Please Mind the Platform Gap (Universities Edition): University of Pennsylvania

By Angus Yip (18A01A)

Already a J2 thinking about which university to apply to? Raffles Press brings you our Please Mind the Platform Gap (Universities Edition), a series of articles dedicated to providing information on Rafflesian alumni’s experiences at their respective universities.

Founded in 1740, the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) is the fourth-oldest institution of higher education in the United States. As an Ivy League university, UPenn is well-known worldwide for its rigorous curriculum as well as its vibrant student life. The university is comprised of 4 schools at the undergraduate level: the School of Arts and Sciences, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the School of Nursing, and the Wharton School.

In this article, Raffles Press interviews Tao Minghui from RI’s batch of 2016. She is currently a freshman at UPenn.

Pre-Uni

Why did you choose to study in UPenn?

  • Strong History department. I knew I loved History in A levels and couldn’t see myself doing anything else then. Penn offers good classes in Middle East history and China history which I’m keen to explore further.
  • I wanted a life outside of school and wanted a college close to a city. Philly is wonderful. I actually like it more than New York because it is cleaner and there are great restaurants, art exhibitions, shopping places, bars and clubs. Now I take time off to walk to the city and enjoy the chill vibes. Compared to other schools like Princeton or Cornell, Penn is closer to city life.
  • Flexible curriculum. You can do anything you want here. Double degree, double major, 3 majors and 2 minors, whatever. I think this was important to me in case I didn’t want to do History anymore. Many people I know here pursue very different interests. (eg. this crazy person does a PPE and Fine Arts double major with a Real Estate minor).

 The US college application process is usually seen as extremely intimidating, especially for Singaporeans who are not used to such holistic assessment. How was it like for you?

Very stressful. I started researching about universities in June after stepping down from Council, but I was constantly unsure about what I wanted. I was also thinking about the UK, so I applied to both countries. I remember there was a time I was struggling with Prelims, Oxbridge essays and ED (early decision) essays all at once. Certain essays wanted us to be creative but when you’re studying for A levels, there is just no brain juice left to be creative (jk) Furthermore, I wasn’t doing that well in academics, with a C in prelims eventually.

Though it was hard, I was glad that I received a lot of help from teachers, seniors, and friends. I got into Penn via ED, so I’m happy that I didn’t need to do RD (regular decision) applications. My family booked a short getaway after the ED results so maybe all the work was worth it! I strongly suggest people who are thinking of applying to talk to seniors about it because we are very willing to help.

Life On Campus

Describe a typical day of your life as a university student.

The standard answer is that every day is different. Usually, I finish up my lessons, then go to Fine Arts Library or Van Pelt to do some work. Nights are usually spent in club meetings, events, talks, or playing badminton! I also spend a lot of time meeting people for meals. Sometimes I go for frat parties, downtown parties, or KTV till late. But that affected my sleep schedule so I try not to now. I decided it’s not really my kind of fun after a few months so I’m more selective about what activities I go for.

On weekends, I get out of school if there are no exams the following week. So far, I have travelled to Columbia, Princeton and went on hiking trips. The parks here are amazingly photogenic in fall. Our college houses also organise Horror house, apple picking, and food tasting trips.

Picture6
Candles being sold in a shop in UPenn

How does the teaching style in UPenn compare to that in RI?

There are introductory classes to every major. Those are usually big classes with lectures and recitations (tutorials). It’s very similar to RI and you have to keep up with your work. Homework is usually graded and you definitely cannot cramp stuff at the end.

What is different from RI is that every class has midterms almost once a month, and a final exam at the end of the semester (1 semester = 4 months). For people who take many classes, this can be stressful because they can have midterms every week. Midterms are something like the Traditional Assessment in RGS and RI (1 hour short papers).

There are also smaller classes. I’m taking an Introduction to Acting seminar class with 16 other people. There is more attention from the professor and I love it. I know people in higher level research seminars where they have to read one book every week and write papers too.

Professors are definitely more distant than teachers in RI (appreciate your teachers!) You need to make an effort to know your professors better. Sometimes I go to Office Hours, which is something like open consultation hours to talk to my professors and know them as a person.

I would say the Penn teaching style was more similar to what I experienced in RGS than in RI. That being said, my classes may not be representative of all the classes at Penn.

 How heavy is your workload? How much leisure time do you have, and what do you do during your leisure time?

Freshman can only do 4.5 credits in the first semester in the College, so I’m relatively free. I’m taking Microeconomics, Writing seminar, Linear Algebra, and Introduction to Acting. My Fridays and Mondays are free of classes so I have a 4 day weekend – something I dreamt of since kindergarten. But I’m just lucky because most people are not this free.

I love crashing seniors’ places to cook (actually to eat), walking to the city centre, shopping, or travelling. There are also many events like mid-autumn celebrations, KTV and random dinners that are great.

Penn is a very social school and many people party a lot. That being said, you are totally fine if you don’t enjoy partying!

Do you live on-campus or off-campus, and what is the experience like?

Freshman all have to live on campus. You can choose from single rooms, double rooms or suites. I live in a suite in Gregory House with 3 American girls. They are one of my closest friends on campus, and I’m going home with one of them during Thanksgiving! We have BYOM (Bring Your Own Mug) events every week where our Residential Advisers (something like PSLs) will cook or bake for us. Safety and welfare are definitely taken care of.

