Amherst vs Williams vs Bowdoin

I’m stuck between a few great options. For context, I’m a humanities guy (history and philosophy) but not sure on my major just yet, I play brass instruments and would like a casual band to join, and I’m into outdoorsy stuff (hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, etc.) and opposed to big cities.

At this point I’m between Amherst, Williams, and Bowdoin. (They all cost about the same.) Amherst’s open curriculum really appeals to me. So does Williams’ tutorial thing and Winter Study, but I’m worried Williams may be a bit too rural. And although Bowdoin has a touch less prestige and colder winters, I’ve heard it has much better food and dorms, which is a definite draw, and I love their location on the coast. (Side note: how often do Bowdoin students actually go to the beach?)

I wish I could visit this year, but I can’t, for obvious reasons, so I’m really not sure how to make my decision. Does anyone have any insights for these colleges and opinions that could help me make my choice? (Cultural differences, weather differences, special programs, anything that I may overlook since I can’t visit?)

Also, there are six more schools I got into that I’ve eliminated, but I’m far from certain on any of these decisions, so if you think I should reevaluate any of these schools please give me all the info you can:

  • Tufts: eliminated because I’m more of an LAC guy
  • Haverford: eliminated because it only has 1300 students, and that may be a bit too small
  • Pitzer: eliminated because I want to experience the East Coast (I’m from California)
  • Carleton: eliminated because I’m afraid of Minnesota winters
  • Bates: eliminated because as far as I can tell, it’s a slightly worse Bowdoin
  • Kenyon: eliminated because it’s in the middle of nowhere
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Congratulations! From everything I’ve read, Williams seems to have the strongest instrumental music program. Their music studios and performance facilities are outstanding. I suggest that you read this thread which also addresses music at Amherst. Williams Music Resources: Pros and Cons for Violinist-Music Major

Added bonuses: every student is entitled to free lessons throughout their tenure, and the Berkshire Symphony plays part of their season on campus.

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You’ve done well:

Congrats. 3 great choices. I think a student who would be happy at one of those would be happy at all of them! D attends one of them and we’ve been to the other two multiple times. Can’t go wrong with any of those.

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I guess there are some beaches in the area. However, much of the coast of Maine is rocky. The coast is quite nearby but it is not obvious to me how you get there unless you have a car. We generally drive our own car when we are in the area. There is a train that runs south (to Portland and Boston) but otherwise I have not noticed much public transit. There are some hiking trails not all that far from Bowdoin, and a bike trail not all that far away. There are some good restaurants (and gelato!) in Brunswick.

I do not think that the winters will differ much between Bowdoin versus Amherst or even Williams. Being on the coast (Bowdoin) keeps it a bit less cold compared to being further inland (Amherst), and offsets the difference in lattitude.

Yes, this is a difficult choice. I have no idea which school I would pick.

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Avg Jan Low, °F

Amherst: 13.0
Williamstown: 12.1
Brunswick: 9.0

(Data from bestplaces.net.)

From my point of view, Amherst is the best option of the 3 - particularly since you are concerned about Williams being too rural.

The small town of Amherst is a vibrant, bustling community during the academic year because of all the college students in town, about 30,000 in all. In many ways, it’s the quintessential college town. Most of these students are at the University of Massachusetts.

Because of this, Amherst College students have the best of both possible worlds between small college and big. There is the small LAC experience on campus, but literally down the street is this whole other world at UMass. Amherst students can cross register at UMass, vastly expanding the academic options. But there is also this much larger social community of college students to be part of if you so choose. Want to join a casual band? Hopefully you find one at Amherst, but if you don’t chances of finding one in the larger college community of 30,000 are much greater than in a community of just 2000.

Two towns away from Amherst, on the Connecticut River is the bigger town of Northampton with Smith College. The 2 towns are connected by a bike trail or you can get there by bus. Northampton is this hip town with terrific restaurants, interesting shops, and great music venues. In fact, the Northampton/Amherst area is after Boston, the second biggest music booking center in New England, including clubs with open mic nights. The music scene is equivalent to what you might find in some cities.

