Confirm/deny my impressions of these New England LACs?

My family and I just got back from a trip to visit a couple liberal arts colleges in the Pacific Northwest (Reed, Lewis & Clark, Whitman, University of Puget Sound), and plan to visit some East Coast schools (Bates, Bowdoin, Mount Holyoke, Amherst, possibly Swarthmore) in August. I have a pretty solid grasp on the culture/character of the West Coast colleges, but I’m still not sure what the East Coast schools are like.

Quick rundown of my thoughts on the West Coast schools: Love Whitman (might even apply ED), like Lewis & Clark, not a fan of Reed or Puget Sound. Reed seems a little homogenous and bubble-y, Puget Sound seems a little athletic and frat-y.

If anyone is willing to read my thoughts on these schools and let me know if any seem like particularly good/bad fits, or if I’m totally wrong about any of them, I’d really appreciate it!

WHAT I’M LOOKING FOR:

  • LAC in PNW/New England
  • Students/culture not too “granola hipster,” but also not too “rich lacrosse player”
  • Lots of study abroad & research opportunities
  • Plan to major in Psych and minor in Gender/Ethnic Studies or Politics, also plan to get higher degree(s)

Amherst: The online tour emphasized the strength and rigor of their academics over everything else, and I’m looking for something a little more balanced. Is Amherst culture very tight-knit and supportive or is it mostly academically driven?

Bates: For a while this was my favorite of all the East Coast schools, though it’s lately seemed a little too preppy and athletic for me. I can’t quite pinpoint where it is on the spectrum between “preppy, athletic, Williams-y” and “hippie, radical, Reed-y.”

Bowdoin: Seems a little stodgy and serious — of course no college is going to be full of kids who can’t have fun, but they don’t seem to put a lot of emphasis on community or bonding the way Bates does, at least in their official materials. (And I did look at Colby — seemed too sporty for me. Maybe I’m wrong?)

Mount Holyoke: Not sure if I would even like a women’s college, but this would be the one. Culture might be a little too Reed-y? I’m a fan of the Consortium but I don’t really know how people take advantage of it in practice. Do a lot of people take classes at other schools, or is it more of a second option if, say, a class at your institution is full?

Swarthmore: My dad went here & loved it. Called it the “Whitman of the East Coast” but doesn’t know how it’s changed since he was there in the 70s. I don’t love PA or Philadelphia (would prefer to be further north) but I think the school might be most similar to what I like about Whitman — the right mix of community & academics, lots of abroad opportunities, diverse culture, etc.

For brief, subjective comments on some of these schools, see replies #6 and #12 in these respective CC topics: Struggling with D21's List. ED & ED2: Amherst, Hamilton, Wellesley, Vassar and Differences between top east-coast LACs? (Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore, Bowdoin, Middlebury, etc.).

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I think your initial reaction to Bates was right. It’s pretty much in the middle of the spectrum between sporty and crunchy. There are some preppy kids there but it’s always had the reputation as being the most artsy of the Maine schools. Over time, it’s migrated more to the mainstream. Bowdoin is a little more buttoned up but has a wide range of kids and is a bit less "old school " than it was decades ago. Colby, traditionally the choice of the most outdoorsy/sporty, has a wider mix of students now too. These three are more alike these days than not although each maintains a bit of it’s history. I suspect that most students (but not all) who like one would be quite happy at the other two.

I would suggest that if you are drawn to Bates, you look at both Wesleyan and Connecticut College. I think you’ll like Amherst. Overall, you should understand that the NESCAC is a very competitive D3 athletic conference and with the exception of Tufts, the schools are small. What this means is that at all these schools, a large number of students will be serious student athletes. So “sporty” is significantly obvious at all these schools. Also, while all these schools have worked hard to develop national reputations, they have all enjoyed LONG reputations in New England as excellent schools and popular choices for students in this region – a group that includes a lot of “preppy” students. In this regard, Whitman may feel quite different.

Mt Holyoke is definitely different as a women’s college. This one is bit more laid back than some of the others, so it seems like what you’re looking for.

I have to say that I disagree with your dad about Swat. It is a terrific school but much less light hearted and fun than anything else on your list. Whitman students, by contrast, seem to embrace balance.

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As an opinion based on what you have written, Bates and Holyoke seem like excellent matches for your interests and preferences among the East Coast LACs you discussed.

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Regarding the 5 college consortium. People DO take advantage of this. There’s a bus that runs frequently, so it’s definitely possible to get to all the schools. People use it when they have special interests that are not offered at their school. There’s virtually nothing that isn’t offered by at least one of the 5 schools. But it takes time - generally, one would wind up using a half day to take a class at another school, unless it’s between Amherst and UMass.

Kid took some Amherst classes (from UMass), reported that it was eye-opening, how the students felt that they were on a different (better) level - and they weren’t, but kid was in a highly rated jewel in the crown type program at UMass.

