* 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
On this day, we wait for several minutes in the study room. Then the blue pressurized door opens, and 25 female prisoners step through. Dolores, Robert, Jai, and Casey catch up with their respective tutees and begin their lessons. I watch as my student, Della, a standard-issue yellow jumpsuit hanging loosely from her body, strolls into the study room. (Names have been changed to protect privacy.) Her dark eyes are bloodshot. She is a short black woman with a preference for math. She can add and multiply faster than anybody else in her dorm, pretty much perfecting the art of numerical manipulation. But on this day she doesn't look like she can do anything. The left side of her mouth is twisted into a scowl. She looks pissed. Usually, the female prisoners keep their shoulders free of chips, anxious to fill their minds with the rudiments of reading comprehension, algebra, and science. It was the men who gave us the most trouble. A couple of years ago, we worked primarily with them rather than the women, but eventually our meetings stopped--ostensibly because of an asbestos problem in the tutoring room. The asbestos wasn't the only problem. The guards shepherded the men around in clusters, and whenever the men noticed someone young and vulnerable, i.e., college students, they would let slip all their inhibitions. As the young female tutors passed, some of the male prisoners would drop their pants. Others would strip off their shirts. The male tutors took some of the slack too. As we passed, they liked to mock us with chants such as "Scared as shit. Scared as shit."
But the women are always sure to refine themselves for us. They douse their bodies with baby powder and tie their hair into bundles. They sit in their chairs with folded hands, sometimes leaning over the table to absorb fully the newly presented information. Their ambitious fronts don't solely reflect an inner quest for knowledge. After months of isolation, they want a man. As one inmate told me, "When we see a man...we happy." They are always pretty blunt. "Are you going to be tutoring us every week? Yes? Well, I'll be sure to be here every day in this chair right next to you." They bring up provocative subjects, complimenting my "beautiful green eyes," or debating whether or not they would ever consider "getting with a white man." A few of them even ask me for my phone number: "Come on, Mike. What are we going to do when we get out of jail? We need you to guide us."
Yet in addition to the playfully vulgar comments, the women are quite appreciative of our efforts. At the end of one semester, the oldest woman in the group stood up and made an announcement.
"I'm speaking for all of us when I say I want to thank all of you from Johns Hopkins for taking your Saturdays to tutor us ladies. We have nobody to help us, and we needed your help badly."
She then presented the group with a card of gratitude. Mickey Mouse's cheerful face, outlined in pen and scribbled in with crayons decorated the front. The inside message read:
I just like to say we appreciate yall taking time out of your busy schedule.
To come here and teach us things that will help us when we take the G.E.D. test. Thank yall so much. "God bless." Especially Jai.
The card was signed "Central Booking/A-Dorm."
Today I've brought several selections from Grimm's Fairy Tales. My goal is to help the women cultivate their critical reading skills. Fairy tales seem to contain the most fundamental aspects of both a plot and a meaning, and I've found they serve as a useful foundation for analytical reading. And because morals are buried within the stories, these readings enable me to make certain points that might be useful for the inmates to keep in mind.
"What is this shit? Why do you have us reading this?" Della cries in a rare display of disrespect.
"This is where stories begin." I reply. "What is literature but merely a type of story? If you don't want to do this, fine. Tell me what you do want to do."
"No," she replies sheepishly. "We'll just do this."
Another inmate with whom I usually worked, Vanna, strolls over and sits down beside me, a sly grin across her face. Vanna loves to mess around. She is young, probably in her early 30s, with bleached patches of blond hair and broad shoulders. After being assigned math problems for homework, she'd take a quick glance at them and shake her head. "This is too hard. Why you making us work so hard?" And then there was the pen episode. For several weeks, she had pestered me to give her my pen that was marked with the logo of some pharmaceutical company and the words, "urethral suppository." "Come on, Mike, you said last time, you'd give me the pen. How am I supposed to learn if I can't write?" Finally, I decided to let her have the pen. She then proceeded to ask for a pencil.
