Pacific Northwest college search lessons and experiences for D21

My daughter is winding down her search and finishing up her applications after an exhaustive search limited to this region and CA. I thought I would share our experiences and conclusions for those thinking about Pacific Northwest schools and who are less familiar with this area. She is a 3.96 unweighted student with 1400 SATs from a year ago and a respectable activities resume, not off the charts, just respectable. So a competitive student for all but the most selective schools on the west coast. She is a lefty LGBT type kid so looking for a liberal and inclusive sort of place.

She isn’t completely sure what kind of college experience she really wants so we looked at three groups of schools (big public flagships, small liberal arts colleges, and medium size Catholic universities.

PUBLIC UNIVERSITIES: We visited UW, WSU, WWU, and UO. Her far and away top choice of the publics is UW in Seattle. Lots of friends from her HS go there, especially from her marching band which is something she wants to continue in college. She is also interested in molecular biology and genetics (not as pre-med but as a science career) and UW is world class in those areas. We have visited UW many times over the years pre-pandemic and she is comfortable with it and likes the Huskies. If she gets in it will be her first choice of the public schools. Her second choice is WWU in Bellingham which is a gorgeous campus and town. We visited in the summer of 2019 so didn’t see many students. But she felt comfortable there. She didn’t like Pullman and WSU but is keeping it in her back pocket. She was lukewarm about UO, mainly I think because the frat boy tour guide focused on student amenities and sports and not so much on academics and the other kids in the tour were way too southern Californian preppy “pretty people” for her taste. We did not visit OSU or any of the other directional schools in WA (Central and Eastern WA). We also did not visit any out of state public universities in the WUE program that give tuition discounts to WA residents like Montana, Montana State, Boise State, Utah, etc. If she doesn’t get into UW then WWU and WSU are the safeties. We also did not bother looking at any UC campuses in CA because what is the point. UW would be $40,000/year cheaper.

LIBERAL ARTS COLLEGES: There are 5 non-religious nationally known liberal arts colleges in the Pacific Northwest: Reed, Whitman, Lewis & Clark, University of Puget Sound, and Willamette. We visited all of them but Willamette which is reported to have the weakest biology programs of the five and more known for social sciences and politics/policy than natural science. We did not bother with any of the religious-based liberal arts colleges here as she doesn’t want that and they are all weaker than the above 5 (Linfield, Whitworth, Seattle Pacific, George Fox, Pacific University, Pacific Lutheran, etc). Reed was her top choice to start but it has slid for two reasons. First, no merit aid so we would be 100% full pay. And she isn’t sure she wants quite the intense academic environment. I’m a Reed grad and it can be a pressure cooker. She wants to do a year abroad, for example, which is difficult at Reed because their distributional requirements are so intense and study abroad requires departmental approval. Lewis & Clark and University of Puget Sound are very equivalent in size and selectivity. L&C is more of a woodsy suburban estate while UPS is much more of a traditional urban quad type setting. She likes the UPS campus a bit more I think because it is more “Hogwarts” and more the archetypical college campus. But the are very close and if she gets into both then whichever offers the better merit aid package will likely be the deciding factor. We visited L&C in Dec 2019 with students on campus and have only been able to do self guided walking tours of UPS so she doesn’t have a sense of any differences in student body if there are any. We drove out to Whitman last Sunday for an on-campus tour. They are doing guided tours with your personal tour guide even though the campus has gone mostly virtual. Whitman went WAY WAY up on her list after the in-person visit. Walla Walla isn’t an exciting town and eastern WA is pretty bleak but the campus is gorgeous and the people are just so friendly and loyal to Whitman. Academically it is a step up over L&C and UPS so choosing between those three with roughly equivalent packages I’d probably push her to look hardest at Whitman. We shall see. If the cost of one of these LACs can be bent down somewhere within eyesight of full pay at UW then we would give it a really hard look. But it would be tough to pick any of these over UW if we are talking full pay which would be $50,000/year more for a kid who is likely bound for grad school anyway. I think she would be better served by a good LAC but not $50,000/yr better served.

