* Students applying to Digital Media Design and Computer & Cognitive Science should address both the specialized program and single-degree choice in their response. For students applying to the other coordinated dual-degree and specialized programs, please answer this question in regards to your single-degree school choice; your interest in the coordinated dual-degree or specialized program may be addressed through the program-specific essay.
This essay is asking a very straightforward question: what do you want to study and why do you want to study that at Penn in particular. With this question, the admissions officers are trying to do three things. First, they are trying to weed out those candidates that are just applying to Penn because it is a “fancy school.” Second, they want to learn something about your intellectual passions and interests. Third, they want to see if you have done your research and started to figure out how you will use Penn to pursue those intellectual passions and interests.
When they ask you to talk about your major within one of the four schools — Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Nursing, and Wharton — you should realize that you are not necessarily talking about these schools in general. Each of these schools contains a multitude of different majors, areas of focus, research opportunities, and Penn wants to know that you have taken the time to research their offerings.
For example, if you are applying to the College of Arts and Sciences, you should not be talking about “Arts and Sciences” as a whole (everything from biology to French literature!). Focus on the major and classes within the school of Arts and Sciences that you want to pursue.
Maybe you want to study at Penn because of its remarkably high number of professors (10!) working on differential geometry — a subject of particular interest to you. You might begin your essay by talking about how you have been interested in differential geometry ever since you asked your high school math teacher, “Okay, we’ve gone over how to find the surface area of a cube, but how would you even begin to find the surface area of something like a plastic bag floating in the air?” You can then go on to talk about the work you’ve done studying new topics in geometry over the summer, the thrill of thinking about how billiard balls bounce around differently shaped boards, and the overlap between your interests and the unique research profile of Penn’s mathematics faculty.
An important thing to remember here is that you need to talk about both your passion for a particular subject area and what Penn has to offer you — both aspects are equally important!
If you are interested in one of Penn’s specialized programs, you still need to write an essay about how you intend to pursue your intellectual interests at Penn, regardless of whether you are admitted to a specialized program or not. The trick here is to write an essay that communicates the full force of enthusiasm and excitement for a plan of study at Penn that does not hinge exclusively on admission to a specialized program, such as Huntsman (discussed in more detail below).
Maybe you have been fascinated with international relations and diplomacy ever since you started learning French and playing Massive Online Multi-player strategy games that required weaving complex treaties with people from many different parties. You can write a great essay about how you hope to use Penn’s resources to pursue a major in international relations, and how you especially look forward to studying abroad — maybe to meet some of the people who you have been collaborating with from all over the world.
Then, if you are interested in the intersection of business and international relations, you might use your Huntsman essay to talk about your abiding interest in logistics (perhaps related to your work in gaming) has drawn you to the problem of how conflicts in international law might affect the efficiency of global shipping supply chains.
The College of Engineering’s special programs in Digital Media Design and Computer & Cognitive Science are something of a special case.
For these two programs, your statement of why you fit into them belongs in this general admissions essay, not in a separate prompt. As such, you need to treat this essay like an application for a specialized program that also addresses the major you will pursuing outside these specialized programs. This means you will need to cram a lot into this essay. The trick in these cases is to use your essay to show how the distinctive intellectual interest that you are pursuing in the College of Arts and Sciences or the College of Engineering will be augmented by the addition of these specialized programs.
For example, if you are applying to Computer & Cognitive Science, you might also be applying to the College of Arts & Sciences to study Linguistics. You can start the essay by talking about how language has always fascinated you: you always wanted to dig deeper than the rules listed in your grammar books. Why — you ask — do we say “the big red house” and not “the red big house?” Maybe part of what drove you to start learning Spanish and Russian was to see if rules of syntax in English also applied to other languages.
Then, you’ll pivot in a new paragraph to talk about how your interest in syntax also makes you interested in Penn’s program in Computer & Cognitive science. Your interest in word-order might go beyond human-made languages and extend to the languages machine intelligences are starting to create. In order to show the admissions committee that your passion for computing is no less than your passion for learning new languages, you might talk about the work you did programming a chatbot or creating a little video game to help you study your Latin declensions. If you are applying to any of these interdisciplinary programs, you want to show the admissions committee that you have already started to think across disciplinary boundaries.
What if you are not particularly interested in any of Penn’s specialized programs? That’s perfectly fine! Not applying to those programs will not hurt your application or make you seem like an “unambitious” student. After all, most of the specialized programs are focused on the intersection between the business school and other areas of study. Returning to our math example above, maybe you are just fascinated with geometry and not particularly concerned with its applications on Wall Street? That’s perfectly fine! But for those with a sincere interest, Penn’s specialized programs offer unique interdisciplinary possibilities. The rest of this article will tackle those prompts.
Finally, though this essay asks you to discuss the “specific undergraduate school” you are applying to, that does not mean you cannot mention (in a short paragraph, maybe at the end of the essay) some of the social and cultural reasons that attracted you to the city of Philadelphia and its surrounding social and cultural possibilities. Maybe you are a history buff fascinated with Benjamin Franklin or maybe there is an exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of art that you have been dying to see. You won’t spend all your time in class at Penn, and it can’t hurt to offer a glimpse of your extracurricular interests in this essay. As Penn says, “Your essays tell us what sort of person you are — and provide a glimpse into the intangibles you might bring to our community.”
