Academic Life

Familiarize yourself with academic life at Penn

There is no central federal department that controls all aspects of higher education in the US. American universities and colleges have considerable autonomy in determining their academic procedures and policies. The granting of a degree does not normally involve national or state examinations.

  • Students and scholars unfamiliar with the US system may find many aspects of American education different from those in their home countries.

  • It is essential to familiarize yourself with the policies and procedures governing academic coursework and research at Penn as you will be responsible for complying with them.

  • Because academic life is the heart of the university, these policies and procedures are strictly enforced and respected among the university community.

See University Policies and Procedures for the information you need to know to interact successfully at Penn in both academic and non-academic situations.

In order to receive a degree, you must accumulate a certain number of course units and satisfy certain requirements for your major. Each degree program has different requirements. You should have a clear idea of what the requirements are for your program.

Registration for Classes and Payment of Tuition and Fees

Registration for classes occurs each semester. Some students will have the opportunity to pre-register, i.e., to register in advance, midway through the current semester, while others will register at the beginning of the new semester during the course selection period. Specific dates vary slightly from semester to semester. Registration and scheduling is coordinated in the Office of the University Registrar and the Office of Student Financial Services handles the charges and credits for your department or school.

Office of the University Registrar
Room 221 Franklin Building
3451 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6291
Tel: 215-898-6636
Fax: 215- 573-2076

Office of Student Financial Services
100 Franklin Building
3541 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
Telephone: 215- 898-1988
Fax: 215- 573-5428


  • Weingarten Learning Resources Center
    Stouffer Commons
    3702 Spruce Street, Suite 300
    Tel: 215- 573-9235
    Office of Learning Resources
    Office of Student Disabilities Services

    The Weingarten Learning Resources Center, comprised of the Office of Learning Resources and Student Disabilities Services, supports and enhances the academic experiences of Penn's undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. At the beginning of each semester, they conduct the Academics Plus (A+) Workshop Series which addresses issues related to making the transition to the American classroom, reading and study skills, writing and exam taking, and managing time and stress.

  • Tutoring Center
    220 S. 40th Street, Suite 260
    Tel: 215-898-8596

    The Tutoring Center offers Penn students a variety of peer tutoring services. All services are free for matriculating undergraduates. Tutorials are generally offered for the core introductory and intermediate undergraduate courses.

  • The Marks Family Writing Center
    3808 Walnut Street
    Tel: 215-573-2729

    Run by the Critical Writing Program, this tutorial service, staffed by well-qualified student and faculty writing specialists, is intended to provide individual writing guidance and feedback. The staff can assist you with the organization of your paper or other problems related to the content of your written work. They are not able to edit or proofread your paper. The service is free of charge.

  • English Language Program (ELP)
    110 Fisher-Bennett Hall, 3340 Walnut Street
    Tel: 215-898-8681

    ELP offers daytime and evening courses in conversation skills, writing, grammar, and TOEFL preparation year round and at all levels.

  • Computing Resource Center (CRC)
    Suite 202 Sansom West (Graduate Tower B), 3650 Chestnut Street
    Tel: 215-573-4778 (First Call Help Line)

    CRC provides short courses in email, word processing, and database management. Other services include walk-in consultations, file transferring or recovery, hardware inspection and testing, and a hardware and software demonstration.

  • Career Services
    The ground floor of the McNeil Building at 3718 Locust Walk
    Tel: 215-898-7531

    Career counselors help students clarify career goals and conduct a good job search, as well as provide help with graduate/professional school applications.


Characteristics of Higher Education in the US and here at Penn

There are certain aspects of higher education here in the US and at Penn that may seem different to higher education in your home country. Familiarlize yourself with the following to better prepare yourself for academic life here.

Relationships between students and faculty tend to be more informal than in many other countries.

  • In most classes, students are expected to ask questions or comment on the course material and readings.

  • In assigning grades, professors may consider the student's contribution to class discussion during the semester.

  • Almost all faculty members maintain regular office hours when students may come and talk about individual concerns such as: making sure you are meeting course requirements, if you are uncertain about an assignment or if you have questions about the course material.

  • You will be assisted in many aspects of your education by your academic advisor. It is your responsibility to set up an appointment to meet with him or her.

  • It is a good idea to meet with both the professor and your academic advisor at the first sign of difficulty with any class.

  • Because international students must take a full course load every semester, early intervention with academic difficulties is important to help you fulfill your immigration requirements, as well as to be academically successful.

It is important to read all assigned materials and take careful notes on the lectures because examinations will be based on both. You are expected to attend all classes and laboratory sessions. Be sure that you are aware of the specific expectations for each of your courses.

Most instruction is organized and conducted in one of three ways: lecture, laboratory, or seminar.

  • Lecture The lecture class is most frequently used at the undergraduate level, particularly for the first two years of study. Lectures are sometimes large and not conducive to discussion. For this reason, a large lecture will often be supplemented with a recitation or laboratory period to permit discussion and/or scientific experimentation.

  • Recitation/Laboratory Often the recitation or lab is conducted by a TA who is a graduate student in the particular discipline. Students are encouraged and expected to ask questions either during the lecture period or during the recitation or laboratory period. If you wish to speak during the question period, feel free to raise your hand.

  • Seminar This is the most common form of instruction at the graduate level. These classes are generally smaller, permitting opportunities for direct student participation and closer interaction with professors.

