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How to Write a Penn State Essay in 3 Steps


If you want to go to Penn State, then the Penn State essay is one of your big chances to show how you’re different from other students in your application for admission. In order to really make this component of the application work to your advantage, you’ll need a solid strategy for writing a concise, unique, and persuasive Penn State essay!

Writing your Penn State admissions essay might seem intimidating at first, but we’re here to guide you through the process. This article will help you write a stellar Penn State essay by: 

  • Explaining purpose of the Penn State Essay
  • Outlining the three steps to writing a solid Penn State Essay
  • Providing a breakdown of Penn State essay examples
  • Giving you three practical tips for writing an exceptional essay

Let’s dive in!



The Penn State essay is an important part of your Penn State application because it can make you stand out from other applicants!


What’s the Penn State Essay?

The Penn State essay, sometimes also called the Penn State supplemental essay, is a 500 word written response included in the Penn State application for admission

The prompt for this essay invites applicants to tell the admissions committee about themselves. Here’s the prompt you’ll have to answer:

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 essay prompt is essentially asking applicants to write a response that is very similar to what is known as a personal statement. College admissions typically use an applicant’s personal statement to better understand who the applicant is as a person and what strengths they will bring to the university. 

In other words, the Penn State Essay response is an applicant’s chance to show what makes them unique in the admissions process. 




3 Steps to Answering The Penn State Essay Prompt

If we break down the pieces of what the Penn State prompt is asking, we can identify three main tasks that you need to complete in order to write a killer essay. These tasks are as follows: 

  1. Identify something about yourself (e.g. a skill, ability, character trait), one of your experiences, or an activity you have been involved in, and 
  2. Explain the meaning or significance of that aspect of yourself in order to
  3. Prove that you embody what it means to be a Penn State student. 

While whipping out a 500 word essay response that covers these topics may sound easy, it’s a bit trickier in practice. It’s important that you think carefully about your strategy and come up with a clear plan for your essay response. Remember: your essay is an important part of your admissions application, so you want to spend time getting it right. 

Now, we’re going to walk you through how to address each of these three major points in your essay in order to make admissions counselors sit up and take notice. 


Step 1: Select a Topic to Write About

To begin the process of drafting your Penn State essay, you need to select a meaningful attribute, experience, or activity that makes a positive case for your ability to succeed at Penn State. You need to identify these meaningful experiences or attributes because of the first part of the Penn State essay prompt, which states: 

Please tell us something about yourself, your experiences, or activities that you believe would reflect positively on your ability to succeed at Penn State. 

To do this, start by taking inventory of the character traits, experiences, or involvement in activities that you’re most proud of, passionate about, or are the most meaningful to you. We recommend you start by writing a list of the things that come to mind. If you want, you can divide it into categories based on character traits/abilities, experiences, and activities. As you put together this list, don’t worry about whether the things you’re coming up with are “good” or not — you’re just brainstorming ideas at this point!  

If you’re stuck and have no idea where to start, that’s okay, too. Try asking yourself these questions to get you started: 

  • What is my favorite memory? And why? 
  • What’s my favorite thing to do in the whole world? Why do I love it? 
  • If my friends had to describe me in one word, what would they say?

Once you start jotting down ideas, you’ll probably find that you’re able to come up with quite a few. The traits, experiences, and activities that you list out can vary widely and come from different areas of your life, including experiences with friends and family, academic pursuits, extracurricular activities, work with community organizations and volunteerism, political activism, travels, strong memories from childhood, or challenges you’ve faced in life. The possibilities aren’t limited to the ones we just mentioned; this list is simply meant to give you a jump start for brainstorming. 

Once you’ve listed out all the meaningful traits/abilities, experiences, and activities that you can think of, evaluate them in order to select one item from the list that you will address in your Penn State essay. To narrow it down to one item, consider asking yourself the following questions: 

  • Which of these items do I feel the strongest positive emotional connection to? 
  • Which of these items am I the most proud of? 
  • Which of these items could I tell a story about? 
  • Which of these items makes me unique or different from other people? 

You don’t necessarily have to use these questions to select your essay topic, but if you find that you answer several of these questions with the same experience or activity, that might be a good clue that you should choose that item as the topic of your Penn State essay. 



Once you pick a topic, it's time to figure out what it says about you as a person. This essay is designed to help admissions counselors get to know you. 


Step 2: Think About What Your Topic Says About You 

Once you’ve selected a single character trait/ability, experience, or activity from your list, the second step of responding to the Penn State essay prompt is to tell a compelling story. 

You want to engage your reader while explaining what the trait/activity/characteristic you’ve chosen says about you as a person. 

To get started on this step, it’s a good idea to do some freewriting or brainstorming. Try to identify the ways in which the experience or activity you chose showcased a talent, skill, or ability you possess in a meaningful or valuable way. It’s important to be able to explain your perception of how this experience or activity shaped you into a person who will bring something positive to Penn State.

