The University of Pennsylvania is one of the world’s most prestigious academic institutions, widely recognized for its remarkable breadth of schools, programs, and experiences. As the gateway to the Penn experience, the Office of Admissions is the initial introduction connecting the University to students, whether they are drawn to pursue cutting-edge research at Penn Engineering, entrepreneurial endeavors at the Wharton School of Business, creative expression at the College of Arts and Sciences, or healthcare at the School of Nursing. A testament to the diverse appeal of a Penn education, its pool of undergraduate applicants has grown immensely in recent years, with Penn receiving more Early Decision applicants than any other school in the United States.

However, in emphasizing the breadth and variety of a Penn education, the Office of Admissions was missing the unified “Penn story” to tie it all together. Adding to this challenge was the need to appeal to each of Penn’s very distinct target audiences: prospective students, parents, and guidance counselors. In order to help the University attract the most diverse and accomplished students possible—in the extraordinarily competitive top-tier of U.S. higher education—we partnered with Penn to define and articulate its unique identity and impact on the world.


We began the process by reviewing archives of Penn research and materials; performing a competitive analysis of its peers; and engaging in conversations with students and deans. This provided insights into how the target audience and the Penn community viewed the University. A series of collaborative, dialogue-based work sessions with University faculty and staff guided our process each step of the way. Soon we began to uncover and distill what makes Penn “Penn”: how its student body is driven yet collaborative, and the campus is imbued with the civic-minded, good-humored ethos of its founder, Ben Franklin.

Whether they study engineering or nursing, business, or anthropology, Penn students and the faculty agreed that their experiences and the University’s personality centered around being genuine, relevant, and interconnected. Building on these distinct values, we sought to tell a story and formulate a strategy to position Penn as an irresistibly community- and impact-driven place, where students “arrive with passion, learn as citizens, and leave with the tools to build a better world.”


One of the most significant outcomes of the project began to unfold over the course of our process itself: unifying faculty and staff from across the University around common values, rather than the individual identities of Penn’s many schools and programs.

Our final set of recommendations included guidelines for bringing these hallmarks of the Penn experience to life through the Office of Admissions. Our team built a toolkit, based on these core values and defining attributes of the university, that would be used to create admissions materials, on-site tours and presentations, social media strategy, and digital content that were aligned with the Penn’s identity.

Our one-year process concluded in May of 2016, and the Penn Admissions team was eager to implement the new strategy across its public communication channels. The language used by the admissions office to describe the university and its community has been modified in accordance with our recommendations in the positioning toolkit, to provide prospective students with a more accurate insight into the ecosystem and culture at Penn.


Discovery Work Session