Carleton vs Pitzer

My D22 has been accepted to both of these great schools!

She has been very gung-ho about Pitzer but I think she assumed she wouldn’t get into Carleton, so she hasn’t invested much emotional energy into wanting to go. So right now, Pitzer has the advantage in her heart.

Both schools offered solid financial aid/merit and we can afford both, though Carleton would be about $6000 more/year. We are willing to pay the extra $24,000 over four years if Carleton prevails.

Pitzer College pros:

  • Closer to home - a 7-hour drive or a 1-hour flight
  • The weather is glorious. The freshman dorms feature a pool right outside, for goodness sakes
  • A focus on sustainability and environmental justice, something my daughter cares deeply about, plus a very well-developed Environmental Analysis major with four separate tracks to choose from
  • Small but with all the advantages of the 5Cs
  • Laid back attitudes
  • Very diverse student body, at least racially

Carleton College pros:

  • More intellectually rigorous (maybe this isn’t true, but it feels real from what we’ve read)
  • Weather diversity - a chance to cross-country ski and play broom ball, experience the glories of fall leaves, etc.
  • The Arb looks fantastic for XC running (which D22 loves and wants to pursue in college)
  • Further from home (we live in Northern California) so she has a chance to see a different part of the country and maybe spread her wings a little more
  • A very strong geology program (another potential interest)
  • A classic-looking campus

The trimester system at Carleton means greater intensity, but also more opportunity explore various interests. Carleton has a reputation for superb teaching, but I wonder how different Pitzer is that regard.

D22 isn’t sure about a major — environmental science, geology, biology, data science are top choices right. She definitely leans math and science in her interests. She wants to run cross country, play music, explore nature, and be intellectually engaged. She is just beginning to realize how smart and capable she is, so I think she could soar in college.

She will try to go to admitted students day at both schools, but would love to hear opinions about the pros and cons of Pitzer and Carleton from people who had experience with one or the other.


Congrats on 2 great opportunities! I think that both are far enough away from home that her experience will be something different from what she is used to. I know Carleton well, don’t know Pitzer other than by its reputation (excellent.) At Carleton, September and the first 3 weeks of October are indeed nice weather-wise. By late October, all the leaves are down and it starts to get wet and windy. By November the weather is pretty gross, overcast much of the month, cold but usually no snow to make it pretty. She then would be on break from Thanksgiving to the beginning on Jan. Running outside in January, Feb, and much of March is pretty brutal; it can be done but it is quite unpleasant. Things get pretty again by mid April. May is lovely. The biology dept is very strong. The Geology department is absolutely wonderful, and Geology majors are the happiest of any on campus!


I think you’ve done a great job in analysis. I would not term Claremont weather glorious though because it’s smoggy with the mountains not allowing for disbursement. I know this has gotten better since I lived there.

I don’t think you can go wrong with either. Both have Winter…Mt Baldy is close by Claremont and Big Bear close by although that might not play to her interests.

The consortium gives other opportunity and the area is suburban not far from urban.

It’s like picking the better band. The Stones or The Who

You win either way.

I personally don’t like the trimester. I like the concept. My daughters bf goes to Denver. By the time he met kids and got comfy, they were off 6 weeks. But many love it. I just don’t love that aspect but I do taking less classes. . And they sometimes end too late for some company’s internships.

Good luck.

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These schools offer very different environments. Surely your daughter will prefer one over the other. This reminds me of another current thread (Bowdoin versus Swarthmore) which is difficult for me to accept that the student doesn’t have a clear preference between such two very different settings & campus cultures.

If unsure, then your student needs to visit as this should not be a close call.


You say this with such surety, but we haven’t seen it on the websites. I wonder if you could describe the differences in their environments a little more? The student who gave the Pitzer tour had a hand-made lunchbox and loved to knit. That seems like the kind of quirky kid Carlton might also attract? (D22 self-toured at Carleton, so no chance to make a direct tour guide comparison.) Both have plenty of student-athletes. Both tout their environmental awareness. Pitzer has plenty of smart kids and Carleton is known for its smarts. Besides the weather, what makes the vibe so obviously different?

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I also know Carleton better than Pitzer. Two great choices.

In my mind, I think of Carleton as closer to a Pomona of the midwest, with a more cerebral/intellectual type (but still down to earth), as compared to Pitzer. My impression is that Pitzer draws more passionate activist types.

A student who wants to go on runs year-round isn’t going to be as happy at Carleton unless they are happy to put on cross-country skis for a few months. That said, it is glorious to walk across campus under a bright blue sky after a snowfall, with ice crystals glistening on the tree branches.

The long winter break at Carleton because of the trimester system allows students to avoid two trips home for Thanksgiving and winter break and is long enough to allow for a holiday season temp job. It is also awesome for study abroad options in the fall, with travel on your own afterward, and two complete terms on campus the same year.

You can’t go wrong — I think this has to come down to “vibe” and which one she feels has more of her people.


Carleton is very smart, and down to earth. A gift of CC skis would be wise if she wishes to keep up the outdoor exercise. They also have a very nice, large gym with an indoor running track.
Teaching is supposed to be very good. Good food. Nice campus with rolling hills, ponds, and arboretum with a river running through it.Mildly eccentric student body?
Definitely out in the country- Northfield is a pleasant country town- but only a 45 minute drive to the city. You can reach the outer burbs in about 15-20 minutes.
I really think it’s a place you need to visit. I love Carleton, but I think I am perhaps envious of those who can go to such places, rather than the urban, utilitarian CC I went to. S1 almost went there, but decided on something completely different. He preferred it to other LAC’s such as Middlebury, Wesleyan, Amherst, Swarthmore, Macalester.