Other college houses are nice too. The Quad is very pretty, but rooms can be small. The majority of the freshmen live there so it’s good for socialising. New College House and Hill are new and have good dining halls in them. Overall, housing is pretty good, albeit expensive.

Upperclassmen either live on campus in high rises (something like HDB) or off campus. I’m currently finding off-campus housing for next year because it is cheaper and the rooms are bigger.

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Minghui (left) with her roommates

What is the student profile like? Do people come from diverse backgrounds? 

Very diverse. A little less than half the population is non-white. There are a lot of Asians too. Every community I have been in has been interesting. In my dorm, I’m close to a Mexican guy, a Korean girl upstairs and a ton of other first-generation Americans. At first I didn’t really know how to talk to people from different backgrounds, but slowly you realise there are more similarities than differences too. The Singaporean population here isn’t big too so it forces you to go out of your comfort zone and make other friends. Actually this is the big difference between the US and the UK. The Singaporean population is much larger in UK schools.

Do you participate in any extracurricular activities, and if so, what is the experience like?

There are a ton of clubs in Penn. To give you an idea, there are literally 20 Interact Clubs here.

I’m involved in Penn Social Movement Enterprise, doing consulting for a Philadelphia-based urban design company. I’m also in TAMID, an Israeli club. It’s very interesting because I’m one of the only Asians inside and I have learned so much more about Israel. Beyond that, I’m planning a spring break trip to Hong Kong in Wharton China Business Society. Most of my friends from China are in the Wharton China Association. I also play badminton once a week – my favourite 2 hours of the week. I tried Irish dance for a while too. Beyond clubs, I am still writing for an online newspaper in Singapore.

There are many other activities I want to join, but if I do, there goes my GPA.

Club commitment is relatively low and many people either join a lot or don’t join any. It’s entirely up to you. But if you’re interested in anything, chances are you can find a group with you.

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A line of girls participating in 非诚勿扰, a show Wharton China organised based on the original.

On the whole, what do you think defines an experience at UPenn?

  • Pre-professional. I didn’t expect it to be this pre-professional before I came. The Wharton influence is very strong and many people start preparing for a job since freshman year. It can be stressful at times given the large number of info sessions and the competitive environment.
  • Great support for anything you want to do.  There are a lot of resources for potential entrepreneurs.
  • Very pretty school with very pretty buildings. If that matters to you, it is a good choice.
  • It is also a rather compact school, meaning you will see people everywhere anytime. I preferred this more than a sparse school.
  • Less expensive than NY but food and housing are definitely more expensive than in Singapore.
  • Most popular majors in the College of Arts and Sciences are Economics, PPE, and Political Science. Other popular majors include Computer Science and Finance.

Adjustments

Was the shift from life in Singapore to life overseas difficult?

It was harder transitioning to Penn than transitioning to the country. Although this is my first time in the US, Philly has been an easy place to live in. I quickly figured out the important places – grocery stores, shopping places, post office and convenient stores the first week. I’m also horrible at directions but I hardly get lost in the US because all the streets are literally numbered. I have to speak a new accent though for people to understand me. I also learnt how to calculate temperatures in Fahrenheit and buy tissue paper from Amazon.

Was it difficult to find friends with common interests whom you could click with? 

In freshman year, everyone socialises blindly. I personally don’t remember anyone I met during orientation. There was definitely anxiety involved in finding a group to click with. But don’t worry because it gets better! I currently have a closer circle of friends I met from clubs whom I hang around with more frequently. Many people are close to their hall mates as well. The Singaporean community here is very strong and supportive. I love my seniors for constantly inviting us for food.

Advice

Any advice for juniors who trying to figure out what university to apply to?

  • I know many seniors like to say “research is important”. But for me, after a while, universities had more similarities than differences. I was very lost. University culture is especially hard to “research” on until you are really there to experience it. Furthermore, no matter which school you end up in, you can find a community you’re comfortable in any college just because the student population is so big.
  • But definitely read College Confidential or student blogs to hear what current students have to say about it. Trust your gut feelings.
  • Look for the core curriculum. Schools like Columbia have a very strong core curriculum (e.g. you have to take compulsory swimming classes and read a lot of philosophy books from what I have heard), meaning you have fewer choices to take classes you are curious about. Penn is somewhere in the middle. The core curriculum is there but there is still room to take random classes for fun.
  • You only need 1 school in the end. Put in effort into some schools you really like instead of spreading yourself too thin and applying for too many.

 Any advice for juniors who intend to study at UPenn in the future?

  • Be aware of the pre-professional culture. Many people come in Pre-med or majoring in philosophy but ended up in Wharton doing Finance. It can be relatively competitive because all classes are graded on a curve.
  • Philly isn’t that safe outside of the school campus. We often get texts about robbery and break-ins. But the Penn police system is strong. I usually call Pennwalk (a policeman to walk to you at night to anywhere you want) so that’s okay.
  • Read the Daily Pennsylvanian! It is a Penn newspaper and they have very good articles about Penn culture. I wished I read it before coming. A Singaporean is currently one of the editors too.

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