Specialized Program Prompts
You've written your essay.
You know what you want to say.
But will the admissions committee get your message?
You've read through countless PA school essay samples. You've chopped and changed the order of the paragraphs. You've polished each sentence.
After all that hard work, you’re still not sure whether your essay flows along nicely. Will readers stumble over a paragraph? Or effortlessly glide through your text?
Creating a hypnotic flow doesn't have to be so difficult.
Let’s have a look at 7 of the most common mistakes I see people make while reading and editing PA school applicants’ essays.
We will also discuss how to correct them.
* The following was written by Duke Pasquini – Physician Assistant Essay Collaborative editor.
1. Most Essays are too long
You want to tell everything about your life, and you hate leaving anything you think is important out.
How to correct this: If you are on the admission committee and are reading your 75th essay in three days, would you rather read a short concise essay or a long rambling one? I think you already know the answer. I refer to this as “Don’t get lost in the library.” You don’t want who you are to get lost in too many details. You don’t want to be just another book on the library shelf.
2. Paragraphs are too Long
How to correct this: Always put yourself in the admission committees place. If you look at an essay and see large blocks of text, are you inclined to think, “Oh, this will be an easy read.” OR “This is going to be a hard read. Look at all those words crammed into two or three long paragraphs.” You want to make a good first impression on the reader before they ever begin reading your essay. Create more open space by using shorter paragraphs. Break long paragraphs into shorter ones.
3. Applicants Prefer Telling
You want to tell the reader every wonderful thing you've done in a long list of accomplishments rather than showing them. This is similar to number 1, but let me explain further.
How to correct this: A picture is worth a thousand words. You need to paint a picture for the reader that will make them identify with you and the patient. This requires an anecdote. Tell them about Johnny (be sure to use his or her name) who came into the hospital unconscious. You came into his room every day and said a few words to him, and one day you came in, and he was awake, or he died or moved his fingers or toes or whatever. Tell us what Johnny looked like and how you felt when he awakened or died. Did you feel like you failed him or that it was the first time you faced death. All these things will grab the admission committee’s attention. Always remember the admission committee has read a lot of these essays and you want yours to stand out from the rest. Refer to #5 below for a more detailed example.
4. Applicants Love to Talk in Glowing Platitudes
What is a platitude? A platitude is a remark or statement, especially one with a moral content, that has been used too often to be interesting or thoughtful.
Synonyms: cliché, truism, commonplace - trite, hackneyed, stock phrase.
Here are a couple of examples:
The first is a statement by a teacher who is applying for a teaching certificate. Sometimes is it easier to recognize platitudes in a field other than your own.
The second is an example of a statement filled with platitudes from one of our PA School applicants.
The example below is from someone who wants to be a teacher. I’m using it because I think it’s an excellent example of what I’m talking about. You probably won’t want to finish reading it. The point is, don’t write like this when you’re writing your PA essay.
My goals are to consistently and continuously better myself as a teacher. To help achieve this goal, I am constantly looking to my peers for suggestions and will continue my personal strategy to their emulate creativity, procedures, methods, and techniques that I witness or hear of; my current master teacher serves well as an example of how much there is that I can learn. My desire is to be the most effective and proficient teacher I can be. Charged with curriculum that is extensive in classroom time that is limited, I commit myself to achieve the best functioning classroom possible and through my experience as a student teacher, I have seen the benefits of this; through my experiences as a substitute teacher, I have witnessed the deterrents to learning in environments with discipline and behavior are not properly handled with effective routines and procedures. The classroom is a learning community and needs to be addressed as a joint effort of students and teacher. The developmental ages of the students being taught needs to bear great consideration when implementing instruction, I will continue my efforts to understand my students, their motivations, and their shortcomings to the best of my ability. I will continue educating myself, not just in content, but in strategies and means to differentiate and modify so that each individual child placed in my care stands the best opportunity to learn to their maximal abilities.
I have always wanted to be a PA since I was a child. It is the type of profession that will allow me to help people and helping others is the highest calling anyone can have. I have had this desire in my heart for many year beyond my childhood. The medical field offers a person a chance to make a difference in a person’s life. The PA is given a chance to feel like they have made a positive difference in a patient’s life every day. This is why I want to be a PA. PAs also have the advantage of working as a team member with a doctor. I like the idea of having a mentor to guide me. I am a willing learner. Patients need someone with patience. This is something I have in spades. If given the chance to become a PA, I will bring enthusiasm, love, and a caring heart to the job.
Note: All this may sound great to the writer, but there isn’t one example that would lead the reader to believe the applicant is capable of doing any of what he/she says they can do or shows they actually believe in the statement they wrote. They are just generalizations that sound good but mean nothing.
