research early on, enabling them to perform graduate level work as undergraduates. Upon successful completion of the program, students receive two degrees: a BSE and a BA. The ultimate goal is to raise innovators in high-caliber research careers who develop sustainable ways to harness, convert, and use energy. The VIPER program has faculty and staff dedicated to advising the VIPER students and meet one-on-one with each cohort member. Cohorts bond, study, work, and get involved in research starting their first year at Penn.
If you have conducted research in some sort of energy-related field, then this is a very straightforward essay. You should outline the goals of your project, your hypotheses, your approach, your results, and your conclusions. This seems like a very straightforward outline, but this essay is not just asking for a description of a research project. It is also asking you to discuss what makes you passionate about energy research and the larger social and political contexts that make your research important.
The middle three terms — “hypotheses, approach, and results” — are the more straightforward terms where you say what you did in your research. Maybe you participated in a summer program where you studied how spent nuclear fuel rods behave when stored in different geological formations. You can describe the initial theory you tested, how you went about testing it, and what you found. As you do so, don’t feel the need to cram in the maximum amount of jargon in order to communicate your technical mastery. Wherever possible, use layman’s terms or define the specialized language you are offering. One of the things that these science programs are looking for when they read your essays is not just your capacity to do research, but also your capacity to communicate the importance of your research to a wider audience of non-specialists. After all, even though your VIPER application will be read by people with backgrounds in energy science, they might not know anything about the particular subfield you were working in.
The first and last terms — your “goals” and your “conclusions” — should be thought about in slightly more expansive terms. Don’t just talk what about you studied; talk about why you studied it. What is the larger social, economic, and political purpose behind the research that you were doing? For the example about researching spent nuclear fuel rods you might begin by saying that this is an especially important issue because we know that these rods need to be stored for 300 years in order to ensure safety. You might conclude your essay by taking offering a more philosophical approach, talking about how the future of sustainable energy research is not just a matter of coming up with new technologies, but also a matter of looking back and continuing to reckon with the challenges posed by the energy technologies developed in the 20th century. Alternatively, since this still a personal essay and not just a research statement, you might want to talk about why this research is particularly important to you. Maybe you live in Nevada’s Nye county, near Yucca Mountain, the first United States’ first nuclear waste storage repository?
What if the research you have done is not directly related to energy? If so, that is perfectly fine: the skills you learned in one area of scientific inquiry can easily be transferred to another field. You should still follow the advice above about being a good communicator: avoid excessive jargon, don’t get lost in the weeds. More than a truncated research paper, the admissions committee is looking to see what you learned about the process of research from your experience. When talking about your methods you might talk about how you collaborated with your teammates to solve a particularly difficult problem. Maybe the chemical compound you were using as a catalyst was not congealing properly, and you were stuck until you figured out that the temperature reading for your refrigerator was off by one degree.
More than any specific technical know-how, the applications committee is looking for teamwork and problem solving skills. You’ll be studying a lot of textbooks when you get into college, cramming your brain with more technical know-how than you can even imagine. An eager and collaborative spirit is something that you need to bring to the table.
If the research experience you are talking about is not related to energy, you will also want to spend some time talking about why you want to get into the field of energy research in particular. Maybe you hope to take the teamwork skills you’ve learned doing fieldwork on sea urchin populations in Monterey Bay to the study of how salt-water algae might be farmed and used as biofuels? You can also talk about other work that you have done which might not be directly related to scientific research, but is concerned with the political aspects of building a sustainable energy future. Maybe you worked on a campaign to convince local business to become carbon neutral?
Whatever you end up writing, you need to convince the admissions committee that you are not just interested in “science” but rather that you are dedicated to building a sustainable energy future.
If you have not done any directed research in the sciences, your essay will be focused on your interest in sustainable energy. You can still demonstrate that you have the skills to be a good researcher even if you have not already worked in a lab. Where have you demonstrated your problem solving skills and your capacity to work with a team? Maybe you worked for a political campaign and collaborated with a team to sort and analyze donor data? Which of your extracurricular activities demonstrates your scrupulous attention to detail and your boundless curiosity in learning how things work? Maybe you built a radio or spend your free time woodworking?
NETS: The Rajendra and Neera Singh Program in Networked and Social Systems Engineering
From the NETS website:
Networks permeate and influence virtually every aspect of our lives-everything from how millions of Parisians travel on the Metro to how individuals make friends. Networks lift entire economies and elect presidents. They start revolutions. Move commerce. Make scientific discoveries. Cure diseases. Secure peace. Save lives.
To understand and predict behavior, and to design new capabilities and services, we must understand people, systems, and incentives, and how the structure and properties of networks affects interactions.
