Tips for Completing Your Penn Supplement to the Common Application


This post about the Penn supplement to the Common Application is part of a series of posts written to help you complete the 2012 Common Application supplement for Ivy League schools

As an application reviewer and a college counselor, I struggle with the “why us?” question.  The question from the University of Pennsylvania supplement is no different.

The opportunities, both academic and extracurricular, at Penn are broad and appealing.  The admissions committee has a reputation for seeking students who are especially committed to their interest in the school and this question clearly seeks to find the essence of that interest.

Considering both the specific undergraduate school or program to which you are applying and the broader University of Pennsylvania community, what academic, research, and/or extracurricular paths do you see yourself exploring at Penn?

The trick with this question is to write an essay that addresses the question without sounding like you’ve swallowed the viewbook and at the same time providing personal insight, personality and voice to you answer.  Penn offers you up to 500 words in answering the question.  Consider the following:

  • With its emphasis on research and interdisciplinary study, if this is an area that interests you, or you have a research background, mention it. If your interests are well defined, and based upon previous experience, even if it is only in-depth reading about a particular topic, demonstrate your intellectual engagement within the context of this essay.
  • If you are academically undecided, consider how Penn will help you explore areas of interest.  Draw a parallel to another time in which you have been able to explore something new.
  • What is appealing about Penn’s urban campus?  How is it similar to or different from other places that you have lived?
  • If you have visited Penn, attended an information session about Penn either in your community or high school, draw upon your reactions to what you’ve learned.  If you know students at Penn, ask them what they like most about the college.
  • What does it mean to be part of the larger Penn community as an alumnus/a?

Spend some time picturing yourself on the campus and use the essay as an opportunity to expand upon some of the things you find most appealing about college while sharing more about your background and goals.  You can also draw briefly on some of your past experiences to highlight how they might transition onto the Penn campus.


Tips for Completing your Cornell Supplement to the Common Application


This post about the Cornell supplement to the Common Application is part of a series of posts written to help you complete the 2012 Common Application supplement for Ivy League schools

A friend of mine has a son who studying at Cornell.  When I look at the Cornell supplement, it isn’t hard to picture “John”, sitting at his computer, writing the supplemental statement.  It’s also easy to see why he was such a compelling applicant to their admission committee.  John is a birder, and he was well acquainted with Cornell’s ornithology program.  As a high school student, he had spent hours searching for specific species and summers tracking birds in northern Canada.  He could tell you specifically what he was going to do with his Cornell education.  Happily now, he’s in Ithaca, following through on his initial plans.

If you are searching for academic options in the Ivy League, look carefully at Cornell.  Its undergraduate enrollment is larger than its Ivy brethren, and the diversity of its offerings and majors complements its size.  Applicants select one (and sometimes an alternate) of the 7 undergraduate divisions when submitting an application.

While it might be tempting to check the box for a less competitive division (although they are all competitive) and then change after admission, Cornell’s supplemental essay questions ask students to write specifically about the roots of their interests.  The admissions committee is searching for students who have made deliberate choices about their intended areas of study. You’ve embarked upon a tough fiction-writing task to convince the committee of your desire to study architecture when you fulfilled your arts requirement exclusively with drama, avoided physics like the plague, and have devoted your extracurricular time to soccer and the soup kitchen.

While it isn’t uncommon for students to change their minds about their areas of study while in college, devoting thought to what excites you intellectually now will help you determine what type of environment suits you in college, and will give you career direction as you move forward in the next few years.

For students who are planning to apply to a number of colleges, writing about your area of academic interest is a common question.  For each of these questions, avoid general statements such as “English is my favorite class” and instead focus on the specifics about studying English that appeal to you.  Did a specific project excite you?  Do you enjoy a particular genre of writing?  What are your career goals, and how does your intended major relate to that?  If you are writing about extracurricular pursuits, which are particularly relevant to Agriculture and Hotel Administration applicants, again, be specific about your experiences and what you’ve learned from them.

