Liberal Arts Colleges for a Shy Kid

My son has been looking at schools like Vassar, Skidmore, Swarthmore, Wesleyan, Williams. These are a mix of target schools and reaches for him–he has close to a 4.0 and strong activities. and has tested in the range for those schools on mock ACTS. He’s very introverted and needs a college where he can grow into himself. I wonder if I should be helping him find other schools where he feels less pressured academically and has a nurturing environment where he can develop social schools.

It would also need to have a good orchestra and a Japanese program so he can at least minor. He is not interested in school with a strong fraternity life. Thanks for any input.

Haverford, while another reach, has an excellent orchestra and has the type of environment that sounds like an excellent fit for your son. It’s less intense than Swarthmore, but still an outstanding liberal arts college. If he’s open to schools in the midwest I would take a look at Grinnell, Macalester, Carelton, and St. Olaf.

Is he a rising senior? Have you run these schools’ net price calculators and they look affordable?

Other LACs with Japanese include Pomona, Middlebury, and Carleton. Have you considered medium size schools like Tufts or U Rochester?

I personally would not say Swat or Williams have nurturing environments, but YMMV.

A few comments:

My S was shy in HS and I thought a LAC would be perfect for him. But when we visited a LAC he felt it was just too small and that “everyone would know everyone else’s business”. I think what he really wanted to say was that there might not be enough space if he wanted to fade into the background for a bit. He ended up feeling most comfortable at mid-sized universities – we found a group of schools that had small class sizes and about 5,000 or so students - and he really thrived in that college environment. Not saying a LAC isn’t best for your S but let him look at some different schools (if possible with the pandemic) and listen to what he tells you.

FWIW my more outgoing D loved the close-knit feeling of LACs and thrived at one.

Also one of my D’s friends went to Hamilton to study Japanese and had a great expereince there.

DD2,also a shy and quiet kid, attended Lewis and Clark in Portland, probably a safety for your child if it’s affordable. She minored in Japanese and spent a semester in Japan. I have no idea about their orchestra but know they have open mic nights around campus. Great area too.

St. Olaf has a very music-focused culture and a phenomenal orchestra (lots of videos available on YouTube), and a very robust Japanese program . It’s not quite as competitive an admit as the Northeast schools on your list, but it has a reputation for intellectual seriousness and rigor, and would undoubtedly be harder to get into if more people wanted to be in rural Minnesota (about 45 minutes outside of Minneapolis, in the same town as Carleton). Not as much risk of its being “too small” as some LAC’s, with around 3000 students.

URochester also has good depth in Japanese language and Asian studies, and a substantial population of Asian international students. Terrific music opportunities and high quality ensembles; students can study with Eastman faculty.

Lawrence U in Wisconsin is another music-focused school, with a lot of the social life revolving around both formal and informal performances; non-majors are welcomed in any level of conservatory ensemble that they’re qualified for. The students who hosted my daughter for lunch and an ensemble rehearsal were genuine and welcoming and clearly very warm and supportive towards one another as well. Another terrific place for a kid who tends to build relationships through the arts.

Earlham is a Quaker school like Swat and Haverford - a bit less of a pressure cooker but still rigorous, with a particularly strong Japanese program. Music YouTube channel is here

Check out Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. Could do Honors Program, Japanese (also study in Japan) and orchestra.

Hamilton College has a Japanese minor as well as a great orchestra. It was on my D20’s short list and she had a great conversation with a professor in the music department when we went for an open house.

That being said, she is also shy, quiet, and an introvert and wants no part of Greek life. She decided on Colgate because she decided she wanted a school that would pull her out of her shell and make her challenge herself. She is still shy, quiet, and an introvert and will definitely not be joining a sorority but she has managed to make some connections with classmates that think a lot like she does and she doesn’t leave for another week!

Liberal arts colleges can be a great place for shy kids but also can be a prison if he can’t find his place. I too would recommend smaller private universities with undergrad focus and a diverse student body.

Hamilton’s spatial range and variety of dining and living options allow students to choose the social atmosphere to which they might be best suited, or to move across social atmospheres. You could ask your son whether this might appeal to him.


I second @aquapt 's recommendations and there are merit scholarships available at all of them.

In addition: Japanese + orchestra = Oberlin. Oberlin is more overtly politically liberal than those listed in post #5 which may or may not appeal. But students are kind and introverts abound (and thrive). No Greek life. Music is everywhere.

This is not an LAC, but Stony Brook University has a fantastic Japan Center and Symphony Orchestra. My daughter was very shy, but she attended one of the largest universities for undergrad and is now in grad school at New York University. She found her friend groups not in spite of all the students, but precisely because she was at large places with so much diversity, where she could find people who shared her somewhat obscure interests. You might want to keep an open mind and look at all size universities that have strong programs that match your son’s interests.

You can check the colleges’ catalogs and schedules to see how advanced the Japanese language course offerings are, and what advanced level topical courses there are for those who have completed the sixth or higher semester Japanese language course.

