How to Write the UPenn Supplemental Essays 2020-2021
Founded in 1740 by Benjamin Franklin, the University of Pennsylvania is one of America’s eight Ivy League institutions. Its beautiful campus features unique red-and-green-brick buildings, gorgeous tree-lined paths, and lots of tributes to Ben Franklin. UPenn is known for its premier academics, but also for its thriving student life (it’s called “the social Ivy,” and has a strong Greek life comprising 25% of students). UPenn also enjoys the benefits of being situated in the heart of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania — it’s just a stone’s throw from myriad museums, gardens, cathedrals, and historic sites, including Independence Hall. Students typically describe UPenn as having a highly “pre-professional” mindset, with a large cultural focus on internships, school jobs, and career preparation. All in all, it’s the perfect city refuge for ambitious, can-do students who want to maximize their college experience.
Composite Schools: Depending on their fields of study, students at UPenn will be applying to different colleges that make up the school. Undergraduate education at Penn 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.
Admissions Rates and Resources: UPenn is a bit easier to get into than more in-demand Ivies, but still enjoys a reputation of exclusivity. 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? Use our free program to calculate your chances for free right now.)
Want to learn what the UPenn will actually cost you based on your income? And how long your application to the school should take? Here’s what every student considering the University of Pennsylvania needs to know.
Now, onto the essays! Below, you can see a list of all the prompts we’re going to cover. All applicants must submit the two required essay prompts, listed first. Below these, we’ll break into the supplemental essays for various optional programs open to applicants.
UPenn Supplemental Essay Prompts
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. For example, if you’re applying for the Huntsman program, but your second choice major is International Relations, you’ll need to write this essay about your interest in IR as a single-degree.
UPenn is asking you to describe something we could call your “intellectual life”: your development in terms of ideas, how you have (and will) evolve as a thinker. You should think of yourself as an intellectual athlete walking into a trainer’s office: what amazing muscles do you have, how did they get so swole, and what machines and workouts do you need to attain peak performance? What additional muscles would you like to train?
First of all, the word “how” is important. Take a look back at the prompt: “how” appears twice, and it’s the operative word of UPenn’s question “How” is all about processes, getting to different places, and explaining changes. “How” is a fundamentally narrative word, so you’ll need to set up a strong narrative arc about yourself. Think: “first I was A, then B happened. So now I’m C. In the future, I hope to be D at UPenn.” Try to keep a 1:1 ratio of past experiences to future attractions at UPenn, for about 200 words apiece.
In keeping with the narrative theme, you should frame your actions with captivating verbs. For example, we could be asked, “How does Tarzan move through the jungle?” A weak response would focus on nouns: “vines, trees, forest floor, hands.” For a dynamic response, we need strong verbs: “Tarzan grapples with vines, catapults from trees, crashes onto the forest floor, and flips onto his hands.” You should take a similar approach when describing your intellectual progress. Nouns like “club” or “test” will be dead on arrival without verbs like “galvanized” or “struggle.” You’re Tarzan – describe your movement in a way that’s compelling.
You should also aim to incorporate your emotions if you have the space. This will make your story more captivating and accessible from the get-go. It’s the most efficient way to connect with your reader, which is important if you’re describing your intellectual interest in a niche topic.
In the second half, set up a Triad between UPenn, your target school, and you. You need to explain just what about UPenn is going to help you thrive: consider yourself a germ, and consider UPenn a Petri dish full of savory goop perfectly-formulated for you. This means being specific about certain programs, resources, internships, and cohorts, and spending a significant amount of time clicking through UPenn’s website. Pro tip: subscribe to certain school and department e-newsletters, which include recent works, discoveries, and publications of faculty members. These can include Omnia, the newsletter for UPenn A&S, or Penn Engineering Magazine, or anything else you find. This will give you the most up-to-date insider information about the intellectual work at UPenn.
