Page 217 essay no longer on Penn admissions application

Ellie Levitt

September 22, 2010

Page 217 has been ripped out.

For the first time in decades, Penn removed its famous essay prompt — “write page 217 of your 300 page autobiography” — from its supplemental application

The only essay question that remains asks students to elaborate on what paths they see themselves exploring in their undergraduate school or program at Penn.

Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Eric Furda said there were three reasons why the Admissions Office discontinued the question.

First, Penn’s use of the Common Application — which has an open-ended essay as an option — made the prompt “repetitive and no longer necessary.” Additionally, students felt that the essay was required even though the instructions said it was optional. Finally, since the number of undergraduate applications reached almost 27,000 last year, Penn’s admissions officers could not realistically read three essays per candidate, or four in the case of applicants to Penn’s Coordinated Dual Degree programs.

“The Common Application still provides an opportunity for students to [supply] additional information if a student feels they need to further explain something about their candidacy,” Furda wrote in an e-mail.

When Bev Taylor, founder and director of Ivy Coach, noticed the prompt’s absence, she thought there had been a clerical error.

“It’s been on there for at least the 20 years since I’ve been in the business,” Taylor recalled. Confident it would appear again, she even encouraged her advisees to write the essay in advance this summer.

Taylor said she thinks Penn removed the prompt to increase the number of applications they receive. “The more applications they get, the fewer students they ultimately accept out of the applicant pool.”

The lower Penn’s acceptance rate is, the higher the University’s placement in the annual U.S. News and World Report ranking, she added.

Other schools have recently made similar alterations to their applications. Cornell University’s supplemental essays decreased from three to one a few years ago, and Columbia University is using the Common Application for the first time this year.

Taylor “loved” the prompt because it encouraged students to be creative.

College sophomore Louis Stokum, for example, began his essay mid-sentence, as if it were the actual page in a book.

“My story started something like ‘woke up again covered in filth after another night in the dumpster,'” Stokum explained. From there, he traced his dismal adulthood back to the day when he received an “ominously thin envelope” from Penn declaring his rejection.

“I liked the essay because it wasn’t so formal,” Stokum said.

College freshman Sam Brodey agreed, adding that “it was one of my favorite essay questions.”
He wrote about being exonerated from a federal penitentiary after being framed. The essay explored deep depression stemming from newfound freedom and described his ultimate decision to enter a political race.

While both Stokum and Brodey wrote about the future, as if their autobiography covered the span of their lives, others often chose to write about previous life experiences as if page 300 was the present.

“My two older brothers were both presidents of Model UN, and they both went to Harvard,” College sophomore Alex Zimmer said. He wrote about forging his own path in high school.
“It’s sad the prompt is gone because I did really enjoy it,” Zimmer said.