How to Write the UPenn Supplemental Essays 2019-2020
Founded in 1740 by Benjamin Franklin, the University of Pennsylvania is one of America’s eight Ivy League institutions. Known for its premier academics and thriving student life, UPenn also enjoys the benefits of being situated in the heart of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Undergraduate education is separated into four distinct schools: the School of Arts & Sciences, Wharton School of Business, the School of Engineering & Applied Sciences, and the School of Nursing. In its most recent admissions cycle, UPenn accepted 3,740 of its 44,491 undergraduate applicants, an admissions rate of 8.4%. Want to know your chances at UPenn? Calculate your chances for free right now.
Want to learn what University of Pennsylvania will actually cost you based on your income? And how long your application to the school should take? Here’s what every student considering University of Pennsylvania needs to know.
How to Write the UPenn Essays
To apply, you must write a couple university-wide essays. Additionally, individual schools and special programs may require additional written statements. Be sure to respond to all prompts for the academic program you want to pursue.
Required for All Applicants
Unlike some other school prompts, the UPenn essay questions are trying to figure out what drives your intellect. Notice how much emphasis this prompt puts on your academic life, from your intellectual interests generally to the specific school or program to which you are applying. Use this space to flesh out what makes you excited to learn.
If possible with college essays, you want to give your essay a narrative arc. Think: “first I was A, then B happened. So now I’m C. In the future, I hope to be D.” This narrative structure matters less for this essay because it is more based on your intellect than on your personality. However, if you can manage to plot your intellectual interests onto that kind of timeline, it will make your essay more captivating.
Example: Let’s say Sam wants to study History at UPenn. The question Sam is really trying to answer is: “How can I show UPenn what it is about History that I love so much?”
Sam thinks back to the first time he played Civilization, a history-based video game. That was when he knew he was hooked on the subject. Every decision set off a chain reaction, and the choices of individuals could radically change the course of history. By reaching back to Sam’s first meaningful contact with history, he’s found a great beginning for his essay.
A lot of students just stop here. They think all they need to say is, “Wow! This subject is fascinating!” But if Sam only described his first impression of history from playing Civilization, he would not seem as though he had thought very deeply about his passion. Instead, Sam needs to demonstrate how he has developed his interest over the past four years.
In Sam’s case, he has been his school’s history specialist on the Quiz Bowl team. He also co-hosts a history podcast with a friend of his. They record in the school’s basement and have 500 regular listeners. Sam should spend at least a paragraph fleshing out how these extracurriculars relate to his broader interest in history.
He can also point out any lessons about history he learned from his activities. For example, maybe researching for the podcast showed him that a lot of what he knows about history was discovered by archaeologists. In the essay, he could point out that his love of history evolved to include a love of physical artifacts.
At this point in the narrative, Sam can start looking ahead. By reading the course catalogue at UPenn, he can identify specific History classes that will allow him to deepen his newfound love of artifacts. Sam should write a few sentences about professors, events, or courses available at UPenn that would let him learn more about history.
Finally, Sam concludes by looking ahead. College is only four years of Sam’s life, and—truth be told—he has no idea what he wants to do after he graduates. That’s okay. UPenn still wants to see that he’s looking ahead.
So Sam talks about the things he does know. Sam does know studying history will give him a much better perspective on what has made modern society into what it is today. It will prepare him to analyze evidence of many different kinds, including written and physical records.
And that’s it. If he can write a brief conclusion that ties back to the earlier themes of his essay, that’s especially great. For instance, “The generals in my Civilization game and I have one thing in common—we both have only a short time to make a difference. By learning to think deeply and evaluate evidence, I will use my love of history to have an impact wherever the future takes me.”
To review, here’s what Sam did right and what you can do:
- Identify what sparked your interest in this subject
- Highlight ways you have built on your interest (give examples from extracurriculars, classes, and side projects)
- Discuss how UPenn gives you the chance to deepen your interest; be specific with course offerings, professors, events, etc.
- Zoom out—talk about how you will pursue this interest after college
Keep in mind that all of this applies for single-school programs only. If your dream program is dual-degree, you still need to write this essay about your back-up single school program of choice.
If the first essay was all about your academic interests, this essay is the opposite. UPenn wants to make sure you are more than a brain in a jar. With that in mind, use this short essay to showcase the best parts of yourself outside of the classroom.
The frame of the essay prompt is community, but you do not have to be a social butterfly to write a good answer. What UPenn means to ask is, “How will you fit into the community we are creating?”
Maybe you bring musical talents and want to join the student orchestra. Or perhaps your servant leadership style is what you have to offer, and you want to join the student government. Perhaps you are a Hispanic student who wants to revitalize others’ awareness of their cultural heritage. The essay can be about any part of who you are as long as it’s something you can share with the broader UPenn community.