It might be a good idea to brainstorm with a T-chart; this way, you can throw down all the specific aspects of Penn, and communicate a firm connection between yourself and the University. Fill in the listed areas with your own discoveries.
|Me||UPenn||My school or department|
|Subject of interest||-Inciting incident of my interest
-Aspect of my field that I enjoy
-My learning style
|-What communal aspects of UPenn appeal to my learning style?
|-Rigor of target department at UPenn
-Works published by faculty
-Specific course listings
|Goals, career development||-My future career aspirations
-Experiences I’ve had that I’ve enjoyed
|-Pre-professional resources at UPenn
-Resources, jobs, museums, etc in surrounding area
|-Certain research opportunities or labs
-Achievement and paths of alumni
|Improvement and journey||-Challenges I face
-Skills I need to strengthen
-Wider issues or problem I want to address
|-Penn’s philosophy and mission||-Specific instructors’ specialties that address blind spots|
You can also look at our blog post on How to Write the “Why this Major” College Essay for more details on how to nail this You + College + Major triad.
So what does this look like in practice? 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 follows the criteria we’ve discussed above.
- Set up a before-and-after narrative to describe his interest. Sam writes about the first time he played Civilization, a history-based video game. By reaching back to his first meaningful contact with history, he’s found a great beginning for his essay.
- Use strong verbs to weave a narrative. Sam “tinkers with minutiae, like centurion armor, to eke out victory in crucial battles.” Civilization “enraptures” him.
- Demonstrate your commitment. A lot of students just stop at interest: 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, it 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, and should spend at least a paragraph fleshing out how these extracurriculars informed his broader interest in history. For example, maybe researching for his history 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.
- Look ahead to UPenn. By reading the course catalog at UPenn, Sam can identify specific History classes that will allow him to deepen his newfound love of artifacts. “Professors Smith and Smithson’s recent work, which reconstructs Minoan bathhouses based on tile fragments, is a great example of how UPenn’s history and archaeology departments combine to produce game-changing research. Their interdisciplinary class on material history would allow me to gain hands-on skills for a career spent in museums or archives.”
- Hit on the big picture. For example, studying history will give Sam 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. 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.”
Use this short essay to showcase the best parts of yourself outside of the classroom. This doesn’t mean you can’t mention your academic interests, but if you mention the same subject as you did in the first prompt, you should dramatically recontextualize it or illuminate a new aspect of it.
The word community appears three times – so address your philosophy of community. Do some thinking about what “community” means to you, and what kind of group setting is your ideal. Is it small? Large? Gentle? Raucous? If you have an original, thought-provoking, or culturally-informed definition that you love, feel free to include it. The best essays will be about a deeper topic than simply extracurriculars or collaborative research.
Be specific, and do your UPenn research. Maybe you bring musical talents and want to join the student orchestra. Perhaps you are a Hispanic student who wants to revitalize others’ awareness of their cultural heritage. Poke around UPenn’s website to find specific groups or initiatives that address something you enjoy. 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.
Don’t just name-drop an activity. For example, “UPenn’s Black student center, Makuu, is something that interests me” shows a bit of research, but not a lot. It also does not connect the research to the applicant as an individual, or hit on the larger theme of community. A better approach is to be hyper specific: “Because I’m interested in Black literary studies, as well as crossover between literature and history, I’m captivated by the way UPenn’s Makuu house brings together young Black academics from various disciplines. As I delve into my field of interest — Black and African modernist poetry — I would love to draw on the knowledge of my colleagues to enrich my work. I’m a firm believer that the more paths we can create between different disciplines of Black studies, the easier it is to explore.” This answer is specific to the applicant, establishes an ethos for research, and addresses Makuu as more than a name.
Identify a challenge you want to pose yourself. Look at the prompt again — the verb “shape” is another word that gets repeated, and it’s backed up by “learning” and “growth.” This prompt is asking about development, so you should identify an area in which you want to evolve, grow, and improve. Ideally, think about a certain foible that challenges you and keeps you from fulfilling your potential — maybe it’s a fear of public speaking, an apathy towards volunteering, or a tendency to seek out echo chambers. Why do you feel you need to change, and what communities at UPenn could push you out of your comfort zone?
For example, I could plot out my essay like this:
I’m not an effective writing mentor. I can be too harsh and too direct with my feedback. I can intimidate people I intend to help.
I need to work on my “bedside manner” as a writing mentor. I need to acquire effective strategies and principles to inform me, and I need to work with more mentees to practice.
The student essay tutors program at UPenn’s library will offer me training to improve as a tutor, and by working there I can gain repeated experience in coaching others’ writing.
I will end up as a better communicator, and I can help writers feel confident, an essential skill for an aspiring editor like myself.
If you’re having trouble coming up with ideas. Ask yourself these questions:
- When was a time I was challenged in an activity? What challenging moments would I want to repeat?
