Harvey Mudd College vs Olin College of Engineering (for Computer Science)

Ok. I love Olin. Seriously, I love everything about it. The close-knit community, the school spirit, the hands-on approach, and the people. Olin had been my absolute top choice for a while, until my father opened my eyes to the fact that the school has no computer science program. I can’t study mechanical engineering either, my brain just isn’t wired up for that stuff, and Olin has a strong focus on Mech.E. Harvey Mudd, however, is not only in California, but also has a very strong computer science program.

I now have an offer of admission from both schools. Anyone else want to come help me compare these two amazing schools?


I think you have your answer… Olin is very focused on engineering design. If that does not really interest you, then it is not a good fit. Also, they don’t have your preferred major… you would get some programming experience in the mechanical or electrical engineering majors, but not as in depth as an actual computer science major.

What are the costs of attendance (tuition/fees/room/board minus scholarships/grants, NOT including loans)? How much loans will you need to take out for each?

First of all, congratulations on your admissions! I’m an Olin alum, so maybe I could help address some of your concerns regarding computer science at Olin. It is true that Olin does not have an “official” computer science major, but they do have two majors that will allow you to focus heavily on computer science and software engineering: Electrical and Computer Engineering and Engineering: Computing.

As the name implies, Electrical and Computer Engineering has an electrical engineering component, so you would also learn about things like signal processing, circuits, etc. However, you can make that major software-heavy (as I did) and get a strong computer science and software engineering background. If you don’t have any interest at all in the electrical engineering stuff, you can major in Engineering: Computing, which will allow you to focus more narrowly on the software side of things.

As with any major at Olin, you get a lot of autonomy with regard to the things you learn and the projects you work on. For example, even in classes that aren’t explicitly CS related, you will have opportunities to apply things you’ve learned elsewhere to open-ended projects. In just about every one of my math classes, I took the opportunity to explore new CS concepts by using them in conjunction with what I was learning in math.

If you are intrinsically motivated, I certainly don’t think you would be hindered in getting a strong CS/Software Engineering education. Of course, Olin is an engineering school, so you will be pushed to learn and practice strong engineering fundamentals in any discipline you choose. If you are more interested in pure theory or research, it may not be the best fit. In the job market, Olin has a strong track record with placing students at top software companies like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Twitter, as well as with successful startups, so I wouldn’t be concerned about employment opportunities.

Obviously I can only really provide you with information from the Olin perspective, but if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask!

Harvey Mudd will cost approximately 20k/year since Olin does have a half-tuition scholarship. Luckily, I won’t be needing to take out any loans to pay for either colleges.

@zatoro‌ , I’m definitely not interested in pure theory or research. I’d rather get my hands dirty with programming right away, and I know about the choices between ECE and Engineering: Computing. My concern is that although I can try to design my own computer science major at Olin, wouldn’t it be better to be at a school that can give a more structured computer science program?

Can anyone who turned down Olin for Harvey Mudd perhaps share his/her thoughts?

While Engineering: Computing technically falls under the “design your own major” category at Olin, it is one of the most common concentrations that people choose, and as a result there are years of precedence for course load selection. In addition, you would be working closely with a faculty advisor who would give you guidance to help ensure that your goals are met. Don’t be concerned about trying to navigate your major in the dark, because you will have plenty of help from both faculty and other students in the same major.

With that said, it is definitely less prescriptive and traditional than a “normal” computer science major, and whether that is a good or a bad thing depends on your perspective. At Olin, regardless of your major, you will be taking a number of engineering and design courses that are not explicitly related to the specific branch of engineering that you choose. These classes focus less on teaching you specific content knowledge, and instead teach you more abstract skills like design thinking, open-ended problem solving, and collaborative engineering. In my opinion, these classes are invaluable, and are part of what makes Olin’s brand of engineering education so unique. However, the obvious trade-off is that you have less time to take depth courses within your major. Therefore, if you want to be super tightly focused on just computer science without all of the design and engineering stuff, Olin may not be the right choice.

