Leo - University of Pennsylvania - Class of 2018

Leo - Class of 2018
Most people expected me to choose Penn for its Ivy League prestige. But I wanted to pick the school that was best for me.

My biggest struggle was understanding how the admissions process works at the prestigious and highly selective schools on my list. I read blogs, watched videos, went to info sessions, and even called some colleges. But all I learned was that the perfect student doesn't cut it anymore. These schools reject people with perfect scores and grades all the time.

  • Hometown: San Francisco, CA
  • High School: Public
  • GPA: 3.91 / 4.23 (weighted)
  • SAT: 2110
  • Major: International relations and earth science
  • Goal: Pursue academic passions, make lasting friendships, and have a fun, memorable experience.

Freshman Year Update

At first, it was hard to get used to the workload. Standards at Penn are high; yet academics are not unhealthily competitive. Clubs, on the other hand, can be cutthroat! I was shocked by how selective some campus groups are. For example, I was accepted into the literary Philomathean Society, but only after submitting a creative work, being interviewed, and doing a presentation.

Still, the opportunities here are great! I've participated in research, I'm playing chamber music, and I'm learning about social media and museum studies through my job at the Penn Museum. I've also met many international students. My best friend is from Egypt and my hall has students from the U.K., Morocco, and Greece. I am very happy at Penn. When I was home on break, I missed being here.

Sophomore Year Update

Things are going really well! I have a 3.8 GPA, and I love my classes and professors. I'm still active in the Philomathean Society, which is one of my favorite things at Penn. I've decided to double major in Modern Middle Eastern Studies and Communication, so I'm now exploring research ideas combining these two areas.

Now I'm trying to decide between two different summer plans: studying abroad or taking a social media internship at the online game company Zynga. It's hard to believe I have only two years left here!

Junior Year Update

After spending the summer in Turkey working for a NGO, I received a fellowship from the federal government to study Turkish. I took my second semester off to work with the U.S. State Department. It was an amazing opportunity, but I missed my friends and Philadelphia a lot. It was nice to get a break from school, though, and I think I'll have more energy to start senior year.

While I still love it at Penn, I'm surprised by the lack of socioeconomic diversity (it feels like there are few middle class students like me on campus), and by how stressed many students get over grades, internships, etc. A lot of kids can't thrive under the pressure and academic rigor here. I'm doing fine at Penn, but I've come to think it's better to do well and be happy at a less prestigious school than to do poorly and be miserable at an elite school. This is definitely something to think about when considering colleges.

Penn is perfect! But wait—so is Kenyon!

My first choice was the University of Pennsylvania because I identified with its practical, flexible education, and its proximity to Washington D.C., as I hoped to work for the State Department one day. I applied to Penn under the Early Decision plan. When I was deferred, I was surprised—not because I thought I'd get in, but because I thought I'd get a clear decision of accept or deny. It was great to not be rejected, but also a little frustrating because now I had to finish all my other applications!

I discovered Kenyon College when its admissions officer spoke at my high school. Kenyon flew me out to audition for a music scholarship (I play French horn). I wasn't taking it very seriously since the school sounded a little too isolated to me. But after spending three days there, I loved it! I wanted to be friends with all the students I met—they were curious, quirky, and hilarious. The faculty was accessible, and there were all kinds of opportunities for research and musical performance. I couldn't understand why Kenyon wasn't one of the most selective colleges in the country.

Looking past the Ivy

Fast forward to April, and I was accepted to a lot of great schools. I narrowed my choices down to UC Berkeley (in-state and affordable), Kenyon (offering a substantial scholarship), and Penn (my first choice, but no aid). I heard all kinds of unhelpful comments from people: "How can you turn down Berkeley?" "Kenyon is a swanky place!" "Go to Penn if you want to be rich!" Most people expected me to choose Penn for its Ivy League prestige. But I wanted to pick the school that was best for me.

So, I visited Penn, and it was everything I hoped it would be. The campus was large, urban, exciting, and diverse. The opportunities for students in my major were amazing. The students I met were driven and interesting—and there were so many international students! After thinking about it carefully, I realized that UC Berkeley and Kenyon felt like comfortable places I definitely would enjoy, but Penn felt like a place where I could grow academically, socially, and professionally. After successfully appealing for financial aid, I chose Penn. Later, Kenyon and Berkeley increased my scholarships—which made it even harder to say no. But I know I've made the right choice.

My ups and downs

The worst moment was right after my best moment (getting in to Penn). It was when I checked my financial aid awards and saw that Penn offered me nothing. I immediately called the financial aid office, thinking it was a mistake. They told me I could file an appeal—but only if I had new information about my family's finances. So, I thought of things that the FAFSA and CSS PROFILE didn't allow me to explain. One was that my family was in the process of repairing our home's foundation—a huge expense. My parents got our contractor to write a letter documenting how much the project would cost. After numerous appeals and meetings with aid officers, I received enough financial aid to comfortably attend Penn!

What I learned

After visiting Kenyon and interviewing at Carleton, I learned there are many incredible colleges in this county. It was a relief to know I would be happy at so many of them. However, I wish I would have applied to fewer schools, and that I had better planned my extracurricular activities in high school. The way I randomly participated in things did not look very focused to colleges.

The money factor

Penn is covering about a third of my total cost of attendance. I will have a work-study job on campus, and my parents will be paying for the rest.

My advice

Demonstrated interest matters (even if colleges say it doesn't). So if you go to a college information session, be sure to introduce yourself to the admissions reps. You don't need to say anything special, but you will no longer be a piece of paper, you'll be someone with a personality and you'll have some chance of being remembered.

Also, talk to current students at the universities you are considering. They have no incentive for lying or exaggerating the pros and cons of their school. They will give you information that websites and pamphlets cannot.