- Look up Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences. These are various kinds of astuteness Garnder posited exist in students to different extents. Is there an intelligence in which I’m lacking, which I want to strengthen? Which activities would help me build this intelligence?
- When have I grown as an individual? How did I change?
- What’s a club or group where I could use my skills for a greater good?
Huntsman Program Applicants
UPenn’s Huntsman Program is a dual degree track in International Studies and Business, which brings together the College of Arts and Sciences and the Wharton School of Business. Its focus is global, and students learn target languages and study foreign affairs with an eye towards becoming internationally-involved, global citizens.
This is a meaty question, and we should break it down into a checklist of key items they’re asking you to identify.
- What draws you to business (B) + international studies (IS)
- A global issue in B + IS
- What you want to learn about B + IS
- How that knowledge is applicable to the global issue
A logical, competent way to structure this essay would be a narrative format: past to present. The items that compose the question naturally lend themselves to this timeline format, so lean into it if you choose. You can talk about your past interest in a problem, the current state of that problem, and how your collegiate experience in B + IS will make you a citizen better equipped to help solve that problem.
As always, be specific. Pick not just a broad issue (“refugee crises”), but a subset of the issue that actually seems manageable (“connecting large corporate donors with small charities run by refugees themselves”). From there, look for potential classes offered at UPenn, and student organizations involved in similar missions. It may be worth citing how the Huntsman program has aided the students featured on its website, and discuss how those same opportunities would similarly provide you with a comprehensive education in B + IS.
Demonstrate your cosmopolitanism. If you have a family history that involves living in multiple countries or cultures, you may want to evoke it here. The same goes for any educational, service, or other time spent learning abroad. Even if you’ve never left your home country, demonstrate a keen knowledge of foreign affairs by citing events, specific leaders, certain charities or businesses, etc.
That said, be wary of “factoids” and surface knowledge. The CollegeVine writer who broke down this prompt last year had a great piece of advice that’s worth emphasizing (and maybe tattooing?):
“Don’t do what I did. In high school, I focused on international affairs a lot during debate. Unfortunately, I messed up an important 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 just 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 [and you need to approach it from another direction: themes, morality, ethics, etc].”
What is the philosophy behind your international focus? In addition to showing your knowledge of IS, you should state why you enjoy the field, and why it’s necessary for the world right now. Has your understanding of “the world” and your “self” changed since you first became interested in B + IS? Your understandings of “community,” “collaboration,” “multiculturalism,” “aid,” etc?
Think of it this way: the prompt asks “what” and “how,” but there’s also a hidden question: “why?”
Digital Media Design Program Applicants
“The Digital Media Design Program,” writes UPenn, “was established in response to what we perceived as a growing rift within the computer graphics and animation industry.” UPenn is one of few schools to offer a specialized curriculum that combines fine arts with computer engineering. However, because the DMD program is so rare, it is also competitive. In this essay, show your interest in digital media design to be sustained rather than temporary.
This prompt is similar to the first UPenn prompt, discussed above with the hypothetical applicant Sam. It asks you 1) what your interest is, and 2) why you need to pursue it at UPenn and DMD specifically. To that effect, you can brainstorm using the T-chart format we covered there, with “DMD” in the column previously dedicated to a certain major.
That said, there are some specific things you should mind.
Why you NEED the interdisciplinary approach. DMD combines a lot of fields that you could study in isolation elsewhere. For a standout application, you need to show why you wouldn’t be content in just the School of Fine Arts or just the School of Engineering. Rather, you should describe the magnetic pull both design and computer sciences have on your mind, and how you’ve integrated them in the past, to the point where they’re inextricable for you.
A problem you can help address. Remember, this whole program was created to solve a perceived problem! Towards the end of your essay, identify a societal or industry-specific problem that the skills set you’d acquire at DMD would help ameliorate, whether it’s user interfaces for apps, computer models for statisticians, or how to make animated fish scales look really, really good.
Do some digging about the program. Information about DMD is scattered in multiple places, so spend a good hour clicking around and exploring the Internet. There’s some student work on this webpage, a Youtube video, and a description of Penn’s computer graphics facilities. For a program this esoteric, it’s also worth your effort to send a polite email to the Computer Graphics Department at UPenn, asking if there’s any faculty or current students who’d like to chat or answer your questions about the program. This will give you a much more specific sense of how the program would fit your interests, what career resources are available for DMD students, etc.