CATHOLIC UNIVERSITIES: There are three main ones here in the Northwest: University of Portland, Seattle University, and Gonzaga. We have driven through the UP campus a few times as it is 20 minutes from our home here in the Vancouver WA area. Seems like a nice place in a quiet suburban corner of North Portland. but D21 isn’t interested in applying. L&C just seems much more like her kind of place if she is going to stay here in the Portland metro area. We didn’t look at Seattle University which is in downtown Seattle (or right next to it). She applied to Gonzaga because she has friends there but we haven’t visited. If they come through with a competitive merit aid package we might drive out and look at it. They are doing on-campus school this fall and tours so we can drive out any time. It’s about 5.5 hours for us so doable in one long day there and back.

CALIFORNIA SCHOOLS: We did a covid road trip through CA this August in the middle of the forest fires. Visited USF, Santa Clara, Occidental, USC, and Pomona and the Claremont Colleges. She thought USF was too cold and urban. Liked Santa Clara. Loved Occidental. And thought Pomona was too southern plantation/country club for her taste. She also liked USC that that is a definite reach school and I don’t know if she is even going to bother to apply. Probably the only CA school she will apply to is Occidental which I put sort of in the same category as Whitman. We visited a closed campus so didn’t meet any staff or students. If she gets in and gets a good merit award offer we’d probably fly down and visit again next spring (if they have students back on campus) before making a decision. But frankly I think she is more likely to pick one of the LACs here in the Pacific Northwest if she decides against UW.

If I had to guess at this point I’d say UW is # 1 if she gets in, especially if she gets into the Honors College. If not then UPS, Lewis & Clark or Whitman if one offers a good merit aid package. If not then WWU or WSU as the safeties. Occidental is kind of the wild card that might insert itself into the LAC conversation with a good merit aid package. As a non-religious lefty LGBT kid I don’t think she will end up at a Catholic school. We mostly visited them for due diligence. I think she is also burned out with essays and not inclined to finish the USC application which has a lot of unique to USC essay prompts.

Feel free to ask me anything about any Pacific Northwest college or University. I’m a HS teacher and 5th generation Oregonian so I know more about the schools here than I touched on. I’ve seen most of them multiple times over the years and have sent other HS students to most of them.


@Camasite, I’ve been following your family’s journey, and it sounds like my daughter would wholeheartedly agree with your daughter’s assessment of the PNW options except we never could convince her to put Whitman at the very top of the list because of Walla Walla. Personally, I think Whitman is wonderful and provides students with individualized attention and amazing, accessible instructors. Whitman also offered my daughter a large academic scholarship that made her financial aid package competitive with UW’s.

If your daughter is not accepted to UW, I agree that WWU is a great alternative. Bellingham is a wonderfully livable town for college students.

Wishing your daughter the best! I hope she knocks UW’s diversity essay out of the park!

Very interesting. Thanks! My son would love to end up in Cali (he’s a surfer wanna be who has never surfed) but money will talk and its loudly saying NOT an option!

She was not even interested in going out to visit Whitman until I forced the issue last Sunday and we drove out. We lived in TX until 2016 and everything east of the Cascades reminds her of TX and all that she was happy to leave behind. Last summer we did official visits of UW and WWU followed by the LONG and desolate drive out to Pullman to visit WSU When you do it in that order, it is VERY VERY hard to get Pullman to compare to Bellingham or Seattle. I don’t think there is a major flagship university anywhere in the country that is more isolated than WSU.

But she was very pleasantly surprised by Whitman and the area of Walla Walla around the campus. It seems like a very pleasant place to be a student and be able to bike around since it is flat. There are cafes, bakeries, restaurants, and groceries all within walking distance of campus so live would be easy on or off campus. We live in a very hilly part of Camas so biking is just a big hassle. And WWU is also brutally hilly as is L&C. I think she is warming to the idea of being a bigger fish in a small pond rather than the opposite. And the fact that Whitman seems to have a much greater sense of community as the students really need to make their fun together. It’s not like Portland or Seattle where you can just vanish into the city every weekend. Whitman comes across as the most caring and supportive college of any that we visited. I think that is party due to location. The people there are very cool. They do an excellent job of putting their best face forward.

