Upenn Essay Autobiography

Update | 8:01 a.m. We are no longer accepting questions for this feature.

This week in the Guidance Office — a forum for readers of The Choice to seek expert advice from admissions officers, guidance counselors and others in the admissions field — our guest is Eric J. Furda, the dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania since July 1, 2008.

Mr. Furda, a graduate of U. Penn, was previously executive director of undergraduate admissions at Columbia University.

Today, Mr. Furda answers questions about whether the process of choosing among early decision applicants is different from the regular decision process; how much weight is placed on the campus visit (particularly for students from far away); and the essay, and how an applicant can best communicate why he or she is interested in a particular college.

To pose a question to Mr. Furda, use the comment box on our original post or the box below. His answers are scheduled to continue through Friday. (Some questions and answers have been edited for length, style and other considerations.) — Jacques Steinberg


In what ways does the admissions office consider early decision and regular decision applicants differently? What similarities and differences do you regularly see in the applicants, and how much does the first-choice mark of an early application impact your consideration of that applicant?



Is it true that those who apply early decision, or even just earlier, have a better shot at financial aid dollars?

I know of several students of color who will need full financial aid. Normally, they are advised never to apply early decision so that they can evaluate all offers and financial aid packages in April. Recently, a private counselor has pressed them to apply early decision because dollars for financial aid are assigned as students are accepted — and the college might run out. If that is true, then how does the college assign financial aid since they can’t look at Fafsa forms, which can’t be completed until January?



A number of questions posted by readers asked what impact applying early decision has on an applicant’s chances for admission, such as Jennifer’s: “Does the first-choice mark impact your consideration?”

I would suggest to all applicants that they need to demonstrate their knowledge about the school(s) to which they are applying and why that institution is appealing to them intellectually, academically, socially etc. So, many times, the difference between early decision applicants and many regular decision candidates is the depth of knowledge they are able to communicate about the school through their application.

For example, students who apply early decision to Penn share a demonstrated passion for our academic programs, the campus community and the city of Philadelphia, and we respond to this pool with a higher admit rate than in regular decision. So I would suggest that the benefit does not come from simply marking the early decision box but that the decision to apply early comes after a thoughtful search process, where one school becomes the student’s clear first choice.

The higher educational system in the United States has thousands of wonderful schools to choose from; therefore, we also recognize that, for the vast majority of applicants, identifying a school as a clear first choice is not possible. That said, I still recommend that they demonstrate and articulate their interest in the college or university as a regular decision candidate, either through their applications or an interview.

Mel asked whether applying early decision impacts a student’s chances for financial aid. At Penn the answer is no, but financial aid varies from school to school, so I highly recommend that you research a school’s financial aid policy: early decision, early action, regular decision and rolling admission processes. As Mel also suggested, for some students applying to a range of schools in regular decision will allow a student to compare financial aid packages, which is one reason why early decision is not for every student.


My daughter is interested in colleges on the East Coast, but we live in California. How much weight is placed on whether or not you visit a campus and meet with admissions officers when applying to competitive schools?

—Blair Pleasant


Many institutions track interactions and contacts with prospective students: institutional outreach efforts, student-initiated via the Web, attending a regional event, visiting campus, or when the college visits your high school. The heart of Blair’s question is whether visiting (or not) will have a material difference on the admission decision.

Admissions offices want their applicants to be knowledgeable about their school, and studies have shown that the campus visit is the best way to experience and learn about the school; I know this to be the case for Penn. However, we recognize that a campus visit is not always possible, particularly for families wanting to visit schools hundreds — and thousands — of miles away from home.

Penn’s location in Philadelphia, the sixth largest city in the U.S., makes it easy to travel to, if cost (and time) wasn’t an issue, but we know it is. Therefore, we at Penn and colleagues at other schools on the East Coast take this into consideration, just as our colleagues on the West Coast take this into consideration for their East Coast applicants. (Yes, the Midwest and Southwest and other parts of the country can be substituted as well.)