Here’s what we mean: say Katerina has decided that she wants to write about making the varsity squad for her school’s soccer team. In her freewrite, she writes about how the accomplishment makes her feel (proud, excited, enthusiastic), and she also writes a bit about the hard work it took for her to get there. Not only does she jot down ideas about going to the State tournament and making a game-winning goal, she also writes about how she missed making the squad in 9th grade, but instead of quitting, she got up an hour early every day over the summer to fit in extra practice. 

In this example, Katerina is trying to get a better understanding of why her topic is important to her, and what kind of story she can tell the admissions committee to help them understand her better. In this case, Katerina may decide to focus on how she didn’t give up and put in extra work to make her dreams come true...and it ended up paying off in a big way! 

Keep in mind that it doesn’t matter if the item you choose to write about is the most prestigious accomplishment from your résumé — you have the rest of your Penn State application to account for those accomplishments. Rather, the Penn State Essay is your time to tell the story of the real person behind your long list of accolades. If you can tailor this story to focus on a specific, detailed experience, activity, or positive attribute you possess, your essay will be more impactful.


Step 3: Tie Your Story Back to Penn State

After you’ve nailed down the way that you want to describe your uniqueness as an applicant, you need to define your understanding of what success at Penn State means to you

Why do you need to do this? Because of the instructions in the first sentence of the Penn State essay prompt, which states: 

Please tell us something about yourself, your experiences, or activities that you believe would reflect positively on your ability to succeed at Penn State

Penn State Admissions wants you to make a clear connection between your reflections on the experience you choose to write about and the opportunities for success that Penn State offers to its students. In order to make this connection effectively in your essay response, you need to explain how your story shows that you’re a perfect fit for Penn State. 

To get started, do your research on the culture, identity, and opportunities provided for students at Penn State. Use any information you may have gathered from visits to Penn State’s campus, attending admissions events, talking with current students or alumni, or perusing Penn State’s website to help you construct a complete picture of the culture of Penn State and what the school has to offer. 

Also, dig into specific opportunities you want to take advantage of while you’re attending Penn State. What does Penn State offer you that no other college can give you? Maybe that’s a specific degree plan, unique courses, or even a specific professor you want to work with. The more specific you are about how you’ll fit into the Penn State community, the better. 

So let’s go back to Katerina. Katerina wants to be an engineer, and in her research, she learned that Penn State’s BEST Center is working on improving battery technology. Since Katerina wants to work in the tech field, the BEST Center will help her prepare for her future career. 

So now Katerina needs to use her story about her soccer experience to explain how she’ll succeed as an engineering student at Penn State. One way she might do that is by saying that engineering is a demanding degree, and the persistence she learned on the soccer field will set her up for doing well as a Penn State engineering student. She could even take it a step further and explain that the creative problem solving she developed in her soccer training will help her succeed as she researches new battery technology as a part of the BEST Center, too.

This definition of “success” should inform how you tell the story of yourself in your Penn State essay. The admissions committee doesn’t expect every applicant to define success in the same way. In fact, Penn State admissions wants to see that you’ve really thought through your potential to be a good fit as a student at Penn State based on a thorough understanding of what Penn State has to offer a student with your past experiences and vision for the future. You should be able to define your path to success and explain how Penn State will help you get there.  



If you're still not sure what your Penn State essay should look like, take a look at our example essay below.

A Penn State Essay Example

There are many different ways that a Penn State essay can be successful but, in general, excellent essays talk about a specific experience, tell a memorable story, and connect the story of that experience to your definition of success at Penn State. 

To help you understand what these moves can look like in practice, let’s check out Penn State essay examples: 

Every morning during the spring of my junior year of high school, my alarm went off at 4:45 a.m. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many people in my hometown were laid off from their jobs struggling to make ends meet. My family owns a farm, and we grow many different types of vegetables and have laying hens, too. So when my morning chores were completed, I would jump in the truck with my dad and my sister to drive into town and deliver free vegetables and eggs to families in need. 

My family could help others because of our farm. That made me think: what if other people could grow their own food and then share what they had with others? That’s why I started an online, community-based agriculture program at my school. I wanted to help others learn how to grow their own food, then share that food with others in their community. 

While the group started out small with just a few students, within three weeks, 40 of my classmates joined in. Together, we organized a seed, plant, and garden tool drive that helped give 70 families in our town enough supplies to start their own small gardens. And many of my classmates have committed to growing gardens of their own! This experience taught me how important agriculture is, but also how agriculture can directly impact the well-being of those around me. 

As a major in community, environment, and development at Penn State, I would have the opportunity to learn about and envision strategies for helping consumers in local communities become aware of and educated about the social and economic benefits to supporting their local farmers. By taking supplemental courses in computer programming, I would prepare myself to create user-friendly online spaces that are dedicated to sharing information about local food systems with consumers in local communities. Ultimately, I believe that Penn State will help me achieve my dream of starting a nationwide, online program to help people in undeserved communities start community agriculture programs of their own. 

