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Not sure how to approach the Penn State essay prompts? With tips from a Penn State graduate, CollegeAdvisor.com’s guide to the Penn State supplemental essays will show you how to write engaging Penn State essays and maximize your chances of admission.

Penn State Essay Guide Quick Facts: 

  • Penn State has an acceptance rate of 54%—U.S. News ranks Penn State as a more selective school. 
  • We recommend answering all Penn State supplemental essays—optional Penn State essay prompts included— comprehensively and thoughtfully.

What is Penn State known for?

Founded in 1855 as an agricultural college, Penn State University is now a top-ranking research university located in Centre County, Pennsylvania. It ranks among the top 25 U.S. research universities, with 18 of its disciplines listed among the top ten research expenditures nationally. These disciplines include materials science, mechanical engineering, psychology, and electrical engineering. 

Penn State University operates with a multi-campus system, boasting 20 undergraduate campuses spread across Pennsylvania. The University’s mission is one of teaching, research, and public service. The school has a large student body, with approximately 40,000 undergraduate students. In-state tuition comes in at just under $20,000 per year, while out-of-state tuition is just over $35,000 per year. 

You can apply to Penn State through the MyPennState application or through the Common App. Students will also submit their Penn State essays either through MyPennState or through the Common App. 

Does Penn State require any supplemental essays?

In short, no. The Penn State application includes one optional essay. It’s essentially a personal statement, much like the CommonApp essay. While this Penn State supplemental essay is optional, we highly recommend responding to the Penn State essay prompt. Students’ Penn State essays can make a major difference in the admissions process. 

You should complete each part of every college application thoroughly, optional or not. The only exception to this rule, however, is if the part of the application does not apply to you. For example, you need not include a letter from a varsity coach if you did not play on a varsity team in high school. You also shouldn’t feel pressured to submit additional information about your grades or scores unless you faced any mitigating circumstances. 

How many essays does Penn State require?

There are no required Penn State application essays beyond the Common App essay. However, completing the optional Penn State supplemental essay will help you submit a well-rounded application. Students who submit strong Penn State essays will have a better chance of acceptance, so you should write the optional Penn State essay. 

Apart from your interview, your Penn State application essay is your only chance to speak directly to Penn State admissions about why you are a good fit for the university. Keep in mind that the admissions team will review thousands of Penn State application essays, so you should do all you can to help yours stand out. The best Penn State essays will use specific details to show why a student would succeed at Penn State. 

What are Penn State’s essays?

The Penn State supplemental essay is essentially a personal statement. It is designed to give Penn State admissions a sense of who you are beyond your grades and test scores. Once again, students who write strong Penn State essays will have a better chance of getting admitted. After all, well-written Penn State essays can help the admissions team learn more about what makes you special. 

As you approach your Penn State application essay, think about your identity. What is important to you? How do you want to impact the world? Finally, how will you enrich Penn State’s campus? The best Penn State application essays will answer some or all of these questions. 

Your response to the Penn State essay prompt should transform a two-dimensional application consisting of grades and test scores into a 3D representation of who you are as a student, learner, and community member. The best Penn State essays will give the admissions committee a vivid picture of who a student would be on campus. 

How do I write Penn State’s supplemental essays?

We have provided the Penn State essay prompt below. We’ve also included a full breakdown of how to approach this Penn State supplemental essay. 

The Penn State application essay is a chance to present your application narrative—that is, the story that your application tells to Penn State admissions. Your application narrative should give your readers a clear sense of who you are and what matters to you. This narrative should also remain cohesive throughout your application. For example, if you chose to take AP French because you want to be a diplomat in your family’s country of origin Cameroon, you might expand on this dream in your Penn State supplemental essay.

If you are having trouble constructing your application narrative in your Penn State application essay, then check out our article, “A Deep Dive into the Personal Narrative.” 

Penn State Supplemental Essay (Optional):

Please tell us something about yourself, your experiences, or activities that you believe would reflect positively on your ability to succeed at Penn State. This is your opportunity to tell us something about yourself that is not already reflected in your application or academic records. We suggest a limit of 500 words or fewer.

This Penn State supplemental essay asks why you would be a good fit at Penn State. It also asks you to tell a story about yourself that isn’t clear from the rest of your application. 

What makes you special? More importantly, what is something that makes you special and also makes you a good fit for Penn State? Strong Penn State application essays will answer these questions by telling a clear, specific, and compelling story. 

Let’s break down this Penn State essay prompt. First, why do you think you would succeed at Penn State? A list may be helpful here. Is it your innovative mind, your knack for scientific research, your skills on the football field? Additionally, your answer to this Penn State essay prompt should be specific to Penn State.

Do some research

To find specific details to use in your Penn State essay, do some research. Strong Penn State application essays will cite specific details about Penn State. You should learn about each college on your list and have a strong reason for applying; don’t just choose colleges based on prestige, location, or tuition cost. The best Penn State essays will discuss specific programs, courses, and student groups only available at Penn State. Want to learn more about student life at Penn State? Check out our article, “Student Life at Penn State.”

Once you’ve done some research, spend time with your list of reasons why you’d succeed at Penn State. As you refine this list, try to connect your skills to programs and resources that Penn State offers. The more specific you can be, the better!

Now that you have outlined why you are a good fit for Penn State, look at each skill you listed. How did you develop that skill? Did it come from your high school mock trial team? Or, did you learn it from a particular community? Did you change your perspective after a major life event? What’s the story behind each skill on your list?

Strong Penn State application essays can come from anywhere, so don’t limit yourself as you brainstorm. Look at these stories and choose the one that most shows why you would succeed at Penn State. Of course, make sure this story doesn’t already appear in your application. Remember, the best Penn State application essays will show your reader something new.

