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Engineering Summer Academy at UPenn - Should You Do It?

Engineering is a multifaceted domain that spans a broad spectrum of disciplines for STEM enthusiasts, each offering unique challenges and opportunities. The challenge, of course, is deciding on which discipline to pursue, and one of the ways to solve this challenge is by enrolling in pre-college programs. Such programs can introduce you to a chosen discipline, show what college classes are like, and generally familiarize you with the careers and opportunities involved. Not only that, it also highlights your initiative and dedication to the discipline, while building your analytical expertise and problem-solving skills. In today’s blog post, we’ll be discussing one such opportunity - the Engineering Summer Academy at the University of Pennsylvania (ESAP).

What is the Engineering Summer Academy?

Engineering Summer Academy or ESAP as it’s commonly known is an intensive three-week residential program for high schoolers run by the University of Pennsylvania. It is designed to help you explore engineering at the college level, with UPenn faculty teaching you both theory and hands-on practical experience. Penn Engineering is a 170-year-old institution and ranks as one of America’s most prestigious university engineering departments. The ESAP program is a good mix of learning and hands-on work and offers a selection of courses, including Biotechnology, Computer Graphics, and Computer Science, each designed to equip you with valuable skills and knowledge that resonate with contemporary technological advancements.

Is it prestigious?

ESAP, despite its high admission fee, features among the best engineering programs for high schoolers in the country. The prestige of Penn Engineering is a solid boost to your profile on its own. Add to that the rigor of the program itself, the moderately selective admissions process, healthy balance of theoretical and practical learning, incredible exposure to industry leaders and facilities, and you have the perfect pre-college engineering experience available. Several testimonials point to the many benefits derived from ESAP’s intensive, practically designed coursework and experiential and peer learning that simply would not have been available otherwise.

Who is eligible?

To be able to attend ESAP, you must:

  • Have completed your freshman year of high school (ninth grade).

    • High school seniors are not eligible for ESAP.

  • Be at least 15 years old by the start of the program.

  • Have a good academic record, minimum B average. Note that this is the bare minimum for eligibility. You need to demonstrate a preference for strong performance in math and science subjects, as well as honors and advanced coursework to be able to stand a chance at admission.

  • If you’re an international student, you will also need to prove mastery of English as a second language:

    • You can either submit your TOEFL scores OR

    • Provide a letter confirming at least 1 year of attendance and your English proficiency from the Head of School or Guidance Counselor

    • at least one recommender must assess your English language ability in their letter of recommendation

How does the application process work?

The application for the Engineering Summer Academy requires submission of the following:

  1. The online application.

  2. Your official high school transcript sent directly from your school via email.

  3. 2 Letters of Recommendation from people whose contact information must be submitted in your online application, who will then be emailed instructions for submitting their letter online. At least one of your letters of recommendation must be written by a math or science teacher.

  4. An $85 non-refundable application fee.

  5. Optionally, you can also choose to provide standardized test scores such as PSAT, SAT, ACT, AP, or TOEFL if you feel they’ll help your application.

The priority deadline for applications is typically in early March, in 2023 it was March 3. Any applications submitted after this will be reviewed on a rolling basis till the final deadline in early April, which was April 7, 2023.

How is the Engineering Summer Academy structured?

ESAP is a three-week residential program, taking place from July 7 to July 27, 2024. While applying, you will be asked to choose one of six available courses:

  • Biotechnology - In this course, you will learn some of the fundamentals of molecular biology and have the opportunity to carry out molecular cloning experiments in the lab. With three hours of classes every day along with three hours of lab work, there is a healthy mix of theory and practice you will be learning. Add to that the required submission of a Group Research Proposal and a Journal Club to discuss research articles, and you can be sure to build a solid foundation in the field. The remainder of the program is rounded out by field trips and guest speaker sessions to ensure you get plenty of real-world exposure.

  • Complex networks - Network engineering is a newer field that explores the structure and behavior of large networks, and at UPenn, you will be able to experience it firsthand. This course will teach you some of the basic tools, methods, and algorithms for the analysis of networked systems, as well as practical applications of this new science. You will be learning everything from the mathematics of networks, measures and metrics, large-scale network structures, and graphical representations.

  • Computer graphics - If you’re at all interested in games and animation, this is the course for you. Classes here will include design, anatomy, modeling, texturing, rigging, programming, and animation overall while focusing on character modeling in depth. From the basics of character design via clay modeling and sketches, to working on advanced design principles on powerful software like Alias, Maya, and Photoshop, you’ll learn it all. The best part is that your learning won’t be restricted to the classroom - you’ll be visiting UPenn’s own LiveActor motion capture studio, the Human Modeling and Simulation (HMS) center, as well as field trips to big animation studios. The final assignment involves designing a base CG character of your own choice, giving you the perfect opportunity to let your creativity shine!

