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Understanding the Admissions Process at UPenn

This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by Aja Altenhof in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream for more info.


What’s Covered: 



An Overview of Admissions at the University of Pennsylvania


When applying to the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), you will apply to one specific school unless you’re applying to a dual-degree program, which will allow you to receive a separate degree from two schools at once. When applying to a specialized dual-degree program, you will submit your application to both schools and declare which school you’d like to study in should you not be admitted to the specialized degree program. 


For those not interested in a specialized degree program, you’ll need to apply to a specific school at UPenn, although you won’t have to declare a specific major. You can simply indicate your interest through your application and weave that into your admissions narrative.


Undergraduate Acceptance Rates


The University of Pennsylvania has an overall acceptance rate of 5.7%. The acceptance rate for the class of 2025 (the 2020 admissions cycle) was a record low. The acceptance rate for the previous cycle was three percentage points higher at 8.7% of applicants. 


For context, UPenn received its largest application pool of more than 56,000 students in 2020, which represented a 34% increase from the previous year. UPenn wasn’t the only prestigious school to note a dramatic increase in applicants. Last year, Harvard University saw an increase of 40% in undergraduate applications, and Brown University reported a 26% increase. 


These trends are likely related to COVID-19 because many high school and current undergraduates chose to take a gap year, defer, or take time off due to the uncertainty early in the pandemic. Additionally, in light of the pandemic, many schools made standardized tests optional for admissions, which all factors into this decreased admissions rate and larger applicant pool. 


Applying as a Legacy or Student-Athletes


At schools like the University of Pennsylvania, student-athletes and legacies tend to have slightly higher acceptance rates. As UPenn is an NCAA Division I school, campus coaches connect with high school athletes early in their high school careers to recruit them for teams. Like most of the other prestigious schools, UPenn does account for legacies in its admissions process. 


About 13% of the class of 2025 were legacy applicants, so they had a grandparent or parent who attended UPenn. It’s important to note that while being a legacy or a strong high school athlete can certainly boost your chances of admission, factors like GPA and test scores still carry weight in admissions decisions.


But don’t worry—if you’re not a legacy or an athlete, it’s not game over. You can always see your chances of acceptance at UPenn based on your unique profile using our free Chancing Engine


The Admissions Process at the University of Pennsylvania


As part of the admissions process at UPenn, you’ll have a primary and secondary reader, both of whom will review your application before it goes to the broader admissions committee. 


Your primary reader is usually your regional admissions officer who will review your application first. Depending on where you live, there will be one person who oversees reading the applications from that region of the United States or world. Once they’ve read through and passed your application to your secondary reader, it’ll go to the admissions committee, where the decision to admit, defer, waitlist, or deny your application will ultimately be made.


Demographics of Undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania


UPenn is home to about 10,000 full-time undergraduates with about 2,500 students making up the freshman class.


While the university doesn’t have a ton of specific data for the class of 2025, 56% are U.S. citizens who identify as people of color. The class is divided pretty equally between men and women with 54% female students compared to 46% male students. It’s important to note that the university currently uses traditional sex to indicate the gender makeup of the community, so these numbers don’t include information about gender identity that’s inclusive of transgender, nonbinary, and other gender identities.


The majority of students at UPenn are domestic students, but 11% of students in the class of 2025 are international students representing nearly 100 different countries. All 50 states are represented in the class, with the highest concentration of admitted students hailing from New York, California, New Jersey, Texas, and Florida. 


Specialized vs. Well-Rounded Applicants


In college admissions, there are two main types of applicants: the well-rounded applicant and the specialized applicant. Many colleges and universities look for specialized applicants over well-rounded ones as these students tend to have bigger accomplishments in a smaller cluster of areas.


While a well-rounded applicant can still be accomplished, you want to show your passion and commitment to a smaller number of extracurriculars and overachieve in an area of your choice. If you’ve shown commitment in a certain activity and taken on roles of leadership and responsibility where possible, that’s more impressive than having a range of extracurriculars.


Similarly, highlighting parts of your application that are related to your prospective major or the school that you’re applying to can help you stand apart as a specialized applicant. For example, most STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) majors are going to display very strong STEM profiles, having completed challenging courses in math and the sciences. Maybe you’ve extended your interests by getting involved in a robotics or coding project. Showing experiences where you’ve explored your interests in interdisciplinary ways can help you stand out within your specialization.


Identifying Your Spike


It isn’t uncommon to have more than one activity or specialization and still have a spike. Typically, the well-rounded applicant will have a variety of extracurriculars and courses on their resume while a spiky applicant will have one or two extracurriculars that they’re deeply involved with. They often also pursue advanced coursework in areas related to their spike where possible. Your spike extracurricular is going to be the one that you’re most committed to and have spent the most time on. This activity is often tied most closely to your personal development, passions, and even potential career goals. Consequently, it should be something you love. 


Your commitment, consistency, relevant accomplishments, and the activity’s uniqueness are all indicators of whether the activity is a spike. Consider whether you’ve taken on leadership positions, placements, and special projects or initiatives that relate to this activity. This will help you to identify better whether the activity is a spike or something at which you excel.


Even if your extracurricular spike has no relation to your academics or prospective major, it is still an effective tool to leverage when crafting your applications and supplements. Generally, most students applying to schools like UPenn are academically qualified to attend. Consequently, having strong extracurriculars and achievements can help boost your application and set you apart.


Do you want to know what it takes to get into UPenn? Check out this post for more information on the admissions process and how to improve your chances of getting in.