If visiting the school you are interested in learning more about is not feasible, I suggest for your daughter to have some contact with the colleges she is interested in by attending a local college fair, high school visit or contacting a local alumni representative. Much of this information is on their Web site. Also, learn if a college has any specific policies about a campus interview.

Some small liberal arts colleges require or prefer an on-campus interview for applicants, especially from within a certain distance. If you’re not able to get to campus, I am sure they will try to arrange an interview with a local alum or possibly provide you with a phone interview when getting to campus is not feasible.


How much emphasis do you place on the essay portion of the application process? With so many students to choose from, what are some of the standout qualities in applicants that appeal to an institution such as yours?

Students are involved in so many things in this day and age. Their guidance counselors advise them to take honors courses, advanced courses, SAT prep courses, service activities, a job, sports and on and on. Most of the students in my daughter’s high school are doing it all! So what really sets them all apart?



What really stands out about applicants? What really sets them apart? And then, how can those qualities come across in an application? As SB indicates, students are involved in a range of courses and activities. To the admissions committee, the question is not only “what” has a student taken academically or “what” is she involved in? We want to dig deeper beyond the lists, to find out the why – why this class, why these activities?

To take it a step further: how has that piece of literature moved you and challenged your thinking? How has your physics teacher influenced your interest in research? What came from the leadership experience in student government when your peers didn’t agree with your stance on an issue? How has your commitment to service organizations shaped your view of affecting change in society?

The applicants who stand out are able to communicate their experiences beyond the lists and resumes to convey more about who they are as a person. Some students share this through their short-answer question response, while others choose to write about it in their longer essay. Whether through a short essay or a longer one-page essay, my best advice is to remain true to your own voice and tell your story. Admissions officers want to hear a 17-18-year-old voice, not a 40-50-year-old voice. (Sorry, parents.)

Another way in which we gain insight is through counselor and teacher recommendations. Although the quality of these letters can vary widely, references provide a picture of a student through an academic lens and also from a broader community perspective. Since students can choose the teachers who write on their behalf, they should consider how they have interacted with those teachers and the perspectives the teachers can share.

As with any high school community, some students are going to stand out for exceptional intellectual capacity, passion for learning and other talents; parents, teachers and other students can point to who these students are and those characteristics that distinguish them. Even in a highly selective applicant pool like Penn’s, these applicants rise to the top.


My daughter has a strong interest in a particular field of study that is not typical, and therefore, only really offered by a minority of schools, many of which are very difficult to get into. She is very strong academically (straight As, lots of AP classes, including math), but we live in one of those places that produces a lot of strong candidates and, from this end, the selection process seems almost random.

So, my question is, does it matter to these schools at all that she wants to attend them not just for their prestige but because they are exceptionally strong in her chosen field? And if they do, what’s the best way for a student to present themselves on that basis?

Or do schools just not care about that kind of thing and go for the strongest students on paper regardless of interest?



Students who are exceptionally strong in a particular subject and are focused on a specific field have an opportunity to make a connection with colleges that have programs in that area. I am interested in what field Barbara’s daughter has a strong interest.

As an example, departments in the natural sciences, mathematics, fine or visual arts and foreign languages will attract students who have developed capacities and deep interest in those fields. By developed I mean sustained over a period of time with a level of depth in their exposure to the field by taking courses at the highest level (perhaps at a local college), research experience, immersion in a language and culture or demonstrated talent. At Penn, we refer to these students as “well angled.”

To Barbara’s question, colleges are interested when students can make a connection with a department in which they excel. As with other questions I am answering, students can convey their interest through the short-answer question in the Common Application or Universal Application (if the school accepts these) and essays. I would also consider requesting a letter of recommendation from a teacher who will be able to communicate your commitment and talent, further supporting your intellectual interest.

This may be a case where supplemental material is appropriate through an arts supplement or research that we can have evaluated by our faculty. Just be sure the school accepts supplements.

