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. (300-450 words)
Let’s focus in on that word “discover.” In order to truly discover something, there must be some aspect of it that was unexpected, unplanned, surprising, etc. And there also has to be a “first”-ness aspect to it. You can’t forget that you hid a $100 bill deep into your sock drawer and then “discover” it a few years later, when you were cleaning it out and were “surprised” by it. That’s not quite a discovery, and not what we’re after here. Here’s another example of what DOESN’T qualify: imagine that classic overbearing parent who pushes his kid into… whatever, baseball, football, science, you name it. Suppose the kid really takes to it, and becomes amazing (Andre Agassi talks about this in his autobiography). It’s still not a discovery if it was forced upon you! If it never caught, it would have been forgotten. If it does catch, it still reeks of inevitability.
The coolest versions of discovery are the ones where you’re deliberately heading in one direction, toward a specific thing, and then something HAPPENS along the way to divert you, and an interest is BORN. Suppose you’re a young kid, in music class, and you love the idea of playing a musical instrument. If you honestly give a fair shake to a few different instruments and detect a real affinity for one of ‘em, and that becomes “your thing” over time, sure, that qualifies, because you were at least as likely to have fallen in love with one of the other instruments you attempted. It wasn’t pre-ordained.
A more exaggerated example (but not necessarily the ONLY way forward here): Your dad tells you, “Good news, sonny boy! This Saturday, you’re gonna help me clean the gutters!” This means you’re going to miss Brian’s birthday party, and a whole bunch of other fun stuff. You kick and scream and try like hell to do anything OTHER THAN help your dad clean the gutters, ‘cuz who on Earth wants to do that job. But, you do it. And you realize it wasn’t so bad. Maybe the next time your dad asks, you aren’t so hesitant. Something clicks, and all of a sudden you “discover” an interest in … geology. Or construction. Or nature. Or . . . human psychology. The point is, you went in with your fists up, aiming to “get through this treacherously boring and unglamorous task,” and you emerged being SURPRISED by something else along the way. That’s the “diversion” that took you off course. Those are amazing “discovery” stories because they truly caught you by surprise. We know they’re genuine.
So once you’ve given this some thought and brought us to the origin of your top interests, your next task is to talk about how you’re going to “explore” them at UPenn. Who were the famous “explorers” back in the day? Guys like Magellan, Columbus, etc. What did they have in common in terms of their “interests?” They’re always fascinated by the “stuff they don’t know… and want to know more about.” Right?
So, putting it all together, we want to hear about the surprises, the unexpected, including the breakthroughs and disappointments, that have led you to decide to devote your life to the study of… XYZ. =
Presumably you’ve pushed to the edges of your interest given what’s available to you in high school. And now you have this amazing “sea” of opportunity at UPenn to set sail into uncharted territory. What are you hoping to learn and discover? How? By doing what? What’s your plan? What classes are you going to take? What clubs are you going to join? Why is your chosen school at Penn uniquely suited to your specific interest?
When linking your academic interest to your chosen school, it’s important to demonstrate that you know what makes that school unique. If you say “I’m interested in physics, and I’m really excited about Penn’s ‘Intro to Physics’ class,” you’re not responding to the prompt. Every university has an introductory physics course—that’s not an exploration that’s unique or interesting. Instead, say something like “I’m interested in working with Professor Smith on XYZ project” (related to your specific interest in physics). THAT is a reason to pick your chosen Penn school over any other university.
Here’s a suggestion for nailing a first draft:
- Identify the “how you discovered” your interests piece up front. Sell us on the fact that this is a genuine passion. [150 words]
- Now get more specific about the stuff you DON’T KNOW that you want to know more about. What are the gaps that are causing you to lean forward with curiosity? [75-100 words]
- Now, explain where at Penn you’re hoping to find the answers, and how you’re gonna go about it. [175 words]