For those looking to get ahead in the race for college degrees, Penn offers the chance to take on a dual identity.
Students who pursue submatriculation, or enrollment into one of Penn’s 12 graduate schools as an undergraduate, must tackle professional-level classes — often simultaneously with the remainder of their undergraduate coursework.
While the vast majority of students submatriculate into Penn graduate schools during or at the end of their junior year, admissions policies vary across the board, according to Gary Purpura, assistant dean for advising in the College of Arts and Sciences.
For instance, the Graduate School of Education and the Law School require undergraduates to take graduate school admissions exams like the GRE and LSAT, while submatriculants to most master’s degree programs in the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering and Applied Science are exempt from entrance tests.
Because of the complex layers of requirements involved in submatriculation, Purpura believes the choice to do so should not be taken lightly.
“It’s a big commitment, intellectually and socially,” Purpura said. “You’re taking on a new identity and expectations that you’ll have in the graduate program, such as attending talks and colloquia, that can create demands on time.”
A smooth process
For College junior Isabella Dominguez, the chance to graduate from Penn with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminology provided an opportunity to save time — and, to her surprise, money.
“I saw an adviser early on, at the end of freshman year, and planned it out so I could sub-matriculate as a junior and do the master’s program in two years instead of one year,” she said. “But I didn’t know it was all covered and included in undergraduate tuition — my parents were thrilled.”
Other students choose to take on graduate level work once they realize how little stands in their way of an advanced degree.
College senior Arka Mallela, a student in the Vagelos Scholars Program in the Molecular Life Sciences, chose to submatriculate at the end of his sophomore year. After finishing most undergraduate biochemistry courses required for his program, he discovered that he only needed to take six more courses to get his master’s degree.
“There’s an application process, but it’s more paperwork than anything else,” he said. “The Vagelos kids have it easier because a lot submatriculate … If your GPA is good enough you are most likely accepted, since you’re considered in a different pool” from other applicants.
The process of submatriculation was just as smooth for William McGill, who completed his undergraduate engineering work in materials science and mechanical engineering and applied mechanics in three years and submatriculated into the Engineering master’s program for what would have been his senior year.
“It’s nice because you don’t have to take the GRE, you can still be classified as an undergraduate and you can get financial aid if you still have undergraduate classes to take during your last year,” said McGill, who graduated in 2012.
Rita Wahba followed a similar path, submatriculating into the Graduate School of Education during the summer before her third and final year as an undergraduate history major. While her program required her to take the GRE and go through the same application process as non-submatriculants, her acceptance was non-binding. This meant she could start taking GSE courses as an undergraduate, but doesn’t necessarily have to continue in the school upon graduating in May.
While the program’s flexibility was the main draw for Wahba, the chance to remain among her Penn friends was also a plus.
“I definitely still have connections to the Penn undergraduate community,” she said. “Since GSE is only a one-year program, it might be hard for others to establish that same kind of connection that I have, being here for the last three years.”
A jumpstart on the future
Not every Penn graduate schools permits all undergraduates to enroll before graduation, however.
The Wharton MBA program, for example, only allows Wharton juniors who meet extremely selective criteria to apply, while undergraduates can only apply to the School of Dental Medicine’s seven-year joint program with the College in their initial application to Penn.
Other programs vary in their selectivity and application numbers. The Fels Institute of Government, for example, only accepts one or two Penn undergraduates out of a typical applicant pool of 12 to 15 to its Master of Public Administration program. The School of Social Policy and Practice, on the other hand, only had one submatriculation applicant in both 2010 and 2011, and had none in 2012.
In contrast, around 10 percent of the 1,600 Engineering School undergraduates are enrolled in a engineering master’s degree program, according to Joseph Sun, Engineering School vice dean for academic affairs.
“This number fluctuates year to year,” he said in an email. “The trend has been upward, with increasing numbers of our students applying for submatriculation.”
“It’s definitely easy to submatriculate as an engineer,” McGill added. “It’s a streamlined process. They really encourage you to go for that extra degree to add on to your undergraduate work.”
For many, the choice ultimately comes down to getting a head start on their professional and academic goals.
Dominguez praised the faculty in the criminology master’s program for focusing on students’ post-Penn plans.
“The program sets up time with us to discuss our future plans and see in what way they could help us,” she said. “In criminology, it’s about teaching us the theories and what’s going on, but also how we’re going to apply that to our careers.”
While many described the application process and transition from undergraduate to graduate work as seamless, the financial considerations involved in submatriculation are more complicated than meets the eye.
Purpura explained that while submatriculation saves some tuition money in the short term, some submatriculants become ineligible for certain government funding when they decide to enter into their program. Since submatriculants will have already completed graduate coursework, some federal agencies will not fund their future graduate studies.
Post-graduate options outside of Penn can also be uncertain for submatriculants.
“There could be cases where graduate programs or universities themselves would not recognize the advanced standing,” Purpura said. “You also can’t assume that because you completed a master’s [as a sub-matriculant], you get credit for it towards a Ph.D.”
Purpura cited these scenarios as evidence of why submatriculation requires plenty of advance planning.
“Submatriculation could affect course selection in terms of specific courses or numbers to take,” he said. “You want to give yourself more time to prepare for standardized tests and gather the information you need.”