Changes and Constants in Admissions

Posted on by Dean Furda

As Penn Admissions prepares to post decisions to the Class of 2021 — yes, the students were born around 1998, and were in 4th grade when the world experienced the start of The Great Recession — two thoughts are emerging for me: what has changed about Penn, and about this process? And what has stayed the same?

Of course, with the theme of change, I immediately think of technology. My colleagues and I were reflecting over the past few days on the many enhancements Penn has made to our admissions processes. What used to take place using reams of paper, various colored pens, and many, many three-ring binders, now is more likely to include Excel spreadsheets, decision notification portals, and celebratory hashtags (#Penn21!).

And there are the broader themes of technology and change. In a recent conversation I had with the Dean of Penn Engineering, Dr. Vijay Kumar, he expressed to me his optimism for the future after spending some time with recent Penn graduates who are working in the San Francisco Bay Area. Over 100 people signed up for a Penn Engineering reception he hosted, and reported on their work founding companies, working in startups, and innovating in top companies like Apple, Facebook and Google. And, of course closer to home, The Pennovation Works, where Dean Kumar has one of his labs, is already buzzing with new energy involving research, entrepreneurship and industry.

And what has stayed the same? For that answer, I look to a paragraph from the letter of congratulations several thousand students will receive this admissions cycle:

Benjamin Franklin, our founder, said, “The great aim and end of all learning is service to society.” This statement powers our community with a sense of purpose, ensuring that we seek to engage, to create and connect, and to act. Having seen the uncommon quality of your achievement and character through your application, we recognize that your talents will contribute immeasurably to these efforts. In short, Penn will not be the same without you.

At Penn we have the bedrock ideals on education from our founder Benjamin Franklin. Then across the curriculum of our four undergraduate schools, up and down the central pedestrian artery of our campus, Locust Walk, and across the community building spaces of our college houses and other intentionally designed spaces like Perry World House, Platt Center for Student Performing Arts, the LGBT Center and other Cultural Resource Centers, we bring together a class of students: 2,445 voices of uncommon quality and character (while still being human, flawed, beautifully opinionated, and refreshingly unformed). Yes, another constant is that it is as difficult as ever to make admission decisions. But admission officers embrace the opportunity for these young people to come together on our campuses to engage, connect, and act.

The quality and potential of the students we admit is another refreshing constant, especially at time when tensions are high across borders, in the nation, and indeed, on our college campuses. The framework of the 5 I’s and 4 C’s provides the answer to ‘what do we look for in a candidate’ – that, too, has not really changed. In fact, the answer across admission deans will often have consistent themes (academic promise, impact in their community, and match with our community), while the nuance and uniqueness of our campuses still is, and has always been (in my mind), the whole point of a sound college search process.

Sometimes, too, what is constant (the excitement and nervousness of this process) meets what is evolving, creating one of my favorite trends – the phenomenon that allows admissions professionals like me to share in the moment of total joy when an admitted student finds out their decision.

So to Kathleen, a new admit to Penn’s Class of 2021, who received her admission notification last week as part of our partnership with Questbridge, thanks for being the most important unchanged part of this process: a reminder of the unwavering brightness of our future.


Hear more from Dean Furda on January 10 at 1 PM EST on his SiriusXM radio show The Process on Business Radio 111 powered by The Wharton School, and sign up for How to Apply to College, a free college counseling course offered through Coursera, which will go live February 13, 2017.


*PAGE 217
refers to the always legendary and occasionally dreaded essay which was once a mainstay of the University of Pennsylvania application. The question read as follows: “You have just finished your three hundred page autobiography. Please submit page 217.”

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