The message is the medium. 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; it gives them a sense of what aesthetics your designs will prioritize. For example, if your style is “minimalist,” you might want to experiment with a “minimalist” writing style: sentence fragments, short sentences, and clipped breaks. If your style is vivid and colorful, engage lots of sensory words, lush descriptions, and (obviously) words for all your favorite shades of colors.
Life Sciences and Management Program Applicants
The Life Sciences and Management Program is a dual degree that ties together the biology majors in the College of Arts and Sciences and the Wharton School of Business. Although it’s selective in the number of students it accepts (25), it’s broad in terms of focus: students pursue everything from agriculture to pharmaceuticals to bioengineering to finance.
Wow! They already gave you a theme for this essay: innovation! That should make it easy, right? Well, maybe. By like 5%. Batten down the hatches.
We can break this prompt down into the central requirements, and all the attendant little words that feed into them. Those central requirements are:
- The issue you want to address
- LSM experience – “program,” “understanding,” “eye”
- “Innovation” – “identifying, advancing, implementing”
First, find an issue in the life sciences/life sciences business that speaks to you. This doesn’t have to be a specific problem: it can be an attitude that you feel needs fixing, a lack of collaboration, or an incorrect mindset or paradigm. However, you should have specific examples of personal experiences with it, either from your studies or some other aspect of your life. And you should demonstrate a thorough understanding of it, revealing that you’ve read widely and stayed updated.
Second, talk about how LSM will help you become the solution. LSM provides its students with an incredible array of resources, including internships, connections, prizes, funds, and mentorship. You should discuss program-specific resources that either touch on the issue specifically or will give you the “eye,” the “understanding” mentioned in the prompt.
- Find granular examples of LSM resources. Their website is so expansive, and so full of student profiles and useful information, that we recommend spending about an hour clicking through and jotting down information that intrigues you. Find specific faculty who work in areas that interest you, or who are engaged in public work in a way you’d admire. Then connect these back to the “issue” you’ve mentioned.
- Justify your interdisciplinary needs. You need to prove that you wouldn’t be be happier in either management or bioscience — you need them both together. Good statements to have in pocket are “only through LSM,” “LSM specifically,” and “LSM’s unique X.” For example, check out LSM’s two program-exclusive courses. Citing these would be a great idea, as would clicking on the faculty links on the same page.
Lastly, discuss your ideas of innovation. Don’t worry — they’re not expecting you to solve anything now. And actually, if you read the prompt closely, LSM wants their students to be skilled at “identifying, advancing and implementing” innovations, not necessarily inventing them. Here, it’s less important to propose a solution to your issue than it is to propose a road to that solution, an implementation plan for an extant solution, or a unique definition of “innovation.” You should focus on ideas that are key to management: how does innovation happen, how do we organize people to produce innovation, how do we establish cultures where collaboration is enjoyable? UPenn wants to learn about how you think, about your philosophy.
Although it might be cant to restate the Churchill quote verbatim in your own essay, you should keep it in mind and use it as the backbone of your essay. Especially the bit about “courage to continue” — you should use an instance in which it required real bravery and self-confrontation to continue.
Also, notice that this prompt isn’t as conventional as it seems at first glance. “Tell us about [a] failure,” asks UPenn. Not “setback” or “difficulty” – failure. So your event should not be a benign problem; it needs to be something that felt cataclysmic at the time and had a real effect on your self-perception. It needs to be something that dissuaded you from your path, to the point you needed “courage” of the Winston Churchill caliber to simply carry on.
It’s also probably a good idea to weave in academics, at least tangentially. For example, maybe a student actor dropped a crucial line onstage during A Midsummer Night’s Dream, didn’t get future roles as a result, and has since avoided reading anything but modern plays for fear of botching up blank verse again. He might acknowledge that this is also sapping at his performance in lit classes, and is probably to his detriment as a writer. This way, he can talk about overcoming his emotional baggage at the same time as he discusses his self-betterment as a student. It shows him to be a person who acknowledges the osmotic nature of drama and literature, activities and academics, emotions and intellect.
Since the Common App asked a similar question a few years ago, CollegeVine has an extremely informative breakdown of the “obstacle/lesson” essay that’s really worth your time. Some key points:
- Establish enough context
- Clearly define the obstacle
- To what extent were you responsible for the obstacle?