In any event, the drive time to Whitman from our house is 3 hours 45 min which is only about 45 min further than driving to UW and probably an hour closer than going to WWU. So technically speaking it isn’t really any further from home. Just seems like it.

She won’t let me read her essays but I trust she did fine. I did make her have her AP English teachers review them.

At this point, my preference would be for her to come down to a choice between UW and Whitman and really be able to intelligently choose what type of college experience she wants. None of the other options are at all bad. We aren’t applying to anything that would be bad. But those would be my top two choices given who I think she is. If she wants a big state school then WWU, WSU, and UO are all steps down from UW. And if she wants a small private college then L&C, UPS, and Gonzaga are all steps down from Whitman. All good options, but steps down I think.

I’m also more and more comfortable with the fact that she isn’t applying to my alma matter Reed. She is a quiet and fairly straight-laced kid (doesn’t even like soda much less alcohol). The extreme Bohemian culture that is Reed (or was Reed when I was there in the 1980s) might not really be within her comfort zone.


Hi, I have a general question about UW. We are in California and S is interested in CS and Bio. CS is a reach being OOS but should get admitted for Bio. S and husband toured but didn’t get a good feel for the student vibe. At least when they were there they said it had kind of a commuter feel. Are students generally friendly and inclusive? What about the “Seattle freeze”? Thanks!

Incidentally, S loves the PNW climate and wants to get out of CA but we didn’t find the perfect school - an LAC style smaller campus that’s great for STEM. Toured OU and got stuff stolen from our hotel room. He’s applying to Seattle U but got turned off by the rioting and response.


Great overview of your visits! We are in CA and my son also was interested in small LAC schools in the PNW. We visited L&C and Willamette but our planned trips to Whitman and UPS last spring were derailed by COVID. I think L&C was his first choice out of those schools so was actually surprised when he ended up choosing Whitman, especially given that he had never visited. Even more so because I think he mostly applied because I pushed him to submit his app before 12/1 as they waived the app fee for early applications, lol. But all four schools were quite generous with their merit aid which was a pleasant surprise. Good luck to your daughter! I am sure she will have even better results as her stats are much more impressive.

I don’t know what the undergrad life is like at UW but I did go there for grad school and spent nearly a decade living and working nearby for NOAA in fisheries science and maintained a lot of connections there.

I expect UW is like any other large urban university such as UC-Berkeley or UCLA. You have to seek out find your own community. It’s not like a small LAC where you are paying a lot of money for them to do that for you. At a small LAC there is so much organized socialization and hand-holding that you can’t hardly avoid it. At a place like UW you have to seek out your community. It is full of highly motivated immigrant kids, international students, and so forth who just know how to do that because they have been looking out for themselves their whole lives. When I taught undergrad classes at UW back in the day, the kids that did the best were those kinds of students. Often first or second generation Asian-American kids and Hispanic kids who got there on their own effort not because their parents sent them to fancy prep schools and hired college coaches. And they know how to seek each other out and form their own study groups and their own clubs and such without the university helping.

I think the key is to join things. For example, my daughter wants to do marching band and maybe join the sailing team. Her HS friends ahead of her in marching band are doing that at UW and love it. But you have to get out and do that yourself, the college isn’t going to do it for you. I also think that’s why kids join Greek life at big universities. My oldest daughter actually attended a big SEC school and did the sorority thing for her first two years. She found her community and did just fine and she is far less academic than the middle child in question.

And yes, UW probably does have something of a commuter feel because they don’t remotely have enough dorms for all the undergrads. There is now a subway stop on campus. And there are thousands of grad students and such who also live off campus. And probably lots and lots of local kids who live at home and commute to school. There are thousands of kids there who commute to class then hop the bus or train home to work in the family shop or restaurant or whatever job they have. And don’t have time to sit around campus after hours doing bonding type stuff. And it is literally in the center of Seattle so the whole city is at your doorstep. You aren’t limited to just a college neighborhood of shops and bars and such as is the case with big universities in small college towns.

