Differences between top east-coast LACs? (Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore, Bowdoin, Middlebury, etc.)

Hey folks. My Junior daughter is interested in attending a co-ed east-coast LAC. The list of quality schools is deep: In addition to the schools in the discussion title, I can also think of Bates, Colby, Haverford, Washington&Lee, Davidson, Hamilton, Wesleyan, Vassar, and Colgate (not in any ranked order). Every one is a terrific school, and she is focused on finding the right school for her based on her personality and interests, more than worrying about which one is ranked slightly above another.

I get the sense that each of the LACs has its own “personality,” to a much greater degree than larger schools. For instance, anecdotally I’ve read that Swarthmore attracts students with a publlic-school background who stay in and study on Friday night (which may, in fact, be my daughter), while Williams attracts prep-school students who are into sports. Washington & Lee, I’ve heard, has a conservative bent, while the Maine schools are more liberal. These short descriptions may be off the mark. We’ve visited some of them, but can’t visit them all, and it is hard to get such a granular sense of life there from one afternoon.

I’m sure many of you–parents and students–have thought about these differences and researched them. How would you contrast these schools? For students, what made you chose one over another?

Thanks in advance,


Others will chime in on other measures, but since you mentioned political climate, I’d say W&L and Davidson are more towards the conservative side, and Wesleyan and Vassar towards the extreme liberal side of that group of schools. Swarthmore and Middlebury are also notably liberal.

@RayManta: I agree that LACs tend to have a much more well defined personality than do larger schools.

It’s easier to narrow the choices down if we know the personality and likes/dislikes of your kid. Then match that to the appropriate school.

Many of them share a long history of athletic affiliation due to their geographic proximity. Wesleyan, Williams and Amherst, for example, have been playing football in round-robin competition since the 1880s and their homecomings are festive, and spirited occasions. Wesleyan, the largest of the three, has a better balance between sports and the performing arts, IMO, epitomized perhaps best by two of its graduates: Bill Belichick and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

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Thanks folks. Keep them coming!

Rightcoaster: To be honest, in this thread I’m wary of describing my daughter too closely–I’d worry that the responses would just be along the lines of naming what a poster thinks is the best match without really describing what the school is like, and describing other schools, too.

I’d say, though, that some of the important things to her may include that the student body hails from all over the U.S. and is diverse in both background and viewpoints. She realizes it’s best to go to a school where not everyone is a clone of her, but she wants to be comfortable, too. Part of that is political bent, but in truth she enjoys discussing issues with people who don’t necessarily agree with her, so long as everyone is open minded and respectful. Also, she knows that college is a place where one develops new interests and new opinions, so she needs to be at a place where those are available. Along those lines, I wonder, for example, if most if the kids at Vassar come from the NY area, and whether wealthy, privileged kids from new england are over-represented at a school like Amherst.

You may also want to consider the Greek life and/or party life at these schools. Some have no Greek while others have a lot. Party scene in general might be a consideration beyond Greek life. Vassar has no Greek life and isn’t a party-heavy school while some of the Maine schools are known for heavy drinking. One place to gauge party scene at a school is the website called Niche. Another is Unigo.

No one is really trying to track your kid out here. You’ll get better advice if you share more info. Stats, ECs, possible major, what schools she has liked so far.

"Some of the Maine schools are known for heavy drinking. " ALL of the Maine schools (and most other rural schools ) have alcohol-dominated social scenes and all of the Maine have made that top beer drinking school list (not scientific! ) in the last 5? years .

If Swat vibe sounds good, look at Haverford and Bryn Mawr too. Different vibes, but also not like the others on the list and what you are looking for, I think.

Make sure you visit when students are on campus. Vassar and Wesleyan are a bit artsier/crunchier with Bates right behind them.

They are all terrific schools so there is no best choice, just a good fit.

OK. Understand, it’s hard for me to do this, so bear with me. She’s an IB student with a 4.0 unweighted GPA, around a 4.55 GPA, roughly #10 in her class of over 600 (because some of her classmates juice their GPAs with online AP or college classes, go figure). Score-wise, she took the SAT once, on a whim for the experience during the first semester of her sophomore year, earned a 780 M/670 E, we assume the latter of which should go up simply from being older next time she takes it. Her likely major is biology, although also loves history and political science/government, and I could see her double majoring. She’s really strong in math and physics, but doesn’t enjoy them.

She’s a swimmer, although not strong enough for a college team (due to being petite, not due to effort or technique). When younger she was a synchronized swimmer and went to nationals with her team a couple of times, but now she just races. Her other ECs are pretty standard, other than being somewhat politically active. Experience-wise, this coming summer, she’s excited to have a job at a Ph.D.-level lab at a nearby university where she’ll learn basic techniques of microbial research. She’s been fortunate enough to have traveled extensively (including witnessing the unexpected volcanic eruption in my avatar), and as a result she has a very open view of other cultures and backgrounds.