- Go in-depth about your reaction
- Put the reader into your emotional experience
To which we should add that here, since you only have 250 words, be short, streamlined, and vivid. Use efficient, active verbs that will pack the maximum amount of punch into such a short passage.
Our chancing engine factors in extracurricular activities, demographics, and other holistic details. We’ll let you know what your chances are at your dream schools — and how to improve your chances! Our chancing engine factors in extracurricular activities, demographics, and other holistic details. We’ll let you know what your chances are at your dream schools — and how to improve your chances!
Your GPA and SAT don’t tell the full admissions story
Your GPA and SAT don’t tell the full admissions story
Our chancing engine factors in extracurricular activities, demographics, and other holistic details. We’ll let you know what your chances are at your dream schools — and how to improve your chances!Calculate your acceptance chances
Jerome Fisher Management and Technology Program Applicants
The Jerome Fisher Management and Technology Program is a dual-degree program that allows students to select an interdisciplinary concentration that melds the schools of Business and Engineering.
Note: The two essays have very different purposes, so be sure to write them with those distinct goals in mind.
- The first essay follows a similar archetype as the essay outlined under the first general UPenn prompt: the “why major” essay. Remember Sam and the T-chart?
- 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?
This prompt is similar to the first UPenn prompt, discussed above with the hypothetical applicant Sam. It asks you 1) what your interest is, and 2) why you need to pursue it at UPenn and M&T specifically. To that effect, you can brainstorm using the T-chart format we covered there, with “M&T” in the column previously dedicated to a certain major.
That said, there are some specific things you should mind.
Why you NEED the interdisciplinary approach. M&T combines a lot of fields that you could study in isolation elsewhere. For a standout application, you need to show why you wouldn’t be content in just the School of Business or just the School of Engineering. Rather, you should describe the magnetic pull both engineering and business have on your mind, and how you’ve integrated them in the past, to the point where they’re inextricable for you.
A problem or curiosity you can help address. Remember, the first words on M&T’s website are “solving big problems”! Towards the end of your essay, mention a societal or industry-specific problem that the skills set you’d acquire through M&T would help ameliorate, whether it’s user interfaces for apps or environmentally-friendly polymers.
Do some digging about the program. M&T’s website is vast, so spend a good hour clicking around and exploring, taking notes on details that appeal to you. This will give you a much more specific sense of how the program would fit your interests, what career resources are available for M&T students, etc. We suggest checking out the News section and Alumni profiles.
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. It also doesn’t have to strictly involve business and engineering, although it really helps if you’re able to creatively apply it back to your business/tech interests. You should think of this prompt as the short, fun, unbuttoned sequel to the previous one.
Here’s an example. Imagine Lucy is the lead singer in a band, but they’ve been having trouble booking gigs. So Lucy looks for venues they had not considered previously, going to chamber of commerce meetings. She finds out small business owners would like live music for events. Talks go well, and pretty soon, Lucy’s band is playing private events hosted by small businesses.
This anecdote makes a great fit for the essay prompt, because it expands on the idea of “business” without being stuffy or repetitious. It’s fresh, and can allow Lucy to talk about a real topic in business, relevant to M&T — seeking face-to-face connections and word-of-mouth recommendations.
CollegeVine’s breakdown of a Common App essay on problem-solving has some useful tips you can use here, too. For example:
1. Briefly reflect on the pros and cons of your solution! It takes a sophisticated essay to describe a solution, but also to reflect on some errors or things you’d do differently.
2. Brainstorm problems with solutions that you are particularly proud of or that you think are unique or exciting, then pick the most compelling one for M&T.
3. Use anecdotal color: dialogue, varied tone, emotions, jokes, asides.
To which we should add that here, since you only have 250 words, be short, streamlined, and vivid. Use efficient, active verbs that will pack the maximum amount of punch into such a short passage.
NETS Engineering Program Applicants
NETS is a unique program in Penn’s engineering school that foregrounds networks, huge systems, social media, modern computing, and economics.
UPenn really loves these meaty prompts, don’t they? This one needs to be broken down and analyzed, since there are a bunch of components.
