The University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) is a private Ivy League research university in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1740, the university is consistently ranked among the top 10 in the nation today. UPenn enrolls more than 20,000 students, and half of them are undergrads.
The university is perhaps best known for both its undergraduate and graduate business schools, but it boasts excellent academic programs in every area. It’s no surprise that many students are drawn to UPenn for its reputation, academic programs, location, and more.
In this guide, we’ll use data and information provided by UPenn to help you understand what it takes to earn a coveted UPenn acceptance letter.
This includes grades, test scores, extracurricular participation, supplemental essays, and other qualities that UPenn looks for in its students.
By the end of this guide, we hope you’ll have a clear, strategic plan on how to organize your high school career and application to put your best foot forward for UPenn!
Is It Hard to Get Into UPenn?
Like other Ivy League universities, UPenn is highly competitive. And UPenn’s most recent admitted class was the most competitive yet, with an overall acceptance rate of 4.4%.
The admissions rate at UPenn has consistently declined over the past several years. It was about 12% in 2016 and 2017, 10% in 2018 and 2019, 9% in 2020 and 2021, and 8% in 2022. It’s likely that this trend will continue into the future.
UPenn is slightly less competitive than some of the other Ivies, like Columbia, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. But overall, it is certainly considered a difficult school to get into.
GPA and Test Scores for UPenn
On average, students admitted to UPenn have a GPA of 3.9 on a 4.0 scale. This means you should look at your unweighted GPA when considering your chances of acceptance. It also means you will need straight “A’s” (or very close) to have a competitive GPA for UPenn.
But grades are only one factor that colleges consider. What if your GPA is lower, and it’s too late in your high school career to significantly raise it? In that case, you should strive to score competitively on the ACT or SAT.
The average ACT score for students admitted to UPenn is 34. The 25th percentile score is 32, and the 75th percentile score is 35.
Now, let’s examine an SAT score breakdown for students admitted to UPenn.
|Section||Average||25th Percentile||75th Percentile|
For the highest chance of acceptance, it’s best to score in the 75th percentile. To score in the 75th percentile, you will need a 35 on the ACT and a 1560 on the SAT, with a Math score of 800 and a Reading score of 760.
Of course, the numbers above make it clear that some students with lower scores still get accepted to UPenn. Ideally, you’ll have a highly competitive GPA and standout test scores. You’ll get as close as possible to the metrics described above. But if you fall slightly short, there are other factors UPenn considers important too.
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What Other Qualities Does UPenn Look For?
According to UPenn’s website, the university looks for “students with the ability to turn their ideas and interests into action, people whose talents and experiences will energize our community.” They also seek students who are intellectually curious, desire to contribute to the world, and come from a broad range of life experiences and backgrounds.
Other general qualities listed on UPenn’s website include:
- Inspired to be of service to society (like UPenn’s founder Benjamin Franklin)
- Being uniquely you
- Challenging yourself in high school
- Taking classes in English, social studies, math, science, and foreign language all four years of high school
When you apply to UPenn, you’ll apply to one of four undergraduate schools: College of Arts and Sciences, Penn Engineering, School of Nursing, or The Wharton School of Business. Your application is considered in the context of the school you’re applying to. Below, we’ll take a quick look at the specific qualities each school values most.
College of Arts and Sciences:
- Curiosity in humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences
- Ability to apply knowledge learned in the classroom to the real world
- Strong preparation in a balanced, advanced college curriculum
- Ability to innovate, design, and practically apply scientific discoveries
- Reasons for pursuing an education in engineering (and the ability to express these reasons on your application)
- Strong preparations in physics and mathematics, especially calculus
School of Nursing:
- Desire to explore issues in health care
- Commitment to patient care
- Strong preparation in the sciences, especially chemistry
The Wharton School:
- An interest in business to fuel positive change and advance the world’s social and economic well-being
- Demonstrated leadership
- Strong preparation in mathematics, especially calculus
If you strongly demonstrate these qualities throughout your application, you’ll make a great impression on UPenn admissions officials. A standout performance in these areas can help bolster slightly lower numbers. And if you already have an excellent GPA and test scores, shining in these areas will make you stand out even more!
What Should You Do in High School?
So, based on this information, what should you do in high school to prepare for acceptance to UPenn?