As Shakespeare said in the final soliloquy in Macbeth, It is "a tale… full of sound and fury signifying nothing"
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
- Macbeth Act 5, scene 5, 19–28
How to correct this: If you are on the admissions committee, would you ask this person to come in for an interview? Did they create any images in your head or show you how they will do all the things they say they will do? No, they just put a bunch of words on the paper that sound good, but in the end, makes the reader believe they’re just trying to impress them with glowing platitudes that say nothing. What the reader will probably ask is so what? And who cares?
5. Poor First Paragraphs
The first paragraph has to grab the reader’s attention and give them some idea of what will follow. It is great if you can lead with an anecdote that summarizes what is in the rest of your essay.
Here’s a bad example. “I want to help people and save lives. Becoming a PA will give me a chance to do that. One of my best qualities is that I take the initiative and don’t stand back and wait for someone else to do what needs to be done. As a PA I will also be helping families who could have lost a loved one if I hadn’t been there to help.” This is filled with platitudes.
Here’s a good example of an anecdote that shows the same thing. “I heard a car crash and ran out of the restaurant to see what happened. A man was lying on the ground and wasn’t breathing. His wife had her arms around their two little boys and was screaming, “Someone, please help.” People gathered around, but no one did anything. I ran to him, gave him chest compressions, and mouth to mouth resuscitation. I had never done this before, but I kept him alive until the ambulance arrived, they restarted his heart and took him to the hospital.
Let’s examine what the anecdote tells us:
- There is an accident.
- No one did anything.
- You take the initiative to do something.
- You saved the man’s life.
- You kept a woman from becoming a widow.
- You kept the children from losing their father.
You said all of that in the anecdote. Your theme for the rest of the essay could easily be how you take initiative (shown through other examples) and how by being a PA you can save lives and help families.
The bad example paragraph said the same thing, but what a difference. Which one would grab your attention? Which applicant would you call in for an interview?
6. Incorrect use of the Word I:
How to correct this: You want to avoid the use of the word I in most cases, but not in all cases. You don’t want to say “I did this” and “I did that.” “I am a dedicated person who will give everything to the job.” “I am hard working and resourceful.” “I inspire my co-workers with my dedication to my job.” etc. What you want to say is “I spent three months working in an orphanage and the children inspired me with their cheerfulness.” OR “I had no idea the experience would change my life.” OR “I have often failed, but failure has made me better at what I do.”
7. Incorrect use of Contractions, Poor Grammar, Punctuation, or Spelling
How to correct this: It is only acceptable to use these when you quote someone. For example:
Johnny said, “And I ain’t going to eat none of this hospital food cus I didn’t ask for it, don’t want it, and won’t eat it even if you force me to.”
We used “ain’t, began the sentence with a conjunction, ended the sentence with a preposition, shortened because to cus, and used the contractions didn’t and don’t.” This is acceptable in a quote but never in the body of your essay.
As you can see, I’ve broken many of these rules myself, but I have the freedom to do so because I’m not applying to PA school.
I wouldn't call these the seven deadly sins of writing the PA essay, but they are the most common and often fatal mistakes I’ve found in reading and editing essays.
This was a guest post by Duke Pasquini
If you are struggling to write an effective personal statement or you have an essay that is in desperate need of help, consider signing up for our Physician Assistant personal statement collaborate. We have worked with 100's of applicants to date and the results have been amazing.
If you are interested, you can read more about the essay collaborative or submit your essay for review here. We have helped many applicants not only complete their essays but actualize their dream of admissions to PA school. Which is why we do this in the first place.
View all posts in this series
- How to Write the Perfect Physician Assistant School Application Essay
- The Physician Assistant Essay and Personal Statement Collaborative
- Do You Recognize These 7 Common Mistakes in Your Personal Statement?
- 7 Essays in 7 Days: PA Personal Statement Workshop: Essay 1, “A PA Changed My Life”
- PA Personal Statement Workshop: Essay 2, “I Want to Move Towards the Forefront of Patient Care”
- PA Personal Statement Workshop: Essay 3, “She Smiled, Said “Gracias!” and Gave me a Big Hug”
- PA Personal Statement Workshop: Essay 4, “I Have Gained so Much Experience by Working With Patients”
- PA Personal Statement Workshop: Essay 5, “Then Reach, my Son, and Lift Your People up With You”
- PA Personal Statement Workshop: Essay 6, “That First Day in Surgery was the First Day of the Rest of my Life”
- PA Personal Statement Workshop: Essay 7, “I Want to Take People From Dying to Living, I Want to Get Them Down From the Cliff.”
- Physician Assistant Personal Statement Workshop: “To say I was an accident-prone child is an understatement”
- 9 Simple Steps to Avoid Silly Spelling and Grammar Goofs in Your PA School Personel Statement
- 5 Tips to Get you Started on Your Personal Essay (and why you should do it now)
- How to Write Your Physician Assistant Personal Statement The Book!
- How to Write “Physician Assistant” The PA Grammar Guide
- 101 PA School Admissions Essays: The Book!
- 5 Things I’ve Learned Going Into My Fourth Physician Assistant Application Cycle
- 7 Tips for Addressing Shortcomings in Your PA School Personal Statement
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