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What is it like to study at a liberal arts college?

Students from a number of the top liberal arts colleges in the US describe what makes the liberal arts education so attractive

  • Student life
October 19 2017
Top liberal arts colleges in the United States


Eleni Smitham is double-majoring in international studies and Spanish and minoring in health studies at Haverford College, Pennsylvania

I was first attracted to Haverford College by the sense of community. People look out for each other on campus and strive to build each other up.

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I appreciate that from the first moment we step on campus, Haverford students are given a lot of trust and agency to shape our own college experience. The first-year orientation programme, Customs, connects students with a team of upperclassmen student volunteers who ease the transition to college.

Just as Customs helps students to discover new elements of college life, our partnership with several other colleges allows us to take classes at three other schools. Even though I rarely feel the need to leave our campus, it is comforting to know that I have access to the resources of larger institutions and to a big city (Philadelphia) as well as our close-knit community.

Classes are rigorous, but professors are approachable and engaged with students and the larger Haverford community. I regularly find myself attending office hours, but I also bump into professors when walking their dogs on campus.

Attending Haverford pushes you to grow as a student and as a person. Each student here brings something unique to the Haverford community (whether we realise it at first or not), and I have never doubted that I made the right decision to come here.

Best liberal arts colleges in the United States

Katie Paulson, English literature major and classical studies minor at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania

Liberal arts colleges such as Swarthmore College offer a personal academic experience. In my three and a half years here, I have never taken a course enrolled with more than 35 students, and the majority of my courses have fewer than 10 students.

In these small classes, we fully engage with the subjects we study. Rather than listening to a professor summarise the points made by philosophers, students take charge of discussions, citing passages in texts and asking questions that move the class forward.

Twice in a seminar last spring, I led a four-hour discussion, once on T. S. Eliot’s poetry and once on James Joyce’s Ulysses, and the responsibility of leading a seminar forced me to take charge of my own education, as well as that of my peers. I’ve found that education feels most empowering when students are required to contribute a high level of dedication and preparation in order to make the education happen at all. You cannot learn passively at Swarthmore.

The intimate environment of Swarthmore extends beyond classes. Almost all of the nearly 1,600 students live in dorms on campus for all four years, an experience that provides an education of its own. The campus feels very much like home. 

Will DiGravio is an English and film major at Middlebury College, Vermont

I entered Middlebury College convinced I would be a political science major. After all, I was the politics guy in high school; it’s all I ever read, talked, and tweeted about.

But now, in my third year at Middlebury, I find myself studying film and English, debating Man and Superman and watching the jaws of my classmates collectively drop as we experience Vertigo.

Stories like mine are the norm at Middlebury because the liberal arts force us to step outside our comfort zones. The curriculum guides us down pathways that simultaneously allow us to develop our existing interests and pursue new ones. This emphasis on exploration is why I came to Middlebury, and why I walked into an introductory film class to fulfill an art requirement, and walked out a major.

For me, taking courses on Nabokov, Hitchcock, and Shakespeare is merely the beginning of what I hope will be a life spent engaging with these works. My time at Middlebury has taught me how much I don’t know, how much I still have left to learn and has provided me with the passion necessary to continue learning long after I have left the campus.  

Princeton University
WSJ/THE US College Rankings 2018: top US universities published

Regina Logan is leaning towards an economics major at Grinnell College, Iowa

Going to a liberal arts school was a given for me – I attended a small, private high school where one of the benefits was my close relationships with my teachers and peers. Grinnell’s location in rural Iowa didn’t really matter to me; it seemed to fit what I was looking for in a college, and I tacked it on to my common application.

After receiving my college acceptances, I thought I had a good idea of where I ranked each school – Grinnell was the smallest, most rural of my potential choices and so I didn't give it much thought. But after I had visited each school (I had been to only one on my list pre-application), I found myself uncomfortable with the displays of prestige at the East Coast schools and also with the classic, party-school feel of the schools in California. My decision quickly narrowed to the Midwest.

In the end, Grinnell’s emphasis on student self-direction sold me. Between the school’s history of “self-governance”, the open academic curriculum, and the huge amount of money available to fund student life, I had the sense that at Grinnell, students were the drivers of their academic, professional and social lives.

The isolation of the small town is real, and it limits opportunities to incorporate outside work and volunteer opportunities. The classes are just as tough as I thought they would be. But no matter the problem, the school’s size makes it easy to find and connect with the resources I need. The college regularly funds student travel off-campus, provides many meaningful work opportunities, and professors are easy to track down for help.

In the end, I can confidently say that I think the classes I’m taking, the work I’m doing and the people I’m meeting through Grinnell align with my long-term life goals. 

April Xu is an international student from China, studying Pomona College. She majors in politics and minors in Spanish

Reflecting as a senior at Pomona College, I can confidently say that one of my best decisions has been applying to a liberal arts college in California. 

I am often connecting different academic fields together and being a liberal arts undergraduate allows me to do just that. Schrödinger's cat from physics and bilingual literature from an upper division Spanish course, along with other disciplines such as political theory and theatre inspired my first novel. Ice cream socials at the college president’s house and dinner invitations from my professors bring about thought-provoking exchanges that I may not get otherwise, even as a frequent visitor to professors’ office hours. A casual stroll across campus generates many friendly greetings, as our 1,650-student campus is a close-knit community.

As an international student with an interest in comparative politics and cultural studies, I was fortunate to receive the Iberian Grant to do original research on Spanish gastronomy in relation to local, regional, and national identities in Cádiz, San Sebastián and Barcelona. Pomona has also funded my unpaid internship at the World Health Organization, and along the way, my professors and mentors provided invaluable guidance on my universal health coverage project.

I am incredibly grateful for the education at Pomona that has distinctively shaped me in various ways, and encourage current high school students to explore liberal arts colleges as an option for their undergraduate education.

Read more: Brits in America: a day in the life of a Harvard student


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