Support, Collaboration and Empathy

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February 4, 2019

Support, Collaboration and Empathy

Later today, we will release our admission decisions for the Penn class of 2023. Over the past weeks and months, my colleagues and I have read the stories of thousands of talented, inquisitive and imaginative students. As educators, we work to shape each incoming class comprised of students who will learn from each other, enriching this campus – and Philadelphia – with the vibrancy of their broad lived experiences.

While much of the narrative around admission decisions can focus on application statistics and acceptance rates, we would like to reframe that conversation about the broader purpose of the application process. Students use the various components of the application – essays, interviews, recommendation letters and more – to convey what is important to them, where their intellectual curiosities lie, and how they hope to pursue their goals in the future. The pieces of the application act as vehicles to convey those ideas to us and to help us imagine the future potential of students who will make their mark across various campus communities.

At Penn, we have endeavored to provide prospective applicants with a variety of channels that can help them to both better understand Penn and effectively communicate about themselves, so that their application can most fully capture their accomplishments and potential alignment with any college’s offerings. Our new website, featuring student stories and an interactive ‘explore your interests’ tool, is part of that effort. In addition to these online resources, we have also redesigned our campus information session and tour to feature specific student stories and to help visitors more clearly envision themselves on a college campus. The themes that our visitors learn about when they are exploring campus are equally resonant when considered through the viewpoint of prospective applicants and, eventually, future Penn students.

In an effort to make some meaning about this admissions cycle, we are going to expand on three of the primary features of our new campus tour, noting how these themes are relevant for any student at any stage of the college process. Indeed, many of our applicants pick up on these unique pieces about Penn and speak about them with intention in their applications.

One of the important messages from our tour is that Penn is comprised of multiple, interlacing support systems that care for students’ academic, social and emotional wellness. We all need help in some way to be successful. These resources enable Penn students to take healthy risks and to be supported in the face of disappointment. Similarly, we know that our applicants also benefit from a network of interlocking support systems. Help is a critical part of this process: families, teachers, counselors and many others help students to pursue their goals and strive for college. No one is successful in this process alone. We hope that students will not only take the time to thank these people during this season of college news, but also that they will remember to seek out new supporters when they begin their college careers in the fall. Different challenges await students as they transition from high school to college. Seeking help along the way will always be a sign of strength and self-awareness and an opportunity to build new mentor relationships.

Another theme from the tour is the idea of experiential learning and a culture of collaboration. Penn students regularly engage in research, pursue internships, and take courses to connect their knowledge in the classroom to the real world outside of it. Students often work together on academic projects, access courses taught across disciplines, and work alongside their peers to accomplish shared goals. We see these same important accomplishments in our prospective student voices. We note the places in an application where students make an impact in their communities and demonstrate their skills at working with others. We look for evidence of collaboration, open-mindedness, intellectual inquiry and a willingness to learn from others. Future college students will continue to push the boundaries of what is known on campuses around the globe, where they will experience the resources they described in their applications and discover new ones as well.

A final element of the redesigned campus tour expands on the idea of empathy. On tours, our student guides share their own stories with visitors, but they also relay the stories of friends, peers, and other classmates whom they may not know well. Our current students practice empathizing with the experiences of others who are traveling different paths across a shared campus. Similarly, our work evaluating the nearly 45,000 applications we received this year is also an exercise in empathy, as we try our best to understand students in their personal contexts, to make sense of their opportunities and choices, and to imagine their possible paths to and through Penn. For all students, their college applications are the result of their imagination of their potential future, exploring opportunities for research, civic engagement, intellectual exploration and extracurricular impact. It is this imagination of future self, not yet fully formed or realized, that excites us about bringing these new, diverse voices into our community.

We look forward to welcoming to Penn those students who have used the pieces of the application as a point of reflection and aspiration, not simply a point of reporting. Self-discovery, alongside support, collaboration and empathy, are all necessary and healthy elements of college life. We are humbled to imagine what that future will hold for future classes of Penn students and for students across the country and around the world who will be experiencing new possibilities for themselves over the coming years.

This piece is the result of a collaborative conversation between Sara Cohen, Associate Director of Admissions, Kathryn Bezella, Vice Dean of Admissions and Eric J. Furda, Dean of Admissions. We are grateful to all students who shared their stories with us, the team in Penn Admissions, as well as to our Kite and Key Society volunteer tour guides and our dedicated campus partners. Dean Furda’s show ‘The Process’ airs next on SiriusXM Stars 109 this weekend, March 30 and 31. Leave a message at 888-947-8277 or email theprocess@siriusxm.com with your questions.

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