The hallowed halls of Penn field endless traditions. First years celebrate their first steps on campus with convocation and a boozy New Student Orientation. The next four years get filled to the brim with throwing toast onto the field at football games, Hey Day, U–Night, Spring Fling—you get the picture. And at the end of it all, students commemorate the completion of their college years with a week of festivities that culminates in a grand graduation ceremony. 

But one tradition on Penn’s campus stands alone. Each fall, thousands of students participate in the Penn Marriage Pact, a process designed to give them the algorithmically ideal potential romantic partner. 

In the late fall, Penn’s campus gets flooded with marketing telling students to fill out the Penn Marriage Pact. There are flyers around campus, emails from people in Penn Student Government, and plenty of chatter on Sidechat. 

“This year, everyone was on Sidechat always asking ‘When’s Marriage Pact coming out?’” Bruno Basner (W ’26) says. “As someone who is on Sidechat from time to time, I see it, and … decided to do it.”

This marketing blitz is aimed at getting you to fill out a survey that attempts to determine who you’d be most compatible with. While it aims to be comprehensive—asking students dozens of questions about their preferences, political, social, sexual, in a partner—there’s only so much information that can be expressed through numbers. The human brain is made up of millions of cells, and it’s impossible to get down to the core of how a person ticks by asking them to what extent they agree or disagree with 50–ish statements. 

Yet, the Penn Marriage Pact is incredibly popular. Despite hiccups—like there regularly being not enough straight men to guarantee every straight woman who fills out the survey a match—for a period of a few weeks, it becomes the talk of campus for thousands. Part of this is due to the ingenious timing structure. Students find out a match’s initials just a few hours before actually getting their name and contact information. This sets off a small period of insane speculation and many harried messages sent to friends as thousands of students simultaneously attempt to identify their matches. 

But perhaps there is another reason for this appeal, something that goes deeper into how love and relationships function in this online age. For the days between filling out the survey and getting results, there’s an element of mystery to your supposed Penn soulmate. In a school where everyone is obsessed with networking, everyone knows someone who knows someone who knows you, and always seems to have the next several years of their life already planned out, Penn Marriage Pact brings back the allure of dating in an offline, bygone age, where there were more opportunities for exciting chance encounter and a sense of mystery in who could be the “one.” 

Penn isn’t the only school to have a Marriage Pact. Eighty–six colleges and universities across the country have a version of the Marriage Pact, including Vanderbilt University, Princeton University, and the University of Michigan. All of these are run by a centralized company—Marriage Pact—which is in the business of giving students an “optimal backup plan” romantically, according to Abner Gordan, who vets potential schools for Marriage Pact. 

It is likely no surprise that Marriage Pact was founded by a student. When Liam McGregor was a student at Stanford University in 2017, he created the Marriage Pact for an economics final. Initially, the project wasn’t meant to pair people for relationships in the here and now, but instead functioned as “an informal agreement between two people—if both of them remain unmarried and without prospects by the time they turn 40—to simply marry each other,” McGregor writes on his blog. 

After designing the survey, McGregor tested it at Stanford, giving students a week to complete it before they would find out who their matches were. And that first year, over 4,000 students signed up, showing McGregor that it had major potential to be something huge. 

For its first few years, Marriage Pact was limited to the sun–drenched quads and the golden foothills of Palo Alto, Calif., but in 2020, it expanded. After a few years of rapid growth, Marriage Pact is at over 80 schools and has made over 160,000 matches. 

Even though Marriage Pact exists at a wide range of schools, it remains pretty much the same between each school. Beyond just the surveys, the algorithm to compute optimal matches and how Marriage Pact markets itself are similar at each school, fitting its positioning as something of an alternative to traditional dating apps, where people choose partners pretty much strictly on looks. 

But at Penn, the noble intentions of McGregor and everyone at Marriage Pact aren’t aligned with the reality of how the Penn Marriage Pact is used. Instead of helping people find a potential backup plan for years down the road, it has become a social activity, and even somewhat of a competitive game played simultaneously by thousands of Penn students, showing that even if people say they are looking for love, they actually may not be. Despite the noble intentions that Marriage Pact was created with, the goals of people on the ground are humbler, suggesting that trends don’t actually end up fulfilling the goals of their founders. 

Even though Marriage Pact has immense appeal to students as a concept, the actual truth of the product is that it’s much more banal. Penn Marriage Pact thrives on the hope that your long–lost lover could be out there among the 10,000 undergraduates, living their life completely ignorant of you and that all you need is to be set up for sparks to fly. But when you find out their name, it actually showcases how small the school really is, as there’s an overwhelming likelihood that you know them from a class or club, or that the two of you have a mutual friend. 

That isn’t the only issue that pops up when people find out their matches. Even though a match’s email address is released alongside their name, most initial contact doesn’t take place there. Gordan confirmed that students will often find a match on Instagram and reach out there instead of via email, and added that some people will be sure to change their profile pictures in advance of the Marriage Pact result coming out. 

This dynamic adds an additional screening layer, which makes Penn Marriage Pact function like a mainstream dating app and removes its entire appeal. It’s supposed to reintroduce a sense of anonymity and mystery back into the process of finding a partner, and maybe let two people click on a deeper level. This layer means instead that people are just judged for their looks first and foremost before they can even talk over text. 

“People will just look at the Instagram [of a match] and if they don’t find the other person attractive, they’ll just cut it off or ghost,” Bruno says. “Which kind of defeats the purpose of Marriage Pact, because it’s supposed to be [not like] Tinder, where you see the image and you’re solely swiping based on looks.”

McGregor wrote that 10% of matches that result in meetups eventually lead to long–term relationships of at least one year. But this isn’t consistent with Basner’s experience. He’s He’s heard of a few couples hooking up, but no relationships emerging. Regardless of whether a pair hooks up, goes out on a date, or even exchanges a few flirty DMs, the entire process of Penn Marriage Pact fades rather quickly after matches are released. It exists as a little blip on the Penn social calendar, leaving the scene just as quickly as it arrived and hibernating for the next 11 months. 

While it may not often lead to sustained relationships, Penn Marriage Pact can often confirm social connection, as Basner has known of several pairs of friends who’ve ended up being each other’s match. And maybe that’s the point. Perhaps algorithms are better suited to tell you who you would be a good friend rather than a good romantic partner. There seems to be an extra, intangible, element in matchmaking that no survey can cover, beyond just physical attractiveness or whether you have the same philosophy on doing drugs. And while Penn Marriage Pact aims to cut through the bullshit that befalls other dating apps, the entire process just ends up falling short in the exact same ways. 

So what is the Penn Marriage Pact exactly? It’s not a dating app, despite some of their similarities. But it’s also not McGregor’s vision of a literal pact for people to marry at age 40 if they’re still single. This all shows that in the digital age, love—and the ways in which we find it—is more ambiguous. People use a variety of different platforms for a variety of different purposes to fulfill what they are looking for at a particular moment. And some of these methods—like Marriage Pact—are more of social rites of passage than genuine attempts to find a partner.