  • Computer science - If you have had little to no exposure to computer science but are keen to get into the field and bring yourself up to speed, this is the perfect course offering for you. Here, you will be introduced both to the practical work of programming and to the important foundations of computer science. You will also learn about abstraction, modularity, objects, loops, arrays, classes, and OOP via a variety of programming languages. The average day will involve about six hours of classes, both theory and lab work, with plenty of programming projects to help you learn practical applications of coding.

  • Nanotechnology - This is the course to apply for if you’re interested in the fast-growing field of nanotechnology and its diverse applications. Through this course, you will learn about nanomaterials, nanofabrication techniques, imaging nanostructures, real-life applications of nanotechnology, nanoscience ethics, and other concepts necessary to understanding why very small systems exhibit unique behavior. Through lectures, guest speakers involved in research, engineering and industrial startups, and field trips to organizations like Dow Chemical or nanoscale characterization facilities, you will gain a comprehensive overview of nanotechnology.

  • Robotics - If you love robotics and want to build your own mobile robot, this is the course to choose. This is an introductory course in robotics with an emphasis on mechatronics, building and design. In it, you will be exposed to robotics and robotics research at the university level, while also learning how to construct mechanically, control electronically, and program physical robots. With about three hours of classes and four or five hours of lab work per day, this is a fairly intensive course that will teach you aspects of mechanical engineering, design and manufacturing, electronics, circuits and systems, as well as embedded systems programming.

We suggest you read up on the course of your choice in detail here.

In general, the courses have small cohort sizes, between 25 and 50 students at the most, leading to a great instructor-student ratio of about 1:19. However, all this comes at the rather steep program fees of $8,000 (covering all tuition, room/ board, meals, course materials, and program-related trips). While there is financial aid available for applicants demonstrating financial need, UPenn does not specify the amount or percentage. We recommend you check the financial requirements here.

Considering Pros and Cons


  1. You will have an academically enriching experience: The intensity, coursework, pedagogy, and faculty of ESAP ensure that you will gain a substantive amount of knowledge of your chosen field over the three weeks at UPenn.

  2. You will gain practical experience: ESAP is designed to not just focus on theoretical learning, but also provide its participants plenty of real-world experience and hone practical skills. Whichever course you pick, you will have plenty of exposure to the industrial standards common to it, and get access to lab / practical work on the latest software(s) and techniques.

  3. You will greatly boost your profile for admissions: Being able to show an ESAP program in your profile, with all the knowledge and skill building it entails, highlights your advanced command of your chosen field. It also showcases that by clearing the ESAP admissions process, which has an estimated selection rate of 25-30%, you’re in the top quartile of students in your field.


  1. It is extremely expensive: While the program offers financial aid, $8000 in program fees with travel costs on top is no one’s definition of affordable, and for some households might be out of reach entirely.

  2. It is intensive and rigorous: While not strictly a con, you need to be prepared for the demanding, exhaustive schedule you’ll be following over the three weeks of the program.

  3. It is only residential: While this is great for immersion and exposure, it’s not so good for international applicants who are interested in applying but are unable to manage visa and travel fees or even for some out-of-state applicants.

Our review

If you’re a high schooler in the US, especially in Pennsylvania, and have the financial means to afford it, then the Engineering Summer Academy is a great pre-college engineering experience. You will get to learn theory, industry-standard techniques and software, create your own projects, learn from Penn Engineering’s distinguished faculty, RAs as well as your own peers, and overall have an intense learning experience concentrated in a span of three weeks. If your budget cannot accommodate the fees however, or if you’re not clear on your own passion for STEM, then it’s best to apply for a less expensive, less intense program.

If you’re looking to build a project/research paper in the field of AI & ML, consider applying to Veritas AI! 

Veritas AI is founded by Harvard graduate students. Through the programs, you get a chance to work 1-1 with mentors from universities like Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and more to create unique, personalized projects. In the past year, we had over 1000 students learn AI & ML with us. You can apply here!

Lumiere Research Scholar Program

If you’re looking for the opportunity to do in-depth research on various topics in STEM and engineering, you could also consider applying to one of the Lumiere Research Scholar Programs, selective online high school programs for students I founded with researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 4000 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here.

Stephen is one of the founders of Lumiere and a Harvard College graduate. He founded Lumiere as a PhD student at Harvard Business School. Lumiere is a selective research program where students work 1-1 with a research mentor to develop an independent research paper.

Image Source: UPenn seal


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