Searching for unicorn: Small-ish mathy colleges in northeast with 25%+ admit rate

I think your question is one that is best put to Wesleyan. I’ll just note a couple of points:

  1. Wesleyan has the highest funding for STEM of any NESCAC college (their peers). That’s partially because they have the highest endowment of funds earmarked for STEM.

  2. The fact that they have PhD programs in both Math & Physics means that there are advanced courses available to qualified undergrads in these fields which wouldn’t typically be available at a small LAC.

  3. Wesleyan doesn’t offer Engineering, which is a big chunk of STEM. There are colleges where 40% of the student body are in the Engineering School, so their numbers are going to be off the charts by comparison. Wesleyan is a liberal arts college and their numbers reflect that.

  4. Wesleyan has a strong emphasis on social sciences. Physiological Psychology is grouped with them whereas it could easily be grouped with STEM, which would push that 16% up to about 22%.

  5. At an undergrad enrollment of about 3000, Wesleyan is big by LAC standards. That number is students in that 16% STEM would become more like 25% in a typical LAC of about 2000 students. In addition there are about 300 more students on campus in grad school, almost all of whom are studying STEM and going on to STEM fields. That’s a lot of STEM students on campus, about 25% of undergrad and grad students combined. It means a lot of resources dedicated to STEM. It means professorships which are attractive to people in the field. It means that professors can split their teaching load between grad courses and undergrad courses, providing the STEM departments with greater stability.


Take a look at the actual upper level math courses offered by each math department. Beyond a small set of core courses (e.g. real analysis, complex analysis, abstract algebra), offerings and frequency of offering do vary in terms of what subareas of math are covered.

Note that some math departments include statistics and/or operations research and/or theoretical computer science, but those may be in their own departments at some colleges.

A similar check would also be helpful in CS.

For physics, the major typically has a large upper level core, including quantum mechanics, electromagnetism and optics, upper level classical and relativistic mechanics, statistical and thermal physics, and upper level lab. But some very small physics departments may not reliably offer all of them often enough.

Also, be careful about any generalizations about “STEM”. Much of “STEM” is biology, and much of the rest is various kinds of engineering where that is offered. So “a college known for STEM” may not necessarily be what you are looking for, if its strength is in biology.


Wesleyan offers a notably strong physics program, even when considered on a national scale. As an indicator of this, it has produced two Apker Award recipients (for undergraduate research in physics) since 2010: LeRoy Apker Award - Wikipedia.


My son is a Physics/Math double major at Union. Large fraternity presence that we were worried about. But visiting won my son over. He chose NOT to join a Frat. The nice thing is they rush Sophomore year so he had a full year to find his people. Many of his friends did join a frat. There have been a few moments of thinking he might be missing out, but they are few and far between. He is going into his Senior year. Tight, tight group of Physics majors. Close relationships with Faculty. Paid summer research every summer since freshman year. It’s been a great home for him.


Thanks for all the suggestions everyone. I’d like to ask the question in a different way. With these stats, which of these colleges do you think would be “matches”, “reaches”, and “forget about it”? Would significant merit aid (10k+ be in the cards for any of them)?

Case Western

US domestic student
Small public high school (not academically rigorous)
Father is Asian, mother is white

Intended Majors:
Math (definitely)
computer science (maybe)
physics (maybe)

GPA, Rank, and Test Scores:
Unweighted HS GPA: 4
Weighted HS GPA (APs weighted 1.1x): 4.3
Class Rank: 5 of 250
SAT Scores: English 710
Math 760

By graduation I will have completed 8 AP courses and received a mix of 4s and 5s. I will also have completed three courses for college credit, in computer science and advanced math.

2 part time jobs – retail and camp counselor
1 club sport (all 4 years)
2 academic clubs – math and science club (all 4 years)
No significant leadership, volunteer work, or awards

Full pay is possible for the right school


Any of your list that has under 20% acceptance rate is a reach for all unhooked applicants. If your 1470 SAT is below last year’s admitted student median at any of these schools you should apply test optional. The last 7 schools are probably in the target range for you, none are safeties. Does your school use Naviance or Scoir?

Hamilton and Haverford give no merit aid. Wesleyan gives merit to very few students without financial need (only 3 students like this in class of 2024, per the CDS). Look in section H2A on each school’s CDS to get a sense for how many students receive merit, and the average amount.


Can’t speak to your full list. But my son had similar stats a few years back (graduated HS in 2018) and received merit aid from Union. It is their Presidential Scholarship and was good for all 4 years. $20,000 per year. Your SAT is slightly higher than his.


I believe your child would see significant merit at RPI.

That said, RPI is a totally different feel than most of the other schools on this list.


As a method for organization, you may want to consider U.S. News selectivity ranks:


:black_small_square:︎2. Haverford
:black_small_square:︎5. Hamilton
:black_small_square:︎19. Grinnell
:black_small_square:︎19. Wesleyan
:black_small_square:︎23. Macalester
:black_small_square:︎32. Oberlin
:black_small_square:︎32. Union
:black_small_square:︎41. Lafayette


:black_small_square:︎19. WUSL
:black_small_square:︎32. Case Western Reserve
:black_small_square:︎79. URochester


As an opinion, you would be reasonably likely to get into eight of these schools, although your class standing would keep you in consideration for all of them.