It’s this larger community that for me sets Amherst apart from Williams and Bowdoin academically, socially, and culturally. And in addition, Amherst does have easy access to the outdoors for all kinds of activities

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For brief opinions on several of your choices in the context of opinions on other liberal arts colleges, see reply #7: Struggling with D21's List. ED & ED2: Amherst, Hamilton, Wellesley, Vassar.

If Kenyon being in the middle of nowhere was a huge turn off for you, I would eliminate Williams.

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Only my opinion, but I visited all of these schools last year with my daughter before the outbreak. The students we met at Williams and Bowdoin seemed lively and happy, and all ran into friends while touring or were walking in groups or pairs. Amherst was different. Students were almost all sitting alone in the library, and even in the dining hall we visited. It felt a bit sadder. I went to UMass Amherst many years ago and I love the area around Amherst and Northampton. If you are into hiking, it’s a good place if you (or a friend) have a car. If you want to hike without a car, Williams looks ideal.
Good luck with your decision! Sorry you cannot visit, but I am sure you would get a great education and make lots of friends at any of these excellent schools.

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@thisistough, I would agree that you would get an excellent education at any of your top choices. History and other social sciences are very strong at all three.

My son is a Williams grad. My observation from his friends and classmates is that those that are happiest at Williams are those that chose it because of its mountain village environment, not in spite of it. It’s not for everyone, but those that like it, love it.

As an outdoorsy guy whose favorite pastimes are hiking, snowboarding and hanging out with friends, Williams was for my son an ideal environment. Prior to college he had only ever lived in mega-sized cities (and he back in the city now) but Williams natural beauty and serenity spoke to him. Williams kids do manage to get to Boston or New York once or twice a term, but the core experience is the close knit insular community.

Although rural, I wouldn’t describe the Berkshires as the middle of nowhere. They are a year-round weekend destination for New Yorkers and Bostonians with plenty of arts (e.g.,Tanglewood, Williamstown Theater, the Clark and MassMoCA) and outdoors activities like hiking, biking, climbing, backpacking, skiing, snowboarding. Williams Outing Club is extraordinary.

As mentioned Williams has a vibrant music program with ample performance opportunities available to non-majors. Several of my son’s friends were serious musicians, and even though they majored in other disciplines, they performed regularly with Williams small ensembles, bands and orchestras.

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Three great choices! You can’t go wrong here, and a student who would be happy at one of these probably would be happy at the others as well. Just go by your gut. Whichever appeals to you the most— go there.

Try this test.
Picture saying yes to Williams and saying no to Amherst. How do you feel? Now picture the reverse. Which felt better? Now compare the winner to Bowdoin in the same manner. Whichever school you feel saddest to say goodbye to and most at peace to accept is the one you should attend!

To help you think it through, I will comment about the one I know best: Williams.

PROS:
The freshman entry system is amazing: great way to meet people of all different backgrounds and make friends quickly.
The Ephventures freshman orientation program is great, too.
You mentioned maybe majoring in history. History classes and professors are truly outstanding.
Likelihood of a single room at least three out of four years.
Tutorials are an incredible learning opportunity.
Great on-campus recruiting for internships and jobs.
Beautiful mountain setting.

CONS:
Cancel culture.
Food is okay but not amazing- Bowdoin wins that category.
Dorms are in worn out condition.
Amherst wins the open curriculum category.

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Congratulations on 3 great choices.

Full disclosure D attends Bowdoin, has spent time at all 3 schools, and knows people at all 3 schools.

IMO(of course) Bowdoin has the friendliest, most inclusive community. The distribution requirements are very broad, and many students double major. Brunswick has several walkable blocks of restaurants and shops adjacent to the school. Students do go to Portland, and can swim on the beach at Schiller Center. Bowdoin does not suffer from cancel culture or an athlete/non-athlete divide.