Notice all the nouns? If you look closely at the prompt, almost all the words are nouns. That means the admissions readers for NETS are going to be on the lookout for applicants who name-drop specific terms, techniques, or systems — the bread-and-butter unit nouns of CS. When composing, you should take care not to sacrifice density of concepts and information for narrative flair, although…
You need to add that *narrative flair*. Since the prompt is mostly nouns, you’ll need to stir in your own action through verbbbbs. Make a list of all the actions you’ve performed while working on information systems. And keep in mind the UPenn example with Tarzan: the verbs should be as vivid as you can afford writing about CS. Did you “formulate” and “organize” an array, or did you “DREDGE” the data set and “FLOOD” the array with numbers and “CONSTELLATE” the data into “WHIRLING” patterns? Don’t be excessive, but liven up your prose to convey your enthusiasm.
NETS’ website emphasizes creativity, brilliance, and sometimes genius. NETS has a little bit of a god complex: their ideal student is “one of the few” (as the NETS Program website tells us), an “extraordinary” thinker, not an “average mind.” So make sure to let your personality and uniqueness shine through. (Fun fact about the word genius: it comes from a Latin word indicating a unique, endemic spirit.) This means using vivid words and literary devices to showcase your free-thinking. And you can elaborate unabashedly about your accomplishments, as long as you do so with enthusiasm for the work itself, rather than pride in nominal awards.
We live in a society. All right, gamers, it’s time to rise up and talk about societal issues that resonate with you. “Society” is mentioned twice, which offers you an opportunity to start with your personal experience, then broaden your focus to encompass wider issues. Describe how awareness of this context changed anything about your methods, ethics, or career goals: was there a service you stopped using or a technique you tried learning after reading a piece of news?
“Draw on examples from your own experiences as a user, developer, or student of technology.” You should really involve all three.
-How your needs as a user inform your work as a developer, i.e. solving your own problems
-Problems you’ve encountered
-Things you wish you’d known
-Coding languages you’ve used
-Industry figures you look up to
-Programs you emulated
-Learning from setbacks
-Approaching problems from new angles
-Tests, course books
Conclude with your specific desires for college. Translate your interests into a college context, and state what kinds of coursework you want to do, and what kinds of pre-professional assistance would help you out. Lastly, bring back the “societal” need and identify how you want to contribute as a thinker.
Nursing and Healthcare Management Program Applicants
NHCM is a dual degree between the Wharton School of Business and the Nursing School.
This prompt follows a similar format as the first UPenn essay, in that it asks you to 1) identify your interest and 2) pair that interest with specific resources at UPenn — NHCM, specifically. So you may want to revisit that breakdown, the T-chart method we discussed, and the sample “Sam” essay.
That said, there are some specific things you should mind.
Why you NEED the interdisciplinary approach. NHCM combines a lot of fields that you could study in isolation elsewhere. For a standout application, you need to show why you wouldn’t be content in just the School of Business or just the School of Nursing. Rather, you should describe the magnetic pull both healthcare and business have on your mind, and how you’ve integrated them in the past, to the point where they’re inextricable for you.
A problem, curiosity, or goal you can pursue. Discuss how your personal experience has shaped your objectives in pursuing nursing — you have space to open in medias res with a personal story, if you want. Towards the end of your essay, mention a societal or industry-specific problem that the skills set you’d acquire through NHCM would help ameliorate, whether it’s how pharma companies can better incorporate the perspective of nurses or how businesses can succeed with their health initiatives.
Do some digging about the program. The NHCM website is very small, so be sure to poke around the internet exploring, taking notes on details that appeal to you. This will give you a much more specific sense of how the program would fit your interests, what career resources are available for NHCS students, etc. We suggest checking out the Admissions webinars offered by the UPenn school of nursing for opportunities to ask questions. You also might want to politely email the staff member listed under the “Who Can Apply?” section, and ask if there are any faculty or current students who would be open to talking about their experiences in NHCM.
VIPER Program Applicants
The Vagelos Integrated Program in Energy Research, or VIPER, is a rigorous program that emphasizes student research, publication, and involved mentorship opportunities with faculty.
This prompt is more like a python than a viper, in that it’s huge and has some additional prompts swallowed up inside. However, you should note that it follows a similar format as the first UPenn essay, in that it asks you to 1) identify your specific interests and ideal majors and 2) pair that interest with specific resources at UPenn — VIPER, specifically. And boy, do VIPER students not lack for resources. So you may want to revisit that breakdown and the T-chart method we discussed, and fill up the target panel with VIPER-specific programs, mentorship opportunities, awards, funds, and summer opportunities that call to you.