Take Challenging Classes
Take the most challenging classes possible at your school. UPenn understands that some schools offer fewer AP or IB courses, and they’ll take this into account when they evaluate your application. But if your school does offer a wide range of high-level classes, it’s important to take a rigorous schedule of courses.
Your schedule should include a balance of core subjects like social studies, math, English, science, and foreign language. Most high schools only require you to take two years of a foreign language, but competitive schools like UPenn prefer that you take four years.
If you plan to apply to Penn Engineering or Wharton School, calculus is essential. Physics is also important for Penn Engineering hopefuls. And if you’re interested in the School of Nursing, you will need to excel in chemistry.
In addition to taking challenging courses, it’s important to perform well in your classes. Take notes, study, and turn in all assignments on time. If you start to fall behind in a class, seek help from the teacher, students with a strong grasp of the material, or a tutor.
Prep for the SAT/ACT
UPenn accepts SAT and ACT scores, with no preference for either test. If you submit both scores, UPenn will consider the highest of the two. The university uses superscoring. That means if you take the ACT or SAT multiple times, UPenn will combine your highest scores in each section to form a superscore.
If you are applying for the 2022-2023 school year, test scores are optional. If you choose not to submit SAT/ACT scores, it won’t put you at a disadvantage. But if your GPA isn’t at least a 3.8 unweighted, these exams are an important way to boost the competitiveness of your application. Whatever your GPA is, it’s a good idea to take the SAT/ACT, see how you perform, and then decide whether to submit scores as part of your application. UPenn has not yet announced their testing policy for the 2023-2024 school year, so it’s possible test scores will be required.
Give yourself plenty of time to prepare for the SAT/ACT. Take a practice test to get a baseline. Identify your areas of strength and weakness. As the test date approaches, begin drilling down on your areas of weakness. Continue taking practice tests and adjusting your study plan accordingly. It’s also helpful to purchase a test prep book and/or take a test prep course. If necessary, take the SAT/ACT multiple times to raise your score.
Participate in Extracurriculars You Love
UPenn states that your extracurricular participation “offers a glimpse into what excites you, what you’re passionate about, what responsibilities you have at home, and some of the ways you’re contributing to your community.” Extracurricular participation includes school-related experiences, part-time work, family responsibilities, community experiences, summer activities, and more.
It’s important to note that UPenn is not looking for a specific list of activities. They want to know how you spend your time and what makes you “you.” As the university’s website advises, “Let the real you shine through.”
Don’t try to collect extracurricular activities that you believe will impress UPenn. If you take that approach, you’re missing the point—and admissions officials will notice. Instead, find activities that you love. Identify what you’re passionate about, and find activities that allow you to deepen your interest, involvement, and talent in these areas.
UPenn wants you to include details about your roles and responsibilities in extracurricular activities. They want to know about how you’ve contributed, so aim to take on leadership roles and make a positive impact when possible.
Keep a record of your extracurricular participation so you can include it thoroughly and accurately on your application. List when you start each activity, what role you held, and any major contributions you made.
Participate in Community Service
A heart of service is important to UPenn, and it’s an excellent way to grow as an individual. Find ways to contribute to your school and/or community that are meaningful to you. What needs do you see in your school? What problems are happening in your community that you can help address? What social issues do you care about?
Ivy League applicants have often started nonprofits, raised thousands of dollars for charities, or created significant positive change in their schools, hometowns, or even the world. Serving the community on such a grand scale isn’t essential, but it’s important to demonstrate that you care about the people around you. If you make a difference now, UPenn will reason that you’ll do the same on their campus.
UPenn Application Process and Checklist
UPenn accepts both the Common Application and the Coalition Application, with no preference given to either format. For high-achieving students with significant financial need, UPenn also participates in the National College Match Program. National College Match Finalists may submit the QuestBridge application.
As mentioned above, you’ll apply to one of four undergraduate schools when you submit your application to UPenn. You also have the option to apply to UPenn’s seven-year dental program or one of the following dual degree programs:
- The Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business
- The Roy and Diana Vagelos Program in Life Sciences and Management
- The Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology
- Nursing and Healthcare Management Program
- The Roy and Diana Vagelos Integrated Program in Energy Research
- The Rajendra and Neera Signh Program in Networked and Social Systems Engineering
Regardless of which application format and school you choose, your application will include:
- A list of your courses
- Test scores
- School Report with a counselor recommendation
- Two letters of recommendation from academic teachers
- Optional alumni interview (offered based on availability)
- Personal essay for the Common App or Coalition App
- Two UPenn supplementary essays
- Optional portfolio (if you plan to major in Music, Fine Arts, or Digital Media Design)
If you apply to one of the seven dual degree programs, you will write an additional essay with a topic specific to the program you’ve selected. To apply to the seven-year dental program, you’ll have to answer five additional supplementary questions.
