How to Get Into Penn State

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Pennsylvania State University, more commonly known as Penn State, is a public research university in University Park, Pennsylvania. It’s the state’s largest public university and has a total of 24 campuses, along with an online World Campus.

Founded in 1855, Penn State enrolls more than 46,800 students on its main campus. The main campus is nicknamed Happy Valley, and it’s located in a small but bustling town surrounded by mountains. “Happy Valley” is home to the Division I Nittany Lions, over 1,000 student organizations, and plentiful research opportunities and entrepreneurial resources.

Penn State is known for both its thriving campus life and its academic excellence. It’s no surprise that the university receives more than 100,000 first-year applications every year. If you’re one of the many students interested in attending Penn State, this guide will help you understand what it takes to earn an acceptance letter.

By the time you finish reading this guide, you’ll have a strategic plan for your high school career and your Penn State application. Let’s get started!

Is It Hard to Get Into Penn State?

Penn State has an acceptance rate of 49%. That means for every 100 applicants, 49 receive an acceptance letter. 51 receive a rejection letter.

In comparison to other universities, Penn State is moderately selective. It’s not necessarily easy to get into, but it isn’t among the most competitive schools.

GPA and Test Scores for Penn State

On average, students admitted to Penn State have a GPA of 3.58. This means you will need mostly A’s and B’s to have a competitive GPA for Penn State. Of course, the better your GPA, the better your chances of acceptance.

But grades are only one factor that colleges consider. If you have a lower GPA, and it’s too late in your college career to significantly raise it, concentrate on getting a competitive SAT or ACT score.

The average ACT score for students admitted to Penn State is 28. The 25th percentile score is 25, and the 75th percentile score is 30. In general, it’s best to aim for a score in the 75th percentile. This makes you a highly competitive candidate for admission.

Now, let’s examine an SAT score breakdown for students admitted to Penn State.

Section Average 25th Percentile 75th Percentile
Math 640 580 700
Reading 625 580 670
Total 1265 1160 1370

Since it’s best to score in the 75th percentile, aim for a 1370 on the SAT, with about a 700 in Math and a 670 in Reading. Of course, these numbers show that some students with lower scores also get accepted to Penn State.

Overall, this information tells us you should strive for a:

  • 58 GPA or higher
  • 30 on the ACT, OR
  • 1370 on the SAT

Ideally, you’ll get as close to these metrics as possible. But colleges know that applicants are more than numbers, and there are other factors Penn State considers important too.

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What Other Qualities Does Penn State Look For?

Penn State’s website states that although your academic record is the most important part of their review process, they also consider your geographic and cultural background, personal statement, and activities list.

They closely examine the many roles you serve as a student, volunteer, athlete, son or daughter, sibling, and/or employee. Penn State aims to assemble a class of students with varied interests, talents, and experiences.

In short, this means Penn State looks at your application in its entirety. The application committee wants to understand what makes you you. They want to understand your background, your passions, and what sort of talents and interests you’ll bring to campus.

They aren’t looking for hundreds of “well-rounded” students with identical resumes. They’re looking for academically talented students who will bring their own unique life experiences, interests, and abilities to Penn State.

What Should You Do in High School?

So, based on all this information, what should you do in high school to ensure you can submit a competitive application to Penn State?

Excel in Challenging Courses

Penn State wants applicants to take the most challenging classes available at their schools. If your school doesn’t offer many AP or IB classes, the admissions committee won’t hold it against you. But if difficult courses are available at your school, you should take as many of them as possible.

Of course, you need to do more than simply take difficult classes—you need to excel in them. Listen during class, take notes, and review them weekly. Turn in all your assignments on time and study for all your tests. If you start to fall behind, act on it immediately. Talk to your teacher, find a tutor, or ask a student who’s doing well in the class to study with you.

Penn State’s general requirements for high school coursework include:

  • 4 units of English
  • 3 units in any combination of social studies, arts, and humanities
  • 3 units of science
  • 3 units in algebra (algebra 1 and algebra 2) and geometry
  • 2 units in a single world language other than English

Some colleges and majors require additional math units, including Penn State’s business programs, engineering programs, the Eberly College of Science, the College of Information Sciences and Technology, and the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. If you’re interested in any of these options, take an additional half-unit of trigonometry, pre-calculus, or calculus.