Applicants to Cornell generally demonstrate very high levels of academic achievement in the classroom and on standardized tests.  Each undergraduate division at Cornell, however, has slightly different requirements for admission regarding testing and high school curriculum.  Double-check the requirements to ensure that you have completed all of the necessary components before submitting your application.


The Spiced Up MBA


When one applies to business school they typically worry about whether they have enough work experience under their belt, or whether they can compete with Ivy League graduates and 4.0 GPAs.  But statistics show that since the financial crisis MBA programs are no longer looking for cookie cutter students. “Diversity” is the name of the game.

The Spiced Up MBAAn article in the Financial Times (“Variety is the Spice of Life”) looks at how recruiters are now focusing on finding all different kinds of students to enroll in their MBA programs.  Schools like Harvard, Wharton and Stanford are enrolling fewer investment bankers and more women, entrepreneurs, military personnel, environmentalists and not-for-profit managers in future classes. In fact, only 12%-14% of the admitted students at Harvard and Wharton in 2011 had investment banking backgrounds.

Even the average age of incoming MBA students is changing! The typical incoming Harvard Business School student is now 27, up from 26 a year ago.

Wharton is also working to diversify its student body. Ankur Kumar, deputy director of admissions at Wharton, explains, “This has been a focal point for the past few years. We wanted to dispel some of the stereotypes and misconceptions [about MBA programs].” Wharton has gone so far as to reach out to high school students and teach them about the importance of a business education.

Stanford has even developed its own approach to incorporating diversity into its program. The school has ensured that one in six accepted MBA students is studying for another degree alongside their MBA.
Although American schools still need to incorporate more international students into their student body (Wharton is only 36% international and Harvard is only 34%), the MBA programs have made enormous strides towards accepting more women, applicants in a wider age range, and out-of-the-professional-box MBA candidates. This openness to diversity, if not commitment to wider definition of diversity, allows future applicants to think more creatively about how to market themselves to business schools.  Getting into MBA programs no longer requires fitting into the investment banking mold, but is more about breaking the mold altogether.

I have seen several articles about the increasing diversity of accepted MBA applicants and we have seen less emphasis on the classic professions with our clients as well. I recently spoke, however, to one admissions director who told me that this openness is driven as much by a change in the applicant pool as by the increased openness touted in this article.

Since the financial crisis and the subsequent layoffs of a few years ago, there are fewer investment bankers, and there are fewer investment bankers applying to MBA programs. There were also fewer college grads hired into investment banking in 2008 and 2009. But over the next few years members of those college classes will apply in increasing numbers. It will be very interesting to see if the trend discussed in this article represents a real increased commitment to professional diversity in MBA admissions, or simply a response to necessity combined with spin.

If the latter, investment bankers will once again have the inside track, and we’ll read that an MBA is a typical stop on the investment banking career track; if the former, professional diversity will continue to reign.


Linda AbrahamBy , President and Founder of

Photo credit: lju photo

Are You Applying to Harvard College?


This post about the Harvard supplement to the Common Application is part of a series of posts written to help you complete the 2012 Common Application supplement for Ivy League schools

Last year, almost 35,000 students applied to Harvard College.  Of those, 2158 received offers of admission to join the class of 2015.  That’s 6.1%.  With 35,000 applicants, most of whom present nearly perfect academic credentials and outstanding commitments to extracurricular excellence, you face a critical question: How do you stand out?

Harvard College Eliot HouseWith the entire college process, be yourself.  Be your best self, but yourself. Your Harvard application is no different.

This year, Harvard has reinstated the restrictive early action process. If Harvard is your first choice, you can consider applying early, with a preferred deadline of October 15th and a final deadline of November 1.  The restrictive early action choice prohibits applicants from filing additional single choice early action, or early decision applications.  It does allow for submission of rolling admission or regular decision applications prior to receiving a decision from Harvard.  If you are admitted to Harvard under the early action program, you have until May 1 to decide whether or not to accept the offer of admission.

A completed Harvard application includes either the ACT with writing or the SAT exam.  Harvard also requires two SAT II subject tests.  To allow for your application to be fully reviewed, and to save the expense of rush reporting, try to complete all of your testing requirements in advance of the deadline, by the October deadline for early action and the November test date for regular decision.

