What is it Like to Attend The Pennsylvania State University?

The tutors behind Varsity Tutors are not just here to teach – they’re sharing their college experiences as well. Alexandra is a Philadelphia tutor specializing in Environmental Science tutoring, Essay Editing tutoring, and all levels of Spanish tutoring. She is a 2013 graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Resource Management. Check out her review of her school:


VT: Describe the campus setting and transportation options. How urban or safe is the campus? Are there buses or do you need a car/bike?

Alexandra: Penn State is located in central PA, which is a very rural area. The nearest major city is three hours away. However, the campus itself and the surrounding town of State College are bustling with people, most of whom are in some way connected to the school. Freshmen are not allowed to bring cars. Sophomores and upperclassmen may bring cars, but parking can be expensive and having a car is typically unnecessary. The CATA buses will get you anywhere on campus and are free for campus and downtown service. There are also CATA buses that charge a small fee and will get you to Wal-Mart, Trader Joe’s, farther off-campus residences, etc.

VT: How available are the professors, academic advisers, and teaching assistants?

Alexandra: Professor and TA availability depends largely on the class size. Freshman and sophomore Intro classes and Gen Eds may have 300-400 students in them. These classes are given in lecture halls, and students typically don’t actually meet the professor. Questions are usually encouraged, but asking a question in a class that big can be intimidating. Classes of this size typically involve a smaller, weekly meeting (either a recitation or a lab) in which students can ask TAs questions and approach the material in a more personal setting.

300- and 400-level classes are usually smaller than the Intro-level classes. Juniors and seniors may have some classes with as few as 10 or 20 students. In these classes, students can get to know the professor, and the professor will usually make an effort to get to know them back.

Academic advisors are generally very accessible, but in a school as big as Penn State, this depends on individual cases.

VT: How would you describe the dorm life – rooms, dining options, location, socialization opportunities with other students?

Alexandra: East Halls are the freshman dorms, in which all residents are freshmen. Socializing here is typically pretty easy since everyone is in the same boat and trying to make friends. However, not all freshmen are placed in East Halls. South Halls and Pollock Halls are also an option for freshmen. It is generally more difficult to socialize in these halls, since a lot of their residents are upperclassmen and sorority sisters who already have their group of friends. However, the room conditions and dining in these halls are a little bit better than in East.

West Halls are the nicest dorms and have the best dining options. Typically, only sophomores and upperclassmen are placed in West Halls. Eastview Terrace also has very nice dorms and each dorm has its own bathroom. However, Eastview Terrace is extremely quiet and not a lot of fun. It’s good for the study-oriented student who just wants a nice place to sleep at night.

Freshmen are required to live in the dorms. After the first year, many Penn State students switch to apartments or houses downtown. Living downtown is great for students who want to be close to their classes, but have a more independent lifestyle.

VT: Which majors/programs are best represented and supported? What did you study and why? Did the university do a good job supporting your particular area of study?

Alexandra: Penn State is most famous for its business school. Smeal College of Business is an extremely reputable college with high acceptance standards. It is the #1 pick for business recruiters in the U.S.

I studied Environmental Resource Management, which is under the College of Agricultural Sciences. The College of Agricultural Sciences is Penn State’s first college, and one of its strongest. I loved my major and my college overall. The university does a great job of supporting Ag Sci students. It is a small college, which gives students the opportunity to feel part of a close-knit community even though the university itself is huge. By junior year, ERM students know each other and can expect to see the same faces in most of their classes.

VT: How easy or difficult was it for you to meet people and make friends as a freshman? Does Greek life play a significant role in the campus social life?

Alexandra: The size of the school can be overwhelming at first and make socializing seem difficult. The best advice I can give is to join two or three clubs that really interest you. Also, be friendly to the people in your classes and in your dorm. A lot of the friends you keep for the long run will be people from your hall or in your major. Greek life is prominent and plays an active role in campus activities and in the nightlife, but is by no means necessary to having a social life. The majority of the student body is not involved in Greek life.

VT: How helpful is the Career Center and other student support services? Do many reputable companies recruit on campus? 

Alexandra: The Career Center is very helpful. Students can attend resume and interview workshops and schedule one-on-one consultations with career advisors. The university hosts a massive three-day career fair every semester with some of the top company recruits in the country present. In addition, individual colleges and departments often hold smaller career fairs for their students.

VT: How are the various study areas such as libraries, the student union, and dorm lounges? Are they over-crowded, easily available, spacious?

Alexandra: The library is huge and beautiful. It can be crowded during finals season, but it’s usually easy to get a seat. There are also smaller libraries and many study lounges throughout campus, so even when the main library is crowded, finding a place to study is always manageable. The HUB is the student union. It is usually noisy and crowded, but it’s a good place to meet up with people or to grab a bite. Food at the HUB is expensive. The dorm lounges are clean and generally comfortable. Every dorm complex has a building with dining halls, study lounges, and other amenities for students.

VT: Describe the surrounding town. What kinds of outside establishments / things to do are there that make it fun, boring, or somewhere in between? To what extent do students go to the downtown area of the city versus staying near campus?

Alexandra: State College was one of my favorite things about Penn State. It’s a small town with a lot of history that revolves almost entirely around the university. On football weekends, it’s booming with visiting alumni and fans dressed in blue and white. The bar scene is great. Nightlife for the under-21 crowd is a lot of fun, too. There’s a diverse array of eating options, from cheap Chinese food to a Cajun lounge to Indian buffets to the kind of historical taverns you bring mom and dad to when they visit. There’s also lots of shopping options, cafes, etc.

Students typically spend a lot of time downtown, and many of them choose to live downtown. I lived in apartments downtown my sophomore, junior, and senior years. I spent most of the daytime on campus for classes and meetings, then would come back and eat and spend the rest of my day downtown.

VT: How big or small is the student body? Were you generally pleased or displeased with the typical class sizes?

Alexandra: There are over 45,000 students on the University Park campus (including graduate and law students). The size of the student body is not for everyone; students can become overwhelmed if they don’t make an effort to find a niche and make the school their own. I was pleased with typical class sizes. Intro and Gen Ed classes are typically in large lecture halls. These are a fun part of the college experience, in my opinion. Your professors typically will not know your name in these classes and will not notice if you show up or do your work. Keeping up with lectures and doing well is entirely your responsibility. Higher-level classes tend to get smaller, and provide an opportunity to get to know some faculty members. Some of my favorite classes were 300- and 400-level classes with 10 or 20 students in them.

VT: Describe one memorable experience with a professor and/or class. Perhaps one you loved the most or one you regret the most.

Alexandra: I think my most memorable academic experiences at Penn State were the field trips. My major involved a lot of field trips including soil sampling trips to the forest, trips to observe mountain geology, tours of waste treatment plants, and hikes through wetlands and nature reserves. Many of my classes had a new field trip every week. These were my favorite moments, times in which we could get away from town, spend time in nature, and learn in a hands-on manner.


Check out Alexandra’s tutoring profile.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.