Nedda Gilbert, MSW, Educational Consultant, and Author
Right or wrong, the word on the street is that yes, UPenn is the social Ivy. Full disclosure - I am a graduate of the school and I can say the motto - study hard, party hard - remains applicable. Sometimes colleges develop a particular culture and it becomes rooted in the student ethos. Or it can fade and morph. At Penn the social Ivy title has stuck. And appropriately so. In general, many aspects of this school have remained consistent over the decades. This includes policies on early decision and legacy admits, as well as an authentic commitment to diversity. Penn like many schools has a distinct feel and identity. The school remains comfortable in it's own skin.
Several features of Penn may contribute to this social reputation: the students themselves (a self-selection thing - students who want a highly social atmosphere choose Penn over other elite schools), the urban campus and compressed set up of the buildings/housing (typically one main walkway is used to get to pretty much everything - so this is a fairly social thoroughfare), and the proximity to downtown Philly bars and venues which play a big part in the social scene. The fact that Penn offers many pre-professional programs - especially the renown Wharton School of business - may also attract a certain type of student. It's possible students in these programs are already tethered to the real world of work. Penn kids are big on options and opportunity - maybe this helps explain why they are so social? Penn is also a huge destination for New Yorkers and the international set - they tend to be a fairly social presence themselves.
As for Cornell, hands down, this is one of the most beautiful campuses in the nation. Many would say it's far more attractive than Penn. It's also huge, spread out and extremely hilly. In the section where freshman are housed, or where students live as upperclassman off campus, there is a serious hike to any venue - at least 20 minutes or more. Word on the street is that you get a great workout and awesome legs. This is one of those colleges where the campus is so big, it relies on a shuttle bus system. I'm not sure if this hampers social life. But having attended many a wedding and Sweet 16, my feeling is that at the parties where a smaller room is utilized and everyone is smushed-in together, the energy is higher, better. In a huge space where everyone is spread out, the feel is different. Cornell is a big room campus. Compared to Penn - on a day to day basis - there may be less social interaction.
Cornell students may also be inherently different than Penn students by major and interests. It is a private university with a public partnership with the SUNY program.. And it's home to a famous school of agriculture (think cows), a stand-out hospitality program and a killer-tough engineering school. All this impacts who decides to go there and the mindset they bring.
This all said, Cornell students do know how to party hard. There is a strong social scene. One or two frats have been the site of great debauchery. I believe one has also been shut down. (Penn can boast the same on frat closures). Both Penn and Cornell would offer you a standout education - a great time - and friendships that will last a lifetime.
The vibe you're looking for is up to you and somewhat intangible. You'll have to do your homework on where you're most likely to find it, and settling on the right balance of academics and social life. What matters most in your college experience? I loved Penn, but the moment I set foot on campus at Cornell, I saw myself there as well. Two awesome schools - and a tough choice to make!
Best of luck!