In 2018, I graduated from a public high school just outside of Philadelphia. That fall, I joined the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering as a materials science and engineering major. However, during my sophomore year, I switched to the College of Arts and Sciences to study physics. While here, I also play for the rugby team and work at the Center for Nanotechnology.
When I applied, I was attracted to UPenn’s proximity to home, location between West Philadelphia and Center City, and opportunities for undergraduate STEM research. I applied early decision in 2017 and got accepted, which meant I avoided the harrowing process of deciding between an array of colleges. There are many components to a college application, which can make the whole process difficult to navigate. Thus, the most important concept, for me, was balance. While it’s important to prepare for standardized tests, I didn’t let test stress get in the way of focusing on challenging classes. Although it’s important to take difficult classes and get good grades, I didn’t overload my classes to the point of taking me away from extracurriculars, friends, and family.
It is also important to remember is that UPenn is not looking for one specific type of applicant. Thus, my story is a piece of advice rather than a formula to guarantee admission. Penn’s acceptance rate drops year over year, which means they’re having too turn away amazing applicants every year. Remember, the colleges you get accepted to do not define how smart or qualified you are.
With all that said, here’s a little more about me and how I got into UPenn:
I’ll start by saying I was not always the “perfect student.” I had behavioral problems that got me in trouble frequently throughout middle school and the beginning of high school. I was able to coast through most of my classes freshman and sophomore year, but I hadn’t developed the right effort, attention, and study skills necessary to excel in tougher ones. I knew this had to change, so, with the help of my parents, teachers, and friends, I started to turn things around. After four years, I couldn’t boast a perfect GPA, but I am proud that my grades and relationships with my teachers got better every single year. Of course, I am not trying to discourage you from being a straight-A student: if you can do it, it certainly wouldn’t hurt. However, everyone makes mistakes their freshman year and showing stellar improvement will reflect your work ethic and hunger to learn. Despite not getting an A in math until my junior year, I’m now majoring in physics.
Grades, however, are only part of what admissions officers will look at on your transcript. They’ll also look at the level of classes you take relative to what your high school offers. If you school only offers one honors class, you better take it! Alternatively, if your school happens to have an entire AP/IB curriculum, take at least a few of those classes your junior and senior year. If, like me, your school forbids taking advanced classes in your freshmen or sophomore year, don’t sweat it.
I was fortunate enough to go to a school that offered a variety of AP classes, and I chose ones based solely on my interests. I really enjoyed sophomore-year chemistry, so I took AP Chemistry my junior year. I was also interested in politics and history, so I took AP US History. I did not enjoy English, so I avoided taking those APs. I was initially hesitant to take AP Calculus BC since I got a B+ in Trigonometry, but my teacher could tell that I loved math and pushed me to try it. I worked through the summer packet, participated in class, studied hard, consulted the internet for help, and ended up doing really well. I’m certain that getting an A in the hardest math class offered at my school likely wiped any doubts admissions officers had about my math ability based on prior grades. More importantly, I came to love math and learned how to make it through a difficult class. Don’t be afraid to take those risks! Never count yourself out because of grades. Get help from teachers, friends, and the internet, perhaps even a Helppo tutor.
I also took AP Physics 1 my junior year, and both AP Physics C courses my senior year because, clearly, I like physics. Along with AP French my senior year, I took a total of 7 AP classes, just from taking classes I liked. There’s no golden number of AP/IB classes you need to take, and don’t think things like “[This college] only wants people who take AP Literature.” There are plenty of great high school teachers around the world who can teach you a lot, so there’s no reason to wait until college. Challenge yourself in the subjects you love for the sake of learning.
Choosing extracurriculars was easy: I did what I liked, and I liked what I did. I’m into sports, so I joined my school’s baseball, basketball, and cross-country teams freshman year. I really liked running and decided to do it year-round, running track in the winter and spring for the rest of high school. I made my way onto the varsity squad and got elected team captain my senior year. Since I liked science and technology, I joined my school’s Technology Student Association chapter my freshman year, which is basically a bunch of national competitions in different areas of STEM. I was elected to the student officer board at the end of my freshman year and held that position for the rest of high school. I tried a bunch of other activities for brief periods throughout high school, like concert band and rugby. It’s always good to try new activities, but if you’re signing up purely for the purpose of college applications, remember that colleges care more about quality than quantity. It’s much more helpful to pick a handful of commitments you love and stick with them. Work towards a leadership position, build relationships with other members, and help your organization accomplish new things. That’s much more valuable to yourself and your application than being able to fill all ten slots on the Common App.
