Navigating Academics

The University of Pennsylvania is unique in providing the resources of a large university alongside the curriculum that promotes a liberal arts education. Given the choices with which our campus provides students in fulfilling their elective and major requirements, the following pages offer guidance and insight on navigating the undergraduate experience from admission to major declaration and graduation.

Advising and Academic Support

School-Level Supports

Each undergraduate school takes a somewhat different approach to academic advising, as each curriculum is different. The following describes the structure of academic advising in each college and how that system can be accessed.

  • College of Arts and Sciences
    For students who have yet to declare their major at Penn, the College of Arts and Sciences provides pre-major advising through a network of staff and peer mentors, who are available by appointment. You can find the name of your advisor in Path @ Penn. Pressing questions may be addressed by walk-in appointments in the College Office. As you progress through your time at Penn, you will be assigned an academic advisor specific to your major, while still having access to the advising staff in the College Office (both of whom will still be listed in Path @ Penn).For more information on academic advising in the College, please visit the College Office website.
  • Wharton School of Business
    Wharton School’s undergraduate division provides walk-in advising services in 15-minute allotments for quick questions about courses, deeper advising sessions with your assigned advisor for longer-term planning, and/or specialized advising based on your interests (such as research or study abroad) and needs (as a transfer student, student athlete, international student, student with a disability). Advising at Wharton is cohort-based, though you can still find the name of your academic advisor in Path @ Penn.For more information on academic advising in the Wharton School of Business, please visit the Undergraduate Division’s Advising website.
  • School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
    Advising in Engineering is supported by full-time staff advisors who are equipped to help undergraduates with the full range of questions from course selection to study abroad, research opportunities to involvement opportunities. You can make an appointment by calling or visiting 109 Towne (Phone: 215-898-7246). You are also assigned to a faculty advisor by your program once you have selected your major, and their information is available via Path @ Penn.For more information on academic advising in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, please visit the SEAS Research and Academic Services website.
  • School of Nursing
    All nursing students are assigned to a Peer Advisor at the point of entry who reaches out directly, as well as a Faculty Advisor who is responsible for guiding students through course selection and professional development opportunities relevant to their desired career pathway. Professional staff advisors cover a variety of areas from academics to helping students who have unique personal questions or situations, and are available by appointment through this link, by emailing (, or on a walk-in basis in Fagin Hall Suite M-18.For more information on academic advising in the School of Nursing, please visit the Student Services Academic Advising site. 

Brushing Up on Study and Learning Skills

Courses at Penn are taught differently than they may have been in your high school. College-level work requires a significant amount of independent studying that digs deeper than what might be taught in a lecture. Subsequently, it makes sense that sometimes you might struggle with a subject that was easy for you earlier in your academic career. That struggle is less about your ability and more about adapting the strong strategies you developed in high school to learn the material – and every student experiences that struggle. For those moments, a consultation with one of Penn’s Learning Instructors at the Weingarten Learning Resources Center. They will talk with you about what you feel challenged by, and how you have attempted to improve your understanding of the material before leveraging their expertise in learning strategies to help get you to where you want to be performing academically. You can call them at 215-573-9235 to make a 30-minute, initial appointment, or sign up using their online appointment system. It is always best to sign up as early as possible so you can be sure to get the help you need in advance of any assignment that is due.

Enhancing Your Writing

As you progress through your academic career at Penn, expectations about your writing will shift as you delve deeper into the conventions of your field of study and translate your academic work into professional outlets. For students who would like assistance understanding these shifting expectations and/or support in addressing constructive feedback on their writing, the Critical Writing Program at Penn is home to the Marks Family Writing Center, which provides a suite of services from paper brainstorming and revision to cover letter editing. They host Drop-In Hours, and you may also schedule an appointment.

Tough Courses & Tutoring

There are some courses at Penn that are known for their rigor either because of the amount of content or the difficulty of the exams or projects. For those courses, a little extra instruction might be helpful. Penn offers free 1:1, group, and house-based tutoring programs for all core courses. For upper-level or very niche courses, a tutor may be requested if such expertise is available. More information on The Tutoring Center’s offerings may be found on their website.


Academic Journeys: Faculty and Staff on Being First-generation in College

Interacting with Faculty and Finding a Faculty Mentor

We know from conversations with our students and from decades of research conducted on higher education that forming a connection with a faculty member adds meaning to the student experience and a strong relationship with student success. Review the latest edition of How College Affects Students for more information. We also acknowledge it can be somewhat intimidating to meet with a faculty member, given how much power they hold over grades and your trajectory through Penn.

Still, our faculty are full humans and are more than the sum of their research and teaching portfolios. Remember this when you’re interacting with them.

  • Use their office or open hours as early as possible. These times are set aside to focus on 1:1 or small group conversations with students and give you an opportunity to ask questions you’re not comfortable raising in class or to get to know the faculty personally.
  • Ask faculty about what interests them about their research and how you might get involved if you find an alignment of mutual interests.
  • Sometimes, you find a faculty member with whom you “click,” and whom might not be in your intended field of study. That’s perfectly okay and may actually be a really good idea. Such a faculty member might provide you with opportunities to explore auxiliary interests aside from your field of study that may be fulfilling in a unique and/or different way, and help you to fill your electives with courses and/or independent study options that captivate you.
  • Ask faculty what they do to balance their commitments as teachers and researchers. Faculty and student lives are remarkably similar, and they often have unique perspectives on finding time to focus on scholarship, hobbies, and loved ones.
  • In each course – especially as you advance in your studies – there will likely be at least one (or more) topic that you get “stuck” on. Individual time with faculty can help them work with you to reframe their content around how you think/your personal frame of reference.
  • Penn Mentor Meals Program. This program allows a group of up to three students to have lunch with the Penn Professor or Mentor of their choice with the cost of the meal covered by the university. Alternatively, one of your mentors can host a larger group of students in their home. It is a great informal opportunity for you to connect with a faculty member, eat a free meal, and be comfortable asking questions in a group of fellow students.