Great thoughts everyone.

It looks like Grinnell and Wesleyan have ED acceptance rates around 50% and Haverford and Hamilton have ED acceptance rates around 45%.

Would applying ED give me a decent shot to one of these places? Or would they still be a reach for someone with my stats & extracurriculars?


ED would be helpful to you for these schools, largely because your record shows you are fully qualified for them academically. Haverford, Hamilton and Wesleyan still might represent reaches for you, even with an ED application, but your chances of admission would seem to rise to well above their overall admission rates. Grinnell could be a match for you under multiple scenarios. Additionally, some schools from this group (Wesleyan and Haverford, I believe) might consider your lack of need for financial assistance, so your chances could go up on that basis as well.


merc81 - thank you for your comment! The selectivity ranks you posted list both Grinnell and Wesleyan tied for #19, so I’m curious why you believe that Grinnell could be a match under multiple scenarios. Is it something specific about Grinnell and their admissions? Thanks.

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I’ve seen Grinnell vary significantly in selectivity across recent years, while Wesleyan has been more consistently highly selective. For this reason, I’d regard Wesleyan as generally more selective. Also, Grinnell deemphasizes sports in relation to most NESCACs, which leaves more room for students such as yourself.


ED is a good strategy if you have a first choice and it will give you your best shot.

But don’t be mislead by the % accepted into thinking those are your odds-- recruited athletes (whose applications have already been"pre-read" by admissions and deemed acceptable) are in that pool as well as some other preferred groups.

Agree that Union would likely give you good merit and fits all your criteria except that it has Greek life, which is optional but a bigger part of the culture there than at some others.


Interesting point about the role that sports recruits take in the college admissions process. You’re spot on with your comments about Grinnell. Specifically, Grinnell fields 18 athletic teams in contrast with Wesleyan which fields 26, which is actually low by comparison with some of its NESCAC competitors where Williams, for example fields 32 teams. That’s a lot of spots taken up by athletes before ever getting to the regular admissions candidates.

In fairness to Wesleyan, athletes are less of a factor in their admissions process than almost all of the other NESCAC schools simply because they have a bigger enrollment (3000) than anyone else in NESCAC where enrollments are mostly in the neighborhood of 2000 except for Tufts. As a result, Wes still has a lot of admissions spots available even after the athletes are accounted for.


Regarding choosing a school, your array of academic interests would make you an especially good match for Hamilton. Because of Hamilton’s open curriculum, you could, in principle, take nearly all of your courses in mathematics, computer science and physics. I’d still recommend you further your education by including courses in fields and topics such as classics/philosophy, religious studies, history, political theory, literature, geosciences and art. However, these courses would be, with guidance from your advisor, of your own selection and pacing.


I feel icky asking, but would my demographics (Indian parent) and lack of financial need (though hoping for merit) give any kind of boost to my application to the schools on my list?

Regarding the financial aspect, this will depend on the school. Hamilton, for example, does not consider ability to pay in its admission decisions. Wesleyan, in contrast, does, at least for some applicants. Therefore, you wouldn’t get a boost at Hamilton, but you might at Wesleyan. This New York Times article covers the topic generally:


Lehigh U could be an option

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I honesty don’t know if 16% is good or bad. Is it in fact a relatively low % for a LAC with strengths across the academic spectrum, including noted strength in many of the social sciences and creative arts (the latter of which includes a rather unique (for a LAC) strength in film)? It’s not a rhetorical question. I honestly don’t know. But it strikes me that, when you don’t offer engineering and you’re known for being good at many other things away from STEM, it’s bound to hit your numbers. By contrast, I would expect Harvey Mudd’s % to be very high. It’s what they mostly do. Also not sure what “field” means. Does it count if a STEM kid winds up at Boston Consulting in a specific STEM-related practice?

I think history is on Wes’ side when it comes to STEM strength. I know I keep writing this, and I don’t plan to stop: when you look at the Apker prize in physics and you see schools like Williams getting well deserved recognition for 3 winners, remember that Wesleyan has had 2 winners and 2 finalists for the award in the PhD granting school division, going against the bigs.

That same physics department also aligns closely with an excellent astronomy department that punches way above its weight, with very productive research faculty.

They also recently beat a team at Harvard to the finish line in the discovery of 3 earth-sized planets orbiting a nearby star:

Bill Herbst at Wes is a noted stellar astronomy scholar and expert in his field. Martha Gilmore is a nationally respected authority in planetary geology. They have other fantastic and productive faculty in that department too.

I know those two areas, but can’t and/or won’t go blow by blow on math, chem, and all the other stem areas. I’ll leave it to others to cite Wes’ other STEM accomplishments. I know that Williams is very strong in math; but it’s hard to imagine Wes doesn’t have at least a relatively strong math department given its great astrophysics. But maybe that is the case. IDK. I hear over and over that Wes gets as much or more STEM research grant $$ as any other LAC in the country.

Your 25%+ admission rate might be a problem at Wes, but otherwise it might be what you’re looking for.