Welcome to the University of Pennsylvania. If you want to find out about a school that offers its undergraduates a vast array of academic opportunities and where the students know how to have a great time; great sports teams (well, for the Ivy League); and that is in a thriving metropolis (if you can call West Philadelphia that), then read on.
Penn is a great school, but it is by no means for everyone. Here’s an account of the good, the bad and the toast throwing (yes, toast throwing) to help you decide if Ben Franklin’s university is the one for you.
Before you applied to Penn, you selected which of the four undergraduate school you wanted to be a part of: Wharton School of Business, the College of Arts and Sciences, Engineering or Nursing. What you probably didn’t know is that when you chose a school, you also chose your academic reputation for the next four years.
Wharton is the best undergraduate business school in the nation, and the Wharton students will never let anyone else forget it. From their computer labs which everyone else is banned from using to their constant interviews for jobs on Wall Street, Whartonites spend four years looking down on everyone else on campus. But they get what is coming to them with the infamous Wharton curve: all introductory courses are graded on a bell curve, meaning that only a certain amount of people can receive an ‘A’ — and a certain amount of people will definitely get a ‘D.’
The College of Arts and Sciences, often referred to as the College of Arts and Crafts, is the largest of the schools with departments that encompass the liberal arts as well as the natural and life sciences. Economics, history and psychology are among the most popular, and best, departments. The College also offers very popular interdisciplinary majors, such as Biological Basis of Behavior and Politics, Philosophy and Economics. Most students enjoy the flexibility the College offers its students to explore all different academic interests.
Students in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences are not known to be the most fun-loving people on campus. They have a large amount of work so they spend a lot of their time working in the Towne and Moore buildings at the eastern end of campus. If you see someone in the library on a weekend night, they are probably in SEAS.
Nursing is the smallest of the four schools with only 80 students in each year. Those in the other schools are aware that Nursing exists, though they may not be certain what it is. Students in this school gain hands-on experience as a result of the clinical training that begins in freshman year. It may be small, but nursing students have the highest average starting salary of the four schools.
No matter what school you are in, you will find that your classes usually taught by professors. The only classes that teaching assistants lead are some of the introductory foreign language courses and writing courses. If you take Intro courses, expect to be in a class with hundreds of others. All of these big classes break into recitations once a week to discuss the material in a smaller setting, led by TAs. The only problem: TAs who lead them often do not speak English, particularly in math and science courses.
You will also have the opportunity to take small classes of around 18 students. Don’t be fooled: small does not always equal good. But if you take a seminar with a great professor, it will be one of your best experiences at Penn.
The one thing that students in all four schools agree on is the problems with the advising system — or lack thereof. All students get an advisor in their school and then one in their major. Many students feel that advisors exist largely to sign innumerable forms and to give unsolicited advice based on precisely no prior knowledge of one’s skills or aspirations.
Only a part of your Penn education will take place in a classroom, however. The wide range of activities — from publications to performing arts to sports to student government to ethnic and culture clubs to community service — means that there is something for everyone, and most students are involved. Whatever you choose, you will find yourself and other students completely in charge of running organizations.
Many students complain that Penn is a completely apathetic campus. But Penn students do get excited about some things, like our football and basketball teams. After the football team clinched the Ivy League title, Penn students stormed the football field, tore down one of the goalposts, marched to the Schuykill River and threw it in. And students loyally followed the basketball team to Princeton to see them capture the Ivy title and then tore down the Tigers’ nets.
After the third quarter of every football game, students sing a song ending with the line, “Here’s a toast to dear old Penn.” Back in the day, Penn students used to drink alcohol after singing that line, but many years ago the administration clamped down on the practice. As a protest, Penn students threw actual toast on the field, and the tradition continues to this day.
Last year, Penn decided to create a “college house” system, so its dorms would feel more like communities. Dorms, er college houses, now have senior faculty living in them and many programs based in the residence. Incoming students, however, should not be confused about where to live. If you are a freshman, you likely want to be in one of the four college houses in the Quadrangle: Community, Goldberg, Spruce or Ware.
After freshman year, about half of the students decide to move off-campus; most off-campus housing is directly adjacent to campus. Many upperclassmen who decide to stay on campus move to one of the three high rises, apartment-style College Houses. These dorms are praised for their facilities, but criticized for their impersonal atmosphere.
They don’t call Penn the “social Ivy” for nothing. It is often said that Penn students study hard and party hard, and that characterization is largely accurate. Most first semester freshmen cut their partying teeth at fraternity houses awash with cheap beer and bad ’80s music. However, that is not to say that all Penn students join a Greek organization: only a third of people at Penn are involved in the Greek system. Rush occurs in the spring, so you will already have a group of friends and a better idea of how you fit into the school before you have to decide about joining a fraternity or sorority.
Penn students do not confine themselves to campus, but rather take advantage of Philadelphia, attending concerts at the Electric Factory, dancing at the many downtown clubs, and dining out at Restaurant Row. You can easily reach downtown using the subway system, SEPTA, or taxis. But we warned, SEPTA is dirty, slow and not so safe to ride alone at night.
Perhaps Penn’s most famous feature is its location: West Philadelphia. Everyone has heard the stories about the threat the neighborhood and the neighbors pose to the safety of Penn students. However, West Philly it is not half as bad as it is made out to be. In the past few years, violent crime has dropped dramatically.
By now, you have learned almost all there is know about Penn. If you are looking for a school situated among rolling green hills with students who spend their free time discussing Anna Karenina, Penn is not the place for you. But if you are looking for an urban environment with students who study hard and party hard, then head on over to West Philly. The Fresh Prince is waiting.