That said, there are some specific things you should mind.
Why you NEED the interdisciplinary approach. VIPER combines a lot of fields that you could study in isolation elsewhere. For a standout application, you need to show why you wouldn’t be content in just the School of A&S or just the School of Engineering. Rather, you should describe the magnetic pull both science and engineering have on your mind, and how you’ve integrated them in the past, to the point where they’re inextricable for you. Describing your dual passions can provide a meaningful segue into “previous research,” as per the prompt — you might have loved a setting in which you practiced both science and engineering, or you might have felt something was “missing” when you solely focused on one or the other.
A problem, curiosity, or goal you can pursue in college. Discuss how your personal experience has shaped your objectives in pursuing engineering – you have space to open in medias res with a personal story, if you want. Opening with personal experience will allow you to check off the prompt’s requests for “academic, research, and extracurricular experiences that allow you to appreciate the scientific or engineering challenges.” If one experience was particularly formative, eye-opening, challenging, or inspiring, this would be a great incident with which to open.
Don’t be misled by the word “appreciate” in the prompt. Usually, we use this word to signify a “like” or positive feeling. UPenn is using the word in a different sense: “understand,” “comprehend,” “feel the gravitas of,” even “feel awe.” And they’re asking about a problem, so choose a problem that really makes you feel small, or makes your head spin.
Follow a logical narrative organization. The prompt itself provides you with the easiest way to lay out your essay, and that is:
Inciting or important experience
Interest in energy/science as a subject
Narrowed and refined interests; awareness of large-scale dilemmas in the field
Desire for certain exploratory opportunities in college
VIPER programs that fit that desire
How VIPER programs will prepare me to address those large-scale dilemmas and research interests
Do some digging about the program. The VIPER website is huge and comprehensive, so be sure to reserve an hour or so for reading, exploring, and taking notes on details that appeal to you. This will give you a much more specific sense of how the program would fit your interests, what career resources are available for VIPER students, etc. We suggest checking out the information e-sessions offered by The VIPER for opportunities to ask questions. You also might want to politely email the staff member listed on the Prospective Students page if you have any questions, or if you want to ask if there are any faculty or current students who would be open to talking about their experiences in VIPER.
Bio-Dental Program Applicants
UPenn’s seven-year Bio-Dental Program is a rigorous and highly-structured regimen that puts students on track to complete a professional dental degree in an accelerated time-frame. This program emphasizes discipline, determination, and pure scientific competence. Your answers should be focused much more on skills and comprehension, although personal stories can still be important. But it’s advisable to take a clear, incisive tone instead of something more colorful or story-heavy.
This is an expertise-oriented question; it’s very similar to a resume. However, since you’ll also be submitting a profile of your extracurriculars, and possibly a resume as well, you should use this brief essay to go more into depth and focus on your accomplishments. Skill, aptitude, and experience should be your foci here, and you should talk about specific techniques, tools, or procedures you learned. Don’t worry too much about telling a story or personal development. Stick to hard expertise.
If, as per the second option (no pre-dental or pre-med experience), you still need to keep the theme of “expertise” in mind. When UPenn asks you to “indicate what you’ve done,” they’re not looking for a personal epiphany or moving memoir about why you decided to go into dentistry. They’re more interested in the rigorous science and anatomy classes you’ve taken, science programs in which you’ve participated, etc.
List your accomplishments in these classes, specifically your scores and achievements in areas relating to medicine and dentistry. (Hint: you’ll also get a chance to shine in the next prompt, which asks about manual skills.) For example, a relevant accomplishment might be a review of data you conducted in your AP Environmental Science class that focused on dental problems in areas with high erosion and airborne particles, and for which you earned a commendation at a local science club.
Focus on motor skills and actions. Here you can be a bit more descriptive and evocative, although your focus should remain on what you can do, rather than your fascination with your activity or your emotional attachments to the work. “Thrilled and trembling with energy” might have been your reaction to welding in shop class, but it’s the last thing UPenn wants in an aspiring dental surgeon. Instead, list the operations you had to perform in welding, including the thinness of the wires, the delicacy of the projects, and any certifications you earned. A good way to summarize is in a technical but illustrative list. For example: “Advanced Jewelrymaking 302: form and solder 15-gauge wire into jump rings, create settings with various-sized burs, acquire working knowledge of a rotary precision motor.”
