How to Get into University of Pennsylvania

The University of Pennsylvania is one of the eight Ivy League universities (along with Harvard, Dartmouth, Brown, Princeton, Cornell, Yale, and Columbia). As such, it’s hard to get into.

It’s not easy to get into Penn, but with the right strategy, you can boost your chances, big time

Here’s how Penn’s acceptance rate breaks down from last year:

     Early Decision: 18%

     Regular Decision: 5.7%

     Total Acceptance Rate: 7.7%

Let’s dig a little deeper. 96% of students admitted to Penn for the Fall of 2018 came from the top 10% of their high school graduating classes. Of those students, most earned ACT scores between 33 and 35; of the applicants who took the SAT, most earned scores between 1460-1550. And while Penn does not publish the average GPA of incoming classes, the university does note that admitted applicants pursued a “rigorous” program of study in high school and received top grades.


What is Penn looking for beyond stellar numbers?

Penn’s admissions home page indicates that Penn is looking for “students who aspire to develop and refine their talents and abilities within Penn’s liberal arts-based, practical, and interdisciplinary learning environment.” Further, they note that their ideal candidates are “inspired to emulate our founder Ben Franklin.”

Translated, what that means is that Penn is looking for students who are, as Franklin was, innovative, curious, creative, and independent. Students who are interested in disparate subjects (remember, Franklin was interested in and wrote about many subjects including education, government, politics, science, and daily life) and who is interested in exploring connections between apparently disparate fields (such as econ and film, art and biology). Penn wants someone like Franklin who is willing to take intellectual risks. Someone, in other words, who is willing to take a kite, a key, and a jar out to a field to see if he can demonstrate the electrical nature of lightning.

How do you show that you are like Franklin? Through what you write in the Penn supplemental essays.

In the Penn supplemental essays, you want to emphasize your interest in and past experience with interdisciplinary work (interdisciplinary refers to a course of study that involves two or more academic, scientific, or artistic disciplines). In other words, you want to use the opportunities presented in the essays to show how your mind thinks in an interdisciplinary way, and you want to represent how you want to continue to explore and learn in an interdisciplinary way. In other words, because Penn’s identity is all about interdisciplinary learning, you want to use the supplemental essays to show how you will fit into Penn’s distinctive intellectual culture.

Penn requires two supplements, a 350-400-word essay that asks you to write about intellectual pursuits and interests and a 150-200-word essay that asks about your life outside of school. Here they are:

Penn Supplemental Essay #1:

How did you discover your intellectual and academic interests, and how will you explore them at the University of Pennsylvania? Please respond considering the specific undergraduate school you have selected. For students applying to the coordinated dual-degree and specialized programs, please answer these questions in regard to your single-degree school choice; your interest in the coordinated dual-degree or specialized program may be addressed through the program-specific essay. (300-450 words)

How do you use this essay to show that you are like Franklin? Franklin was avidly curious about the world around him, and he was determined to learn about the world. To that end, among his other accomplishments, he taught himself how to write, he studied multiple languages and cultures, and he even taught himself how to swim. To take best advantage of this essay prompt then, you want to write about your intellectual curiosity and specifically detail how Penn will help you develop and advance those interests.

To maximally exploit this essay opportunity, develop an anecdote about yourself that demonstrates your intellectual curiosity and love of learning. Remember that the goal is to think in an interdisciplinary way here, so when developing your anecdote, think about how you can communicate the connections and intersections you see in subjects that interest you. For example, if you are interested in a biology degree, mention how an interdisciplinary or holistic approach to bio would benefit you as a future biologist. You might want to mention your alignment with Franklin’s philosophy of learning or even to drop in a quotation from Franklin that helps press your case. Also, provide some evidence demonstrating how your interdisciplinary thinking is employed in your thinking outside of school (i.e., in daily life). Finally, mention specific professors you would like to study with and courses you would like to take that would help you develop the intersections and connections that interest you.

What about the second Penn supplemental essay? Here it is:­

Penn Supplemental Essay #2

At Penn, learning and growth happen outside of t­he classrooms, too. How will you explore the community at Penn? Consider how this community will help shape your perspective and identity, and how your identity and perspective will help shape this community. (150-200 words)

The prompt is asking you to represent your relationship to the society in which you presently live, and offers you an opportunity to write about who you are in that community. To exploit this opportunity, first describe a community to which you belong (it might be the community of high school students, citizens of certain town/city, the community of amateur banjo players; it could be any community) and then define your role in that community. When writing, remember to use active verbs and specific details. Then use those defined attributes to write about potential contributions that you might make to Penn’s intellectual and extra-curricular community. Finally, be sure to note how the particular intellectual currents at Penn will help you become more of the kind of person you’ve defined yourself as.

The University of Pennsylvania is one of hardest schools in the country to get in to, but with right approach have excellent chances!


Susan collaborates with you right from the start of your brainstorming through to your final finished application essays! I loved working with her. There’s no one else out there like her!

                                                                                    Eva B., high school senior, Austin, TX


Need help with your Penn essays or any other college admissions essays? Call me!

Dr. Osborn works with students from all over the world via Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, phone, and Google docs to help them reach their independent, college, and graduate school goals. Through a personal, one-on-one approach, Dr. Osborn creates an individualized curriculum for each student based on the student’s strengths, passions, and college aspirations. Her holistic approach helps students perform well in school and win admission to the Ivy League and other competitive colleges.  

About The Author

Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.