As a part of the application process, applicants must complete a personal essay. Additionally, Penn applicants must complete the Penn-specific Essay.  

We carefully read each essay you submit, as they can help us get to know you much better than your transcripts and test scores. While essays are a good indication of how well you write, they are also windows into how you think, what you value, and how you see the world. Your numbers tell us what kind of student you are. Your essays tell us what sort of person you are—and provide a glimpse into the intangibles you might bring to our community. 

Be sure to answer the question or questions that are being asked of you. We understand that you may be writing essays for different schools and you may be looking to reuse material, but read through your essay to make sure your essay is relevant to the essay prompt.  Essay topics are chosen because the Admissions Committee wants to know these specific things about you. If you do not address the question directly, the Admissions Committee is left with having to make decisions regarding your application with incomplete information. 

Students applying to Penn must submit their application for admission to one of our four undergraduate schools. In the Penn-specific Essay, be sure to specifically address both why you are applying to Penn and why you are applying to that specific undergraduate school. Students who are applying to one of our coordinated dual-degree programs will have additional essays they need to complete, but the Penn essay should address the single-degree or single-school choice.

  • Penn-specific Essay

    How will you explore your intellectual and academic interests at the University of Pennsylvania? Please answer this question given the specific undergraduate school to which you are applying. (400-650 words) *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.

  • Huntsman: The Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business

    Discuss a current international issue, which demonstrates how international affairs and business intersect and explain how the Huntsman curriculum might assist to resolve the issue. (500 words maximum)

  • LSM: The Roy and Diana Vagelos Program in Life Sciences and Management

    LSM seeks students who are enthusiastic about combining science with management. What excites you about this combination? What kind of benefits could an individual trained in both disciplines bring to society? Be as specific and original as possible in addressing these questions. (400-650 words)

  • M&T: The Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology

    Please complete both prompts. Question 1: Explain how you will use this program to explore your interest in business, engineering, and the intersection of the two. It is helpful to identify potential engineering and business paths available at Penn. (400-650 words) Question 2: Please describe a time in which you displayed leadership. (250 words maximum)

  • NHCM: Nursing and Healthcare Management

    Discuss your interest in nursing and health care management. How might Penn's coordinated dual-degree program in nursing and business help you meet your goals? (400-650 words)

  • VIPER: The Roy and Diana Vagelos Integrated Program in Energy Research

    Describe your interests in energy science and technology drawing on your previous academic, research, and extracurricular experiences that allow you to appreciate the scientific or engineering challenges related to energy and sustainability. If you have previous experience with research, describe your research project (outlining the goals, hypotheses, approach, results, and conclusions). Describe how your experiences have shaped your research and interests, and identify how the VIPER program will help you achieve your goals. Also, please indicate which VIPER majors in both science and engineering are most interesting to you at this time. (400-650 words)

  • NETS: The Rajendra and Neera Singh Program in Networked and Social Systems Engineering

    Describe your interests in modern networked information systems and technologies, such as the Internet, and their impact on society, whether in terms of economics, communication, or the creation of beneficial content for society. Feel free to draw on examples from your own experiences as a user, developer, or student of technology. (400-650 words)

  • Seven-Year Bio-Dental Program

    • Please list pre-dental or pre-medical experience. This experience can include but is not limited to observation in a private practice, dental clinic, or hospital setting; dental assisting; dental laboratory work; dental or medical research, etc. Please include time allotted to each activity, dates of attendance, location, and description of your experience. If you do not have any pre-dental or pre-medical experience, please indicate what you have done that led you to your decision to enter dentistry. • List any activities which demonstrate your ability to work with your hands. • What activities have you performed that demonstrate your ability to work cooperatively with people? • Please explain your reasons for selecting a career in dentistry. Please include what interests you the most in dentistry as well as what interests you the least. • Do you have relatives who are dentists or are in dental school? If so, indicate the name of each relative, his/her relationship to you, the school attended, and the dates attended.

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