We’re finally at the fun part. After all of my positive advice about doing what you love, there’s pretty much nothing you’ll love about doing these. However, I do have some strategies to make standardized tests much more tolerable. They may even boost your score! First, choose between the SAT and the ACT. My counselors claimed they were for two different types of people, while my friends insisted that the ACT was objectively easier. I decided by trying them both. Both have a slew of official practice tests on their own websites, so I took one of each, allowing myself the same amount of time and breaks that the real test would offer. I calculated my scores using the scoring guides for each practice test and landed in a much better percentile on the SAT, so I committed to the SAT.
I signed up for the SAT in October of my junior year, which I strongly recommend. This will allow you to prepare before school starts in the fall, and, if you do well, you can forget about tests and focus on classes, clubs, and life in general. If you don’t score as well as you hoped, you have plenty of time to study more and try again later. For me, the thought of taking the SAT more than once was horrifying, so I did everything I could to reach my target score the first time around.
You don’t need me to tell you that cramming is a poor strategy. However, the SAT/ACT is so dry that even studying for 2 hours straight can be brutal. I kept myself motivated by doing daily study sessions of about 30 minutes over the span of a few months. I squeezed them into moments of downtime, which prevented me from feeling like I lost a useful section of my day, and they were short enough to hold of my attention. I relied solely on the internet, using practice videos and questions wherever I could find them, especially online companies like Helppo. There are plenty of official practice tests online, so there’s no reason to leave one untaken. Every couple of weeks I would set a timer and run through a new practice test to see what areas I still needed to work on.
Come test day, I had improved my score by 100 points since my first practice test. I landed a 1530. That score is in no way a benchmark; most schools release their 25/50/75 percentile scores, so you can see how you stack up against those. Much more goes into your application than your test scores, so just do the best you can.
How can someone with a perfect SAT get rejected from UPenn while someone below the 25th percentile gets in? How can a student with a 3.5 GPA get selected over one with a 4.0? The applicant’s background, luck, and the most underrated section of the common application: essays. Applying to UPenn requires two essays: the Common App essay and a Penn-specific essay. The Common App prompts change slightly from year to year, but in general they allow you to tell a story about yourself with the goal of displaying your personality. It is best to focus on one story and go into a lot of detail, rather than multiple vignettes. I chose to talk about my life with ADHD and Autism, traversing my childhood to my senior year of high school. Keep in mind that the essay is not to make the reader pity you or showcase an accomplishment. There is no requirement for how emotional, unique, or impressive your story has to be. Rather, it is important to explain what you learned from the event and how it made you who you are today. I explained how succeeding socially and academically taught me perseverance and hope, while allowing me to sympathize with others who have special needs, social anxiety, or attention disorders. While things like spelling and grammar are important, college essays are different from academic papers and you are encouraged to let your personality shine through. -
UPenn’s essay has a lengthy prompt that essentially asks why you want to go to Penn. If you’ve chosen to apply you should already know the answer, but don’t make the mistake of writing a sales brochure about UPenn filled with things they already know about themselves. This is a great time to showcase your career interests, extracurriculars, hobbies, or beliefs and explain how you will build on them at Penn. I wrote about how I fell in love with science as a child and how my passion for physics, chemistry, and math were a great fit for UPenn’s Materials Science and Engineering department. Since I wanted to do research as an undergraduate, I looked up specific professors I’d be interested in working with. I also looked up classes in Penn’s four different schools and mentioned which ones would help me explore my interest in language, history, and politics. I examined Penn’s catalog of student organizations and explained why I’d be interested in joining certain ones, from sports teams to cultural groups. All of this allowed me to build my identity, affirm my deep interest in the school, and demonstrate that I was motivated to make an impact on Penn’s campus and in the world. Show them what they’d be missing if they don’t give you a chance.
I hope that reading about my journey will help you navigate yours. I chose to apply early decision because UPenn was my top choice. If I was accepted, I was definitely going. That doesn’t mean that UPenn should be your top choice. In all honesty, you don’t really know what to look for in a college until you start the process. So, focus on showing your best self on your application. If that doesn’t get you into your “dream school” then it wasn’t your dream school to begin with. Everyone finds the right place. Good luck!