I was investigating last year and found it to be both of those. I did not choose it, but it is a good school if you know that before you look into it. It is selective but pay attention to the numbers. They admit about 50 percent of the class Early Decision and have to take between 1000 and 1100 to fill the remaining 240 places.
Our student is a recent grad that has no identification whatsoever with impression (1), but that element does exist to an extent. Impression (2) is dead on.
W&L does have a distinct reputation as noted in impression (1), and while I think it's one that's probably been well earned historically I feel the perception is largely overstated, perhaps even exaggerated, in present times. Of course, that might depend partly on how senstive people are about what they perceive to be "conservative" or "southern." In other words, if you are specifically looking for things to validate that impression you will likely find them fairly easily. Yes, it has a definite conservative slant compared to most Liberal Arts colleges, and of course, you cannot sever a school like W&L from its historical roots. To some degree I think that does make W&L sort of self-selecting for a segment of the student population. But it's not an unwelcoming community to those with less an appreciation for such things. In fact, it is quite the opposite, at least in our experience. We fit none of the streotypes about W&L but did not find it a difficult place to appreciate and enjoy. Importantly, there is plenty of diversity of thought among professors and students overall just as you might find on any campus. That said, the old cliche' still applies: it's not a place for everyone. Fortunately, there's no pretense about the latter to have to filter through - it's a pretty transparent community.
Not sure if it helps, but I will mention that the last time I looked, which was awhile back, I think next to VA the largest number of students were from NJ. You can look it up, but I think it was roughly a 50/50 split between North/South home states.
I echo flvadad's comments. Our daughter is a rising junior, from the Pacific Northwest, liberal (working for the Obama campaign this summer), and Jewish (but not very observant). She's found the school as rigorous as promised, but welcoming and diverse in all ways (politics, race, socioeconomic background, ethnicity), etc. There are more Republicans around than she's accustomed to and there's definitely a southern air to the region, but regards it all as a kind of "4 years in a foreign country" experience. That has helped her hone her positions on social and environmental issues!
She is on a varsity team, which helped her find "her people," which every happy student needs to do. She's worked her tail off on school work, but when talking with her friends from back home, she realizes she's getting a great education, and is grateful for the amazing professors she's had.
It appears to me as if you are recieving advice and views from perhaps a fringe of the W&L community. The school is decidedly conservative, with words such as "liberal," "Yankee," and "GDI" used as widely accepted slurs. Not saying there aren't any liberals, which there definitely are, but they tend to keep quiet and cede to the conservative majority. I would say that both of your two descriptions of W&L are dead on. It is extremely difficult and selective, and also an incredibly hard party environment. Almost every guy I know drinks to near-blackout levels at least twice a week, and at a social level the other 5. And that's just one drug of the many. That being said, most of those guys are pulling above 3.4 in biology or econ majors.
There is furthermore a decided prejudice against those who do not fit the profile of the expected W&L student. The premiere fraternities take pretty exclusively wealthy southern ****e guys, as do the secret societies. The international students and other such "outsiders" find themselves going independent or forced into one of a very few bottom-tier frats that exist primarily to assuage their bruised egos, due to their lack of placement in the real social scene at the school. They will not have nearly the same social life as the "steroeotypical W&L student."
Although those fitting description 1 are not the only ones here, they are the only ones actually experiencing the true W&L experience
You are right, but it is more complicated than that
Your two impressions of W&L are both true, however, they only represent two facets of the school. W&L is also a place where you will also find:
3) 1 in 3 students participate in the Shepard Poverty Program
4) 8 out of 10 students are in a Greek organization
5) 1 in 4 participate in varsity athletics
6) 1 in 10 are Johnson Scholars
7) Less than half of the students are from the South
8) 9 out of 10 use alcohol regularly and often to excess
Students don't fit into only one category. A typical student is an economics major, who played varsity sports for two years, is on the Deans List, is a member of a fraternity/sorority, sometimes parties to excess, volunteers at Campus Kitchen one night, grew up in Alabama and has roommates from California, New York, Virginia and Chicago, but plans to live in DC after graduating.
D is a W&L student & political moderate. Says it definitely felt very conservative during last fall's election season and last year's Mock Convention. However, when she visited a high school classmate at Ole Miss and compared notes, the consensus was that Ole Miss was much less tolerant than W&L. (Granted, this is a very small and highly subjective sample!)
W&L has tremendous merit aid available. Even for liberal and moderate students
My son is a first-year at W&L. We are from New York, and moderate-left-of-center politically. We liked W&L, but, to be honest, were it not for the Johnson Scholarship my son received, he would not have enrolled. I can't believe we almost looked that gift horse in the mouth, because my son is extremely happy there. My wife and I have gone from being glad that he won a scholarship to such a good school to being thrilled that he is at Washington & Lee because it is a special, wonderful place.
One of the legacies of Robert E. Lee's imprint on the University is the insistence on people being civil, even when they disagree. That is also one of the very positive aspects of southern culture--be a person of integrity. Be nice. Or, as we'd say in New York, be a mensch
Some observations of the political climate on campus (understand, these soundings are inferred from conversations with a 19-year-old, reading the campus newspaper, and sporadic parental visits to Lexington--take with a grain of salt): W&L is probably smack in the middle compared to the general US, is politically somewhat to the right of my home state, is considerably more conservative than most upper-echelon colleges/universities, and is probably regarded as a pocket of liberals by the standard of the surrounding Shenandoah Valley. One of the benefits of this setting for someone like my son is that his core political values are challenged and refined by rubbing up against people with opposing beliefs. I get the feeling there is a liberal herd mentality in the Ivies and top LAC's. It would be very comfortable to be a liberal there, but I think it's healthier to be forced to to examine and defend one's beliefs. Especially when this is done in a respectful yet challenging environment. So, if your son is somewhat or very liberal, he will have plenty of company at W&L, but will express himself in an environment that is politically far more heterogeneous than he would find at most other top schools.
And then there's this opportunity: My son decided to register to vote in person in the past national election in Lexington, rather than via absentee ballot as a New Yorker. He figured he could "do more damage" in swing state Virginia than in his reliably blue home state. And, as it happened, President Obama and newly elected Democratic Senator Tim Kaine carried Virginia. What if it had been by one vote?
Hey, Apollo 6. Sorry for confusing the gender of your high school senior. I was responding to the original poster. Hope SHE finds herself at a great school next year. If it's W&L, she'll find plenty of political company. Main differences between Ole Miss and Washington and Lee is size (obviously). Also, I'm sure there are plenty of really smart kids at Ole Miss and UNC-Ch, but at W&L, they are ALL really smart.
Another mom of a W&L grad, a Johnson scholar. I have heard about the binge drinking, and the conservative feel of the school which were, as other posters have stated, good opportunities to develop one's own choices and character. My s had incredible opportunities like a year abroad, (paid out of his scholarship) and had terrific leadership experiences. Most importantly he found professors who were outstanding in their fields, and who were truly wonderful human beings, and they were to be emulated.
That said, he did see many students who had alcohol/substance abuse problems that they could not see simply because of the extent of the drinking. There was also a considerable sexual assault problem related to the drinking at parties. I personally witnessed parents of students at parents' weekends impaired as well. I was taken aback at how much drinking was truly part of the "culture". Honestly this issue was real and was concerning. So like much in life, it is not black or white, W&L has many wonderful qualities but does also have it's limitations. My s found an ideal job to start his career, and he is happier than he could have imagined, and definitely is using much of what he learned from his college experience.