Carleton v Grinnell Help

I’ve been accepted to both Carleton and Grinnell and I’m super psyched!! I’m in love with both of them, but I don’t know which school I would be happier at. From what I’ve seen, really the only differences are Carleton’s trimester system and the overall “vibe” of the student bodies. I can’t really get a feel for the vibe, though, due to COVID.

If anyone has any experience, thoughts, or opinions with one or both of these colleges I would really appreciate it. Thanks!!

Also, the financial aid packages came in within about $500 of each other, so I’m not super worried about the cost difference between them.

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Wow, congratulations. Two great choices.

I am not an expert, but I would say that probably Carleton is more intensely academic than Grinnell. The trimester system is not for the faint of heart. You might see more nerdy types at Carleton. Northfield is a cute town only about an hour from Minneapolis. Grinnell is probably a bit more hipster, creative, and relaxed. I think the town is more isolated than Northfield. I think there’s a lot of crossover in student types, tbh.

Academically, I don’t think one is better than the other. I suggest you do some more research on Niche and Unigo, and check out the Fiske guide. Also look at their Instagram and Facebook pages. Both have great reputations, great connections, and are highly respected.

If I were a very academically oriented and nerdy student, I’d probably choose Carleton. If I wanted a bit less stress and a slightly more creative vibe I’d probably choose Grinnell. 18 year old me would have chosen Grinnell. I’m going to call on @kalons , @porcupine98 and @Midwestmomofboys who I think collectively know a fair bit about both schools.



hi, friend! i’m a current student at grinnell and can certainly help you on that front. is there any other basic information you can provide about what you’re wanting out of your college experience/are there any things you’re specifically curious about? @Lindagaf is correct— carleton and grinnell always have lots of overlap (i was one of many who applied to both, but i ED’d to grinnell).

What do you want to study ?

I’m really interested in Carleton’s Cognitive Science program. Grinnell does not have one, but because of their open curriculum, I’m guessing I can get something really similar under the guise of a psych or neuroscience major. I’m going to email someone at Grinnell about it to double check, though.

I’m looking for a college with a decent musical presence, and Grinnell also seems to have this in loads, I really like that weekly lessons are available to the students.

What really attracted me more than anything else to both of the colleges is the non-arrogant, almost carefree vibe I was getting from their websites and people I’ve talked to. I guess I’m trying to find out some of the finer points about the two colleges that aren’t talked about everywhere else (I’ve seen Harris parties and Dacie’s House mentioned a thousand times), and learn what caused prospective students to choose one over the other.

Also differences in the student body, if there’s a way to really define that.

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Carleton’s standard courses are equivalent to 5 quarter hours (= 3.333 semester hours) each, so you would take three per quarter, or nine per academic year. Grinnell’s standard courses are 4 semester hours each, so you would take four per semester, or eight per academic year.

So that suggests that a Carleton course will be faster paced than a Grinnell course, but you would take fewer of them at one time (but more distinct courses over three 10-week quarters than two 15-week semesters).

Right. The trimester system is supposed to be pretty intense, but I’m not opposed to it… It might be fun to get so in-depth in the classes.

Hi, I’m not sure I can be massive amounts of help but I’d certainly like to try! I’m obviously biased because I’m a student at Grinnell, but I have multiple family members/friends who have gone to Carleton and know a number of Grinnell people who are from northfield and have spoken a bit on the differences they’ve observed.

Re intensity: it doesn’t seem that Carleton is exactly more work, but rather that it feels that way bc of the trimesters. I’ve heard it described as “feeling like perpetual midterms“. It definitely is cool that you get to squeeze in an extra class, but how that intensity balances out other add-ons like music lessons/ensembles/extracurriculars depends on the person. Btw, can confirm that the free weekly lessons at Grinnell are great. Loads of fun, I’ve improved, and it boosts your GPA (1/4-1/2 credit)

Re student body: again, I am not a Carleton student so this may be off the mark. Both are, with higher ranking LAC’s, among the least pretentious. But Grinnell is probably a little bit less so. If I had to guess, this is a product of a few things. 1.) slightly lower ranked — rankings are pretty toxic, but we all look at them and it’ll have an effect. 2.) admissions policies: Carleton has a much smaller endowment, so it is fully need aware (grinnell is only for intl.) and likes legacy a lot (Grinnell does, but more from a demonstrated interest lens, not financial). It shows (and I have absolutely seen it play out among my peers). I’ve heard that there is sometimes a slight difference in academic quality between the uber wealthy and not students, with the latter being a bit better. I’ve heard that the wealthy at Carleton are into their money a little more than Grinnell students. The people I know who are from Northfield have also told me that the way Carleton students tend to interact with the town felt very different from St. Olaf (other college there) and from Grinnell students.