As always, if you can use past accomplishments or experiences to illustrate your point, it will be more powerful. For instance, if you have led your soccer team’s community outreach efforts, talk about how the skills you learned on the team will make you better at building a relationship between UPenn and the city of Philadelphia.
If you’re having trouble coming up with ideas. Ask yourself these questions:
- When have I been a leader? What did I accomplish?
- When have I grown as an individual? How did I change?
- What clubs, groups, or cultural communities might I want to participate in at UPenn?
Specialized Program Prompts
Computer and Cognitive Science: Artificial Intelligence Program
We have now moved into the prompts for special programs. If you are applying to Computer and Cognitive Science: Artificial Intelligence, that suggests your interests lie right at the crux of these two fields. Students who apply to special programs like this one have the added burden of proving that they have a deep knowledge or interest in artificial intelligence.
The easiest way to answer this prompt is to reference previous work you have done in the field of Artificial Intelligence. If you have demonstrated interest through extracurricular endeavors or academics, build your essay around that past experience.
If, however, you do not have extensive past experience with Artificial Intelligence, there are other ways to write a strong essay. First, look for pursuits that are adjacent to AI. For instance, if you have a lot of experience with computer science, talk about that experience and then identify why pursuing just computer science would not satisfy your intellectual curiosity.
Maybe you don’t have experience in an adjacent field. That is okay too! You’ll want to focus on the intellectual journey you have been on to arrive at AI as your main interest. What books have you read? What movies have you seen? What artificial intelligence has shaped the way you interact with the world?
If you’re having trouble thinking of reasons why you want to pursue AI, that might be a sign that this dual degree program is not for you. Lots of people think AI is interesting in theory, but this essay offers a chance for applicants to test just how committed they are to this niche field. If this essay keeps coming up short, consider applying to one of UPenn’s traditional majors instead.
If you can successfully focus on past experiences in the field, past experiences in a related field, or how your interest formed, congratulations! Your essay is well on its way to being a great one.
Next, address how you hope to use the resources this program offers. Maybe it’s the interdisciplinary approach of the curriculum. Or you might love the work of one of the professors. Perhaps simply the time this degree gives you to focus on your passion without interruption is the draw.
Overall, you want to do all of the following:
- Address why you want to pursue AI
- Highlight your past experience in AI
- If applicable, discuss your experience in related fields. Why did those fields point you to AI?
- Discuss how your thinking on AI has evolved over time, if applicable
- Point to opportunities that the UPenn program gives you to deepen your interest in AI further
250 words may not sound like a lot, but try writing five of these essays in rapid succession. That is exactly what the bio-dental program application requests of you. With so much information being asked of you, it is important to step back and prioritize which aspects of yourself you want to highlight.
First, read all of the prompts. Star the one to which you think you have the strongest answer. For example, maybe you are great at cooperating with others. Or, maybe your reason for practicing dentistry makes for a great story.
Write your answer to the starred question first, then spend the most time revising it. It’s good to lead with your strength.
For the rest of your responses, frame your answers as stories whenever possible. This won’t apply for the prompt about other dentists in your family, but otherwise it’s a good rule of thumb.
Feel free to get a little creative. Admissions officers know that you will not have performed any dental surgery yet, so draw from what experiences you do have. Maybe it’s your love of knitting that actually attracts you to a career in dentistry. It really does not matter how off the wall your experiences are as long as you can tie them back to what you will be studying.
Digital Media Design Program
This emerging field has generated a lot of interest in the past few years, and UPenn is one of only a few schools that offers a specialized curriculum for a career in digital media design.
However, because the program is so rare, it has become pretty competitive. In this essay, you want to show your interest in digital media design is sustained rather than temporary.
For a good essay structure, you can scroll up to the example of Sam, the History major, provided in response to the first UPenn prompt. If you were to write your essay in a similar way, just about DMD, that would be a strong approach.
Since this is a design program, convey your design preferences and unique style as much as possible. A successful essay not only convinces admissions officers that you are passionate about design but gives them a sense of the digital media designs you may create in the future. It shows what your designs will prioritize.
It is not enough just to show that you have an interest in design. You have to connect your passion specifically to digital content.
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The Huntsman Program
For this essay, the three pillars are depth of interest, track record, and future impact. First, you want to show you have thought about international affairs and business quite a lot. A strong approach is to use your track record of past extracurricular experiences or academic pursuits. Finally, showcase your entrepreneurial spirit by painting a picture of what your future looks like once you have this academic foundation.
Let’s start with depth of interest. It is not enough merely to be interested in current events; your essay should showcase some of the deeper thoughts you have had regarding business and international studies.
Don’t do what I did. In high school, I focused on international affairs a lot during debate. Unfortunately, I messed up an interview by talking about a bunch of breaking news instead of tying those events back to the deeper insights I had been describing in my debates.