The Harvard Common Application supplement does not require an additional essay, however, you may choose to submit one on the topic of your choice.  Before you feel compelled to fill blank space, be certain that you will enhance your application by adding additional information.  Has there been more to the last 18 years of your life than you have already explained?  Probably.  Will it take time and introspection to write a worthwhile supplemental essay?  Yes.  Before you begin writing, consider the information you have already provided through your common application.  Brainstorm about other experiences that might differentiate you from other candidates, and put yourself at the initial center of your essay.  You are the person the admission committee wants to understand. The key in answering this open-ended essay is to be certain that the reader knows more about the way you think about, engage in, or reflect on the world around you after reading the supplement than before.

One of the Harvard suggestions is to include a list of books that you have read in the last 12 months.  If you spend substantial time reading for pleasure or intellectual engagement, this list might provide compelling insight on your application.  If your list outside of AP English includes only a few bestsellers and a “Chicken Soup for the Soul”, consider a different approach to the question.

While it is tempting to ignore the question, or submit an essay that you have already written for another application, take the time to put your best work in front of the Harvard admission committee.  When you have finished the first draft, consider the reader of your application.  One extra page, times 35,000 applicants, means you best have something meaningful to say.


Photo credit: roger4336

How Personal is Too Personal?

The personal statement is a terrific opportunity to share with admissions committees an interesting and unique aspect of your life.  However, many applicants are understandably frightened of having to face the “camera” and speak personally about their lives while also trying to impress.  So, how much should you tell, and how much is too much?

When I applied to college, I wrote a personal statement describing some challenging family circumstances I’d had while growing up.  I can still remember my best friend warning me that it was too risky, too intense.  So I went back to the essay and asked myself: what did I learn from this experience?  Does it speak to my strengths and individual qualities, or is it something meant for a therapist’s office (or a private journal)?  I studied the essay carefully and made sure it gave the reader a good sense of who I was, not just the people in my family.  I was careful to focus on what I had learned from these challenges, and how the experience had made me a more independent, compassionate person.  I decided to send it in, and I was lucky to get great responses.  (In fact, one admissions counselor even wrote me a personal note!)  So, in this case, taking the leap was well worth it.  But, in some cases, it is not.

All admissions committees want to accept a wide range of interesting, talented applicants.  They want – as you would, if you were picking a team of any sort – a diverse group of smart, motivated, innovative, and unique individuals who can add up to an interesting, richly layered community.  They want people with integrity who will get along with others, and they want people who will add to their campus in an endless variety of ways.  They also want applicants who are stable, confident, and have already achieved important things in their lives.

So, when facing the personal statement, try listing all of the meaningful events in your life.  Which experiences really changed you, influenced you, and made you the person you are today?

For example, did you grow up overseas, having to speak several languages?  Are you from a cultural background that might make you stand out, or may have enriched your life in a special way?  Do you have a handicap that has in fact made you stronger?  Do you love to cook Thai food, run marathons, play the piano?  Do you have a passion or interest that might be unusual but gives meaning to your life?  What have you had to work really hard at?

Then, mark the ones that, while they may be very personal, helped you to learn what you want to do with your life; the ones that led you to clarify your values.  Ask yourself: do these experiences make me sound emotionally unstable, or ambivalent, or insecure?  If so, I’d take them to a therapist, not the admissions committee!  But, if your topic has helped you become stronger and wiser, then I’d consider it to be a viable option.

A few tips:

  • Always be honest (admissions committees can smell exaggeration from a mile away!).
  • Explain as much as you have to, but be careful not to give unnecessary and boring details.
  • Humor can be great, but don’t force it.
  • Focus on what you learned and what you’d like to do with that knowledge, not just on what happened.
  • Have someone you trust read it over for you.
  • Then, read it yourself.  Does it sound like you?  Is the topic something you can be proud of?   Will it make you stand out not just in some way, but in a good way?

If so, I’d say go for it.  Be yourself.  Make it interesting.  And tell the truth.