Start writing

Now that you have a topic for this Penn State supplemental essay, it’s time to start writing. Remember that you are telling a story, not writing a research paper. The strongest Penn State application essays will be the most organic, so don’t be afraid to let your voice shine through. If you are a funny and lighthearted person, let your humor seep into this Penn State supplemental essay. If your story is somber and at times painful, don’t be afraid to describe that pain in your Penn State application essay. Your Penn State essay is your chance to make your application three-dimensional, so let your humanity shine through. Use your essay to breathe life into your Penn State application. 

This Penn State supplemental essay has a recommended maximum of 500 words. Don’t go over the word limit. Keeping your Penn State application essay under the limit will not only show that you carefully read the Penn State essay prompt, but also that you are a clear and concise writer. 

Penn State application essays significantly under 500 words are technically fine. However, if your draft is coming in short, ask yourself if you have responded to both parts of the prompt. The first half of your Penn State supplemental essay should tell a story that shows why you’d succeed at Penn State; the second half of your Penn State essay should explain why your story makes you a good fit for the university. Both parts of your Penn State application essay should come in at around 250 words. So, if your Penn State essay is much shorter than 500 words, make sure your story is robust and your reasoning sound.

Now that you have your Penn State supplemental essay topic, how do you start writing?

Writing the first words of your Penn State supplemental essay can be the hardest part of the process. Sometimes, the easiest way to combat writer’s block is to just write without fear or expectation. Try an automatic writing exercise to begin drafting the story you have chosen for this Penn State supplemental essay. Simply fill in the first sentence of the prompt, “An experience or activity that would reflect on my ability to succeed at Penn State is….” Then, see where your Penn State essay takes you. 

While you will not use this draft as your final Penn State essay (and you certainly won’t use that cookie-cutter first sentence) this exercise is a great way to get your ideas flowing. After you have written for 5-10 minutes, look over your work. What stands out to you from this first pass? Often, the crux of a story reveals itself in a free write. Maybe there’s a sentence near the end of your writing that would actually make the perfect introduction. Maybe there’s another that connects two crucial ideas. Mine your writing for the core structure of your Penn state supplemental essay. Then, highlight those key structural sections, use them as your outline, and take a second pass at this Penn State essay. 

Talk it out

If free-writing isn’t your speed, don’t worry! For many writers, oral storytelling can be helpful when it comes to crafting a narrative. Perhaps it is easiest to tell your Penn State essay aloud, either to a family member or into a voice recorder. Then, transcribe your recording and mine its contents for the key points of your Penn State application essay. For more writing exercise ideas, check out our article, “Determining a College Essay Topic: Reflection Exercises to Try.”

Once you have your draft, the next step is to revise. As the structure of your Penn State supplemental essay emerges, revise and refine it. Then, come back to the Penn State essay prompt—are you telling your story compellingly and succinctly? Do you discuss a skill you have that will help you succeed at Penn State? Do you allow yourself enough time to connect the skill you describe to how it will help you succeed at Penn State? Does this essay round out the narrative present in the rest of your application? If the answer to each of these questions is a resounding yes, then your essay is likely almost complete. You might then hand this Penn State supplemental essay draft to another reader who can catch any lingering grammatical or spelling errors. 

Essay Draft Key Questions

  • Does your Penn State essay tell a compelling story?
  • Do you discuss details not present in the rest of your application?
  • Does your essay show why you’d be a good fit at Penn State?
  • Do you show that you’ve done your research on Penn State and its offerings? 

Additional tips for the Penn State essay

  • Start early: Though your Penn State essay will be relatively short, that doesn’t make it easy to write. The Penn State essay prompt requires you to think critically about yourself as an applicant. Ideally, you should begin outlining and drafting your Penn State supplemental essay the summer before your application is due. If you are having trouble preparing all of your application materials, check out our article, “Preparing Your Senior Fall Checklist.”
  • Essay Checklist: Write out each step required to complete this Penn State supplemental essay. Use the guide above. If you choose to make lists for each step—why you are a good fit for Penn State, what experiences or activities helped you develop those skills, et cetera—then completing those lists should also be on the checklist. Your checklist should also include answering both parts of the prompt—your story and why that story makes you a good fit for Penn State. If you follow a detailed checklist, you’ll be sure to write a strong Penn State supplemental essay.
  • Edits: It is always a good idea to have a second pair of eyes on your writing. Choose someone you trust who understands the goals of your Penn State application essay and respects your voice and vision. If you are an oral thinker, you might talk your initial Penn State essay ideas through with this person. However, make sure they will only help you further your own thinking rather than impose their own. No matter where you bring an outside reader into the process, they should definitely read your final Penn State application essay to check for spelling, punctuation, and grammar. You might also hand them your essay checklist and ask whether they think you completed each step. 

Penn State Supplemental Essay: Final Thoughts

Do not be discouraged by the Penn State supplemental essay! Though it may seem like a tall task, breaking your Penn State essay into smaller, manageable chunks will make it less daunting. 

Ultimately, writing the Penn State essay will only help you. The skills this essay helps you develop in narrative building and constructing your literary voice will be crucial throughout the application cycle and in your college years. Finally, remember to have fun! You are being asked to envision yourself on Penn State’s campus and imagine how you may succeed there. This is an opportunity to be imaginative and creative. Make the most of it! 


This 2021-2022 essay guide on Penn State was written by Saphia Suarez. Want more help responding to the Penn State University essay prompt? Click here to create your free CollegeAdvisor.com account or schedule a free advising assessment with an Admissions Expert by calling (844) 343-6272.