Three changes Penn made to its application this year — and what they mean for applicants

Penn has made several changes to its undergraduate application that will be in effect for the upcoming 2023-2024 admissions season. Here are three of the biggest, and what they mean for applicants:

1. Alumni interviews will become ’alumni conversations’

The first change was to alumni interviews — now called ’alumni conversations’ — which have historically been offered to applicants solely based on alumni availability.

“Each year Penn attempts to connect as many applicants as possible with alumni, depending on volunteer availability,” the Penn Admissions website reads. “We foster these connections to provide an opportunity for you to learn about Penn through an alum’s experience, and for us to learn more about you as an individual.”

Laurie Kopp Weingarten, the president and chief educational consultant at One-Stop College Counseling, said that the application now describes the conversations as “non-evaluative.”

She notes that on the Penn Admissions website linked beneath the new policy on the Common Application, the conversations are still “strongly encouraged,” if a student is matched with an interviewer. 

“To me, that is sending a strong signal that Penn wants the conversation,” Weingarten said. “However, right on the application, it says you can opt out with absolutely no disadvantage.”

She speculated that many students will opt out of the alumni conversations, but that due to the ambiguous wording of the policy, “more savvy applicants” will be afraid to.

All alumni conversations will be held virtually for this admissions cycle.

Brian Taylor, a managing director of the college counseling service Ivy Coach, said that the interview is “one of the least important parts of the college admissions process,” and that the change is actually not very significant. Taylor described the interviews as a way to keep alumni involved in the admissions process, adding that they do not receive significant training nor are representatives of the admissions office.

“Nothing has changed with respect to Penn’s alumni interview process,” he said. “It’s always been a conversation; it’s never been really evaluative as they suggested.” 

Still, Weingarten said that when she brought up the change at a meeting of the Wharton Club of New Jersey, “it was not a good reaction.” 

“People were not happy,” she said, adding that many people in that group are “active Penn alumni” who are part of the interview program.

2. Removal of intended area of study question

The application no longer includes a question asking an applicant’s intended area of study for applicants to the College, Wharton, and Nursing. Applicants to the School of Engineering and Applied Science can indicate their intended major in the “Academics and Interests” section of the supplemental essay, Penn Admissions wrote in an FAQ response.

While Penn no longer offers a drop-down for students to select their intended area, it is asking students to write a new school-specific essay. 

Previously, instead of the school-specific essay, Penn had applicants to all four schools answer a single short-answer response about their academic interests. With the introduction of school-specific prompts, Penn Admissions has added links to provide applicants with more information on the College of Arts and Sciences, the Wharton School, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the School of Nursing. 

3. Question added about campus group involvement

Penn has added a drop-down question that allows students to select from a list of campus groups that they are interested in joining if accepted. 

“Penn is home to many resource centers and hubs designed to enrich student experiences and build community,” the application reads. “You can learn more about these centers and other ways students find belonging at Penn by visiting this page.”

The University did not add additional questions to the application that ask about a candidate’s background or experience with diversity in the face of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn affirmative action – which Taylor said the majority of top schools in the U.S., such as Harvard have chosen to do.

“That sort of question, regardless of the verbiage, is popping up on a lot of college supplements this year as a knee-jerk reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision,” he said. 

Other changes to the Penn application questions in recent years include the introduction of the gratitude prompt to the supplemental essays in 2022.

Weingarten said that the nature of college admissions is constantly changing, citing emails she receives almost every day announcing changes to schools’ admissions processes and policies. 

“The more things change, the more things stay the same,” Taylor said describing changes to admissions practices. “People might talk a whole lot about the significant changes that are on this year’s application, but in reality, not much has changed.”

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