The question is whether it is worth $24k to $50k more per year for the kind of hand-holding you will get at a small LAC. I don’t think so myself. Unless you think your child is so fragile that they absolutely need it to thrive. Most aren’t. And most of the rest of the world outside the US doesn’t even do the small LAC thing. It’s mostly all big impersonal commuter universities in Canada, Europe, and everywhere else. Most kids get through it just fine.

I do know one thing for certain. It’s definitely not worth the money to pay expensive LAC prices to send my child to an out of state public university. So we didn’t even bother to apply to any UC schools, for example. I don’t think UC-Berkeley is worth $50k more per year than UW-Seattle.

As for small private schools with a STEM focus? In the PNW your best bet is going to be Reed or Whitman. Both has 3:2 programs with places like CalTech in engineering and computer science. And have their good STEM programs in their own right. But there are no small privates in the PNW that have engineering schools. Your best bet for something like that would be Santa Clara University which just built a brand new engineering facility and is pouring money into it. We visited in August and it is impressive. After that in the PNW I would rate UPS and L&C as roughly equivalent in the life sciences. My impression is that Willamette is a step behind as they are more focused on policy and pre-law type stuff. And (I think) have a lower percentage of student majoring in STEM fields. Gonzaga is a wild card that I haven’t yet really investigated. It strikes me as SUPER white and moderately conservative so not really what D21 is looking for. She applied but we won’t really investigate it until spring, if ever. And only if they give her a really attractive offer.

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Thanks I appreciate those thoughts. S is not fragile and a hard worker but also not very assertive so far socially and attends a really small high school. He’s applying EA to Santa Clara, which we also toured and I loved, but S really does not enjoy the heat and would prefer to get up North sooner. The nice part about a larger public school is that you have great options to pivot and you meet all kinds of kids. He works at a small aquarium here and raises rare plants but he also loves programming - not your typical kid. UW would give him a lot of freedom to explore those interests vs. a LAC. I knew it was impacted in terms of getting classes but wasn’t aware of the housing shortage. Thanks I will read about Reed and Whitman.

I think UW is a great institution but it is enormous and urban so you can get lost. I think 70% of freshman live on campus and the numbers tail off quickly after that. But the University District has experienced an absolutely enormous building boom of college apartments and private dorm type buildings so I don’t think there is really a housing shortage, just not a huge number of students living in on-campus housing. Since Seattle is a big expensive city, housing is expensive everywhere and it isn’t just students living in the University District and nearby neighborhoods.

Reed is a phenomenal STEM school but also pretty eclectic and Bohemian. No varsity sports or Greek life. Very intensely academic. Students tend to be ultra-liberal and, when I was there, many came from wealthy Bay Area and NY/Boston families. Located in a gorgeous residential neighborhood in SE Portland with the city at your doorstep. Whitman has comparable academics but is much more of a traditional LAC with varsity athletics, Greek live and such. Walla Walla is a small town in eastern Washington wine country. So lots of cute restaurants and cafes and a bazillion wineries in the area. But it is isolated and not much else is there. Whitman students strike me as the most friendly, collaborative, and loyal of any I have met from anywhere. I think the isolated location leads to a lot of bonding and camaraderie. I’ve never heard anyone ever say a bad thing about the place.


OP, did you ever consider looking north of the border at UBC or UVic?

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We did actually. Both of them. But the pandemic killed the option of going up to visit. My understanding of Canadian universities is that they are much more commuter-type schools where you really have to make your own way and not so much the residential-type schools that American kids are used to. In terms of cost when you take into account the exchange rate, the price of international tuition at UBC comes in about mid-way between the cost of an in-state school and a private school. So maybe $45,000 per year give or take.

Without covid we would have at least driven up to visit both of them. But they kind of fell off the radar once we could no longer cross the border.

Well, it’s all done except for the waiting now.

