I'm sorry this reply is extremely late; I’ve just been enjoying my first time back at home since September.
Penn and my high school experience are different. One of the main reasons I chose Penn was it was big enough where I be anonymous if I wanted to, but have small enough class sizes where I feel I could learn more from the professors. Out of four classes, I have the best of both worlds. My math and bio lectures are close to 200 hundred people, but the recitation and lab are about 20 people. My writing seminar is 16 people and my Spanish class is 18 people. In high school, these class sizes would have been completely unheard of, and the instructors do provide individual attention. One thing I did not like about high school was that people treated me like a toddler, because of the bad examples set by some of my fellow peers, but at Penn, and I'm pretty sure at any college, they treat you like an adult. And even when you ask for help, they'll still treat you like adult. One thing that I've noticed since coming here is that if you ask for help, people will help you. In terms of academics, professors and TAs doors are always open, and if you can't make their office hours, you can email them and ask for a different time meeting. I'll admit, it's definitely a change from getting nearly straight As throughout high school to struggling with subjects that seem very easy to your peers, but it's completely fine to go ask for help. There are resources for help, especially if you look hard enough. My current professor for bio was actually complaining that she wasn't "getting enough customers."
College is definitely different from high school in the sense that you can really only rely on yourself. Honestly, I would say that college is a bit easier in the sense that you're taking fewer classes than you're taking in high school at once, and you do meet less often (1-3 times a week). You've just really got to learn how to manage your time, because homework is due less often, and most of the time you can't complete whole assignments in just of couple of hours, especially if you don't know how to do something and you have to go to your professor's or TA's office hours (which usually do not occur in the early hours of the morning when work gets done). You also get to take classes you like, I mean sure, there are requirements, but there are so many classes that you're bound to take something that interests you and fulfills requirements. For bigger lecture classes, professors put up their lectures online. You can skip classes without being noticed, but I strongly advise against this because sometimes the recording equipment fails, or the professor gets busy doesn't upload the lecture that you need before a test or homework is due. Also, you will probably procrastinate on watching the actual videos until it’s too late. In college, you can take classes that you are interested in. It’s actually encouraged because you really should do something that you love or interests you. In high school you had all these requirements to fill, but at Penn you can take different classes that to fulfill those requirements.
Because schedules are different at Penn every day, you really have to plan ahead. In high school, days were always the same in terms of classes, but now you have to sit down and think about what you're going to do at a certain time. Basically, weekends have never been worth so much in terms of resting, and do not forget to rest. You will go crazy if all you do is work and study, so take breaks.
Most people think that students at an Ivy League School would be snobby, but Penn is not like that. I've found that most of the people in my classes are approachable once you start talking to them. Penn does not have as much diversity as Pinole Valley High did, but I can guarantee you can find people eerily similar, in terms of personality, to people at Pinole. It seems like everyone on my hall gets along pretty well, and that roommates were chosen well because at Penn, they are chosen randomly unless you specifically name someone because they believe that “everyone can learn something from everyone,” which I find that to be true. My roommate went to boarding school and lives on a ranch, which is completely different from how I was raised, and she has some pretty crazy and funny stories.
I went to public schools in West Contra Costa my whole life before coming to Penn. I can say that I have had some really great teachers, and I’ve had some not so great teachers, but I ultimately think it depends on the student. Public school has made me learn to make the best out of what resources I have available, and I must say it’s a pretty valuable skill. A lot of people that I’ve met have either gone to private school or boarding school, and I like to think that experiencing public schools, especially ones in a district with limited resources, has made me tougher and more independent in way.
The only advice I can give to those applying to Penn is to be honest. It doesn’t make sense to lie or fluff your essays with big words, unless that’s what you really do. I’d like to think the admissions officers do a good job of leading applicants to where they are meant to be. I don’t know if there is an optional essay this year, but if there is, I encourage applicants to do it. In my opinion, it shows real interest for the school because you’re taking that extra step, while in the process your personality and your way of thinking are being shown. I literally did that optional essay on a whim, two days before the submission deadline. I only went through two drafts and submitted it. It also shows that you’re willing to take a risk, because honestly, now I can’t even finish reading my optional essay with cringing from embarrassment. The most important piece of advice I can give you is to do your research. Don’t go to a school because your friends are going or if you want prestige because of its name. Make your own choice. If you have any questions about Penn or applying to schools in general, feel free to email me.