Funny what you say about Swarthmore being the “Whitman of the East Coast”. I’ve never heard of Whitman, but I’ll never forget, when I was applying to Penn an epoch ago, my Brooklyn-bred Dad pointing out that Swarthmore was the really elite place to go. It’s still considered one of the most highly ranked, if not THE most highly ranked, LAC in the country. I would say that it’s really not that different from Amherst in size, situation, climate, etc. I would not rule out Philly region schools - they’re not very different from New England, other than a bit less snow. And where Amherst has the 5 college consortium, Swarthmore has the Quaker consortium, which includes Penn, Bryn Mawr, Haverford. I’d seriously consider both Amherst and Swarthmore.

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Your description of the student culture spectrum is a hilarious version of East coast vs West coast! I grew up/lived in Seattle for 25 years and now have racked up 18 years near Washington DC. Spot on!

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@parentologist and @gardenstategal , thank you for your insights re: Swarthmore and MHC! My mom, a Penn grad herself, wholeheartedly agrees with your assessments of Swarthmore. In any case, we’ll find out when we visit.

As for the other NE schools, my counselor’s been urging me to take a second (or third) look at Wesleyan, so thank you for mentioning it. I initially discarded it because it seemed very similar to Reed in culture & demographics, though I could be very wrong about that.

I think Reed is in a class of its own, @906pangaea ! If it has an East Coast equivalent, it’s Bard.

I’d suggest visiting Wesleyan and seeing for yourself. It definitely is more artsy boho students than Williams, and I think it may feel less preppy which is what you want. The more I read this, the more I think your initial attraction to Bates was right.

I don’t know if Haverford or Bryn Mawr hit your radar, but if you liked the academic proposition at Reed but not the culture, they could be better options than Swat.

The great news, though, is that you seem to have already found your Cinderella fit in Whitman!

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My daughter was accepted to Whitman and Bates. At various points in time, nearly all the colleges you listed were at least discussed. Many were discounted for being either too preppy in her view (she wanted to avoid that) or too academically intense (Bowdoin, Swarthmore, Amherst, Reed) and others were discounted because she felt they wouldn’t be academic enough for her (Lewis and Clark, UPS.)

I know a lot about Bates, as D graduated last year. Bates is not preppy, though there are definitely a lot of athletes. My D is not remotely athletic and her friends weren’t either.

I showed this just now to my daughter, (who is working remotely from home.) In response to this, she says “it’s in the middle, in that many people, as individuals, have aspects of both. People are not preppy athletic, but outdoorsy athletic. It is definitely not preppy. You’ll find people who are somewhere within these ranges.”

If I think of a Bates kid, I picture them on campus. A fair few guys rolling on long boards, a girl with blue hair, a group of nerdy debate club kids, kids hanging out on hammocks, kids on a giant flamingo blow up floater, lolling along in Lake Andrews. A lot of kids in Bates hoodies or tshirts.
It’s a relaxed vibe and a non-competitive atmosphere. Definitely a few crunchy granola types, definitely some arty types, some urban hipsters, some flannel shirts, some preppy kids too. It’s a real mix.

My D had the good luck to spend a semester in Japan with several Whitties, who were her favorite people from the trip. After hanging out with them for several months, she felt she would have really enjoyed Whitman, despite the Greek Life (which Bates doesn’t have.) Whitman is well regarded.

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I’d say that Wesleyan is very liberal, a hair below the top LACs on academic selectivity, and definitely worth considering. Another nice thing about the Quaker LACs and Wesleyan is that they’re closer to major cities. Unless you have a car, it’s difficult to go anywhere from Amherst. It’s over 2 hours to Boston. It’s possible to get to NYC from Wesleyan, and to Philly very easily and to NYC possible from Swarthmore (and Haverford).

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When I think of Whitman, the schools in the East which I think come the closest to approaching some of that same feel would be Middlebury, Bates, and Dickinson (Pennsylvania).

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There have been two important academic works on Wesleyan published in the last thirty years: the first in 1992, Wesleyan University, 1831-1910 (Potts, David B.; Yale University Press) basically covered its foundational years as a flagship denominational institution. And, the second, written by the same author, published in 2015. In that one, Wesleyan University, 1910-1970, the subtitle, “Academic Ambition and Middle-Class America”, hints at Wesleyan’s place as a central figure in the exponential growth during the period of the academic enterprise and its reflection of how America increasingly saw itself: as a place of untapped and hidden talents, diverse, and essentially liberal in its leanings.

A third book - if there is one - would almost certainly focus on the various ways in which that reflection fell short of being accurate. Nonetheless, one thing that becomes clear is how early on in its postwar history Wesleyan’s leaders saw it as an alternative to Amherst and Williams:

The ethical burdens of being, on a per student basis, “the wealthiest college… in the country” in terms of both endowments and “lush” expenditures had weighed ever more heavily upon (President Butterfield.) In seeking to make the most worthy use of Wesleyan’s good fortune, he had pushed not only for sharing these resources with more students but also for creative thinking about programs that carried faculty members and trustees beyond the use of Amherst and Williams as reference points.
(page 377).

