Finding Hidden Gem Colleges for Nerdy Introvert Daughter?

New to forum!

I’ve been reading tons of great advice on these forums for months and thought I’d seek some guidance of my own. I’m looking for small-to-medium college ideas for my daughter, who is a junior at a regular public school in PA. She currently has a 4.0 (unweighted, not sure the weighted); will have completed 10+ AP and 8+ honors courses by graduation, and is ranked #1 in her class (out of approx 350?) She will likely take at least 1 dual enrollment course next year. Most of her coursework has been AP or honors - she even took an AP Psych course by special permission when she was in 8th grade. No test scores yet.

Her ECs include tennis (4 years, 2 years captain), president and founding member of gender empowerment club at school (3 years), chess club (3 years), math team (3 years), quiz bowl (3 years), a couple different honor societies, etc. She has a good amount of volunteering and has been a coach at a kids’ tennis camp since 7th grade. I’m sure there are more, but nothing “rock star” - she’s basically a regular high school kid. No significant awards yet.

She’s interested in mainly schools in the northeast - she loves that dark academia vibe. Schools on her interest list are places like Smith, Bryn Mawr, Mt. Holyoke, Colgate, Hamilton, F & M, Lehigh,Bucknell, Lafayette, Dickinson, even W & M (although it’s out of her ideal geographic location.) I have told her I don’t care where her dreams take her, even to California or Oregon but I think she’s leaning towards staying within the PA, MD, OH, NY, New England zone. Diversity is very important to her.

Her fields of interest are biochem, physics, neuroscience, other STEM. She is quite interested in research. She’s reserved and has a lot of anxiety and is worried about fitting in/making friends. I want her to have an amazing academic experience, of course, but I also want her to fully enjoy life on campus. We visited Bryn Mawr, Johns Hopkins, F & M, Lehigh, and Bucknell and she liked the environment at Bryn Mawr, with Lehigh a close second. She initially thought she’d attend a research school but has now seen the value of LACs. She’s open to anything though!

So many amazing choices! We are getting bombarded daily by all these wonderful schools. It’s overwhelming!

Any ideas for small-ish schools where a book nerd can get an amazing STEM education while feeling comfortable enough to get out of her box and live her life? Ideally somewhere with need-met and/or lots of merit. I’m running NPC on some of these schools and it’s all over the place. As a family, we don’t have a lot of resources but her grandparents have some set aside for her.

Thanks to all of you!!!

Has she looked at Kenyon, Oberlin, or Denison? Those Ohio schools, particularly the first two, check many of her boxes. I would have expected Denison to be too preppy/conservative, but if she likes Bucknell (which I wouldn’t have expected given your description), then Denison could be worth a look, too.


Cost constraints? As the parent, be sure to do the necessary financial planning and provide a budget before she makes the application list.

What kind of diversity? SES – LACs and more selective residential colleges tend to skew upward more than colleges in general. Race / ethnicity – some parts of the northeast and midwest are not particularly diverse, and colleges which have more of a regional (versus national) draw may reflect that.

At smaller colleges, she may want to check faculty rosters and course catalogs and schedules to see if her interests are adequately represented. Physics can be a rather small department and uncommon major at some smaller colleges, so if that is enough of an interest to major in, check it it has the usual upper level physics courses (quantum mechanics, electromagnetism, classical and relativistic mechanics, statistical and thermal physics, upper level lab).

Are engineering and math (the EM in STEM) of interest?


I’m a nerdy introvert and so are my kids. She should start with the PA public universities.

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Goucher, Rowan, Juniata, Brandeis?


Kenyon, Dickinson, Vassar

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Wooster is known for research so may be a good choice. Union may be a good choice as well for science.

I think if diversity is important and diversity covers a lot of areas but if it’s racial for example, I would check each schools common data set. I think and it depend on how you define diversity that many on your list aren’t (based on race).

F&M is heavily Caucasian as is Bucknell (772 Caucasian out of 1,027 first year). A school like Bowdoin on the other hand is far more diverse. And Brown very racially diverse with far more than half the kids non Caucasian .

I think at schools both large and small that you can find your crowd. So many fine publics and privates are in your geography. But a Bucknell or Lehigh are known for the party vibe but no doubt has those like your child as well (and truth is, while mom and dad don’t want to believe it, many of those kids party too).

Not sure if there’s a test score but if your student is #1 ranked, then most any school should be considered. Not all are attainable per se (reach) but could be looked at as you never know.

Good luck


Vassar, Wesleyan, Bates, maybe Connecticut College or Skidmore or Middlebury or even Bowdoin or Colby. Brown as a big reach?


@RavenclawMom24 Updating my comment below to apologize for my poor reading comprehension skills since you did include Mt Holyoke and Smith in your original post. Best of luck to your accomplished daughter!

If she liked Bryn Mawr, I’m surprised that Mt. Holyoke and Smith aren’t on her list. Mt. Holyoke in particular seems like an excellent fit for your daughter, plus they offer merit. Smith offers merit, too, but I think it’s more competitive for admission and for merit.


With respect to opportunities for mentored undergraduate research in physics, the colleges recent Apker Award Finalists attended may be of interest:


As you described her, BMC came to mind, so that’s a great option. Vassar might suit her quite well too. Agree that she should check out Wellesley, Smith, Mt Holyoke too.

You’d have to check the course catalog, but the vibe at Bard could work. I second Wooster and Denison.

Several of these sound more rah rah than I would have thought she’d like, but Union could work if she’s liking that vibe.

Most of the NESCACs would fit the bill academically but may be a bit more “social”, each in its own way, than she would like and probably more expensive than you would like!

Came here to suggest Wellesley. For a small school, it has strengths in STEM, which are augmented by partnerships with Olin and MIT. Wellesley is highly selective, but the OP’s daughter seems very accomplished.


It sounds as though your D will have lots of options. Many very good schools have been mentioned that your daughter will probably have a real shot at. Have you looked at the Colleges That Change Lives (CTCL) site? It’s an association of schools that were named in a book of the same name by Loren Pope that were commended for their focus on undergrads, intellectual curiosity, approachable admissions rates, etc. There may be some possible schools of interest there. If you want some schools with likelier chances of admission, you may want to look at these (all of which are part of CTCL):

  • Allegheny (PA )
  • Clark (MA)
  • College of Wooster (OH)
  • Juniata (PA )
  • Ohio Wesleyan
  • Ursinus (PA )

From: Professor Flitwick :magic_wand:


Make sure to run the NPC for Vassar. It sounds like a great academic fit for your D. They have strong science programs, great financial aid, and there is a diverse and welcoming atmosphere for a wide variety of kids.


I’ll second Dickinson in Carlisle, PA.

But I’m also going to suggest you look into the University of Rochester. It’s a research U, so larger, but I think she’d do well there if it turns out to be affordable.

IME, a lot of kids like your D do better in larger schools where they have a larger group of kids to select their friends from, and U Roc has a nerdy research culture that would fit. In the smaller schools there can be cliques and kids can really feel they don’t fit.

If she likes smaller schools (many do), be sure to see if she can do an overnight to see the vibe. She can do that at Rochester too if it seems to fit.


Vassar and Wesleyan are the more obvious schools missing from that list. Barnard?


Haverford and Swarthmore.

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Seconding URoch

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Haverford and Swarthmore are both terrific. Super high quality of life and great ops for research with faculty. Within reach for your daughter ED. Oberlin and Kenyon are intellectual and a little quirky. Kenyon is known for writing but sciences there are a hidden gem. These two are a little less competitive and would be solid targets. On the other coast, Pomona is first-rate, and Reed is quirky and
graduates many STEM Phds.