What is it Like to Attend University of Pennsylvania?

The tutors behind Varsity Tutors are not just here to teach – they’re sharing their college experiences as well. Jennifer is a Boston tutor who specializes in SAT prep tutoring, ACT prep tutoring, Chemistry tutoring, Writing tutoring, and much more. She graduated from University of Pennsylvania in 2012 with a Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry as well as a Master’s in Chemistry. See what she had to say about her alma mater:


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?

Jennifer: Penn is an urban campus to the west of center city Philadelphia, across the Schuykill River. It is moderately sized, spanning a six-by-four block area. It takes about ten to fifteen minutes to walk from one end to the other end of campus. Penn is one of the few colleges where all of the associated schools (law, dental, medical, etc) are all on the same campus--which is extremely advantageous when it comes to taking advanced courses or participating in research. Because there are so many schools located within a small urban space, the buildings tend to be close to each other which made getting from one class to the next on time pretty easy.

Penn's campus borders West Philadelphia which might raise concerns about safety.  However, Penn employs one of the largest private security forces in the world. Police officers can be found patrolling the campus by bike at any given time of night and are happy to escort you back to wherever you need to go. There are cameras mounted at the intersection of every street for a ten block radius past the western edge of campus. I had no qualms about walking across campus at four in the morning. Nevertheless, one should probably still practice the common sense required of living on an urban campus.

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

Jennifer: In terms of professors, I think it depends on the subject being taught. I generally tended to email TA’s in my lower level science classes where the class size was well into the hundreds and generally received prompt and helpful replies. For smaller classes of under 20 people (many of my English classes and my graduate science coursework), the professors were very approachable and happy to help. 

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

Jennifer: I lived in the Quad during my freshman year (I think it's the quintessential freshman experience) and became fairly close with my hall. The dorm rooms in the quad are very nice for how old the buildings are. Most students aim for one of the three high-rises once they become upperclassmen where each unit is shared between four roommates and it's easy to hang out with other people in the same building. I moved off campus with a friend after my sophomore year and since everything is so close, still found it fairly easy to hang out with other people. 

From what I hear, the dining halls have improved significantly since I stopped having a meal plan, and Penn has been pushing local food and sustainability. Even without a meal plan, there is plenty to eat in the area--between the various food trucks on Spruce or 38th and the many restaurants near campus, it's easy to find whatever you're in the mood for. The Chem Cafe in the Chemistry building makes a pretty good meatball sub and if you're ever up early and want a cheap breakfast, the cafeteria at CHOP gives you a lot of food for a very reasonable price. There's also a fruit salad food truck at upper Quad gates that I'm convinced gives out more fruit than all the other fruit trucks on campus. 

Outside of class, the best way to meet other people is to join organizations that you're interested in. There is a huge variety of groups on campus and it's not difficult at all to find a group of people with similar interests.

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?

Jennifer: There's a good mix of majors at Penn but there's no denying that Wharton Business School is a major presence. One thing that I would have to mention about any field of study at Penn is that people tend to be very career-driven; there are a lot of pre-med, pre-law, pre-something students. On-campus recruiting is a huge deal not only for the Business students but for various other majors as well.

I was in the Vagelos Program for Molecular Life Sciences which allowed me to graduate with both a BA in Biochemistry and MS in Chemistry in 4 years. I thought that my academic education was pretty comprehensive--but the most important aspect of studying science at Penn was the vast number of principal investigators on campus who are willing to take on undergraduates.  I learned a lot through my coursework, but I learned so much more by working and tackling my own independent research project in lab.

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?

Jennifer: It's easy to socialize and make connections with new people if you put in the effort. You will probably start out by hanging out with your hall before you find the people who will become lifelong friends. Greek life does play a role in campus social life, but it's not necessarily significant. I was part of Alpha Phi Omega and made close friends there, but my closest friends tended to come from the Vagelos program.

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

Jennifer: The pre-med advisors and Career Services were both fairly helpful. One thing that's great about Career Services is that they have many Penn-specific contacts that might be able to help push students past the initial screening process--plus the alumni network across the globe is pretty extensive. Many reputable companies definitely do recruit on campus but I don't know much about the process firsthand since I didn't participate.

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

Jennifer: Van Pelt is the biggest library on campus and has a good number of desks/study space areas. I used Van Pelt's study room reservation system through to the end of my senior year for group projects and study groups. For individual studying, I tended to hang out with a few close friends in a conference room in the research buildings where we could spread out and use the whiteboards. There were various other libraries on campus (Fischer Fine Arts, Biomedical, Law) or areas in each dorm building that were available for study as well.

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?  

Jennifer: Penn is a short subway ride away from center city Philadelphia. Between the historic sites, the various museums, and the restaurant scene, there's a lot to do. Art galleries in old city open their doors for free to the public on every first Friday of each month. Philadelphia is also home to various theatre companies (Philadelphia Theatre Company, Arden, etc.) who have done some really excellent productions. If you have access to a car, Valley Forge is a quick drive away. Take advantage of the urban location of Penn's campus and spend some time in Philadelphia!

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

Jennifer: Penn is pretty big since all of the students are congregated on one campus. For lower level classes geared towards freshmen or sophomores, the class sizes are pretty large, especially for basic science courses. When I took it, Organic Chemistry was taught by two professors with maybe around two hundred students in each class. However, the more advanced the courses got, the smaller the class size became. I had a memorable graduate Cardiovascular Biology course with 11 other students, listening to professors at the top of their field give lectures about different aspects of vasculature and metabolism. 

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

Jennifer: The most important professor I had at Penn was a Creative Writing professor that I took classes with for three semesters. From the very first time I workshopped a piece in his class, I had my entire view of creative writing swept out from under my feet. I broke down my way of writing and rebuilt it into something much more compelling, much better. He was the sort of professor who spoke quietly, who could pinpoint exactly where I could improve, who observed everything and understood me better than I did at times. He changed not only the way I write but the way I approached life, all for the better.


Check out Jennifer’s tutoring profile.

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