Williams is the most academically grind-y and intense of the 3. The tutorials sound romantic but in reality about 50% of students take one, and the vast majority of those don’t take a second one.
Lots of opportunity for outdoorsy activities, not much in the way of shops/restaurants in walking distance. Athlete/non-athlete divide exists in the social structure.

Amherst has the most open curriculum and a beautiful new science center, but has the least impressive campus of the 3, and only one cafeteria. The community doesn’t seem as friendly or happy as Bowdoin. The consortium can be a benefit for classes, social life and activities. Also has athlete/non-athlete divide.

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Well, my son and many of his friends at Williams have taken tutorials and enjoyed them greatly. It was one of the highlights of his academic experience at Williams to date.

A tutorial is really an incredible way to combine very close interaction with a professor with intensive work in reading, in discussion/debating, and especially in writing.

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I didn’t mean to suggest that some kids don’t enjoy tutorials, but the numbers do speak for themselves.

ok - I’m biased. But do not agree at all with @mwfan that Amherst has the least impressive campus. It’s quite beautiful with lovely mountain views and an awesome bike path/rail trail, a wildlife sanctuary and a working farm. Though will say the athletic facilities may be better at the other 2. The athlete/non athlete divide - that’s just lingo that CC throws around and is pretty much the same at all the nescacs.
So much is based on the day you visit and what we experience on our first tour of Amherst was lots of interaction not only between students but between students and faculty as well on walkways, in the cafeteria etc. ( saw the same at Williams) Amherst has one main cafeteria (as does Bowdoin), but has cafes in both the student center and science center as well as 30-40 eating establishments within a very short walk to campus.

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Different people have different perceptions for sure when it comes to setting, architecture, etc., and one good or bad visit can have an outsized impact on said perceptions.

What I mean wrt the athlete/non-athlete divide is that at some schools, non-athletes aren’t welcome at athlete parties, and that is real. OP can and should do their homework on each of these schools if they think this factor is important to them.

Bowdoin does have two main cafeterias (Thorne and Moulton), also with a bar/grill and two other cafes on campus, as well as many eating choices in walking distance off-campus.

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Get your point. Non athletes not invited to parties is not a widespread thing at Amherst.

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First of all, congratulations!

Second - there is no wrong choice. That being said I would give Amherst a slight tip because of the five college consortium. If you are thinking of a PhD in the future, Amherst has the highest percent of graduates going on to do a PhD (followed by Bowdoin).

Also, Williams and Amherst get a bit of a boost since you are going for humanities, and the slightly higher name recognition for these colleges can help.

So, if you are looking for doing a PhD, then Amherst or Bowdoin get the tip, and Amherst gets the tip, relative to Bowdoin.

However, I’m really talking about slight differences, and if there is something about any of the three which makes it appeal more to you, whether it be how it looks or anything else, choose that one, and don’t look back.

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All are welcome at all parties at Williams, and there is not a sense of exclusion, BUT the athlete-nonathlete divide is real in terms of whom you meet and spend time with. There is an expression at Williams- “The Phantom 500.” What is meant by that is that, in a small college, you will at least know vaguely of most people by the end of your third year. But every person has about 500 people they never really get to know or recognize because they never interact with them in any capacity. For a non-athlete, that Phantom 500 often will include a lot of varsity athletes, and for varsity athletes, a lot of non-athletes. This is because many of the athletes socialize largely with their teams, especially in season. And the nonathletes are often the ones who become the heart of their entry’s social life, because they are dining and hanging out with their entrymates. Of course, there are many exceptions, and individual pairs or groups of athletes-nonathletes may become quite close. And athletes and non-athletes may meet through their proximity in housing or through a class together or through a club or activity off-season or through mutual friends. And some sports are less insular and their members interact more with their freshman year entrymates, etc. But at times, for some sports more than others, there seem to be separate and parallel universes!

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