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Want to get into Penn? Show a little gratitude - on an essay prompt

For the first time, applicants to Penn are being asked to write a thank you note to someone as part of their application and encouraged to share that note with the recipient and reflect on it.

Ibtihal Gassem at Central High, where she is a senior. High school students like Gassem who are applying to Penn have to complete an essay as part of their application: A thank-you note to someone they are grateful for.
Ibtihal Gassem at Central High, where she is a senior. High school students like Gassem who are applying to Penn have to complete an essay as part of their application: A thank-you note to someone they are grateful for.Read moreHeather Khalifa / Staff Photographer

At first, Central High School senior Ibtihal Gassem, 17, found the assignment a bit puzzling: Write a short thank-you note to someone you have not yet thanked and would like to acknowledge.

Then, if possible, students are encouraged to share the note with that person and reflect on the experience.

The so-called gratitude prompt wasn’t something she expected to find on the application for admission to the University of Pennsylvania, the Ivy League school where only single-digit percentages of applicants get in every year.

“I feel like I have so many people who influenced me,” said Gassem, past president of the student association and captain of the voter engagement team at Central. “It’s kind of hard to pick one.”

» READ MORE: Meet Whitney Soule, leader of the team who decides whether you get into Penn

But once she did, she was glad that Penn asked.

“It really has me thinking,” she said.

This year’s application cycle marks the first time that Penn has used an essay prompt focusing on gratitude. The rollout came at the direction of Whitney Soule, who started as vice provost and dean of admissions in July 2021.

“It signals that Penn cares about building community in which our students recognize the influence of other people on them and around them,” she said. And, “the activity of expressing gratitude by writing a real thank-you note ... actually makes people feel good” in an application process often fraught with anxiety, expectation, and precision, she said.

That’s not a hunch. Gratitude, maybe less popular of a sentiment these days than resentment and fear, is very much ingrained in our lexicon, whether you’re shopping for gratitude journals or counting your #blessings on Facebook. It’s based on research that has shown expressing gratitude can boost happiness and mental health.

“Gratitude is one of these things that scientists have been studying in earnest for the last two or three decades, and it’s kind of like exercise and sleep — it’s just good for you,” said Angela Duckworth, a Penn psychology professor whose research on character and grit has garnered widespread attention. “There’s less research on what the effect is on other people, but what little there is also suggests that it is beneficial.”

» READ MORE: With testing requirements relaxed, applications soar at selective colleges

Duckworth, winner of a MacArthur “genius grant,” was one of three rock-star-status Penn professors whom Soule consulted in developing the prompt. The others were Martin Seligman, founder of the positive psychology movement and director of Penn’s positive psychology center, and Adam Grant, who has been consistently recognized as Wharton’s top-rated professor.

Grant, a professor of psychology and management, suggested that Penn encourage applicants to share their letters with those they are thanking.

“Along with strengthening bonds, it motivates recipients to be generous by reinforcing that their help is valued,” he said.

While Soule said she’s not aware of other colleges that have asked students to write gratitude essays as thank-you notes, using gratitude as another window into applicants in a process where it’s increasingly challenging to distinguish among them — Penn gets more than 55,000 applications annually for 2,400 freshman spots — is not brand new.

Common App, which allows hundreds of thousands of students each year to fill out one form for more than 1,000 participating colleges, added an essay prompt on gratitude last year for the first time. With the nation still reeling from the pandemic, Common App wanted to give students a way to focus on something heartfelt and positive in their lives and “spark some joy” in an otherwise challenging process, said Jenny Rickard, president and CEO of Common App and former admissions dean of Bryn Mawr College.

Applicants were asked: Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?

About 35,000 of the more than 1 million student applicants chose the prompt over six other essay topics, Rickard said. It was particularly popular among underrepresented minority students, first-generation students and those who got fee waivers, she said. The word life appeared most often in the essays and mom more often than father, she said. Common App, with the help of Duckworth, intends to do some deeper analysis of the essays students wrote, Rickard said.

» READ MORE: For Philly kids, lessons in grit from a MacArthur genius winner

Duckworth has had a lot of practice. For years, she has asked students in her undergraduate class to write a thank-you letter.

“When they finish the assignment, they have to actually read the letter to the recipient, and there’s almost always tears,” she said. “It’s so emotional.”

Every year, she joins the class in writing one, too. One year, she wrote to Seligman, a colleague, and shared it with him.

“I was crying at the end and he was crying at the end,” she said. “It’s a wonderful thing. Try it.”

At Central, one of the Philadelphia School District’s top magnets, Penn’s new prompt has generated conversation and welcomed reflection among counselors and students, some of whom are planning to apply to Penn early decision, which carries a Nov. 1 deadline.

“Kudos to Penn,” said Christine Soda, counseling department chair at the 2,400-student Central, where 88% of students go on to four-year colleges. “This prompt really forces the students to dig deep, to self-reflect, to come away from the computer screen and technology and really sort of appreciate how they have gotten how far they have gotten.”

Students debated how much vulnerability they wanted to show, but they welcomed the chance to be authentic in a process that constantly challenges them to showcase their best selves.

» READ MORE: Princeton admits only 4% of applicants; it’s among highly selective schools that got more selective during the pandemic

Brianna Hess, 17, said the essay prompt made her grateful for her entire community “because I could honestly write about anyone.” She’ll either choose her mom, who diligently toils to support the family, or her aunt, who cares for her sick grandmother, she said.

Sevinch Rakhmonova, 17, chose her dad, who worked hard to provide for the family when they emigrated from Uzbekistan about a decade ago, having to learn a new language and adapt to a new culture. Nan Li, 17, plans to write about her director at Asian Americans United.

As a former assistant admissions director for Beaver College, now Arcadia University, Soda said she also expects that the new essay may “sort of refresh the minds and hearts of admissions” workers at Penn.

“It will definitely give a more intimate, authentic view of these students that transcripts or an activities resumé or a recommendation may not,” she said.

And with anxiety among students at an all-time high, anything that can relieve that stress is welcome, she said.

Emerald “Emmi” Wu, a senior at Lower Merion High School, said she’s still stressed, given that Penn is her top school.

“But I had more fun writing this essay,” she said.

Editor-in-chief of the student newspaper and student representative to the school board, Wu started writing letters to three influential educators in her life. She hasn’t decided which one she will use.

It’s unclear how much importance the essay will have in the admissions process. Penn looks at many factors, including grades, test scores, recommendations, activities, and essays. The gratitude prompt is one of three short-answer supplemental pieces that Penn asks students to fill out. Soule emphasized that no one piece would be the reason a student is admitted.

Whether the essay that Gassem, Central’s voter engagement team captain, writes helps her get into Penn is uncertain. But the assignment has brought her some joy.

She is writing about “Miss Cooper,” one of her teachers at Laura H. Carnell School in Oxford Circle, who looked out for her, gave her leadership opportunities, and pushed her to take them.

“She really uplifted me,” Gassem said. “And I felt good about that.”