Nedda Gilbert, MSW, Educational Consultant, and Author
It's possible that the toughest hurdle you'll face in applying to UPenn is getting in. Bur that's not to suggest it will be a cakewalk once you're there. You'll find that doing well academically.can be equally tough. Unsurprisingly, the two are related.
Like all the Ivies, UPenn draws from the nation's best and brightest. While it's difficult to win admission to UPenn, those who do so are at the top of their game. Someone who recently graduated described it as a school where classes are overrun with valedictorians and salutatorians. This is not an entirely inaccurate picture. Whereas in high school you may have been in the top 5% of your class, and carrying the most demanding load, your academic status in high school will recede once you find yourself at a college where everyone has similar stats. You may have been standout in high school, but you have entered a pond of many standout fish. UPenn may be a difficult school to win admission to, but once in, you'll find it competitive, intense and very challenging..
There are some top-ranked colleges where getting in, as you say, is the hardest part.. At those schools, once you're in, it's not that hard to do well. I know of many universities that fit that profile. UPenn is not one of them. Again, the students who go there are pace-setting. So I would not take this approach with UPenn. The good news is that if the admissions officers admit you, you can trust you belong there.
As for what matters most in your application, right or wrong - it is your GPA and scores. This is the initial screener. As I suggested, this is because UPenn has to admit kids who have the mental crunch power to handle the rigor and succeed. After that, your recommendations and outside experiences matter most. A successful UPenn reccomendation will sing your praise and not just say you were the best kid in class this year, but one of the best kids to ever attend your school. There is a big difference between those two statements. With respect to additional experiences, accomplishments will be more impressive than say just months of volunteer work at a local shelter. A creative way to create "accomplishments" is to look at what you have done and see if you can frame it as having made a real difference. For example, instead of just saying you worked at the shelter, you might be able to say, because I did xyz for x months at the shelter, all overnight residents now have a proper intake with social workers (or a private area for their kids), I'm obviously making this up - but hopefully you get the picture. Like accomplishments, awards are important because they suggest your actions and efforts are significant enough to have been formall ackinowledged by others. All of this helps you appear worthy of one for those few coveted UPenn spots.
UPenn is also big on alumni interviews. Try to get one and do bring your best most engaging self. Above all else, apply to a range of schools. Every year a significant number of students get rejected by UPenn - students who had all of the above and even more. School's like these are so selective their admissions can seem quirky and sometimes are. It's tough to know who will make it, and who won't.
I hope this helps. For more information, you can learn about UPenn on Noodle's admission page. Just as important go visit the school where you can hear it from the source! Best of luck!