Other things:

-Grinnell has almost twice the international student population. As a domestic student I love the large intl student body because it leads to much more interesting discussions and better perspective. Also, international students host a lot of incredible events (my favorite is food bazaar where many of them cook dishes from their home countries). Some of my best friends at Grinnell are from halfway across the world, and that’s pretty awesome.

-Open curriculum: No idea if it’s a big thing for you, but I love it. It’s also what draws a lot of people to Grinnell. Even though pretty much everyone meets whatever requirement exists most places, it’s more so that the idea of an open curriculum draws in a certain type of widely interested student.

-Grinnell vibe: I can’t speak at all meaningfully to Carleton on this one. Grinnell‘s vibe is very welcoming and “come as you are”. The open curriculum/free instrument lessons in anything/financing for pretty much any student club creates a pretty general acceptance of being supported in anything you want to explore. I’m probably idealizing up at here, so I should also say that one of the biggest issues at Grinnell is what we refer to as the “misery Olympics“ where ppl compare how much work they have/how sleep deprived they are. I have found this easy to avoid, but for some people it is detrimental.

-I know you mentioned similar financial aid offers. Worth noting that Grinnell itself is loan free starting next year.

I hope something in here is helpful, best of luck, feel free to send me specific questions, and Carleton students/alum pls feel free to correct anything you feel I was off about


Notarobot, I love the username. Good Place fan? Also, could you expand on the differences between how Carleton students interact compared to Grinnell and St Olaf?

@kalons What made you decide to ED to Grinnell? What really sold the college in your opinion?

Thank you!

Haha, not where the username came from but I do love the show! And I can’t offer a ton of details as it was just a passing comment when I asked them why they chose grinnell/ what they dynamic in town was like having two colleges. I believe they said something along the lines of “the Carleton students go to the better school and they know it”. So not much concrete, just kind of an implication of superiority. A different friend mentioned that they always felt a bit uncomfortable venturing onto Carleton’s campus vs St. Olaf’s. Again, not really any details so I apologize for that. This certainly exists in Grinnell too, but any time you put a ton of pretty far left, often middle to upper middle class (or more) kids in a smaller town there will be a bit of friction. I think Carleton may simply have some more of the ridiculously wealthy (million or more dollar house type) kids. I have no hard data for this so take it with a grain of salt, but although Grinnell certainly has a good number of the super wealthy kids, I think they also attract a lot more of the “I barely don’t qualify or only qualify for like 15k a year in financial aid” type kids by offering merit aid. Might lead to a more balanced socioeconomic range. But once more, no hard data on the full spread. Economic diversity and student outcomes at Carleton - The New York Times this tool may be some help and shows about a 50k higher average income for carleton families vs grinnell, but is certainly limited in the amount of data it gives.

hello! so sorry for the late response— finals are currently in full swing at grinnell, so i’ve been quite busy! i want to reiterate and build upon virtually everything @notarobot22 said in their post. it’s super informative, and a good run-down of what people are like here.

the reason i decided to ED to grinnell was a combination of quite a few things.

first, going to a left-leaning college was something i prioritized when doing my search, and the fact one of grinnell’s founding principles is social justice really spoke to me. if it helps, i was “stuck” between whether or not i should choose to ED to grinnell or vassar, but i obviously chose the first one. (imo, i think i was “stuck” because i knew vassar’s acceptance rate for men is much higher than it is for women, and the school obviously accepts more applicants during ED rounds, so i wanted to maximize my chances at getting into a good college as much as possible. i absolutely believe i would’ve been happy at vassar, but I’m uncertain whether or not i would be as happy as i am at grinnell, if that makes sense.)

second, cost and the return on investment were also something i heavily considered. i didn’t want to go thousands and thousands of dollars into debt and/or have my parents help pay for a school that wouldn’t set me up to have a decent future. furthermore, i knew grinnell sends an exceptional amount of its grads into top-ranked grad school programs, so i wanted to go to a school that was known for having a good placement record. because of grinnell’s financial aid, I’ll only be around $10K in debt when i graduate, which, although any kind of debt isn’t ideal, it’s still much, much better than it would have been had i gone to other colleges such as my state uni (where i would have accumulated around triple the amount).