In support of this, Carleton incudes Pomona, but not Pitzer, in its group of core peer schools.


Yes, from a rank/pedigree metric, they are not on the same page…but fit is so much more important.

If you want to go CA to MN and say Carleton is similar to Pomona.

Then you can say Pitzer is similar to Mac…in pedigree.


Differences are not always apparent on websites–as we all know.

@tsba44 captures the different cultures in a post below comparing Pitzer to Macalester (both are very liberal & Pitzer seems to attract activists) while Pomona & Carleton are more intellectual. My impression is that Carleton students are quirkier than Pomona students. @CMA22 also presents a meaningful comparison that might be substantial to you.

But the obvious differences concern location, weather,and consortium versus stand alone LAC.

I understand the reason for this post as being the intellectual reputation of Carleton against Pitzer, but Pitzer has improved in recent years as reflected in more competitive admissions standards.

Still, the choice should be easy if finances are equal as the difference in location & consortium /non-consortium are substantial & sufficient factors to many.

Thanks everyone!

So I’m still working through the comment that the difference between these two should be obvious.

As I read the very useful comments, the clear differences are:

  1. Weather
    This one doesn’t help since my daughter finds both options attractive: cross country skiing and snowball fights are very appealing and so are many sunny days of shorts-wearing weather. She would love either one.
  2. The consortium vs a stand-alone school
    I get that this is a big difference but my D honestly seems to has no preference here and can see the advantages of both.
  3. Intellectualism of the students
    As I read these comments, Carleton is harder and more academically inclined, but Pitzer is catching up in that area. Carleton clearly has the better pedigree and higher USNews ranking but are its classes actually more challenging? I’ve looked at the bio curriculum, for example, and it looks pretty similar at both schools. Geology is a clear winner at Carleton; Pitzer really shines in environmental science.
  4. Both schools have an activist bent, but Pitzer bends more in that direction than Carleton
    Small sample size, but the NorCal kids we know who go (or are going) to Pitzer are all athletes. None of them are “the passionate activist type” of the stereotypical Pitzer student. And basically no one from my daughter’s high school goes to Carleton so we don’t have any local models for being a Carl. But is activism a key difference between the two?

I guess I’m still struggling to know why this “should not be a close call.” Would Pitzer types not be happy at Carleton and vice versa? There’s a sweet video of all the new Carls throwing frisbees into a huge field. It seems like that same event could happen at Pitzer! And all the reviews I read here on CC talk about the quirkiness and friendliness of Carls. Quirk is part of Pitzer’s identity too.

Does it all come down to the trimester vs. semester calendar and the impact that has on classes and intensity? Or to the idea that my D might be near the top of her classes at Pitzer and more in the middle at Carleton since Carleton admits slightly stronger students overall? Does anyone know if there’s a culture of hard work and library time at Pitzer?

To me, it is more a close call if weather and campus don’t matter. That’s why I was in the “can’t go wrong” camp and think it has to come down to the one where she feels more at home or the specific academic program she is more drawn toward.

You will have smart students and great academics at both.

My not-very-well-informed impression is that Pitzer attracts “cooler” nerds/hippie types — more West Coast hipsters (or wannabes from elsewhere). Carleton has friendly but more conventionally nerdy nerds with social skills — more midwesterners, yes, but maybe also more New York-area types than at Pitzer?

But there are definitely those who fit that Pitzer stereotype at Carleton and vice versa. I do not see them as incompatible if being frigid in Northfield is not a deterrent.


I think the people on this website can sometimes put too fine a point on things. Count me in the “you can’t go wrong” camp.


Your comments show that you understand the main differences between the two schools, now those differences need to be personalized. If that still doesn’t do it, then a visit to each school might make a meaningful impact.

Probably. The trimester system is not for the faint of heart. It’s a much faster pace than the semester system. Some kids love that. It lends itself to diving in right from the start, and taking advantage of a lot of interesting classes.

Personally, I’d choose Carleton in a heartbeat, but that’s because I would probably prefer the somewhat more intellectual, slightly nerdy and quirkier vibe of Carleton students.

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Carleton College students, like Dartmouth College students, typically take 3 courses per trimester. Much less pressure than those schools which expect students to take 4 or 5 courses per trimester.

I consider any academic program based on a 3 course trimester to be a huge plus–but I am not your daughter.


Did you mean run XC on the team? Has your kid talked to coaches at both places? Might be useful to compare from that standpoint. Different coaching styles or enthusiasm for having your kid on the team. Apologies if you didn’t mean as a team athlete.

I’d guess there’s more political “diversity” at Carleton than at Pitzer but I’m not saying that either one is a good or bad thing (having lots of committed and active progressives can be a great thing; having a more significant sprinkling of conservatives/disinteresteds can be a great thing).

Both great places! But I agree they are significantly different in vibe from what I’ve read and heard.

However, that means that each course is “larger”, equivalent to 5 quarter hours, rather than 4 quarter hours for each of four courses or 3 quarter hours for each of five courses.

Agree, but some may find it more comfortable to concentrate on 3 rather than 4 or 5 courses during the same term. Personally, I would love it as I experienced a trimester (quarter) system which required 5 or 6 courses per term. This spreads one too thin.

The trimester system thing is a possible confounding factor in that not that many people have first-hand experience with what that’s like. I can tell you from my own experience that it probably helps that everyone else you know is on the same system and in that sense, it is normalized. Otherwise, I wouldn’t let it stand in the way of choosing Carlton, if that’s where you are leaning.

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