There's no doubt that the University of Pennsylvania is extremely difficult to get into. In 2021, the ivy league school in Philadelphia accepted just 5.9% of applicants, or fewer than six out of every 100 students that applied. With odds like that, every part of the application counts, but some count more than others.
There's no easy answer to what it takes to get admitted to Penn. All admitted students have exceptional grades, outstanding recommendations, and a unique combination of interests and activities. But if you have your heart set on Penn, you should know what the admissions committee prioritizes, what they don't focus on as much, and how to strategize your application accordingly.
The University of Pennsylvania has what's called a "whole-person review process," which basically means they look at more than just numbers to make their admissions decisions. While academics are one of the first and most important areas the admissions committee will look at, the truth is, schools like Penn receive enough applicants with stellar academic records to fill their incoming class many times over.
So how do they decide who gets in, and who doesn't? And how can students set themselves up for success in the admissions process? Penn admissions looks most closely at these four areas:
Let's walk through the four areas that Penn admissions is most interested in, and take a look at some advice straight from the Penn admissions department on how to approach each area.
University of Pennsylvania takes both the Coalition App and the Common App, as well as the Questbridge App, for students who qualified as Questbridge National College Match Finalists. The deadline to apply early decision to Penn is November 1st, 2021 and applicants should hear back by mid-December. Penn accepts a significantly larger percent of early decision applicants than regular decision – 14.9 percent of ED applicants are accepted, compared to just 4.4 percent of regular decision applicants and 5.9 percent of all applicants.
Students with their hearts set on Penn should strongly consider applying early, especially if they have a family member that attended Penn. According to the admissions office, "We appreciate that attending Penn is a tradition for many families, so an applicant’s affiliation with Penn, either by being a child or grandchild of alumni, is given the most consideration through Early Decision."
Early decision is binding however, so if you're not 100 percent sure you want to attend Penn, apply regular decision. The regular admissions deadline for first-year students is January 5th, 2022, and students will hear back in April 2022.
Transfer students can submit applications until March 15, 2022.
The first thing that the Penn admissions committee looks at is an applicants overall academic performance. This not only includes grades, but the rigor of the classes offered and taken in high school, standardized test scores (if submitted) and recommendations from teachers.
Penn compares a students' transcripts to their high school's profile, which is a document created by high schools to help college admissions officers get a clearer idea of what types of classes and opportunities a school offers. This helps reviewers get a clearer sense of where an applicant is coming from, if they took the most challenging courses available, and how their scores compare to their classmates. The average unweighted GPA for a first-year student at Penn is 3.9
The University of Pennsylvania has announced that it will extend its test-option policy into the 2021-2022 admissions cycle, due to complications caused by COVID-19. Applicants can choose to self-report their ACT or SAT scores, if they did take the test. For the class of 2025, the middle 50 percent of students who did report test scores had between 1490 and 1560 on the SAT and 35-36 on the ACT.
Recommendation Letters are an important part of the application process. Recs are considered part of the Academic category because they are usually a chance or teachers and counselors to speak to what kind of student you are, beyond the numbers.
However, in September of 2021, Penn introduced a new recommendation policy. They require three letters, including one from your school counselor and one from a teacher, but now the third letter can now be from any adult you choose, as long as they know you well and can speak to who you are as a leader, a teammate, or in another setting where you shine.
Penn does recommend that students avoid getting recommendation letters from two teachers in the same subject. They would prefer to get a more well-rounded view of students by hearing from people who know you in a variety of contexts.
Watch the video below to hear more from Penn Admissions on Academics in the application.
Ah, the activities list: one the of the most subjective, time-consuming, and possibly stressful part of the college application. Penn admissions gives students some sound advice straight from the institution's famous founder, Benjamin Franklin, "What you say you are, be really."
Students are encouraged not to pad their application by signing up for a ton of activities they're not really interested in or including every single thing they did throughout high school, just because it'll "look good." Spend time doing what you love or what you're responsible for doing, and then talk about it in detail in your college app.
And don't worry if you weren't able to play a varsity sport or lead a club because you had other things on your plate. Penn admissions says there are two types of activities that they want to hear about:
Most people probably think of the first one when thinking about what to include in a list of activities. How you choose to spend your time says a lot about who you are and what you care about. This is where you can include sports you play, clubs you participate in, or organizations you're involved with.
Penn admissions knows that people can't always do everything they'd like to do though. So, they also wants to hear about any other responsibilities you have that take up a significant amount of time. If you're in charge of taking care of younger siblings after school, have a part-time job, or spend hours a day on a city bus just get to and from school – they want to know!
But don't assume the person reviewing your application will know what your activities entailed just by listing them. Think of this section like a resume. Be concise, but include details about exactly what you did, the time-commitment involved, and any accomplishments you contributed to, if relevant.
Remember, for colleges, the activities list is less about what you've already done, and more about how you might contribute to the Penn community and what you have the potential to do in the future. So don't worry if you haven't started a non-profit or published an Op-Ed in a major newspaper before you've even graduated high school. Everyone has the same amount of hours in a day (theoretically), and you spent them somehow. So, just explain clearly and confidently how you've spent your time, and your time will speak for itself.
For specific examples of how to craft the activities list watch the video from Penn admissions below.
Penn requires a personal statement, two supplemental Penn-specific essays, and sometimes a program-specific essay. That may seem like a lot, but essays are the only chance the admissions committee gets to hear about you from the person who knows you best - YOU. This is a chance to show them not what you've accomplished or how others see you, but how you see the world and why Penn would be a good fit.
The personal essay is one that you will send to all (or most) of the colleges you apply to. This is the one chance for admissions to see beyond grades and accomplishments and get a glimpse into how you see the world. The personal essay is less about showing how smart you are and more about showing how you you are. The strongest essays usually give the admissions committee a window into a moment where you overcame a challenge, changed your mind, or approached a situation in a novel way.
For an example of a an essay that does this well and earned a student ivy league admission, read Good Game, Frank.
Instead of the "Why [This College]" essay that many schools require, Penn requires two supplemental essays. The essays ask applicants to address the following prompts:
Both of these prompts give you a chance to share more about yourself, while also showing how you see yourself at Penn. According to the admissions department, don't stress if you can't visit campus. Take a virtual tour, explore real student profiles to see how others participate in the Penn community, and dive deep into the many resources on the website. Remember, these essays aren't a quiz to prove you know everything about a school; they're a chance to show the admissions committee that you can really picture yourself there, so that they can too.
The admissions departments tells applicants to feel free to have a counselor or trusted adult proofread your essay and give feedback, but urges students not to let anyone edit-out the parts where your unique voice comes through.
For more on college essays from Penn Admissions, watch the video below.
Almost all Penn applicants will be offered an in-person or virtual interview through the Penn Alumni Interview Program. If you do not get offered an interview, don't stress. It may just mean that there aren't enough alumni volunteers available. If you do get offered an interview, it is not required, but the admissions department strongly recommends that you find the time to interview.
Interviews are meant to be an informal conversation between you and an alumni volunteer. They are a chance for you to find out more about Penn and for Penn to find out more about you.
A few interview tips from the Penn admissions office:
The interviewer will send the admissions committee a summary after your interview with a brief description of your conversation and their takeaways.
For more interview tips from Penn watch the video below.
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