Yes, it exhibits everything one would expect at an “ivy league” school: a grand, bustling green campus, suitably majestic and imposing stone buildings, energetic students with laptops and books open, doing their level best to enjoy a relatively warm, early spring day. At a glance, the University of Pennsylvania, or plain old “Penn,” would be right out of central casting if there were such a thing for elite institutions of higher education. We do tend to think of the “ivy league” as a “brand” of extravagantly selective colleges that share a certain, albeit inscrutable, set of attributes.
That may be true only up to a point, as the trappings of elite schools are hardly exclusive to those belonging to this one particular, rarified athletic conference. What’s more, each of these eight academies has its own story to tell, in a voice and with a personality that sets it apart from the others. At Penn, that story arguably originates with its founder, Ben Franklin, who said: “What you seem to be, be really.” What that translates into today is evident in an academic approach that values the sometimes unlikely points of connection between ostensibly unrelated areas of interest, or as the locals shorthand it, “Penn Integrates Knowledge.”
This distinctively Penn storyline quickly came clear during an outstanding information session featuring short stories of student journeys, and how various undergrads allowed their curiosities, and the relationships between those interests, to lead the way to their academic pursuits. For example, Greg’s love of skiing led to a fascination with climate change. He then linked his environmental concerns to his academic focus on mechanical engineering, and how that knowledge might be applied to climate-related challenges.
Penn encourages this type of free-range exploration by urging students to think about what they love before even considering potential majors, and to consider a more holistic approach to studies within the context of their ultimate goals. They are then free to follow their bliss across the full spectrum of Penn’s liberal arts, engineering, and business schools, blowing up the silos between traditional majors. Our tour guide, whose studies span neuroscience, computer science, urban planning and Spanish confirmed that Penn’s omnivorous educational philosophy is more than just talk.
Building on all the above, the admissions officer who led our information session emphasized the importance of the “What do you want to study at Penn?” question on the application. She said that, too often, applicants answer the question generically, as if they simply cut and pasted the same response for every school (because that’s actually what they did). Doing so is almost a sure-fire way to end up in the “R” pile, even if your grades, rigor and board scores are perfect.
Conversely, if one takes the time to study what each and every school has to offer, and explain how that aligns with one’s goals and aspirations, it can be your ticket in. While Penn does not factor “demonstrated interest” into its decisions because it does not want to disadvantage those who cannot travel to Philadelphia, it does give points to those who show that they have taken the time to understand why Penn is a good fit. Ironically, the best — and maybe only — way to do this is to visit the school. It is not easy to glean “Penn Integrates Knowledge” from the school’s website; as central as this story is to Penn’s existence it is buried under layers of online navigation menus. We certainly wouldn’t have fully appreciated its importance short of spending a half a day on campus, seeing and hearing it for ourselves. Wherever you plan to apply, we encourage you to do the same, as it could make make all the difference.
While it’s true that most students will not have the opportunity to attend Penn or another of the “ivy league” schools, the same principles can be applied elsewhere. To that end, high school students might take a more expansive view of their academic interests right now, and think about how to substantiate them during their high school careers, regardless of where they plan to apply. Colleges do tend to favor those who show depth and consistency, but in today’s world that can mean mixing and matching a range of interests and influences to come up with fresh ideas and new solutions.
It’s about more than just standing out; it’s about being what you seem to be, really.