Perform Well on the ACT/SAT

Penn State accepts both SAT and ACT scores, with no preference for either test. The university allows you to choose only your highest score on either test to send. If you send multiple test scores, they will consider only your highest score. This means if you don’t get a satisfactory score right away, you can take the ACT or SAT multiple times. Penn State will only consider your best result.

If you’re applying for the 2022-2023 school year, test scores are optional. If you decide not to submit scores, it won’t put you at a disadvantage. But good test scores are a great way to boost the competitiveness of your application. You should take the ACT/SAT and strive to perform as well as possible. If you don’t get a score that’s good enough for Penn State, you don’t have to include it in your application. But if you do get a good score, it can certainly help you earn an acceptance letter.

Start preparing for the test of your choice several months in advance. Start by taking a practice test to establish a baseline and learn about your areas of strength and weakness. With about a month left until the test, start focusing exclusively on your areas of weakness. Continuously take practice tests so you can adjust your study plan as needed. You can also purchase a test prep book and/or take a test prep course to further boost your preparedness.

Pursue Your Passions

Remember that Penn State is looking for a variety of talents and interests in its applicant pool. Instead of simply trying to collect impressive extracurriculars, pursue a few activities that you’re truly passionate about. Commit to these activities long-term, and strive to take on leadership roles or make significant contributions in these areas.

Keep a list of the activities you participate in, when you start each activity, what role you held, and any major contributions you made. This way, you’ll be able to include a detailed and accurate report of your extracurricular involvement on your application.

Serve Your Community

When listing the roles Penn State considers in their applicants, the university’s website specifically mentions “volunteer.” Not only can community service foster your personal growth, but it can also strengthen your application to Penn State.

Contribute to your school and/or community in ways that are meaningful to you. What’s a problem in your community that you can help resolve? How can you make a positive difference at your school? What social issues do you care about, and how can you try to address them?

It’s important to demonstrate that you care about the world and the people around you. Penn State wants to know that you’ll actively contribute to making their campus a better place, and then improve your community or even the world after you graduate. The best way to demonstrate that you’ll make a difference later is to start by making a difference now.

Penn State Application Process and Checklist

Before applying to Penn State, take the time to review their list of majors and requirements. Some have specific application deadlines and course requirements you must meet for admission into your intended major.

You should also browse information about Penn State’s 20 undergraduate campuses. When you apply, you have the option to select your top two campus choices.

Most students want to attend the University Park campus (“Happy Valley”). But the other campuses offer lower tuition, as well as the 2+2 plan. The 2+2 plan allows you to spend two years at a starting campus followed by two years at the University Park campus (or any other Penn State campus offering your intended degree).

When you’re ready to apply, you can choose between the Common App, Coalition App, or the university’s MyPennState application. The admissions committee has no preference for any of the three options, so choose whichever application seems right for you.

No matter which format you choose, your application will include:

  • Self-reported courses and grades
  • Official test scores
  • Activities list
  • Personal statement/essay

Penn State does not require letters of recommendation, and they won’t evaluate them as a part of your application if you include them.

Penn State Essay

If you apply through the Common App or Coalition App, you will respond to one of the personal statement prompts included in the application.

On the other hand, the MyPennState application includes only an optional 500-word essay. However, we strongly recommend writing the essay. It’s your only chance to tell your story beyond the numbers and activities list included in the rest of your application.

Passing up on the essay means passing up on an additional chance to make an impression on the admissions committee, and it can even make you appear lazy or not fully interested in attending Penn State.

