It has been quite awhile since I browsed the CC forums (mostly because I see myself in these stressed, overworked high schoolers and it depresses me). Anyway, I thought I'd quickly pop in to vouch for my experience at UMass Amherst.
I'll be perfectly honest: when I ended up at UMass, I had every intention of leaving the school after a year for some other, "more prestigious" institution. I was crushed that I didn't get into any of my top choices, and UMass was honestly my last-ditch effort. I was wait listed at Vanderbilt, and that school was constantly on my mind.
But I didn't leave UMass, and I very quickly realized that my perceptions of the school couldn't have been more wrong. As a Connecticut resident, I actually didn't know about the party reputation of the school - but I was sure that my efforts in high school had been wasted because UMass was not up-to-snuff academically. To reiterate, my preconceptions were extremely off-base.
For reference, I think it is important to note that I am a microbiology major in the Commonwealth Honors College, and that I am also working on a certificate in film studies. I have been involved in many different campus student groups (the Hillel House, Pre-Medical Society, The Daily Collegian) as well as community-based activities (volunteer educator at the local cinema, co-host of a radio show at Hampshire College). I have been involved in research on-campus as a student since I arrived, and have happily remained in my most recent lab for over a year.
My professors, particularly in my upper-level microbiology and film courses, have been nothing short of spectacular. From a History of Animation professor who worked with Alan Moore on editing From Hell, to an Immunology Laboratory professor who was a chief medical technician in Jamaica, to my PI in my biophysics research lab who has won award after award for her work on cytoskeleton and molecular motor studies, the faculty at this school is absolutely stunning. The work they assign is very challenging, but our professors encourage us to think on a much higher level than I think many other undergraduates in comparable programs, giving us applicable skills and problem-solving tools that we can bring into jobs or different academic setting in the future.
So yes, the school is big on partying - that is true. But that rowdy group represents a small (albeit loud) subsection of the student population. For the most part, students here (particularly in my circles and programs) all seem to be very, very bright and capable students.
In sum, I encourage anyone considering UMass to really think hard before writing it off; all-star faculty and an ever-improving student body are really putting our school on the map. If anyone has any questions or doubts whatsoever, please don't hesitate to ask.