third, i appreciated the fact that grinnell’s student body isn’t very caught up in prestige and isn’t necessarily obsessed with how we’re ranked. it’s a lie to say people don’t care, but i do think people don’t care as much as, say, students at colleges in the northeast. the people who know of grinnell always have incredibly lovely things to say about it, and i appreciated being able to bond with people who are familiar with it because, to me, those are the ones who matter, especially when it comes to graduate school interviewers or random people who will stop me on the street when I’m wearing my GC hat and say, “grinnell college? that is such a good school!” the people here fall closer to the “hippie” side of the spectrum rather than the “preppy” side, and that’s something i liked. the student body kind of exudes a come-as-you-are ethos, as notarobot said, and i really dig it to this day. people are very accepting of pretty much anything (except when it comes to social issues such as racism, heterosexism, misogyny, etc., but that’s no surprise because, like, no one should be accepting of someone who is racist or heterosexist or misogynistic, lmao).

fourth, i loved the characteristics of the college! i grew up in a ridiculously homogenous town, and i appreciated the fact that 20% of grinnell’s student body come from outside the U.S. and white students only make up around 50% of the entire student body. for reference, 60% of carleton’s student body identify as white, and only 11% of the student body are international. furthermore, grinnell is a pretty socioeconomically balanced institution for its size. here’s how google breaks it down:

  • 15% come from families who make less than $30K
  • 12% come from families who make $30,001-48K
  • 19% come from families who make $48,001-75K
  • 18% come from families who make $75,001-110K
  • 36% come from families who make $110,001+

for reference, this is how google breaks down carleton’s socioeconomic diversity:

  • 10% come from families who make less than $30K
  • 8% come from families who make $30,001-48K
  • 10% come from families who make $48,001-75K
  • 15% come from families who make $75,001-110K
  • 56% come from families who make $110,001+

grinnell’s endowment is absolutely massive, and that helps to bring in students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford the institution, especially now that they instituted the new no-loan initiative. if you’re someone who worries about the financial aspect of things (especially during a time like this), grinnell received an A+ financial health grade from forbes this year (as did carleton), so the institution is doing just fine during COVID while still maintaining the ability to have a financially diverse student body. another characteristic is that i freaking love not having to really satisfy any graduation requirements, lol. i really didn’t like the idea of having to take a certain amount of classes in subjects i had no interest in or that i thought wouldn’t benefit me in the long-run (such as the core curriculums at columbia and uchicago). i haven’t taken an english or art class since high school, and i most certainly do not plan on it, haha.

fifth, i just got that gut feeling that grinnell was where i was supposed to be. i know it sounds silly, but i genuinely do think once you know where you’re supposed to be, that’s where you’re supposed to be. i would look at other colleges (like carleton) with an open mindset and find that i was just comparing them back to grinnell, and to me, they didn’t measure up. i ED’d without ever having visited campus, and i haven’t really looked back since.

there are plenty of things wrong with grinnell, as there are with every institution of higher learning, and i can most certainly speak on that aspect at some point if you’d like, but i really have had three (soon to be four! ah!) of the best years of my life here. it’s going to be difficult to say goodbye when that time comes. it’s a special place, and i would choose it again in a heartbeat.


Very helpful post.

Two outstanding options.

Carleton’s 3 course per term trimester system is an attractive plus, in my view. (Same system as that of Dartmouth College.)

To state the obvious, Carleton College experiences colder weather during the winter months.

The diversity of the Grinnell student body is impressive.

P.S. @kalons: Consider adding the word “Grinnell’s” before “endowment” in place of “the”.

My son was in his senior year at Grinnell in 2019 when school had to close due to temperature. I can’t find the exact temp, but Cedar Rapids was -30 degrees before the wind chill so Grinnell can also get ridiculously cold and since it’s so flat the wind chill is also intense. Winter will be cold to very cold in both locations.

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Sorry it took a while to respond to y’all, but here goes:

I visited Grinnell today - absolutely love the place!!! The architecture was an unexpected favorite, I love how each building has its own thing(s) going on. It was great being able to get a feel for the campus and just kind of imagine myself there.

@notarobot22 , I had realized that Carleton students were a bit wealthier, but I hadn’t realized just how much. I went down a bit of a rabbit hole with that website looking at a lot of colleges. Probably not healthy to overthink these things, but I really do appreciate the resource! Good luck on finals!