All this is to say: don’t mistake superficial ideas for depth of interest. One quick way to test this is to try talking about your essay topic for three minutes. If you run out of things to say about the intersection of global issues and business, you probably are coming at the issue from the wrong angle.
For tips on how to weave in your track record, take another look at the example of Sam, the history major, in response to the first prompt. Following his example, show how you pursued this interest through extracurricular experiences and other independent endeavors. Be sure to highlight any lessons learned as well.
Finally, make sure you connect your past to any future aspirations you have in the realm of business and international affairs. Business prides itself on being an imminently practical field, so in this essay more than others, it’s important to tie your academic pursuits to concrete goals you hope to attain after graduating.
These can be goals for yourself, such as, “I want to revolutionize online sales of Persian rugs.” Or, you may choose to put global welfare at center stage by saying something like, “I want to build a social media platform that countries use to stop the harmful effects of climate change.”
Feel free to shoot for the stars here. As long as you can draw a logical connection from your current interests to future aspirations, there is no limit to what you can dream of doing.
If you are applying to LSM, you know that science and management are more than the sum of their parts. You probably believe that lab discoveries should be made accessible to laymen so society benefits from these findings. The work of bringing knowledge out of academia and into the world energizes you.
Your job in the essay is to convey why that very specific interest resonates with you. Why are you not simply pursuing one of the natural sciences? Why not study management instead?
Following the same structure outlined by Sam, the history major, in the first prompt, demonstrate how your experiences have interested you in a science and management career.
Required for the M&T Program
These two essays have very different purposes, so be sure to write them with those distinct goals in mind.
The first essay follows the same structure as the essay outlined under the first prompt. Remember Sam, the history major? Follow his example, using the intersection of business and engineering as your interest instead of history.
The second essay is trying to learn how you think and act under pressure. Do you think like an engineer? Can you solve problems creatively? Do you take the lead when circumstances demand it?
Finding an anecdote that fits the second essay is harder than it may seem. First, think back on times you have been a leader. This can be through some formal position you held, like club president, or it can be leadership in practice rather than in title.
When you were in that position, did you face any challenges? Did you resolve any of them successfully? How? What went through your head while you were doing that?
Here’s an example. Imagine Lucy is the lead singer in a band, but they’ve been having trouble booking gigs. Instead of resigning herself to not getting to perform very often, Lucy looks for venues they had not considered previously.
She realizes that none of the other student bands have a relationship with her city’s chamber of commerce, and she starts going to events. These small business owners would like live music for some of their events, but they are not plugged into the local music scene. When they meet her, a few of them take a chance and book her.
It goes well, and they rave to their friends about Lucy’s band. Pretty soon, Lucy has the entertainment market cornered for private events hosted by small businesses.
By thinking outside of the box, Lucy was able to distinguish her band. Her leadership and ability to tackle the problem from a new angle makes this anecdote a great fit for the essay prompt.
Required for NETS
This essay prompt is fairly similar to the very first UPenn essay prompt in terms of structure. It’s asking for the story of where your intellectual interests come from, how you have pursued them so far, and where you plan to take them at UPenn and beyond.
Check out the example of Sam, the history major, up above for guidance on how to structure this kind of essay.
There’s one modification you want to make on that approach. In the last line of this prompt, it says, “Feel free to draw on examples from your own experiences as a user, developer, or student of technology.” That means the admissions officers want to know what you have been learning about tech in multiple contexts.
You’ll get bonus points if you can tackle this question from all of the angles mentioned. What have you learned as a tech user? How has developing software broadened your understanding of the field? Have any teachers given you insights you would not have gleaned on your own? Try to answer as many of these questions as you can.
Required for NHCM
In terms of structure, you will be following the same broad outline detailed in the break-down of UPenn’s first prompt. Follow the example of Sam, the history major. The only twist is that you will be speaking to two intellectual interests—nursing and health care management—instead of just one.
Why is it not enough for you to study nursing? What are the limitations of studying management without the hands-on training of a nurse? You must address both halves of this dual degree in your essay.
Some students simply say, “I think both of these fields are interesting!” That works, but it is better to identify why the intersection matter. The ideal candidate is not someone who might want to become a nurse or a health care manager. Rather, it’s the student who wants to pursue both of these fields together, at the same time.
Required for VIPER
This is another essay asking you to present your intellectual interests in a narrative structure. Remember Sam, the history major? You want to build an essay like his, just with a few modifications for VIPER.
There’s a pretty heavy emphasis on research for this prompt. If you do have experience in that setting, be sure to include a paragraph or two reflecting on your research experience. Highlight how your research has deepened your appreciation for the field and taught you lessons you could not have learned otherwise.
Throughout your essay, energy and sustainability should be front-and-center. Does sustainability motivate you? If so, why? Does the production of energy fascinate you? Spell out why. Identify your goals for college and beyond, and be sure to specify how the VIPER program can help you achieve them.
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