The University of Pennsylvania is a great school – an Ivy League – and I could not be more proud to attend. But, when I first got in, I was dismayed.
I had decided to transfer from Vassar College, a liberal arts school, which is both liberal and artsy. If you have heard of Vassar, you may know this to be its reputation. And it is not exaggerated. With some affection and only slight exaggeration, I can say that there are professors who make Bill Maher seem like Rush Limbaugh and students beside whom Lady GaGa would appear prim and proper. I had made good friends in my first year, but by third semester, I felt claustrophobic. It was too small and culturally extreme for me, and I told my parents I wanted to change schools.
I applied to a few universities – all of them bigger and considerably more diverse socially. But, really, I planned on going to the University of Virginia, a great public school that accepts a decent amount of transfers. I’m from Maryland, about twenty minutes from the Virginia border, and missed home. I wanted to hang out with the type of kids I grew up with, not to mention show school spirit and attend football games. My grades at Vassar were good, as were my test scores from high school, so I applied, was accepted, and officially let the world know via Facebook that I would be attending the University of Virginia.
Then, I was accepted to the University of Pennsylvania, which I did not fathom possible. My first reaction, I admit, was annoyance. I thought of Penn as another egghead school – pre-professional and more conservative, but not unlike Vassar. I was chasing a good fit this time around, not prestige. Now I would have to reject this highly esteemed institution. And explain it to family and friends!
But my family and friends made a few points in Penn’s favor. One, like UVA, Penn would be big enough of a school that I would be able to find a diversity of interests in the student body. With either choice, my new school wouldn’t be as homogeneous as my first one. Two, Penn, unlike UVA, is in a big city, Philadelphia. I would be able to find independence and activities outside of school. Three, the name recognition and networking at Penn would matter after graduation to a greater extent than UVA, if not in the quality of education I received while I was there.
The more I thought about it, the more I liked Penn. And, in fact, choosing it was one of the best decisions of my life. The classes have been fantastic. And, in three semesters, I have found friends via my fraternity and activities via the student newspaper and humor magazine. I’ve decided on a career path – urban policy – and even have an internship next semester in the Philadelphia city government. All of these options were there because Penn is medium-sized, highly reputed, and in a big city.
My advice to college applicants: apply to schools whose mission matches with your interests. And don’t sell yourself short! My grades were good. They weren’t ‘this guy should be president’ good. I believe that the big reason why I was accepted was that I wrote about community engagement and expressed a desire for a school that was more practical and grounded in my essay, which is a big part of Penn’s image. They picked me because I was a good fit, not because I was their overall most impressive applicant.
And, also: big is good. Don’t be afraid of big schools or big cities. A school like Penn – medium-sized in a big city – can be confusing to navigate at first, but the options it provides will give you the opportunity to find your interests and that freedom is worthwhile at a time in your life when your priorities change rapidly.
Good luck! I’m sure you will find your dream school (hopefully, the first time around)!
Evan Spiller is a Veritas Prep SAT instructor based in Philadelphia. He has been tutoring students since he was fourteen years old, volunteering at his former elementary school, mentoring students as an overnight camp counselor, and volunteering to teach English in Peru. He is a writer for the University of Pennsylvania’s student newspaper, political blog, and humor magazine.