@kalons , good luck on finals as well! Everything you said helps a lot. I love the low cost, high diversity, and open curriculum. I think I like the student body from everything I’ve read and heard online. I know I would definitely prefer a hippy culture to a preppy one. Knowing that you ED’d basically sight unseen helps too, I bet that’s a hard decision to make, lol.
As I’m looking around, I’m seeing that Grinnell can be really weird with their endowment? Like they’re super willing to fund some things and then will flat out reject other things that might fall in a similar vein. Is this one of the problems with Grinnell as an institution or were you going in a different direction with that? (I won’t let admin problems affect my decision, if students have been happy at Grinnell, I doubt I’ll be too different…)
On that note, what happened to Bob’s?!? Is it still open, or has it changed or what? That seemed like a really cool space, I hope it’s okay.

@Publisher , I’m totally fine with the cold. Kind of excited for it, honestly. Why do you see the trimester as especially attractive?

Thank you all so much, I signed up for CC just so I could make this thread, and I honestly didn’t expect this much response. It really does help! I’m going up to Northfield tm, I’ll let you know how that goes, too.


Glad you had a nice visit and thank you for the well wishes! If you decide to swing by again you beed to stop by some combination of pagliais/ dari barn/grin city bakery! It’s a lot, but they are all very important to the Grinnell experience. It’s always unclear where Bob’s stands, but my guess is that between the grille (food/coffee in JRC) the new international café opening up in the HSSC, and Saint’s Rest (town coffee shop that is closed during the pandemic but planning to reopen) it won’t operate as a business. It’s pretty frequently available as a study space, and there is often coffee/tea provided. There are also events like open mic stuff and pub quiz on a frequent basis. I hope you have a pleasant visit to Carleton!

A 3 course trimester is attractive because there is little to no wasted time & focusing on 3 courses per term allows one to give serious attention to all courses.

omggg, i wish i had gotten to meet you! i’m currently living on campus! I’m so glad you loved campus, though. it’s pretty rainy here today, so I’m glad you got to see it in some better weather.

thank you for wishing me luck on finals! i think they went pretty well. : )

I’m so glad you mentioned bob’s because this is something that SGA, a student org I’m pretty heavily involved with, is actively working to get back up and running. admin has kind of just let bob’s… sit there? for no reason? it wouldn’t be run like it used to be run in the past, but we’re actively attempting to get the administration to institute, expand, and/or re-open student spaces, especially now in the aftermath of COVID because students need to be together.

i wouldn’t necessarily say admin is “weird” with the endowment, but they are cautious with it, and rightfully so. working with a $2B+ endowment can be stressful. much of the change we’ve seen in the past decade was because of president kington, who was… okay. students didn’t really like him for a multitude of reasons, but now that anne harris is the interim president until the college finds a permanent new one, she’s much more open to helping students in ways that kington was not if that makes sense, and that includes doing more with the endowment money for students.

i hope you enjoy your visit to carleton! let us know how it goes.

I’m glad to hear about finals! I knew I should have said something about showing up, but by the time I thought about it, I was almost to campus. So it goes…

I didn’t know Grinnell was under an interim pres, it sounds like that’s going well though. Hope Bobs is successful, too. For not doing a whole lot with it, I feel like the college recruitment is putting a lot out about student life at Hobs, which I feel is kinda weird, but whatever.

On to the fun stuff:
Northfield is one cool town. Idk how old it is, but it feels ancient. It puts out some good vibes. I’m a runner, and Northfield, as well as Carleton’s campus, are p e r f e c t for running. The arboretums trails are in good condition, and I love the prairie around them. The neighborhood around campus is just like what I’m used to running through at home, and then it’s a couple blocks to downtown, no major roads to cross.
The arb’s prairie basically looked like what I expected Grinnell to look like, fwiw.

As far as the campus itself goes, I liked Grinnell’s better. Carleton’s is a lot bigger and kind of more intuitive, but at the same time it feels smaller and kind of boring, if that makes sense. Not a knock on them, it’s beautiful and well laid-out, but they’re more of a lawful neutral, whereas Grinnell is a chaotic good, if that makes sense.

There were a lot more students walking around than Grinnell, which surprised me bc they’re on spring break, but a couple had st olaf shirts on so who knows.

Honestly, I applied to both schools because I thought i would be thrilled to go there, and I was lucky enough to get in. Having visited both and done a lot more research on them since applying, I can, with confidence, say I love both schools. I’m sure there’s jot a “wrong” decision, I’m just scared of not picking the one that’s slightly “more right.” I’ll take some time to think about it, and then try and go with my gut and ignore all my thoughts. Well see what happens.

Also, quick plug for the RayGun store in Des Moines. That place is COOL. It’s got a bunch of stuff that I found just awesome, and I think Grinnellians would too. They had a couple of Grinnell shirts, too, so i think this is technically on topic, lol.