Running their fingers across the pages, Della and Vanna slowly read their way through the fairy tales. They begin with the tale "Godfather Death," a story about a boy who must contend with the Grim Reaper. Della struggles with mere paragraphs while Vanna whips through a page at a time. I ask the women to find the moral of the story. As Vanna meditates on the futility of battling death, Della remains silent, not even attempting to find a moral. "I don't know what the meaning is and I don't care," she says. As the session moves along, Della becomes more and more distracted, her eyes continually floating above all of us, directed toward the pale wall of cinderblocks. After a while, Vanna speaks up.
"What you be doing last night, girl?" she asks with a big grin on her face. "You partying?"
"No," Della replies, her face stern.
Vanna turns to me and mouths the words "she's sleepy."
Della is more than sleepy, but we move on. After finishing "Godfather Death," they begin another tale. This story, "The Wolf and the Seven Kids," describes a mother goat who leaves her children alone to search for food; before she is able to return, a wolf invades her house and devours her seven children. After they finish reading the tale, I ask Della and Vanna to write down the meaning of the story.
"What's the moral of 'The Wolf and the Seven Kids'?"
"Well, what happened when the mother goat was away?"
"The wolf ate her kids," Vanna says.
"That's right. The moral is that you should never leave your kids alone."
Della's face suddenly contorts, tightening to hold in the emotions that are slowly escaping. Vanna quickly pushes the papers and books aside and looks Della straight in the eyes. Vanna feels something, somehow realizing that Della is struggling with her demons.
"What's with you, girl?" Vanna asks gently. "Is it something in the jail? Something outside?"
Della pauses, looking over to the right.
"Something outside," she replies, shaking her head.
"Tell the tutor. Maybe he can help. That's why he's here. Tell the tutor."
Della's tightened lips suddenly recede into a slight smile. "Yesterday, I found out my kids was abused," she says, her smile slowly folding into a grimace.
Her eyes swell with fluid, and slowly tears drop, splattering against her cheeks.
"They been living with their father and his wife and her sister. I hear that they beating on my two boys, and there's nothing that I can do about it. They pounding on them and whipping them with a belt. My babies."
Vanna leans over the table.
"I'm sorry, girl," she says. "I didn't know."
"My son ran away from the house and found a policeman. He was afraid to go back home."
"They got to do something about that," Vanna says. "They gotta put them in jail for that."
"Now my 9-year-old is in the hospital," Della sobs. "And they gotta give him...what's it called? A clinical evaluation. They have a psychologist that's seeing him too."
"Did you talk with Ms. Anim? Ms. Anim could help you," says Vanna.
Anim serves as director of social programs and activities at the detention center. She also is our contact for the Tutorial Project.
"I did. They contacted Social Services, and they're going to look in on it. But my 7-year-old is still with them. I'm afraid something's going to happen to him."
"Is he [the father] hopped up on drugs?" asks Vanna.
"He used to be. I don't know if he is anymore."
"That's a shame, girl. I didn't know. I'm sorry."
Della finally composes herself.
"I'm sorry I wasn't paying attention, Mike. All I could think about was my boys. And then you was reading the fairy tale and that made me think back on it."
I tell her that I understand.
Suddenly, the metal door slides open, and a massive guard with a blue vest stretched across his torso enters. "Ladies, let's go," he barks. The tutoring session is over.
As we leave the room, Robby walks over to me. We stand in a corridor across from the gym where a group of male prisoners are engaged in a basketball game.
"Nice job, Mike," Rob says facetiously. "Making women cry."
"What happened?" asks Dolores.
After some hesitation, I tell her everything, revealing my disgust that one child had still not escaped the beatings. The group slowly creeps around me to listen. As I let my words slip, I notice mouths open in shock, heads shaking with disgust. With steady eyes, our leader Dolores nods sharply, fully aware of the wolves that prey on children.
"That's how it always is," she says softly. "That's how things always work."
Epilogue: Della was eventually released from jail. Her children were placed back in their father's custody.
RETURN TO APRIL 1999 TABLE OF CONTENTS.