Faculty and Staff Advice for First-generation Undergraduates

Milestones in the Penn Experience

What should I expect to achieve during my time at Penn? From your fellow students to faculty and staff, you will encounter a variety of perspectives on when you should attain specific milestones in your academic career. This page is meant to help guide you through what you should really expect from your Penn experience.

  • Developing a meaningful connection with a faculty member
    Having a meaningful connection with a faculty member whose research and/or teaching inspire you takes time. However, if you’re carefully choosing classes that align with your interests, you should leave the end of your first year with at least one faculty member to whom you can turn with questions about your academic, professional, and sometimes personal aspirations.
  • Getting involved in research
    While you may wish to wait to become involved with research until you have identified a faculty mentor, you may also be eager to develop your skills in this area. As early as your first semester, you may be able to use the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowship’s Research Directory to identify a faculty member willing to train an early career scholar. Some may have paid positions available – including opportunities to use Work Study funds. Note, however, that much like your first internship, this is an opportunity you should pursue only if you are confident that research is part of your scholarly and professional journey.
  • Pursuing your first internship
    You will receive a lot of conflicting advice about when to pursue your first internship, and that advice will likely vary by your major. However, generally speaking, our colleagues in Career Services advise that an internship is not necessarily the best idea in your first academic year. You are still exploring academic and professional interests – and even if you have the big picture of what you want to major in, you may still be exploring specializations. Speak with your academic advisor or Career Services about when it might be best to pursue an internship, as this is often not until sometime after you have taken specific courses useful to your future profession. Also, taking the first summer of college “off” to save money in the event your internship is underpaid or takes you to another country helps you to prepare to pursue any opportunity that presents itself. Your Career Services Advisor can help you think through this, and also direct to free resources to review and revise your resume.
  • Declaring your major or concentration
    Generally, it is advisable to wait until your second year at Penn to formally declare your major. This delay offers you sufficient time to explore related and different fields of study to determine where your interests are strongest.
  • Deciding on graduate school
    Pursuit of graduate study is highly contingent on your field and what you hope to accomplish in your career. Some fields prefer a Masters degree for entry-level employment, while others prefer several years of full-time experience prior to enrollment as a competitive candidate. Other fields require a terminal degree such as a J.D., M.D., or Ph.D.. These decisions typically begin to be made early in the junior year, so consult with Career Services and your academic advisor about the path you should follow.
  • Finding a full-time job upon graduation
    There is a wide range of experience in finding employment upon graduation from Penn, though nearly all of our graduates are employed or in graduate school within six months. Truth exists in the stories you might encounter about students having jobs in the summer or early fall prior to graduation, but those are in highly specialized fields that recruit from internship programs. Your job pursuit should be informed by your knowledge of your field, which you will learn from faculty, academic advisors, and career services during your time at Penn.

International, DACA, and Undocumented Student Considerations for Navigating Penn

While much of this advice and guidance remains unchanged, employment opportunities for students from countries other than the United States and those students with DACA or undocumented status varies significantly by work authorization status. Students with appropriate work authorization may be eligible for on-campus employment, though guidance should be sought from appropriate offices. Undocumented students with or without DACA status are ineligible for employment compensated with federal funds (including federal work study).

At this time, undocumented students with or without DACA status, are, generally, discouraged from studying or pursuing opportunities abroad, given the risks entailed with re-entry to the United States given restrictions on Advance Parole.

More specific advice for international students is available by meeting with your ISSS advisor.

A Guide to Penn and Your Loved Ones

Attending college is a significant life event for many students – and often moreso for those who are the first in their families to pursue a bachelor’s degree and/or may have modest financial means. A rigorous liberal arts curriculum such as Penn’s is meant to enhance the way you perceive and interact with the world around you. Combined with the resources of a major research university, opportunities abound, and you might find yourself living a significantly different lifestyle than you or your loved ones may have anticipated.

For some students and their loved ones, these changes create some unexpected distance in the relationship. However, with some intentional planning, the experience of attending Penn can become more shared.

Here are some basic suggestions that are beneficial for you to consider as a guide to navigating this experience within your family or group of loved ones.

  • Discuss college-related terms and resources and why they are helpful. There is a lot of education jargon, and the Penn Parent Guide is just a start. Penn has a lot of acronyms.
  • Establish a communication routine. Commit to regular check-ins, and be sure to adjust the format and frequency as schedules change.
  • Demonstrate mutual interest in the events and happenings no matter how small by asking follow-up and clarifying questions.
  • Explain why certain courses or activities are important to your ambitions and how they might better enable you to help your loved ones, too.
  • Have honest conversations about money and how you are using your financial aid to support your studies and/or the help you might need.
  • Talk about how you will use academic breaks and on-campus events to connect or visit each other as finances allow.
  • Discuss why and how an experience has changed your thoughts or values.


Family Support: Faculty and Staff share Reflections on how their Education Affected their Families