To that end, we’ve created an entirely unprecedented, multidisciplinary program that connects the study of networks with the study of human behavior.
Networked & Social Systems mixes courses in engineering, mathematics and science with courses in sociology, game theory, economics and policy. More than just gaining the fundamental knowledge that navigates the various strategies and decisions that make up human interaction, you will build the digital solutions that anticipate the way people — and systems — will act.
This essay is very open ended, and it is trying to gauge your capacity to think creatively about how different disciplines relate to each other, and how the concept of the “network” might hold them all together.
But what is a network? A network is an abstract formal pattern. A set of nodes and edges (or lines and dots) that synthesizes the ways people, places, and things are connected. The strength of the network as an analytic tool lies precisely in its abstraction, the fact that it can be used to model and study many different phenomena, from the “transportation network” of New York’s subway system, to the “business network” of Donald Trump’s real estate empire. The questions that you might bring to any network are manifold. What is the quickest way to get from one point to another? Which actors are located in central or “influential” positions? What would happen if one node were knocked out? In statistics and mathematics, big data network analysis is a rapidly expanding research field. In ecology, scientists are using networks to analyze the ways that organisms are related to each other, and modern sociology is consumed with the analysis of “social networks” — not just online, but also in businesses and families and cities. The list of applications for network analysis goes on and on and on.
To focus your response and avoid getting lost in the tangle, you will want to write about one specific network that fascinates you. Let’s take the example of the New York City subway system. True, this is not the “high tech” network like the “Internet,” but because a network is a kind of formal analysis, the questions raised in the study of one network can be applied to many other different networks. Moreover, NETS’ website mentions that they are interested in both “digital and real world networks.” Even a creaky old subway system is fair game.
So, if you were writing about the New York City subway you might start off by saying that you first became interested in the study of networks as a child zooming along the “6,” out of Manhattan and into the Bronx. You can springboard from an account of your personal experience as a young rider to your more mature analysis as a student of urban design. Maybe Hurricane Sandy made you ask questions about how the networks that hold cities together might be made more resilient in the face of rapidly changing climate? After zooming out to think about network systems as a whole, you might end your essay by zooming back in on the unique aesthetic experiences that a modern networked world offers as a unique arts and performance space that lets new people and new artists move fluidly across the whole city.
Another thing to keep in mind as you write this essay is that NETS is not just interested in the technical details that make a network work: they are also interested in the questions of power.
From their website:
You could call the Internet a jungle of machines-computers, cell phones, and millions of servers in data center warehouses-communing through copper, optical, and satellite links. The universal communications layer of these machines offers services and capabilities that are extensible in ways we never imagined just a few years ago, from online education and sharing jokes with millions in a matter of minutes to transforming entire media industries. But the Internet is not the sum of its machines. Who owns them? Who uses them? And who invents, negotiates and delivers the services in between?
While the prompt above talks about the “creation of beneficial content for society” you might also write about the very real challenges that come with a modern networked society. The internet can be used to spread harmless content, like memes with otters snuggling goats, but it can also be used to spread more disturbing ideas. While it may seem like the Internet offers anyone and everyone a chance to speak, what does it mean if the infrastructure and management of those networks is under the control of a small number of incredibly wealthy companies? This program is not just looking for talented engineers, it is also looking for interdisciplinary thinkers who are curious about how technologies shape societies and how societies shape technologies.
Seven-Year Bio-Dental Program
From the Bio-Dental website:
Bio-Dental submatriculation is a seven-year joint program of the College and Penn’s School of Dental Medicine for students who will major in Biology and who wish to enroll in the Dental School during their senior year in the College. Application to the program must be made at the time of application to Penn. Applicants will be notified of their conditional acceptance into the program when they are notified of their admission to Penn. Full acceptance into the program is made after the student’s junior year and is based on academic performance during those three years and meeting the admissions standards of the Dental School. For details, see the Biology Department website.
The Bio-Dental submatriculation program is highly structured and may not allow students to pursue dual undergraduate degrees.
As with most of the essays for the highly structured Bio-Dental program, this essay is looking for information first, and narrative second. This does not mean that there is no room for creativity, but the most important thing is to clearly and effectively communicate what you have done and what you have learned.
The first prompt lays out two different ways of answering its question depending on your level of experience.
1) The first option is more straightforward of the two: if you have medical or dental experience, you need to “list” that experience. And by “list,” they mean offer some type of resume that is specifically targeted to your interest in medicine and dentistry (no need to discuss your volunteer experience as an elementary school chorus director).
