Dear Class of 2020: Don’t let the Penn Face get to you

It’s the pressure to say you’re OK and act OK, even when you don’t feel OK

Dear freshman class of 2020,

After years of work and months of planning, it must be so surreal to finally be here. You’ve slaved through SATs and ACTs and APs. You’ve scoured College Confidential mercilessly searching for the key to get into your dream school. You’ve poured every last ounce of energy into school newspaper and bake sales and plays and athletic teams for that single golden-ticket acceptance letter. For all of the work you’ve put in to get here, I’m sure your expectation is that Penn is pretty goddamn amazing.

For the past months and maybe years of your life, you’ve heard nothing but good things about Penn. In my experience I have found many if not all of those thing to be true. But Penn does not come without its own faults, something you are maybe less prepared for and more shocked to experience. It’s a difficult transition from choosing the school that you love the most to realizing that same school is less than perfect. For me personally, I was prepared to love Penn. I was prepared and excited for the challenge of its academic rigor and do-everything spirit. I was not as prepared to realize that there are things about Penn I really didn’t like.

One of these things is the “Penn Face” – something you also might have read about on College Confidential, but nothing can really prepare you for actually experiencing it. The Penn Face is the pressure to always present yourself as if you have all of the pieces of your life in order. It’s the pressure to say you’re OK and act OK even when you don’t feel OK. Everyone reacts to the Penn Face differently – some adapt to it naturally, some spend all of finals week in their rooms to avoid it, and for many, it takes a serious toll on their mental health, stability and ability to cope.

By the end of my freshman year, I had discovered a culture of expediency that exists at Penn that I found tough to cope with. It’s a culture in which relationships tend to exist at the surface level – it’s enough to ask “how are you”, it’s enough to respond “OK” (even when you’re not), but rarely does anyone ask “so how are you really?” It’s a culture in which people search for the route that gives them the most gain while exerting the least effort. This culture might work to some people’s advantage, but it didn’t work to mine.

Even as I discovered Penn’s less flattering angles, the overwhelming majority of me still loved my school and thrived here. It was difficult to reconcile both the good and the bad, but I have realized they are both equally important parts of the Penn experience. In order to really get the most out of your time here at Penn, it’s important to learn how to take full advantage of all of the incredible things Penn has to offer, while also learning how to cope with the more difficult aspects of Penn in a way that works for you. I realized very quickly that expediency did not work for me, in my academic life or my personal life. But with time, I also realized I didn’t need to be a part of that culture. I didn’t have to take shortcuts in my work to be successful, and I could form friendships that operated on a deeper, more honest level.

The same is true for the Penn Face. At first, you might feel the pressure to conform and project a put-together self even when you feel overwhelmed, nervous, stressed, sad, etc. Maybe that works for you, and if it does, great. But if it doesn’t, know that it’s not the only way. You should feel free to be openly overwhelmed, nervous, stressed, sad, etc, and while some people might prefer that you tuck those emotions away, others will be comfortable with them, and comfortable in supporting you through them.

When we talk about changing the Penn face as a community in total, I think many are under the impression that it has to be some monumental, overarching and far-reaching change, like a full-on community renovation. But I think that if each person recognized that they have a choice in whether or not to adhere to the Penn Face mentality, and if everyone chose the way of conduct that was most beneficial to them personally, I think the Penn Face might naturally dissipate or even disappear all together.

So be prepared to dislike parts of Penn, but don’t let that stop you from loving your experience here and taking full advantage of everything it has to offer. Keep an open mind and try everything, because in the same way that Penn might surprise you in disappointing ways, it also might surprise you in really wonderful ways, made all the more wonderful by the fact that they weren’t on College Confidential’s list of reasons to go to Penn.

Good luck,


UPenn: Penn