Exams usually fall into three categories: quizzes, midterms, and finals. Most professors will announce the format of the exams and the material they will cover.

  • Quizzes These are short tests covering the material currently being studied. The instructor may or may not notify you in advance.

  • Midterm Exams These are exams given approximately midway through the course of a class.

  • Final Exams "Finals" are given at the end of the semester and may cover all the material studied during the semester or only those covered since the midterm. The requirements for each class vary

Exams can be presented in various formats. Their content is at the discretion of the professor and may be:

  • "objective," such as multiple choices or short answer questions

  • "essay," which involves writing longer explanatory essays based on information in texts, lectures and assigned readings.

  • "open-book", which allows the use of textbooks and notes

  • "take-home" exam in which the exam is completed outside of class within a certain time limit

Upper level undergraduate and graduate level exams are generally "essay" type.

Grades are a system for evaluating your academic work. They designate your relative standing in the class and are wholly determined by the instructor's judgment of your achievement on exams, term papers, class participation, etc. At Penn the following symbols are used in most, but not all, programs:

A  Excellent  

B Good 

C Fair 

D Poor

 F Failure

I Incomplete

In graduate school any grade below B is generally considered a poor performance. In a limited number of courses, pass-fail or credit-no credit systems are used.

If, for unavoidable reasons, you do not complete the work required for a course before the end of the semester, you may request an extension from your professor and ask for an "incomplete" (I) to appear on your transcript.

  • You should make this request as soon as it becomes clear that you cannot complete the coursework.

  • You will need to speak with your professor and your school's academic office to learn the rules regarding "incompletes" and the amount of time available to finish the course.

  • A professor can refuse to grant you an "incomplete."

  • In addition, before you request an "incomplete" check with OIP-ISSS to make sure that it will not cause a problem with your immigration status.

  • Don't overload your schedule. Overloading your schedule, particularly in your first semester, may result in poorer grades and unnecessary stress. But remember that international students must be registered for full-time course load every semester.

  • Choose your courses wisely. Ask your advisors, professors and fellow students for their opinions.

  • Keep in mind that it may take some time for you to perform to the best of your ability.

  • Attend your classes regularly and arrive on time.

  • Hand in all assignments on time

  • Make arrangements ahead of time with your professor to deal with any special requests and circumstances.

  • Participate in classroom discussion.


Glossary of Academic Terms

We recommend that you take some time to review the relevant lingo provided below to help you better navigate the academic landscape here at Penn. 

  • Academic adviser: A faculty member appointed to assist students in the planning of their academic programs

  • Assignment: Out-of-class work required by a professor, due at a certain time

  • Audit: Attending a course with permission of the professor but not for credit

  • Bursar: Office in charge of payment of tuition and bills

  • Carrel: An enclosed desk in the library reserved by students and faculty doing research

  • Comps: Comprehensive exams which must be passed before receiving a doctoral degree

  • CU: Course unit

  • CUPID: Center for University of Pennsylvania Identification

  • Dean: University administrator, usually a senior faculty member, who heads a school

  • Dissertation: A scholarly independent research study required to obtain a doctoral degree

  • Add/Drop Form: Form used to change courses after registration

  • Finals: Examinations at the end of a semester on all the materials covered

  • Flunk: To fail a course

  • GPA: Grade point average, maximum of 4.0 (where A=4, B=3, etc.)

  • GRE: Graduate Record Exam

  • Humanities: Studies of human culture such as music, languages, and literature

  • Incomplete: A temporary mark given to a student who is doing passing work in a course but cannot complete all the requirements during the semester

  • Leave of absence: Authorized leave from the University. International students are required either to leave the US or to change their status when taking a leave of absence.

  • Major: Area of concentration or study

  • Matriculation: Enrollment in a degree program

  • Mid-term: A test in the middle of the semester

  • Natural sciences: Studies of the properties of nature such as mathematics, physics, geology, and astronomy

  • PARIS: Penn Automated Registration Information System

  • Pass/Fail: No letter grade is given for a course taken "pass/fail"

  • Penn InTouch: A University service which is accessible from your computer or kiosks located in the lobby of the Franklin Building, and Van Pelt Library. You can review your billing account, transcript, and update your address information.

  • Permit stamp: Stamp given by some departments to enter certain courses

  • Preregistration form: A form filled out prior to the beginning of a semester to ensure course selections

  • Prerequisite: A requirement that must be fulfilled before permission is given for enrollment in a particular course

  • Quiz: Test given during the semester

  • Recitation: Class session, usually headed by a teaching assistant, where students discuss and ask questions about the materials presented in the lecture or reading assignments

  • Registrar: Official recorder of students' academic information, such as courses taken and grades received

  • Reserve: Books, usually required readings for a course, that are taken out of general circulation and put aside and are available in the Rosengarten Room of the Van Pelt Library

  • SAT: Scholastic Aptitude Test, for college admission

  • Semester: One academic term, which is half of the academic year. Penn has two semesters: "fall" and "spring"

  • Seminar: A small class which demands a high level of student participation

  • Skim: To read something quickly to get a general idea of its contents

  • Social sciences: Studies of the interactions of people in society, such as economics and political science

  • Submatriculate: Simultaneous enrollment in a graduate and undergraduate program

  • Summer School: Two six-week sessions are offered every summer

  • Thesis: A scholarly research paper required to obtain a master's degree

  • TOEFL: Test of English as a Foreign Language

  • Transcript: Official record of past grades and courses taken by a student