As mentioned before, this is a great place to shine if you don’t have as much pre-med or academic experience in health. An applicant who doesn’t have as many AP classes, but who has a proven track record of quality trade work and mechanical skills, may stand out more than a candidate with an outstanding academic record but little in the way of manual work.
Don’t be afraid to mention less “hard” and “mechanical” subjects. Art is perfectly acceptable, as long as you can break it down to a technical level in terms of tools and minute detail.
Also, focus on the small and precise! If you did lawn maintenance over the summer, leaf-blowing and lawn-mowing may not be very helpful to mention here. But if you had to mix precise ratios of concrete or resin, or caulk up a small crack in a fountain, these are good examples to list.
Use a similar format as you did in the last prompt, relying on lists of tasks and accomplishments. Feel free to mention challenges you overcame and how: for example, “improved low member engagement by moving our NHS chapter onto a Slack channel.”
Don’t fall into any traps, or think UPenn is looking for a certain type of club, leadership, or cooperation. Think about shifts at work, family, sports, projects, and other preoccupations.
Keep it results-focused. Don’t wax poetic about “community bonds,” “love,” or “family.” They’re less interested in how you bonded with your partners than in how you know how to work as a unit. If your emotional bonding helped you better function as a well-oiled machine, mention it in that context. Otherwise, concentrate on results and improvement, rather than feelings.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we’re advising once again that you take note of the technical tone. By asking “what interests you most in dentistry as well as what interests you the least,” UPenn is signaling that you can’t just be emotional about your reasons for liking dentistry. You have to include your thoughts on what technical area or sub-field you want to pursue.
That being said, you do have space to include a personal connection or involvement, if you choose. But you need to bring your focus back, always, towards your knowledge of the field. For example, “seeing my grandmother’s confidence soar when she got dental implants” is a good start. However, you need to take the gesture to its logical conclusion: “Seeing my grandmother go from recluse to the life of the party, combined with what I learned about the emotional vulnerabilities of aging in AP Psych, inspired me to pursue geriatric dentistry in particular. Dental health, I’ve found, is central to the self-esteem and mental health of seniors, and training in this area would allow me to use my skills in a way that betters lives.” Note how the emotional subject matter is tempered by the applicant’s educational experience. Wisely, the applicant also demonstrates a priority for coursework and a career path — a clear trajectory moving forward.
For your non-interest, be tactful. This can be a stumbling block for applicants, as it’s a lot harder to talk about what you don’t want to study in a way that’s still positive and reflects well on your personality. As you’re writing this, you should put yourself in a “job interview” mindset — you don’t want to slip up, or say anything that could be used against you. Try not to use emotional words, like “boring” or “stressful” or “I don’t care.” It’s essential to be respectful and graceful instead. But don’t worry — you just need a little more planning. Here are some ideas:
- Acknowledge your non-interest as a matter-of-fact sacrifice for your interest. Be brief and impartial. Don’t go into a lot of detail about why you don’t want to pursue orthodontics or cosmetic dentistry, etc. Just state that you have greater interest and motivation in other fields. Try, “As I focus my attention on geriatric dentistry, I expect to devote most of my coursework to implants and the aging dental structure, and anticipate spending less time on pediatric dental courses as a result.” Frame it as a trade-off or logical transaction, rather than you having an aversion to a certain area.
- Frame your “least interest” as a personal shortcoming that you need to overcome. For example, a student who’s never felt called to study dental office administration might acknowledge that this is probably not good for her in the long term. “I’ve never been interested in dental office management or secretarial work, but I’ve reflected, and I know that I’ll need a solid understanding of these things to be an effective practitioner. Therefore, I intend to immerse myself in more courses and programs that will increase my proficiency and maybe spark new interest.” This is good, because the student not only cites a deficient area, but she formulates a plan to remedy this blind spot in the future. She shows she’s someone who can bite the bullet, and put in the work even during periods of non-interest.
This is pretty simple and straightforward; there’s no need to go into detail about personal experiences. You don’t have to write complete sentences and can do a bullet-type list in a clear but informal format.
First and Last Name; Relation; School Attended; First Year-Last Year.
Want help with your college essays to improve your admissions chances? Sign up for your free CollegeVine account and get access to our essay guides and courses. You can also get your essay peer-reviewed and improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.
Want more college essay tips?
We'll send them straight to your inbox.