Penn State’s essay prompt has remained mostly the same over recent years. The 2021-2022 prompt read:

Please tell us something about yourself, your experiences, or activities that you believe would reflect positively on your ability to succeed at Penn State. This is your opportunity to tell us something about yourself that is not already reflected in your application or academic records. (500 words)

If you apply to the Schreyer’s Honors College at Penn State, you are required to respond to two additional prompts:

Prompt 1: What would you like to do for the next few years if you didn’t go to college? (800 words)

Prompt 2: How will our society be remembered in 100 years? (800 words)

And if you apply to Penn State’s BS-MBA program, you are required to respond to eight additional prompts:

Prompt 1: Why do you want to attend Penn State? (150 words)

Prompt 2: Select the scientific discipline that is MOST interesting to you. Why do you want to devote 4 years of college studying it? (200 words)

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
  • Biology
  • Biotechnology
  • Chemistry
  • Mathematics
  • Microbiology
  • Physics
  • Statistics

Prompt 3: Inclusiveness and Diversity: In an increasingly global community, it is essential that students gain cultural competency. In what way have you demonstrated a commitment to this mission? (200 words)

Prompt 4: Goals: Discuss your career aspirations. How would the Science BS/MBA program help you reach those goals? (200 words)

Prompt 5: Leadership: Please discuss your leadership and collaboration skills. Give recent examples of how they have been demonstrated. (200 words)

Prompt 6: Resiliency: Transitioning to college can be a challenge. Discuss the adjustments you believe you will need to make in order to be successful as you transition from high school to a college environment. (200 words)

Prompt 7: Describe your biggest commitment. (150 words)

Prompt 8: Describe a time when you helped someone else succeed. (150 words)

When writing your essay(s), it’s important to:

  • Address the question directly. Make sure you’re fully responding to the prompt, because it’s based on something the admissions committee wants to know about you.
  • Use specific details. The more specific you are, the more unique your story will be. No one else can tell your story, unless you use overly broad or general details. If you’re explaining why you’re interested in Penn State or an area of study, do your research on the school’s website to show that you know what you’re talking about and are genuinely excited about the possibility of attending.
  • Write in your real voice. Your essay should “sound” like you. You’re giving the admissions committee a glimpse into who you are as a person, so it’s important to be genuine. Don’t use stuffy verbiage or strive for impressive vocabulary. Simply be you.
  • Proofread, proofread, proofread. It’s essential to review your essay for grammar, spelling, capitalization, concision, and clarity. Ask a teacher, family member, or friend to read over your essay as well. They may catch issues you missed, and they’ll be able to tell you if the essay doesn’t accurately capture your voice.

By following these tips, you’ll make sure you’re putting your best foot forward with the Penn State admissions committee!

Should You Apply Early to Penn State?

Penn State offers both early action and regular decision. The early action deadline is typically November 1, while the regular decision deadline for most programs is December 1.

However, Penn State offers rolling admissions, which means you can apply after December 1. (Despite rolling admissions, we still recommend applying by the first of December, as seats may fill up.) If you apply by December 1, you’ll receive a decision by January 31. And if you apply early action, Penn State will notify you of their decision by December 24. If you choose to apply after December 1, decisions are rolling, which means there’s no set date by which you’ll be notified.

Applying early action to Penn State is not binding. Even if you’re accepted, you are under no obligation to enroll at Penn State. But applying early can give you a better chance of receiving an acceptance letter. Early action applicants have an acceptance rate of nearly 68%, in comparison to the regular decision acceptance rate of 49%.

For these reasons, applying early to Penn State carries no risk and can offer a large reward. If you have all your application materials ready by the early action deadline, it’s a good idea to apply early and give yourself an edge in the application process.

Final Thoughts: How to Get Into Penn State

Penn State is a moderately competitive school, which means it’s not among the easiest or the hardest schools to get into. About half of the university’s applicants receive an acceptance letter, so it’s still important to have a competitive GPA and test scores. Your extracurricular participation and personal essay are also considered.

Excel in challenging classes and aim for a GPA of at least 3.58. Prep thoroughly for the ACT or SAT. Try to score a 30 on the ACT or a 1370 on the SAT. Participate in extracurricular activities you’re passionate about, and try to make significant contributions or take on leadership roles.

Serve your community in ways that are meaningful to you. When you write your essay(s), be specific, write in your genuine voice, and edit your work carefully.

If you have solid test scores and all your application materials ready in time for Penn State’s early action deadline, it’s a good idea to apply early. Applying early can increase your chances of acceptance significantly.

By following the tips and process outlined in this guide, you’ll have an excellent chance of joining the next freshman class at Penn State!

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