Essays That Worked Upenn Financial Aid

In the latest episode of Getting In: A College Coach Conversation, host Beth Heaton covers a wide range of informative topics: an insider’s perspective on what happens after you submit your financial aid application, a conversation about honors colleges, and insight into the UVA supplemental essays.

After the Aid Application

In the first segment, Beth welcomed former Babson and RISD financial aid officer Michelle Clifton to the show to shed some light on what happens in the financial aid office after families submit the FAFSA, and, for some schools, the CSS Profile.

Beth and Michelle talked about the very first steps after submission. Colleges compare the submissions that come in electronically to the admissions data, checking to see who’s been accepted.  An important point to note: financial aid officers don’t create financial aid packages for students before they’ve been slated for acceptance.  Michelle then walked through all the next steps in the process: comparing the data received on all applications, calculating an expected family contribution, comparing that EFC to the college’s total cost of attendance (COA) to determine the student’s “need,” and attempting to meet that need with federal, state, and institutional funding.

During this walkthrough, Michelle also answered some questions commonly asked by families about the process:

  • How can I be sure that the colleges received my FAFSA and my Profile forms?
  • What should you do if you realize, after submitting, that you’ve made an error on the forms, or that information has changed?
  • Are colleges going to question the information on the forms? How do they verify that the information is accurate?
  • And, finally, when do financial aid award letters come out?

Lots of detailed information and answers in this segment!  It was a great look inside the financial aid process.

Honors Colleges

For the second segment, Beth welcomed former Goucher admissions officer Lisa Albro for an enlightening discussion of honors colleges, an option that is becoming increasingly popular for ambitious students these days. But what are they, exactly? Honors colleges are a way for public, often larger, universities to offer a ‘niche’ for the high-achieving students in their applicant pool. They are, in a sense, an enclave for these students—a smaller school within a larger university. They are often extremely selective—in some cases, as selective as the Ivies—and the admissions process can differ from school to school.

An honors college can be an amazing opportunity for the right student, but should you apply to an honors college?  Lisa and Beth discussed who should consider honors colleges, and how to decide if an honors college is the best fit. They are designed for students who are extremely committed to their education—for students who ‘go the extra mile’ in their studies. Some specific Honors Colleges discussed were those at Penn State, University of Texas, University of Michigan, University of Maryland, Arizona State, and Clemson.

University of Virginia Supplement

In the final segment, Beth welcomed back former Franklin and Marshall and Georgetown admissions officer Karen Spencer to offer tips and insight on how to tackle the University of Virginia supplement. They went through strategies on how to approach each of the various questions. While they are all different, the common thread among them is that they are short and specific—forcing students to be personal and revealing.  Students should strive to be non-generic in their responses, and to make sure they are answering the entire prompt. Almost all the prompts end with the question, “And why?”  Karen’s advice was to focus on the ‘why’ in any response, as that is likely the most important part of the essay to the Admissions Office.

So much amazing advice in one jam-packed show! And our next episode promises to be just as good, when host Ian Fisher looks to answers the important question: do senior grades matter? (Spoiler alert: they do!) He’ll also look at net price calculators and more college supplemental essays. Not to be missed!

* Students applying to Digital Media Design and Computer & Cognitive Science should address both the specialized program and single-degree choice in their response. For students applying to the other coordinated dual-degree and specialized programs, please answer this question in regards to your single-degree school choice; your interest in the coordinated dual-degree or specialized program may be addressed through the program-specific essay.


This essay is asking a very straightforward question: what do you want to study and why do you want to study that at Penn in particular. With this question, the admissions officers are trying to do three things. First, they are trying to weed out those candidates that are just applying to Penn because it is a “fancy school.” Second, they want to learn something about your intellectual passions and interests. Third, they want to see if you have done your research and started to figure out how you will use Penn to pursue those intellectual passions and interests.


When they ask you to talk about your major within one of the four schools — Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Nursing, and Wharton — you should realize that you are not necessarily talking about these schools in general. Each of these schools contains a multitude of different majors, areas of focus, research opportunities, and Penn wants to know that you have taken the time to research their offerings.


For example, if you are applying to the College of Arts and Sciences, you should not be talking about “Arts and Sciences” as a whole (everything from biology to French literature!). Focus on the major and classes within the school of Arts and Sciences that you want to pursue.


