As the open date for our Fall 2014 application approaches (September 1!), many of our interested applicants are starting to think about preparing for the online application. One of the questions we get most often is “What are your essay questions?” Well, for the general Penn State application, there are no essay questions!
Before you breathe a sigh of relief though, we do provide you with three spaces in the application for you to tell us a bit more about yourself. Though these written components are not required, we highly recommend that you take the time to write a bit more about yourself because it adds a lot of value to your application and it can help us make an admissions decision – especially for the most competitive academic programs and colleges.
The three written areas are: Activities List, Personal Statement, and Educational Gap Statement. Below are the questions we use as prompts.
Activities List– Please use this space to 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). We suggest a limit of 500 words or fewer.
Personal Statement –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 statement 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.
Educational Gap Statement –If applicable, please explain any time that has elapsed between high school graduation and college enrollment. Please provide a summary of why that gap occurred and whether you took courses at another institution during that time. (Note: this gap statement will only appear within the online application and is applicable if you have taken some time off after high school and before starting college).
If you’d like to get a head-start before the application opens on September 1, you can begin working on these written statements to support your application to Penn State. You can read more about each section of the application on the Applying on the Web Worksheet (PDF).
If you are planning to apply to the Schreyer Honors College, that separate application features various written components, including 3 essay questions. Although the application for Schreyer is not available until September 1 as well, you can access the essay questions now and begin planning your answers. Unlike Penn State’s general statements, these questions do not have a word count requirement.
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Notice how the subject of this essay weaves an extracurricular, a challenge, and personality traits into one supplement. A good way to see if your chosen activity would make for an effective essay is to see if it illustrates many facets of yourself.
It is also important to choose something that you have not discussed in detail yet. If your common application essay was about debate and you already have it listed in your activities and awards section, it would be a good idea to discuss something that the admissions team can’t simply look up elsewhere on your application. Hobbies, for example, would make for interesting and unique essays.
If you choose to write about a job or an internship, the same guidelines for the extracurricular apply. It would also be beneficial if the skills you gained in your work experience apply to the major or profession you would want to pursue at Penn State.
For instance, if you are applying as an education major and you worked at a restaurant during the school year, you could discuss how working with people taught you how to be patient, how communication was a key part of customer service, and how you frequently had to juggle multiple tasks at one time. Even though a career in education and a job at a restaurant are not exactly the same, the skills you’ve acquired will make you more successful in the career of your choice.
If you write about a challenge or obstacle, it is important to be wary of the sob story. Sob stories are a common college application mistake, in which the writer discusses a tragedy or hardship that is meant to make the reader feel bad, but does not effectively demonstrate how the hardship affected the writer and changed him/her, or how the writer overcame it.
Instead, focus on how you faced the challenge and how it changed you, but do not let it define your high school career. This would also be a good place to subtly explain any irregularities in your academic record. For example, if your grades in junior year were much lower than usual because your mother fell ill, you could write about how you gained a newfound appreciation for your mother after you were tasked with taking care of your younger siblings in her absence.
Notice how this example still discusses a tragic event, but it better demonstrates the writer’s maturity as a result of the event. Even though it is not explicitly mentioned that the mother’s illness contributed to the drop in grades, the admissions team will gain a new insight into the experiences that have shaped who you are and affected the parts they can see, like your academic record. Make sure to then highlight how this newfound maturity and evolution of character impacted you and would continue to impact you in college and beyond.
Writing about a characteristic or personality trait is a little more difficult, but would also make for a unique and standout essay. You can do this by exposing your traits through your work in an extracurricular, job, or experience, or you can delve into a memory in your essay that solely focuses on the trait.
For example, if you think that you would be a good fit for Penn State because you thrive in community-oriented environments and you love the community-focused atmosphere at Penn State, you could write about a time where you held a “Friendsgiving” and how cooking with your friends was a way of bonding and connecting.