A Comprehensive Guide to Liberal Arts Colleges

Padya Paramita

A Comprehensive Guide to Liberal Arts Colleges

When searching for the perfect school for yourself, you might have heard the term “liberal arts colleges” or “liberal arts education.” Attending a liberal arts school might not have been something you’ve had in mind, considering how many students grow up aiming to attend Ivy League institutions or top tier state universities to receive a specialized education. However, if you’re unsure of your options, and would not mind attending a smaller school with greater focus on small classes for your undergraduate education, then a liberal arts college might just be perfect for you. 

What Are Liberal Arts Colleges? 

Liberal arts colleges are defined by US News as schools which “emphasize undergraduate education and award at least half of their degree in the liberal arts field of study.” In other words, most liberal arts colleges are mainly undergraduate colleges only, although they sometimes may be affiliated with larger schools, and the students embark on an education in a broad array of fields such as humanities, natural sciences, social sciences, and the arts. While picking one or two majors and minors, students also have the opportunity to explore outside their chosen departments. From smaller classes to picturesque campuses, liberal arts schools have a lot to offer. They have a smaller population than Ivy League schools and other big universities, but their reputations are often just as elite. 

The Top Liberal Arts Colleges

In the table below, I’ve outlined the top 20 liberal arts colleges according to the US News ranking, alongside their location and total undergraduate population so that you can get a sense of where they are located and exactly how small they are.

Rank School Location Total Enrollment
1 Williams College Williamstown, MA 1,962
2 Amherst College Amherst, MA 1,745
3 Swarthmore College Swarthmore, PA 1,437
4 Pomona College Claremont, CA 1,477
5 Wellesley College Wellesley, MA 2,280
6 Bowdoin College Brunswick, ME 1,777
6 United States Naval Academy Annapolis, MD 4,594
8 Claremont McKenna College Claremont, CA 1,262
9 Carleton College Northfield, MN 1,940
9 Middlebury College Middlebury, VT 2,580
11 United States Military Academy West Point, NY 4,536
11 Washington and Lee University Lexington, VA 1,822
13 Davidson College Davidson, NC 1,983
13 Grinnell College Grinnell, IA 1,493
13 Hamilton College Clinton, NY 1,900
16 Haverford College Haverford, PA 1,900
17 Barnard College New York, NY 2,744
17 Colby College Waterville, ME 2,155
17 Colgate University Hamilton, NY 3,042
17 Smith College Northampton, MA 2,183
17 Wesleyan University Middletown, CT 2,852

Why Apply to a Liberal Arts College? 

You may not be aware of it, but a liberal arts school just might be what you’re looking for. As someone who attended a liberal arts college, I can tell you firsthand that there are several reasons to apply and attend one. There are several things I loved about attending a liberal arts college, but five reasons stand out to me for attending one. 

Smaller class sizes and student body population 

As shown in the table above, liberal arts colleges tend to have a lower student body population than larger universities. The size of an average class could be anywhere between 12 and 30 students, and the classrooms are more intimate as well. This is ideal if you are someone who is excited to get to know your classmates and professors better. The smaller size also enables students to participate and professors to remember them, something that is usually not the case in a larger classroom of hundreds of students in a lecture hall. A lot of the time, especially in humanities courses, they include points for participation. Smaller class sizes also lead to a closer-knit community. You’ll often find yourself passing a friend or acquaintance on your way to lunch!

A good student to faculty ratio 

Fewer students mean more students have access to each professor. Professors’ office hours are less packed, and each student gets to spend almost as much time as they need going over coursework. This builds stronger mentorship between the students and faculty, and this comes in handy when you might need a recommendation for a job or an internship. Since the professor will have a chance to get to know you better through your presence in the classroom and office hours, they will be able to write a stronger recommendation. 

The opportunity to take classes you normally wouldn’t 

Liberal arts colleges typically require you to fulfill certain distribution requirements. At Wellesley College, I had to take a certain number of courses in the natural sciences and math, in the social sciences, in languages and arts, and in humanities. If it hadn’t been for these requirements I wouldn’t have had the chance to take courses as interesting as Astronomy or learn how to code thanks to the math and science distribution requirements. In fact, I went into college wanting to be a Comparative Literature and Economics double major to double majoring in Creative Writing and Gender Studies. Because of the broadness of liberal arts requirements, I discovered that my interests were much more geared toward Gender Studies than Economics. 

A strong alumni network 

If you go to a liberal arts college, you will likely have access to a lifelong alumni network. A shared alma mater is an easy point of connection, especially if you go to small liberal arts colleges where chances are an alum might know your favorite professor or even the sibling of your best friend. Social media has allowed for each college to have specialized alumni groups on Facebook that cater to different needs. There could be a separate group for alums helping out recent graduates in search of jobs. There could also be a group that helps you find an apartment and roommates in a new city you might move to after graduation. 

A generous financial aid package 

Most liberal arts colleges are private. As a result, the cost of attendance is high. However, due to access to numerous grants and donations from that strong alumni network I just mentioned, the cost can be highly reduced. A lot of colleges are need-blind, meaning that a student gets in on merit alone, and then the college tries its best to meet the student’s financial needs. There are often scholarships set aside for first-generation students, low-income students, and students from other underrepresented backgrounds. According to Washington Monthly, 23% of the students at Pomona College are first-generation students. College Greenlight states that 20% of the students at Amherst College receive Pell Grants, which is awarded to students with demonstrated need of financial aid. 