She visited and applied to:

University of Puget Sound
Lewis & Clark

She visited but did not apply to:
Santa Clara
University of Portland
University of San Francisco

She still hasn’t completely decided if she wants the big school or small school experience. I expect if she wants a big school then UW will be the top choice. If she wants a small school then Whitman will be the top choice. We shall see. Ultimately it is her choice as long as we can afford it. I would be comfortable with any of her choices.


Thanks so much for sharing all this. I’m in Portland with a daughter one year behind yours, and she’s remarkably similar to your daughter in stats, interests and the type/locations of schools that she’s thinking about. Please keep us updated about what your daughter decides to do!

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Also, many majors at Washington are competitive to get into if a student enters undeclared or in another major. CS is the most well known of these majors.

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Will do! We are just across the river in Camas.

She got her first acceptance letter today. From Western Washington. They also sent a cool poster along with the letter. Now she’s excited about Western all of a sudden. They are smart. Be the first school to send that letter and you are going to get extra attention. Be the last one and the decision might well already be made before then.

Hopefully your daughter will have the chance to actually visit schools when students are there. Half the schools on our list we just drove out, parked, and toured the closed campuses on our own. The only school we encountered for which that was not possible was Loyola Marymount, which was gated and closed off. I guess the inner city LA schools have much more serious security and enclosed perimeters. All the NW schools are just wide open to explore on your own.

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That’s my understanding as well. Reportedly, Computer science, all the engineering majors, and the business school are the most competitive and difficult to get into as a freshman. And you need to be admitted as a freshman generally as they take very few transfers in from other majors. The college of arts and sciences as an undeclared major is much easier. Apparently you still have to compete in for some majors, but it is reportedly more a matter of just being a reasonably good student and doing decently in your prereqs, not something ultracompetitive for majors like biology.

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Thank you for sharing your thoughts & impressions.

I find it a bit odd that you did not visit Seattle University since your daughter liked UW & much as she did.

Also a fan of WWU.

The University of Victoria & UBC are well worth a visit–especially, in my opinion, the University of Victoria.


I agree with publisher - Seattle U (from what I knew several years back) is/was much more open and progressive than Gonzaga/Spokane. I am pretty surprised on that one. (family lived in WA for 18 yrs). Gonzaga always struck us as the prepster/pre-professional/conservative school; Seattle U was the high academic/LGBT friendly/exciting school. So - curious on that opposite switch for you.

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It’s not always a rational process. Seattle U is an extremely urban campus right on the edge of downtown Seattle. She likes more green space and woodsy type campuses. She disliked University of San Francisco for being too urban and concrete. Seattle U is even more so. Even UW is much more leafy and green despite also being in Seattle. My daughter is attracted to UW because she has spent a lot of time on campus over the years doing band events, she has lots of friends already there, or who, like her, hope to go there. She wants to continue with marching band in college which she can’t do at Seattle U. If she is going to attend a private school in the Northwest, then UPS, Whitman, and Lewis & Clark are just more interesting to her.

She has never visited Gonzaga. That’s the only school we haven’t actually laid eyes on. But she has a really good friend a year ahead of her who is now a freshman at the nursing program at Gonzaga and two of her best friends are apply there so she added it to her list of common app schools just in case. I think it very unlikely that she will pick Gonzaga over the other options unless they offer her an extraordinary merit aid package or something. It strikes me as a very white, middle class, and middle of the road sort of place politically.

Either way, I don’t think either of those two Jesuit schools would be in her top five.

Without Covid we would most definitely taken a trip this summer to visit UBC and UVic. But the border is closed indefinitely. We’ve been to both Vancouver BC and Victoria many times over the years but never official campus visits. Although I did some research work myself at UBC many years ago. But with Covid putting them off limits for the foreseeable future they just kind of dropped off the radar. I’m personally not sure what UBC would have to offer over UW given that it would cost nearly twice as much. It’s still big undergrad classes on a big sprawling urban university. It’s not that they are bad choices, just that they are tremendously more expensive than our local in-state options for American students paying international tuition.

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@Camasite what a wonderful storyteller you are and I love reading your daughter’s application journey.

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