Check out Tufts, It is a small/midsize university with the biggest grad programs on separate campuses. It was founded by Universalists - the most liberal Protestant denomination. They did not believe in the notion of the “elect” or “hell” and assumed that everyone was good and would go to heaven. Very inclusive culture. Very global outlook. Goal is to create “active global citizens” who have empathy for other cultures. All liberal arts majors must take the equivalent of 6 foreign language/culture courses (including AP credit). IR (second largest major behind CS) majors are required to take the equivalent of 8. The largest student organization is the Leonard Carmichael Society which performs community service. Admissions screens for creativity and emotional intelligence/kindness with community service weighted heavily.

Strong Japanese program and a study abroad program with scholarships from the Japanese government.

Strong Orchestra, top small performance hall, joint program with the New England Conservatory (in downtown Boston). Tufts also runs a Community Music Program for Boston area kids with Tufts students serving as mentors

My shy and introverted kid just graduated from Bates. Her experience far exceeded what we could have hoped for. She had fantastic professors, made great friends, had internships, did research, won awards, participated in many wonderful events and activities, and has not one but three firm job offers in hand. She is currently working and will start a new job next month. She had to decline an amazing job to take a new one more aligned with her long term goals.

I will address the music and Japanese part of your question, @yumidesu . There are many ways to be involved with music at Bates. There are seven ensembles and so many musical events on campus. I was always impressed by the level of talent I saw when we attended various events at Bates.

As for Japanese, I can tell you that the program is fantastic. My D minored in Japanese. She studied abroad in Kyoto and had an amazing time. Her Japanese (no previous knowledge) is now excellent. She won a prestigious national scholarship to study Japanese intensively in Japan. She would give Bates’ program five stars.

Bates has no Greek life. Its whole ethos is based on inclusion. Its history is interesting. You can get a good summary here:

Williamette, in Salem, Oregon, is another school with a strong Japan focus and an exchange program with a Japanese university. (It same to mind because my son, who grew up in Japan, flatly refused to apply to Williamette - too Japanese LOL.) They also seem to have several active orchestras. Lots of other good ideas above.

@yumidesu, My son considered 4 of the schools on your son’s list. He ended up at Williams with Wesleyan, Hamilton and Kenyon as other top choices. (Kenyon, by the way, also offers Japanese language courses and would fit well in your son’s mix.)

Though I wouldn’t characterize my son as shy, he was at the time introspective and more likely to observe than initiate. Socially, Williams’ residential “entry” system, in which a group of firstyears lives together under the guidance of unpaid Junior Advisors, provides a ready made social structure to hang out with, to share meals with, to go to events with. The JAs provide advice both consequential and mundane plus soft shoulders as required.

Academically I would say that Williams is more collaborative than competitive. Though Williams students are serious about academic achievement, my observation is that the most prevalent pressure is internally generated: grades aren’t compared, or even discussed. Williams faculty are there for their students; they offer support and personal relationships that endure long after graduation in the form of graduate school and career recommendations. If a student encounters an academic rough patch, help is there often before it’s asked for.

Williams doesn’t have minors, but double majoring is common as is experimentation across disciplines. The Japanese program is small but vital with many adjuncts in other areas of study, such as art history, theater, history, plus a robust Asian Studies department.

Music performance opportunities for non-majors are a hallmark of Williams with two orchestras and a wide range of ensembles.

In addition to academic and music performance offerings, your son should think about the college’s prevailing culture. Williams insular mountain village environment encourages outdoorsy, nature driven activities which can either be a plus or a minus depending on what students like to do in their spare time.

Agree with the statement in post #3 above that LACs can feel small & that everyone knows everyone else’s business. This may not be a great environment for a shy, introvert.

Post #8 also offers some cautionary advice to consider.

Small, rural LACs can be a cruel environment for a student who doesn’t fit in.

I can see Vassar, Skidmore, and Wesleyan as being more accepting as well as Haverford College–assuming that your son feels comfortable in a liberal environment.

I do not think that any of the schools discussed can be considered as a nurturing environment where social skills can be developed. Your son will either develop such skills or risk being alone with just a friend or two. No school will babysit your son.

Consider Grinnell College in Iowa. Grinnell kids are kind & social & sensitive to differences as the school has a significant (about 20%) number of international students.

Broadly speaking, schools with a sizeable number of international students may be a great environment for a very shy introvert as he will not be judged or categorized quickly as might occur in a more traditional environment. International students tend to be more cautious & more considerate & more accepting of differences.

When my daughter and I toured east coast LACs a few summers ago. Vassar and Wesleyan bubbled up to the top of her list, for their accepting, friendly students and collaborative environment. D is an introvert and was looking for a smallish college where she could grow, make friends, get involved in extra curricular activities. Other colleges where we knew students (but did not visit) that seemed similar were Macalester, Grinnell, Oberlin and Whitman. She applied ED to Vassar, was accepted, is a happy rising sophomore there.

Given your son’s interest in Music, URochester and Oberlin should probably given serious looks. Macalester/Grinnell/Oberlin/Whitman/URochester all give merit aid to strong applicants.

It might be helpful if you were to state your son’s intended major, even if tentative.