Getting into Penn

My first experience with Penn was actually pretty negative.

My dream school was always MIT. Since 3rd grade, I’ve wanted to attend MIT, to engineer amazing inventions, to meet other pure engineers. I had never even heard of Penn.

But I applied because my guidance counselor told me I wouldn’t make it. In fact, I should “ED to Cornell, and even then, I’ll be lucky to get in.” Thank god, my ego rebelled against my counselor and I decided to apply to Penn, which I deemed as the middle ground between Cornell and MIT in terms of prestige. (Sorry Cornellians! I follow US News too much.)

I got in.

Another reason I applied was because of the M&T program. After almost 5 years of neuroscience research, I became frustrated with the slow timelines of research and drug development, and slowly grew more interested in the intersection of engineering and startups by my senior year. At that point, I had spent close to five years investigating a new type of Alzheimer’s therapeutic pathway, and was definitely nowhere close to a potential drug candidate.1 Instead, why not pursue something still impactful but with accelerated timeframes to affect the world? That year, I dabbled with my first small “ventures”: the first being YungStrung and the second being Roslyn Academy after being accepted into Penn.

And over the last semester of my high school and that summer, I grew even more interested in the M&T program. It seemed like a great program where ambitious people collided, and coincidently merged my long-standing interest in engineering with my newfound interest in ventures. And since M&T allowed for internal transfer into the program, I chose to attend Penn to and prepare myself to spend my first year trying my hardest to get into the program. (Status unknown as of May 30.)

NSO Week

Penn likes to kick off school with something called New Student Orientation (NSO) week. It’s a week of mandatory (and boring) activities on safety in the afternoons, and some fun parties later at night to help new students get to know each other and the school.

I didn’t really enjoy NSO week.

If you’re a big fan of huge parties and alcohol, I’m sure you will have a blast.

But I’m not a fan of either, so those events didn’t really appeal to me. And though I did meet a lot of cool people, it was all a blur of saying “hello, what’s your name and major?” so by the end, nobody really knew each other. I repeated “Maxx, Bioengineering” at least a hundred times, and met 0 to-be friends that week. Probably a skill issue, but still.

But I did meet a few people later who I’m best friends with today. I’ll forever remember our 4 am movie nights and badminton days.


Moving in for the first time, I realized how tiny the Hill dorm was. There’s a running joke that you and your roommate can hold hands while you sleep. (We tested, it’s true.) Here’s my side of the prison:

Luckily, my ten pound solid brass modded keyboard (a Bahrnob 65, for reference) and a massive 32 inch monitor allowed me to distract myself from the physical realities of my little prison room. While it wasn’t too bad after a while, by the end of the year, I was glad to be done with that room.

First Semester

My first semester at Penn was a learning experience. I took my first programming course (CIS1200) and learned programming from scratch. That was probably a mistake, though, since it isn’t recommended to skip CIS1200 without taking CIS1100, leaving me very confused for a good majority of the course. I was also rejected from a lot of clubs, which honestly made me feel bitter.2 Within a month, I began skipping almost every single class, instead prioritizing taking pretty images of the brain at my lab or flying to San Francisco, Atlanta, and Boston for various events and hackathons.3

Still, even with my 25 hours a week of engineering course load - General Chemistry I lab, General Chemistry II and lab, CIS1200, BE1000, ECON0100, and PHYS0140 - alongside 15 hours of research a week at Corder Labs, I found the work very manageable (albeit my GPA is now only a 3.70).

The most important thing I did that semester, however, was starting Nanoneuro Systems. Via resources from Tangen Hall (tip: the best builders aren’t at Tangen) and the Singh Nanotechnology Center, I obtained some grant funding and found three brilliant co-founders to work with!

(Only freshman at the YC x Penn event.)

Second Semester

My second semester was slightly lighter. I started attending more classes (I got to build a ballista in my mechanical engineering class!) and got into several clubs.

At that point, though, I realized that clubs were pretty useless and actually dropped them all after I joined. My roommate and I also started to get paranoid over AI taking over our jobs and got really depressed over our education.

I think feeling hopeless against the coming AI wave is a common sentiment among students right now. Education isn’t something that is as valuable when AI teachers with better teaching ability and deeper knowledge pools over teachers become commonly available.

Instead, I prioritized working on Nanoneuro Systems. It was something I enjoyed and was something that bought me a lot of opportunities. Between the start of the second semester and now, the team and I have made major progress:

  • Penn x Contrary Top 8 Venture (only undergraduate team among 7 other MBA teams)
  • Winner of the Contrary Northeast Builders Trek (became the Penn startup representative to meet with General Catalyst, Accel, and BoxGroup firms)

  • PearVC Competition Finalist (represented Penn)
  • Designated as the top 15 northeastern venture by the TigerLaunch Princeton x Columbia competition (1 of 2 teams representing Penn)
  • International Hult Prize Semifinalist (1 of 2 teams representing Penn)
  • iGEM BioFounders Startup Accelerator
  • Philly BioLabs Investors Day Invitee (pitched to many VC firms in biotech)
  • BiossUSA Sponsorship
  • Penn Wharton Innovation Fund
  • Collaboration with the Singh Nanotechnology Center and Corder Lab.
  • Secured mentorship from Intel and other Penn professors.
  • An undisclosed amount of grant funding…
  • And finally, an invitation to the Entrepreneur First Summer Summit, where I met Nat Friedman, the CEO of GitHub!

Props to my cofounders too!

And most recently, a YC interview! (Got rejected; our feedback was to “get a PhD.“) Still, super excited about the acceleration of our progress in the past 6 months.

Overall Reflection

Penn wasn’t what I thought it would be. Throughout high school, all I focused on were grades. But now that I am at Penn, I think the smarter move is to network and do cool stuff. Pursue your own passions! Classes are just something you have to get through. Spend your free time trying new things, like Go!

A lot of why I grinded during my first year at Penn was to get into M&T. But my GPA probably won’t make the cutoff, so I probably won’t. That’s sad, but fine. I shot for the stars, but at least I landed on the moon, and perhaps Nanoneuro Systems would take me to places beyond the stars!

For the summer, I’ve decided to work full-time on my startup for 2 months, and for the other 2 months, intern at NASA and an aerospace manufacturing company. Hopefully, a better year for Nanoneuro Systems next year and a better time scraping by with my classes!

Footnotes

  1. However, I did hypothesize that the already available GLP-1 drug could play a major role in regulating memory effects in the brain, and two years later, GLP-1 became the main drug that drove the Wegovy and Ozempic weight-loss drugs!

  2. I wrote a bullish case for Synopsis (NASDAQ: SNPS) in October, recommending a long at $460~ in anticipation of the forthcoming AI wave. I was told that was stupid and the company was already overvalued. Then Nvidia earnings came and SNPS rode the wave: as of May 2024, it is at $575. This was precisely when I realized getting mad over amateur club groups was stupid of me.

  3. Actually, skipping class and taking the train to NYC for a coffee chat landed me my first internship at Raymond James over winter break!