pennsylvania state university essay guide
Old Main building at Penn State’s University Park campus.

Found in the heart of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University (PSU) is a public, land-grant university with a multitude of locations and the primary campus being at University Park, Pennsylvania. PSU has an undergraduate body of over 40,000 students, with an admission rate hovering in the low to mid-50s over the past three years. For the Class of 2022, the middle 50% of applicants had a high school GPA between 3.55-3.97 out of a 4.0 scale and SAT score between 1250-1430 or ACT score between 28-32.

According to the 2017 US News & World Report, PSU ranks #50 overall for best college experience for undergraduates and is ranked #14 among national public universities. Many factors contribute to a student’s evaluation: academic record, standardized test scores, personal statements, cultural and geographic background, and activities. PSU strives to look at the holistic individual and chooses a diverse class of students in all aspects of life.

For students admitted for Fall 2019 and following, PSU has slightly modified its general education curriculum. The baccalaureate degree consists of no less than 120 credits, where students are permitted to take courses beyond the minimum. PSU allows for early action admission, direct application into a major of study granted the student satisfies requirements and also has several special accelerated programs. To list a few at the University Park campus, there is the seven-year BS/MD program, the five-year BS/MBA, the Schreyer Honors College, and many more at one of 18 other PSU affiliated campuses.

To help you with the writing process, we wrote this essay guide specifically for PSU’s supplemental essays. For more guidance on personal essays and the college application process in general, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.

The Penn State Essay Prompts

Prompt 1: 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.

With the incredible amount of applications submitted each year, try to make the admission officer’s job easier by writing a concise, unique, fluid essay. The essay should tell a story that gives the officer an idea of what kind of person you are while allowing yourself to show off a bit. For example, have you participated in community service or have volunteering experience that has taught you a lesson that can translate to your success at Penn State? Do you play any instruments or sports that have allowed you to travel or gain insight into other cultures? Are you from a military background, has the process of moving to different homes helped you learn to adapt quickly?

To find that desired topic I suggest creating a list of experiences or activities and then writing a short description for each one. This will help with the second prompt because, even if the topic you start with doesn’t end up being the final choice, you can start to pick the activities that mean the most to you. Also, you will have already started brainstorming and writing about your general experiences that may be useful in essays for other schools.

Prompt 2: Please use this space to list or discuss your activities other than academic work during the last several years (for example: school organizations, jobs, athletics, the arts, community service, religious groups, or other individual interests). You may already have an activities resume or list prepared and should feel free to paste it into the space below. We suggest a limit of 500 words or fewer.

The key to this prompt is to brainstorm a few categories (e.g. traveling) in addition to the ones listed and write a quick sentence or two about each activity within that category. Make sure that the description highlights the key takeaways from each activity as you want to try and keep the supplemental essay under 500 words. However, even if the word total exceeds 500, don’t fret as the flow and significance of the activities can mean more to the admissions officer.

If you have only a few activities you would like to describe, feel free to go into more detail and write a compelling story so that the admission officer can understand your passion for said activities. However, if you have too many topics and are unable to sufficiently describe each activity, you can pick one for each category or choose which are most important to you.

Other Program-Specific Prompts

5 year MS/MBA of Eberly College of Science

Prompt 3. Select the scientific discipline above that is MOST interesting to you. Why do you want to devote 4 years of college studying it? (Astronomy & Astrophysics, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Biology, Biotechnology, Chemistry, Mathematics, Microbiology, Physics, Statistics) (200 Words Max)

Think about what has interested you in and out of school, do you have a curiosity or passion for any of these subjects? Have you considered how business will factor into your academic plans?

Prompt 4: Inclusiveness and Diversity: In an increasingly global community, it is essential that students gain cultural competency. In what way have you demonstrated a commitment to this mission? (200 Words Max)

Cultural competency refers to your ability to communicate and interact with people of different cultures. This could be attributed to traveling to different countries or meeting people of various backgrounds in your neighborhood. In this essay, you should demonstrate that you are able to recognize your own views, acknowledge cultural differences, have a positive attitude towards others, and plan to continue doing all of these things in the future.

Prompt 5: Goals: Discuss your career aspirations. How would the Science BS/MBA program help you reach those goals? (200 Words Max)

Your career aspirations can be at any moment after graduation, even 20 years down the road. What is important is that you have some idea of where you what to be at each stage and that you include it in your response. You should also do research on this program, find out what previous graduates did, and look at the curriculum to determine what this program has to offer that is unique and interesting to you.

Prompt 6: Leadership: Please discuss your leadership and collaboration skills. Give recent examples of how they have been demonstrated. (200 Words Max)

Pick one or two examples at most to effectively paint a complete story of you as a leader. If you are unable to think of an example, explain a hypothetical but realistic situation where you can showcase your leadership and collaboration skills.

Prompt 7: Resiliency: Transitioning to college can be a challenge. Discuss the adjustments you believe you will need to make in order to be successful as you transition from high school to a college environment. (200 Words Max)

Whether you believe you need to make adjustments or have already made them, make sure you include a broader list and then narrow down the answers to respond to this prompt.

Prompt 8: Describe your biggest commitment. (150 Words Max)

This prompt allows some flexibility if you think one aspect of yourself has not been thoroughly showcased, you are able to go into more depth here.

Prompt 9: Describe a time when you helped someone else succeed. (150 Words Max)

Think about your family, friends, peers, or even strangers and create a list with a brief description under each potential answer.

Prompt 10: Using three adjectives, how would you like others to perceive you? (3 Words Max)

Do not overthink this answer, one solution could be to try and summarize your previous prompts so that each adjective has a supporting essay to go along with it.

Schreyer Honors College

Prompt 11: Describe a typical day in your life in 2050. Consider what your professional life will look like, what technologies you might use, and how you will interact with your personal network (friends, family, etc.) and the world at large.

This prompt allows you to be creative, but you should contain your answers to what you would be able to gain specifically from being a Schreyer Honors student (i.e. the network perks and additional educational benefits). Try to look for previous Schreyer Scholar testaments to the benefits of being one of these students.

Prompt 12: Describe a situation in which you moved outside your comfort zone, interacting with people whose experiences and/or beliefs are different from your own. What was your initial response and how did you adapt? Walk us through the situation and explain what impact it had on you.

Approach this question in a multitude of ways:

  • Have you traveled to a new country with family or by yourself?
  • Have you met anybody during community service who has left a lasting impact?
  • Did you partake in work that involved being adaptive?

Regardless of the specific situation, be sure to include how you were initially presented with an uncomfortable situation, how you thought to remedy the situation, what you chose to execute in action, and the overall response.

Prompt 13: “A picture is worth a thousand words” refers to the notion that a complex idea can be conveyed with just a single picture. If you could submit a selfie from anywhere in the world that would tell us about your beliefs and passion, where would you take this photo? What insight would this photo provide about you?

Again, think about what you want to show the admissions officer that you have been unable to explain in previous essays or your resume.


This essay guide was written by Victor Shen, PSU Class of 2018. If you want to get help writing your PSU application essays from Victor or other Admissions Experts, register with today.