Should You Apply Early to UPenn?
UPenn offers early decision and regular decision. The early decision deadline is typically November 1, while the regular decision deadline is typically around January 5. Regular decision applicants receive a decision in April, while early decision applicants usually receive a decision by mid-December.
Early decision applicants may be accepted, denied, or deferred to regular decision. If you receive a deferral, it means that your application will be evaluated again with the regular decision applications. You’ll receive a final decision in April along with the other applicants.
The Early Decision Program at UPenn is binding. That means if you apply early and are accepted, you’re obligated to accept the university’s offer of admission. For this reason, you should only apply early if UPenn is your top choice.
If UPenn is your first choice, applying early can benefit you. Applying early demonstrates your enthusiasm about UPenn and your commitment to attending the university. Early applicants are accepted at higher rates than regular decision applicants.
In 2023, for instance, about 18% of early applicants were admitted. 25% of early applicants received an acceptance letter in 2016, 2017, and 2018. So, if UPenn is your dream school and top choice, it’s a good idea to apply early decision. Applying early can give you an edge and increase your chances of earning a seat at UPenn.
UPenn Supplemental Essays
When you’ll apply to UPenn, you’ll complete the personal essay on the Common App or Coalition App, along with two supplemental UPenn essays. The university’s website explains, “Your words…are yet another window into how you think, what you value, and how you see the world. Through your writing, we get a glimpse of what you might bring to our community, including your voice and creativity.”
Although the UPenn supplemental essays may vary slightly from year to year, they remain mostly the same. The 2021-2022 essays were:
- Considering the specific undergraduate school you have selected, how will you explore your academic and intellectual interests at The University of Pennsylvania? (300-450 words / 2295 characters)
- At Penn, learning and growth happens outside of the classroom, too. How will you explore the community at Penn? Consider how this community will help shape your perspective and identity, and how your identity and perspective will help shape this community. (150-200 words / 1020 characters)
UPenn’s advice for these essays includes:
- Address the question directly. These questions are based on specific things the UPenn admissions committee wants to know about you.
- Double check your writing. Create space in your schedule to revise your work. It’s up to you to polish your essay before you submit!
- Be precise when explaining both why you’re applying to UPenn and why you’ve chosen to apply to that specific undergraduate school.
Before writing your essays, make sure you fully research UPenn and the undergraduate school you’ve selected. You should be able to cite specific classes, professors, opportunities, and activities that excite you. Let your passion for UPenn shine through, along with your unique voice. Your essay should sound like you, not like someone who’s crammed in as many high-level vocabulary words as possible in an effort to impress.
The admissions committee wants to know who you are, beyond the numbers already listed in your application. Make your essays uniquely you, then double check your work to ensure you’re putting your best foot forward!
Final Thoughts: How to Get Into UPenn
UPenn is an extremely competitive school, so it’s important to be strategic about your high school career and your UPenn application if you want to earn an acceptance letter.
Take challenging classes and excel in them. Aim for a 3.9 unweighted GPA. Study thoroughly for the SAT/ACT and take the test multiple times if needed. Aim for a 35 on the ACT or a 1560 on the SAT. Find your passions and explore them through extracurricular activities. Try to take on leadership roles and make a significant contribution. Participate in service experiences that you find meaningful and demonstrate that you care about the people, community, and world around you. Let your genuine voice shine through when you write your essays, and be sure to revise and polish your work.
If UPenn is your first choice, apply early decision to further increase your chances. Remember that applying early decision is binding, so don’t apply early anywhere else.
The bottom line is that UPenn wants high-achieving, intellectually curious, and community-oriented students. They’re seeking people who will energize UPenn’s campus and bring their own positive, unique contributions to the campus community.
If that sounds like you, make sure it’s clear in your application. You just might receive an invitation to join the next great class at UPenn!