Why a Liberal Arts Education Might Not Be For You 

Like the case when making any decision, it is essential that you outline the cons as well as the pros. Liberal arts colleges are not for everyone. Before you go ahead and apply, here are a few downsides of attending a liberal arts school that you should keep in mind. 

Fewer specialized equipment and facilities 

A large drawback of liberal arts colleges is the lack of funding for the most advanced technology and equipment that larger universities, especially research-heavy ones are able to purchase. For example, if you are an engineering major, the lab at your LAC may not have the same top-of-the-line technology and lab equipment that a specialized engineering school might have. Since funds are divided between different departments, liberal arts colleges cannot always invest in the most expensive equipment. 

Not enough STEM courses 

When I was in college, a lot of my STEM major friends complained that they were required to take too many non-science courses due to the distribution requirement. They had a point. A lot of the requirements were classes in the social sciences or humanities. There was an obvious imbalance in the fact that I had to take only three courses in science and math, while my math major friend had to take three social sciences/humanities courses, and three language/arts courses. They had to write three essays for their three non-STEM classes when all they wanted to do was focus on their math assignments. If this sounds like something you want to avoid, maybe reconsider a liberal arts college. 

Lack of focus in your field 

Similar to the previous point, you might find yourself having to divide your academic attention between your major and a subject you might have absolutely no interest in. Some of those classes may even be as early as 8:30 in the morning, when your brain is in no mood to concentrate. You might finish high school wishing to never do a single math problem again. If this is the case, liberal arts colleges might not be your cup of tea, because you would have to try a bit of everything. 

5 Tips To Get Into a Liberal Arts College 

Now that you’ve gone through the pros and cons, and you’ve decided that applying to liberal arts colleges might indeed be the path for you, here are five tips on how to excel in the admissions process. 

Research the school 

Like any other school, liberal arts colleges like to see that the candidate is interested specifically in their institution. Therefore, you need to be as specific as possible in your school-specific supplemental essays. Read up on classes the college offers, look up professors you might be interested in doing research with, and be well-versed in what makes that college unique. A general spiel on your interest in smaller classes and closer relationships is good, but go beyond that for the school’s admission officers to show that it is their school that you are specifically looking for. 

Excel in your current academics, and study hard for standardized tests 

The top liberal arts colleges are very selective and have low acceptance rates. In order to stand out from the rest of the applicant pool, make sure you work hard to keep your grades up in school. Study hard for the ACT or the SAT. If you’re not satisfied with your score the first time, take it again. Most liberal arts colleges use superscore, and look at your top score from each section. 

Dedicate yourself to your activities 

Different clubs and organizations are a big part of liberal arts colleges. If you are a leader in any field—whether it is as editor-in-chief of the school newspaper or the founder of a local community organization, make sure that is emphasized in your application. Colleges would love to know if you have talents such as writing, singing, drawing, or dancing, that you can carry with you to their institution and contribute to campus in meaningful ways. Clubs are a great way of finding community in college, and tangible achievements and sustained involvement in them in high school can get you miles ahead of the competition. 

Connect with an alum

A conversation with an alum is not required for the application, but it gives the admissions office another perspective on what you are like as a candidate for their institute. Depending on where you live, you could find an alum for the college you’ve applied to near your area. This especially can be helpful if you’re applying to colleges that track demonstrated interest. Talking to an alum can not only help the school know you’re interested, but it can help you in learning more about the college and see if it is truly the right one for you! It gives you as much of a chance to get to know the college through the alum’s experiences, as it gives the alum to learn about you. 

Waitlisted? Don’t give up! 

Finally, if you have applied to a liberal arts college, and on decision day you find out that you’re waitlisted, do not give up. I know plenty of people who have been admitted to their first choice liberal arts school off the waitlist. The key is to show that you are interested in them. The perfect way to do this is of course through the letter of continued interest. You may write to your regional admissions officer, and emphasize why the school is your first choice. Again, specify the factors unique to that specific school that makes it the one for you. You may send in additional recommendations, and updated scores and extracurriculars as well. 

Next Steps 

Whether you’re still on the fence about liberal arts colleges, or have finished your applications here are some things you can do while you wait. 

  • Arrange for a campus tour - You can check the liberal arts colleges’ websites to see if there are any campus tours coming up and take a physical or virtual tour. This would give you a good idea of the campus setting as well as sneak a peek into the daily lives of current students. Who knows, you might even get to talk to a professor! 
  • Talk to friends - If you have any friends who are currently enrolled in liberal arts colleges, talk to them. Find out what they like and dislike about their school, and whether they think you might be a good fit for it. 
  • Continue to build your profile - The application process isn’t truly over until you’ve been accepted into a college you see yourself in. Therefore, make sure you continue working hard on your grades, as well as pursuing extracurricular activities that can help you stand out. 
  • Lastly, have a list of schools, including your top choice and your safety - Even though the top liberal arts colleges are excellent, there are others not on this list that are special for different aspects. Always make sure you research your list before you make a decision. If you’re certain about a school, applying early decision increases your chances. But, don’t forget your safety school. Good luck!

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