Right, it's that time of year again -- a few days before most U.S. universities announce Regular Decision admissions -- and so this blog springs to life after a while with an interview with Eric Furda, Dean of Admissions at Penn, joined once again by John McLaughlin, Senior Associate Director at Penn Admissions who covers several international locations for Penn. We've met them before here, and my thanks as always for their time, courtesy, and frankness.
Ramanan: How does Penn use the Regular Decision process to "shape the class"? In fact, for Penn, what does it mean to shape a class?
John: We consider the applicant pool at micro- and macro-levels. At the micro-level, we evaluate every candidate on an individual basis. At the macro-level, we aim to bring the right group together to create a dynamic class. We talk about shaping the class in the sense that this is our chance to influence the very character of the institution for the next four years.
The creation of a class is a synergistic process in the sense that we believe that each freshman class is more than the sum of its applicants’ parts. As we evaluate individuals, we think about how this person will be as a classmate, a teammate, and a roommate. How will this individual complement the 2,419 others in the class? Imagine trying to create an orchestra. You’d need violins, violas, cellos, and more. Filling the orchestra with only the very best violas won’t work (though I love the viola). For the orchestra to sound its best, we need all the instruments to be present.
Eric: In the regular decision process, we will see over 32,000 individual students with just as many stories. As a selective institution, we have the privilege to choose from among these amazing young people with their varied talents and interests. It’s difficult at times because we must necessarily turn away many exceptional students. The best class, like the best orchestra, is more than just the very best individuals.
Ramanan: How does the fact that Penn asks for applicants to Penn to indicate their desired school or Combined Dual Degree (CDD) program change the admission process compared to other universities?
Eric: Admissions is a matching process, and we think about how students will fit and thrive at Penn. When we consider students for specific programs, we focus on how they speak to the program and how they’ve prepared. This is perhaps most true for our professionally-oriented schools: Engineering, Nursing, and Wharton. Engineering, for example, requires knowledge of math and physics and we expect our engineering applicants to have some exposure to these subjects before arriving to Penn. Our CDD programs, meanwhile, are very unique and we want to better understand how the applicant will make the most of the special coordination between multiple schools at Penn.
John: The finer points of interest (i.e., distinctions within schools like marketing vs. finance at Wharton or psychology vs. sociology at the College) are less significant because we know that students’ interests may change to some extent within broad fields. Here, the College of Arts and Sciences is often the best fit for students eager to explore subjects ranging from computer science to comparative literature.
Ramanan: For international students, are some schools at Penn more selective than others? That certainly seems to be the perception.
Eric: We tend to see a lot of international interest in business, science, and engineering. There are a couple of reasons behind this trend. In many contexts, national high school curricula are geared towards further education in these areas (as opposed to the humanities or social sciences). Also the liberal arts (i.e., the traditional American system of exploratory higher education, best exemplified by the College of Arts & Sciences) are not as well understood abroad. Therefore, we sometimes see greater international interest in Engineering, Wharton, and the natural sciences in the College.
It’s quite rare, by comparison, to see English majors from non-English speaking countries. We hope and expect this to change – it has already changed significantly over the last twenty years – as students around the world better appreciate the benefits of a liberal arts education and Penn’s deep and abiding strengths in providing such an education for undergraduates.
John: In terms of selectivity, students and parents are often surprised to learn from us that the acceptance rates to all our undergraduate schools are closely bunched together, in our U.S. applicant pool as also our international applicant pool. This runs counter to the perception that it’s any easier to get into one school versus another. Any difference is due in large part to supply and demand (not the quality of the applicant pool), and the differences in acceptance rates are much smaller than most people may believe. Furthermore, because we evaluate on the basis of fit (as discussed in question 2), a strong applicant to Engineering might be a weak applicant to Wharton or the College or vice versa.
Ramanan: Once admitted, what does Penn do to help international students settle into a brand new environment? This transition is emotionally taxing; how does Penn assist?
John: Through my own experience as an international student (in England), I appreciate the challenges and opportunities facing international students considering higher education in the US. There are logistical considerations (e.g., securing visas, travelling to/from home, etc.) and cultural considerations (e.g., where can I celebrate my faith, culture, and cuisine?), and both are equally important in order to make the most of the experience.
At Penn, we have various resources in place to assist students with the transition. From PennGlobal which provides support on the visa process, opening a bank account, getting a mobile phone, etc. We also have a special orientation for international students preceding the class-wide orientation events. This gives our international students an opportunity to acclimate to campus and meet others from around the world. For more details on the orientation experience students should check out our great welcome website.
Eric: I am always mindful of the fact that the group that students interact the most with – are other students! At Penn, current students offer lots of peer support about the transition to life at Penn and in the US. Like all freshmen, our international students will be paired up with a current student in the summer before arriving to campus. These peer mentors can help guide students using their perspective as current students. The Assembly of International Students is also a great resource for the international community at Penn. This group sponsors various events and gatherings to bring the international community together at Penn.
Ramanan: International students, no matter what their socioeconomic backgrounds, are sometimes unused to the highly self-sufficient nature of the American college environment. As an example, a question I often get from students – and had to deal with myself – is “how do I do laundry?” What can you share with us on this vital subject ☺?
John: Self-sufficiency is one of the important lessons learned in college. We know full well that the home and school environments outside the United States are quite different. My advice to students is that this is a wonderful opportunity to become independent in many regards.
And on laundry: if you still can’t figure out the chemistry of bleach, detergent, and fabric softener, the entrepreneurial folks at Penn Student Agencies have already created a laundry service!