Maybe you want to study at Penn because of its remarkably high number of professors (10!) working on differential geometry — a subject of particular interest to you. You might begin your essay by talking about how you have been interested in differential geometry ever since you asked your high school math teacher, “Okay, we’ve gone over how to find the surface area of a cube, but how would you even begin to find the surface area of something like a plastic bag floating in the air?” You can then go on to talk about the work you’ve done studying new topics in geometry over the summer, the thrill of thinking about how billiard balls bounce around differently shaped boards, and the overlap between your interests and the unique research profile of Penn’s mathematics faculty.


An important thing to remember here is that you need to talk about both your passion for a particular subject area and what Penn has to offer you — both aspects are equally important!


If you are interested in one of Penn’s specialized programs, you still need to write an essay about how you intend to pursue your intellectual interests at Penn, regardless of whether you are admitted to a specialized program or not. The trick here is to write an essay that communicates the full force of enthusiasm and excitement for a plan of study at Penn that does not hinge exclusively on admission to a specialized program, such as Huntsman (discussed in more detail below).


Maybe you have been fascinated with international relations and diplomacy ever since you started learning French and playing Massive Online Multi-player strategy games that required weaving complex treaties with people from many different parties. You can write a great essay about how you hope to use Penn’s resources to pursue a major in international relations, and how you especially look forward to studying abroad — maybe to meet some of the people who you have been collaborating with from all over the world.


Then, if you are interested in the intersection of business and international relations, you might use your Huntsman essay to talk about your abiding interest in logistics (perhaps related to your work in gaming) has drawn you to the problem of how conflicts in international law might affect the efficiency of global shipping supply chains.


The College of Engineering’s special programs in Digital Media Design and Computer & Cognitive Science are something of a special case.


For these two programs, your statement of why you fit into them belongs in this general admissions essay, not in a separate prompt. As such, you need to treat this essay like an application for a specialized program that also addresses the major you will pursuing outside these specialized programs. This means you will need to cram a lot into this essay. The trick in these cases is to use your essay to show how the distinctive intellectual interest that you are pursuing in the College of Arts and Sciences or the College of Engineering will be augmented by the addition of these specialized programs.


For example, if you are applying to Computer & Cognitive Science, you might also be applying to the College of Arts & Sciences to study Linguistics. You can start the essay by talking about how language has always fascinated you: you always wanted to dig deeper than the rules listed in your grammar books. Why — you ask — do we say “the big red house” and not “the red big house?” Maybe part of what drove you to start learning Spanish and Russian was to see if rules of syntax in English also applied to other languages.


Then, you’ll pivot in a new paragraph to talk about how your interest in syntax also makes you interested in Penn’s program in Computer & Cognitive science. Your interest in word-order might go beyond human-made languages and extend to the languages machine intelligences are starting to create. In order to show the admissions committee that your passion for computing is no less than your passion for learning new languages, you might talk about the work you did programming a chatbot or creating a little video game to help you study your Latin declensions. If you are applying to any of these interdisciplinary programs, you want to show the admissions committee that you have already started to think across disciplinary boundaries.


What if you are not particularly interested in any of Penn’s specialized programs? That’s perfectly fine! Not applying to those programs will not hurt your application or make you seem like an “unambitious” student. After all, most of the specialized programs are focused on the intersection between the business school and other areas of study. Returning to our math example above, maybe you are just fascinated with geometry and not particularly concerned with its applications on Wall Street? That’s perfectly fine! But for those with a sincere interest, Penn’s specialized programs offer unique interdisciplinary possibilities. The rest of this article will tackle those prompts.


Finally, though this essay asks you to discuss the “specific undergraduate school” you are applying to, that does not mean you cannot mention (in a short paragraph, maybe at the end of the essay) some of the social and cultural reasons that attracted you to the city of Philadelphia and its surrounding social and cultural possibilities. Maybe you are a history buff fascinated with Benjamin Franklin or maybe there is an exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of art that you have been dying to see. You won’t spend all your time in class at Penn, and it can’t hurt to offer a glimpse of your extracurricular interests in this essay. As Penn says, “Your essays tell us what sort of person you are — and provide a glimpse into the intangibles you might bring to our community.”


Specialized Program Prompts

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