To that end, Wesleyan today is not only significantly larger than Amherst and Williams (~3,000 u/g), but is also notable for the extent to which it has achieved national distinction in the visual and performing arts, academic areas that have traditionally tended to be devalued in New England. Fun fact: Wesleyan is the only LAC in the country with its own motion picture sound stage:

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Have you looked at Tufts? They seem a bit Whitman-esque – academically rigorous with a friendly, supportive vibe.

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That’s a fairly superficial view of the two colleges. Let’s not forget that Amherst is a member of NESCAC and for two schools that are the same size, it means that one of them still has to reserve a hefty portion of its student body for varsity sport contenders. For football alone that amounts to about 5% of the male student body. Oh, did I mention that Swarthmore, in a splashy move, eliminated its football team about twenty years ago? I would say that Amherst has moved closer to the Swarthmore end of the spectrum, but not enough to eliminate the pervasive New England divide between athletes and non-athletes.

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Amherst students don’t appear to interact across groups in general:

OP, I realize in the responses that “preppy” may mean different things to different people. If you are thinking of the square-jawed student in a button down shirt and Nantucket pinks with a nickname like Buff or Muffy, I don’t think any of the schools have tons of these. There’s definitely another type of preppy, somewhat more alt (who has carefullycultivated “cool” at BS), who is far more likely to show up at any of these schools than Whitman. Just for kicks, I googled the crew roster at Bates. Pretty prep-school heavy which is “preppy” to me.

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Here’s my take on these schools and your preferences:

Bates - neither too sporty nor hipster - good cross section of all kinds of students. Strong academics but not a grind.

Amherst - sports are big, serious academics. Quite diverse for a highly ranked LAC in New England.

Bowdoin - also sporty, outdoorsy, academically similar to Amherst. My impression is it’s less diverse than Amherst but that info may be dated. Historically quite preppy.

Mount Holyoke - I suggest you visit. Academically (and politically) less intense than Smith. Seems like a place with happy students of varying types and a substantial % of international students. If you think a women’s college might work for you, this seems to check your other boxes.

Swarthmore - if you didn’t like Reed, I don’t think you’d care for Swarthmore. Extremely intense academically (often compared to U Chicago but a LAC). Has a reputation for stress culture. Maybe check out Haverford instead? Sporty vibe but more balanced. As you’re open to looking at a women’s college, maybe look into Bryn Mawr - it’s practically across the street from Haverford.

Other suggestions: maybe look at Vassar or Middlebury? I have never visited Hamilton or Colgate but they might be worth exploring.

And here’s a geographical outlier: Colorado College - great outdoorsy location, also academically serious, students skew more towards outdoor recreation than organized sports. Student population skews wealthy. They are on a fairly unusual block plan which may or may not appeal. Nonbinding early action provides an admissions boost.

Finally, have some safeties on your list. These are all increasingly competitive for admission. Best of luck.

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I’m an Amherst College parent and if they mention it on the tour, it’s for a reason. I recall at the parent welcome on move in day they told us that the admits were likely all at the top of their class, but to know that some would continue to be so at Amherst and some would have to be in the bottom half. So, there’s the balance :grin:

My daughter is not an intense kid, but more of a still waters run deep and coming from an unknown public with a steep learning curve, gratefully she has remained in the top group, while the close friends she often studies with for enjoyment, are a mix. So, it is supportive and she has a large tight knit group, but academic expectations are still high at Amherst.

If you look at the Common Data Set for some of these schools, they are mostly accepting kids who can perform at a high level. The school also offers support, so if they admitted a kid, not only did they believe they would be a good fit, but they want them to be successful and are willing to help them get to graduation.

She also often mentions how much she loves the discussions in her classes and due to the wonderful job Amherst does at seeking to enroll a diverse class, not all views and opinions are ones that she agrees with, but it makes for very interesting discourse at times.

Many people will mention the athlete/narp divide but she has very good friends who are both and she is often included in their parties or dinners as a guest.

The professors are incredibly helpful. Office hours, letters of rec, emails and zooms offering encouragement are all experiences she has had.

So to answer your question, it is both tight knit and supportive and academically driven. I think when you are a high functioning student, you are drawn to similar people and you eventually find them at a school that exudes what that means exactly to you. Mine found hers at Amherst College. I wish you the best in finding yours!

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We just got back from our big New England trip! We ended up visiting Bowdoin, Bates, Mount Holyoke, Amherst, and Wesleyan. (Swarthmore was a little too far out of the way, and we had walked through it a year or so prior.)

Nothing shot up or down the list. We loved Bates, Mount Holyoke, and Amherst but were somewhat underwhelmed by Bowdoin and Wesleyan (though a lot of that had to do with the particular tour guides we had).

It was a really valuable trip in so many ways. Thanks everyone for your insights!

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Oh too late, I was going to suggest Clark University in Worcester MA, diverse, one of the Colleges that Change Livles. Excellent for psychology. Oh well!