The more specific you can be with numbers and dates, the better. But whatever you do, do not feel the need to inflate your accomplishments or the number of hours spent. This is very tempting, but in the end the Bio-Dental program is less interested in the exact number of hours you’ve volunteered than in the demonstration of a consistent and long-standing interest in medicine. Admissions officers know that for financial or family reasons not everyone can afford to volunteer for 15 hours a week.
2) The second option is much more difficult. If you have not had any specific medical or dental experience, then you will need to take a slightly different approach to this essay. You will need to write a very compelling 250-word statement about how your background has prepared you to enter a highly specialized and incredibly competitive seven-year dental program right out of high school. But before writing your essay, if you have absolutely no background in medicine or research, you should first question if you actually want to commit to a 7-year program in the first place (especially one as difficult to get into as Penn’s). If you are set on the decision, however, this essay is of crucial importance to legitimize your application amongst an applicant pool of relatively outstanding students with actual medicine backgrounds.
Maybe you have not done any structured research, but you have had a lot of experience going to the dentist because you suffered from a rare gum ailment, and you have done a lot of independent research on your own case and hope to build on that work to help others? Maybe you are deeply interested in medicine, but instead of being able to do resume-building volunteer work you have had to spend a lot of time at home caring for your father who was suffering from Parkinson’s?
This essay is attempting to gauge your physical capabilities as a doctor. Talking about your experiences in Woodshop, Robotics, etc., can be a good way of demonstrating your ability to work with your hands. If you were relatively hands-off in high school with respect to your activities, pulling an example from outside of school can help you answer this essay. Perhaps you are the one in your family that eagerly assembles Ikea furniture, or are an avid fan of Lego.
Keep in mind that you don’t need to appear capable of brain surgery at this point in your life; you simply need to illustrate to Penn that you are comfortable connecting your brain and your digits.
This question is a lot more open-ended. You can speak about anything from a leadership position to a community service role to even your experiences at home with siblings. If you still feel the need to highlight your interest in medicine, you can try to answer this from a medical perspective. Perhaps you had a relatively hectic administrative position in a hospital ER — your ability to calmly and collectively perform tasks with others in this stressful environment can highlight your teamwork abilities as well as emphasize, once again, your passion for medicine.
This essay is more specific than a simple “Why Medicine?” essay. You need to explain why dentistry as a field appeals to you among all other medical fields. You can focus on a modern problem in the field and explain how you hope to pursue it at Penn. Alternatively, you can have a more human answer and explain why patient care in the industry is important to you, and how you hope to take your education and make some impact in that area.
Be careful, however, that this essay does not too strongly overlap with your essay about pre-dental experience. If you had no experience to begin with, you likely wrote about how you developed an interest in the field. Make sure you don’t use the same topic for this essay.
There is also a little bit of a trick here: the “what interests you least” part of the prompt may seem a little bit unusual. In an essay where you are supposed to be communicating your passion about dentistry, wouldn’t it come off as strange to spend precious words talking about what you don’t want to do? The thing to recognize is that this part of the question plays an important role weeding out the applicants who have no business committing to a 7-year dental program as an 17 or 18 year old. People with experience in their intended careers will understand what they do and do not like and where their strengths and weaknesses lie. Being able to speak to your lack of interest in a particular problem is part of how this prompt wants you to demonstrate your depth of experience and what you have learned from that experience.
As you talk about “what interests you least” be careful not to be too negative; even if a certain aspect of modern dentistry does not interest you, you should still make it clear that you respect those who focus their energies on that topic. (Indeed, the people reading your admissions essay might very well be specialists in the topic that “does not interest” you).
You might say something like:
While working as a clerk in Dr. Lee’s dental office, I really admired her detailed knowledge of the latest advanced surgery routines, and we would often talk about the research she was doing on enamel erosion. But one thing that Dr. Lee and I also discussed was the difficulty of communicating complicated physiological concepts to patients who did not have her specialized medical training. What those conversations led me to think about was that I was ultimately less interested in the detailed lab research that Dr. Lee focused on, and more committed to developing new methods of clearly communicating the work in the lab to patients.
What I like about this response is that it shows a deep involvement with the problems of modern dentistry, and that it pays proper respect to the detailed research that other dentists do, while also showing that you have started to learn about your own strengths. Another version of this essay might talk about how your involvement with one research project on the effectiveness of different kinds of mouthwash led you away from research on consumer products and into a deeper interest into gum tissue. You might say that are now looking into a future career that is less focused on testing consumer products and more focused on in-depth anatomy research.
This is also straightforward. If you have relatives, mention them. If you do not, don’t stress too much. You won’t be disqualified for a lack of legacy.
Best of luck on your UPenn Essays!
Check here for a list of all 2017-2018 essay prompts for all colleges and universities.