Now, let’s break down what this example essay does well. In this essay, the writer provides a clear definition of what success at Penn State will look like for them as a student. This essay emphasizes the student’s personal goals, knowledge of the opportunities Penn State has to offer, and commitment to investing in the Penn State community and society at large. That will definitely make an impact with admissions counselors! 

This student also helps admissions counselors get to know them by telling a story that includes specific details and vivid imagery from an experience that other applicants may not have. The essay helps the reader get a better sense of who this person is, their background, and the things they care about by telling the short story about delivering homegrown care packages to people in the community. This story will help the admissions committee remember the applicant and will set them apart from other applicants as well. 

But most essays aren’t perfect, and this one isn’t, either. One thing this essay response can improve upon is the way in which it connects the student’s idea of success to Penn State. In the last paragraph, the student should focus more on how specific opportunities provided by Penn State’s agriculture department, like its collaborative research into sustainable agriculture, will help the student achieve their goals. 

All in all, this Penn State essay provides a good example of how to address all aspects of the essay prompt, be clear and concise in your writing, and reveal important aspects of who you are as a person that your other application materials may not show. 




3 Tips for Writing an Excellent Penn State Essay

You want your Penn State essay to persuade admissions that you’ll be a fantastic addition to Penn State’s incoming class. To help you present yourself in a way that Penn State admissions will remember, check out our three tips for writing an outstanding Penn State essay to help you stand out from the crowd. 


Tip 1: Be Specific

If you want your Penn State essay to be memorable, you need to be specific. Throwing out a bunch of abstract character traits or claims as to why you’ll be successful at Penn State won’t help your essay stand out. Instead, give your essay a coherent focus by selecting one or two related character traits, experiences, or activities that show your ability to be successful at Penn State. 

The point of the Penn State essay is to shoot for depth, not breadth. You already showcase your grades, coursework, and awards through other parts of your Penn State application. The essay is the time to reveal more about who you are and what you will bring to Penn State by showing how you’ve been successful in a past situation. Choosing a specific experience and diving into the details of it will show that you’re more than just a list of achievements on a résumé—you’re a real human being. 


Tip 2: Give Concrete Examples

When writing your Penn State essay, examples are a crucial form of support. When you select one or two specific elements  to focus on in your essay, you need to be able to elaborate on those things through specific and engaging examples. 

For instance, you don’t want to simply say, “My adaptability to a range of situations predicts my potential for success as a student at Penn State.” An admissions committee may read that sentence and ask, What makes you so adaptable? What activities or experiences demonstrate evidence of your adaptability? What has your adaptability helped you achieve or accomplish? 

Instead of making a vague, abstract claim like the one in the paragraph above, you need to be more specific, which you can do by providing an example

Here’s how a writer could elaborate on their adaptability in their essay: 

Starting your senior year of high school at a new school probably sounds daunting, but after moving seven times in seven years, I was prepared for the ins and outs of being the new kid on my last first day of school. Moving so many times due to my father’s work in the military has given me the opportunity to experience different cultures, learn new languages, and cultivate the ability to make meaningful connections with new people who are very different from me in a matter of minutes. During my senior year at a new school, I used these skills to mobilize my fellow students for a school wide walkout in support of DACA. 

Do you see the difference? The example above gives specific details of what life experience led this student to become adaptable rather than simply making an unsupported claim.

This example is also memorable because it uses vivid language. When you read it, you can imagine the student traveling the world, confidently stepping foot into a new school, and building connections with fellow students for social action. 

In your Penn State essay, examples like this one can be used to make meaningful connections between your vision for your life as a student and a clear definition of success. Using examples in this way will make your essay memorable and unique. 


Tip 3: Don’t Rehash Your Résumé

It’s tempting to rehash the list of accomplishments on your résumé in your Penn State essay, especially if your résumé is packed full of prestigious awards and experiences. However, keep in mind that there are other areas of the Penn State application that explicitly ask for this information. 

When the admissions committee sits down to read your essay response, they’re looking to learn something new about you—something that your résumé can’t tell them. So, instead of listing off accomplishments or stating the facts of what you’ve achieved, pick an aspect of who you are that might not be super apparent. That can include personality traits (maybe you’re really funny), unique experiences you’ve had (maybe you rescued kittens one summer!), or something else that makes you uniquely you. 

Just remember: your essay is a chance for you to make a powerful impression on your readers, so don’t waste it! 




Next Steps 

If you’re applying to Penn State, you need to make sure you’re meeting some of the school’s other admissions requirements. Here’s a guide to the Penn State admissions process to get you started. You can also learn more about the Penn State ACT and Penn State SAT standards, too. 

Are you looking for more college essay tips and tricks? Don’t worry: we’ve got 13 more for you! 

If you’re applying to other schools besides Penn State, you may find that you have to write “Why This College?” essays. If you’re not sure what those are, be sure to check out this article.



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Ashley Robinson
About the Author

Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.

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