She is the type of kid who loves open discussions in the classroom and isn’t afraid to contribute, and has always worked to develop close, personal relationships with her teachers. She’s outgoing and energetic, although spends much of her time studying. She’s an ESFJ, although close to neutral on the F/T scale (if I’m interpreting your name right, INTParent). For these reasons, we think either an LAC or a smaller university is the best fit for her.

She’s visited a bunch of schools, and unfortunately, likes most of them. She absolutely loved Williams, but after reading that the student body likes to party and is sports-oriented, we’re not sure how well she’d fit. We visited Swarthmore over a year ago and I think it is a good match, although the students we met seemed a little more intense than she is. At Haverford, she sat in on a class where the students seemed to be checking Facebook more than paying attention and contributing, and that really bugged her. She’s going to visit Bowdoin, Bates, and Middlebury during spring break. She seems to be neutral toward Amherst and Wesleyan, but I wasn’t with her and she hasn’t been able to really articulate why. She probably won’t have a chance to visit Hamilton, Vassar, or Colgate. Among non-LACs, she really liked Brown (where she’s legacy) and William and Mary (where she would be out of state).

My son’s best friend visited W&L after acceptance. The Greek scene and drinking dominates the social life and he felt like it was very heavily southern prep-school kids. He didn’t meet another kid who went to public school on his visit (which is anecdotal, of course).

For the record W&L is 52% public school, 48% private. Not sure where that fits on the spectrum of SLACs and too lazy to look it up!

Bates: Egalitarian founding principles still appear in student culture.

Colby: Classic LAC size. New president has added dynamism. Winter cold suitable for the adventurous.

Colgate: Beautiful campus, charming small village. Beyond its popular social sciences programs, offers interesting course choices in natural sciences and humanities.

Vassar: English major and fine arts veneer laid over a generally intellectual liberal arts college. New science building supports continuing academic ambitions.

Haverford: Egalitarian through both history and current culture. Bi-college arrangement adds academic breadth, but collective gender imbalance potentially creates uneven social relationships.

Williams: Intellectually capable students. Noteworthy athletic presence. Excellent for visual arts. Mountains form backdrop that impressed Thoreau.

Swarthmore: Disproportionately brilliant students appear to have chosen their school for authentic reasons. Lacks academic range to an extent (e.g., no geosciences department), but offers its own engineering program.

Amherst: Strong programs in areas such as literature and government, to name just two. Sufficienty deep to have changed its mascot. Consortium benefits, though with associated gender imbalances.

Hamilton: Legacy of having been two colleges of complementary characteristics and emphases manifests in enhanced academic, social, architectural and spatial dimensions and balance. Beautiful campus with Adirondack feel.

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If she is interested in biology and politics she should look into Tufts too. Her scores are similar to my son’s and he will be heading there next Fall. 5,000 undergrad, has enough kids to have some diversity, close to a major city, lots of research opportunities, study abroad options. Not as much partying. Good arts/theatre/dance scene. Safe. Clean.
Because it has more kids it has more different types of kids, not just 1/2 athletes and 1/2 non-athlete like the other LACs in NE. Most kids who like Brown also like Tufts.
Good luck.

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I’m thinking something like the Forbes guide might be useful in helping get a feel for schools that, in the surface, appear similar. My kid and I both found the descriptions to be accurate for the schools we visited.

open curriculum (no-general college requirements) at Amherst. Also some of the schools like Williams have not much outside the campus (rural).

If, she loved Williams, she would probably like Hamilton. They are the two most strikingly similar campuses of the bunch: Rural, sprawling, decidedly patrician, despite the presence a few discordant architectural flourishes.

Based on your description, I’d highly recommend Hamilton. She truly sounds like the Hamilton type. I suggest, if at all possible, that you try to find time to visit, it’s well worth the trip!

That’s really interesting–Hamilton is a school that hasn’t been on her radar. Can you flesh out why you think she’d be a fit there a little more? In what ways is it different from some of the other LACs?

Oh–and to respond to an earlier comment–she’s looked at the Forbes guide (and others), but sometimes it’s better to get an unfiltered view that isn’t trying to essentially market each school. I like the personal anecdotes, especially from people who have gone through the selection process themselves!

Our S19 has very similar priorities as your D. He couldn’t choose a favorite and applied to 12 schools RD and just one EA which was a safety. I think you need to visit as many schools as possible, meet students, and sit in on classes. For the schools we could not get to, he’s had alumni interviews and tried to ask questions about the vibes on campus more than anything else. Each school does feel a little different and, especially at these small schools, the feel of the school matters. That being said, I think S19 could fit just as well at Bowdoin as at Davidson and at W&M just as well as Carleton.

A wise friend told me that, no matter where one goes to college, his friend group will be a fairly small group. Even if he’s made 15 good friends, that’s a drop in the bucket at a school of 2000 kids. One can find a spot at almost any school.