I can tell you that as far as career pathing goes, you can’t go wrong with either choice, as both will offer you an outstanding education in the field you choose. It’s a matter of which school’s philosophy best fits your academic goals, and where you personally want to spend the next four years.

Olin vs. Mudd makes for an interesting comparison.

They both share a somewhat unconventional “liberal arts approach” to a technical education with an emphasis on experiential learning. They are both members of a cluster of small colleges - Babson/Olin/Wellesley and CMC/Mudd/Pomona/Scripts/Pitzer.

Olin could be catagorized as an “Engineering LAC” while Mudd could be characterized as a “STEM LAC”. Mudd’s curriculum is broader and more science focused, while Olin’s is more engineering focused. Olin is smaller and has an enrollment about equal to Mudd’s engineering enrollment. Mudd has more science requirements in its core while Olin has more engineering requirements in its core. Olin also integrates entrepreneurship into the curriculum and is more interdisciplinary in their approach to subjects.

When it come to the realm of computers, Olin is deeper on the computer engineering end of the spectrum, while Mudd is deeper on the computer science end of the spectrum. Neither will be as deep as a research university in either area.

The computer engineering end of the spectrum is more applicable to programming at lower levels of abstraction (i.e closer to the hardware) and in real-time or resource constained environments such as embedded systems. The computer science end of the spectrum is more applicable to programming at higher levels of abstraction (i.e. at the application level) where there is another layer of software between the programmer and the hardware and where resources are plentiful.

The computer science end of the spectrum tends to get into more theory (i.e. math) while the computer engineering end of the spectrum tends to focus more on applications of theory.

Olin’s engineering focus and small size has resulted in a unique approach to teaching computer science. Their approach is more “top down” in that they teach you how to do system design/architecture first, and then they combine a few traditional areas together into groups to give you a broad (but not as deep) background, then you choose where you want to go deeper. Going deeper in some areas will require independent study or taking courses outside of Olin (i.e. Wellesley or a semester abroad), or by pursuing an advanced degree.

Traditional approaches tend to be more “bottom up” in that they tend to start with lower level details and work upwards to the system/architecture level - quite often not getting there unless you earn an advanced degree.

Here is a paper on the subject:


Both programs gain some computer science depth through relationships with the other colleges in their respective cluster, but I would say that these relationships are more important at Olin due to the fact that it has fewer CS course offerings of its own. Here are the respective course catalogs:





The better program would be the one that better meets your interests, objectives and learning style.

All things considered, I prefer Olin, but that is because my bias is toward lower level programming, system design/architecture, application over theory and top down learning. I also prefer entrepreneurial companies and I am a fan of acquiring more depth through a masters degree.

You need to think though all these issues and determine which is a better fit for you and you career goals. They are both very good programs.

Congrats on getting into both of those schools. Olin’s acceptance rate this year is in the 9% range. While I know Harvey Mudd has an excellent reputation, I do not have any first hand experience there. My daughter is a junior Electrical and Computer Engineering student at Olin and couldn’t be happier. Like you, she has absolutely no interest in Mechanical Engineering. Prior to going to Olin, she had a lot of experience using computers in various ways, but never developing software. Even so, the new she wanted to be either a Computer Science or Computer Engineer major. Her time at Olin has prepared her well. She has been able to obtain internships at Lockheed Martin (rewriting code), Microsoft (In their explorer program) and for this summer Athena Health (as a developer). This semester, she is studying abroad in Belgium. She is taking robotics is the only undergrad in the course. Olin’s team oriented, project based curriculum has made her very comfortable in that environment. By the end of Sophomore year, she had enough project management experience and User Oriented Collaborative Design (UOCD) experience to be able to successfully apply it on a project team at Microsoft.

I do no believe that not liking Mechanical Engineering should in any way deter you from going to Olin. You will find that many people feel the same.

What is different about Olin is: 1) You will be in mostly project based collaborative courses instead of lectures. Project based courses are based on active learning. 2) Olin is not about memorizing and regurgitating. Most tests are open book, take home. This is because Olin believes that it is not what you know, but what you know how to do and can you solve problems. 3) Olin is not about grades. When I picked my daughter up at the end of Freshman year I asked her how she gets graded (since so much is team, project based) and she told me that she doesn’t really know and they don’t talk about it much. It is about doing things and trying things. 4) Olin is not about how well a project works. Students are expected to do things outside their knowledge and comfort levels. While everyone strives to make their project a success, projects that don’t work are often the best learning experiences. Analyzing why they failed and how what changes could be implemented if the project were to go through future iterations are just as important and are view in that way. In that way, students are not afraid to try something because it is too hard or too risky. 5) Olin more resembles real life. Students work within project teams and are given project budgets. They generally have to research to obtain the technical knowledge to complete the project. This simulates real life. At Microsoft, she was able to fit into a team with ease where others had difficulty with the collaborative environment. She has learned that whatever the project, she knows that she has the ability to learn the material and apply it to create a solution.

Good luck with your decision.

Note that Harvey Mudd does have very extensive core and general education requirements in both sciences and H/SS areas (humanities and social studies). The H/SS requirements include 11 courses that include a breadth of several fields, and a concentration in one. Harvey Mudd’s convenient cross registration with the other Claremont colleges does increase the course catalog in H/SS areas.

Olin’s breadth requirement includes about 28 credits (about 7 courses) in arts, humanities, social studies, and entrepreneurship, of which at least 12 credits (about 3 courses) must be in arts, humanities, and social studies; the student also needs to have a concentration.

Fabulous conversation! Both schools are top choices for my son. He has 35 ACT and 1460 Math+Reading, 2110 SAT with a 3.59 overall which is light. What are best “Experiential” engineering programs for those who are close but miss Olin or Harvey? Your expertise is really helpful!

Here is old discussion regarding Harvey Mudd vs other school for computer science? http://talk.collegeconfidential.com/harvey-mudd-college/1635091-harvey-mudd-vs-other-schools-for-computer-science.html#latest

@RedbirdDad look at Cal Poly SLO

Look at the University of Alabama’s Computer Based Honors Program. It’s very competitive, but I think it may be a good fit.

@RedbirdDad, no personal experience with it, but I’ve heard good things about Rose-Hulman. Smallish (typical LAC size), though not as small as Olin or HM. It’s got a reputation for good teaching, hands-on learning, and looks like it’s got a strong CS department, in addition to engineering, which they’re most known for. It would be a very likely admit for a kid with your son’s stats. 78% male, though, which may or may not be an issue for your son.

@redbirddad - If you are looking for a technical institute, WPI in Worcester, Ma. is known for its project based curriculum and it is strong in both CS and Engineering. If you are interested in robotics, it has one of the top programs in the country. It is classified as a small research university because it has small Phd programs, but it is more undergrad/teaching focused. The engineering school is about 1800 students. (about the size of engineering at Rose Hulman). And the entire undergrad population is about 4,000. About 50% acceptance rate, offers merit scholarships.

If you are looking for more of an engineering LAC (like Olin), Tufts’ Engineering School in Medford/Somerville, Ma. is known for its innovative curriculum and is strong in both CS and engineering. It is classified as a small research university, but focuses on undergrad teaching as well. One of the top research areas is Engineering Education (K-16). They have had success teaching pre-kindergarten kids to program. Research results (which tend to support experiential learning) have been folded back into the undergrad curriculum. The Provost of Olin and the Dean of Admissions of Olin are from Tufts. The Engineering school at Tufts is about 750 students (about the size of Harvey Mudd and about twice the size of Olin). The entire undergrad population is about 5,000 (a little smaller than the Claremont Colleges). About 14% acceptance rate for engineering, no merit, but meets full need.

My son’s stats were a little higher and his safety school was NC State. The facilities are nearly new, with a start up lab on campus and a focus on internships. Research Triangle is a great place for jobs after college. If he applies before Oct 15, he will be eligible for scholarships - my son was given two and was a finalist for another that would have taken care of all costs (tuition, housing and fees).

Your son would also have free tuition to University of Alabama with those stats. The Computer Based Honors Program selects 40 students from the incoming class for special opportunities to work closely with professors.