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Choosing the right-fit schools

Everyone wants to make it to the top-ranked institutes in America, but you can find some real gems in smaller liberal arts colleges report Arjun Seth

education Updated: Jul 21, 2010 09:24 IST
Arjun Seth

Selective colleges in the US can broadly be categorised into three types — the large public universities, mid-sized private universities and the small liberal arts and science colleges.

Families in India are usually aware of the first two types but aren’t well informed about the last category. Liberal arts colleges can, however, be perfect for students who want to be in a small, undergraduate institution, looking for a small, intimate campus and tiny class sizes. If you like being part of a close-knit campus community and want more people to be personally invested in your learning goals then these colleges can provide the perfect environment for your higher education and for realising your career goals.

Alas, these colleges don’t show up on popular ranking websites. So if you are ready to go beyond the typical ‘Top-ranked national universities,’ you’ll soon discover why so many students swear by their experience at these undergraduate focused liberal arts colleges, where they’ve found the right kind of intellectual stimulation, care and personal attention.

Go ahead and use tabulated rankings as a starting point for your college search but don’t end it there, for soon you’ll find that rankings are irrelevant and not at all an indication of what kind of college experience is right for you.

Says Tanay Warerkar, a sophmore at Sarha Lawrence College, NY (www.slc.edu), “Having interacted with students from different universities one comes to realise that while rankings are important they certainly aren’t a topic broached on a conversational basis. Each school is identified by the calibre of the students it produces and that might not necessarily be reflective of the ranking of that institution, so I think it has more to do with whether the school has produced students that are now on the public radar.”

Madhavika Bajoria, a student I’ve worked with, wrote to me about her college search when she was in high school and then shared her experiences at Bryn Mawr (www.brynmawr.edu), an all-women’s liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. Bajoria is currently considering a double major in economics and international studies and a minor in Spanish. “Geographic location played a very important part in my selection process. I wanted to be near a city on the coasts. This turned out to be the right decision for me. I always knew I’d major in economics but Spanish became a serious academic interest only after I took a language class for fun and ended up wanting to do it for the remaining undergrad years. Similarly, international studies is a unique programme, which draws from aspects of economics, political science, philosophy and language and culture studies. This was a perfect programme for me since it ties in all my interests and allows me to explore all of them. The general education requirements have been a little bit of an annoyance. I wish there were fewer but at the same time I wouldn’t change any of the classes I chose to take.”

Compact sizes too matter. Says Anshu Singh from Clark University, “the average class size of my intro classes was close to 22. That worked perfectly for me as I had a personal rapport with all my professors, and even my Korean economics professor knew me by my very Indian name.

“Currently I am pursuing a double major in economics and environmental science and policy. I had gone undecided, but my faculty advisor and the liberal arts system of education helped me immensely in making the right decision.”

When asked about lack of diversity in some of the liberal arts schools, Warerkar explains, “I was keen on going to a school that did not have a large international student population, and I’m glad I made the decision of choosing Sarah Lawrence. I often find that Indian students tend to stick together and get trapped in a bubble that limits their interaction to the people from their country. I believe this greatly detracts from the overall college experience. I didn’t want to travel all the way to America to solely interact with students from my country. Interacting with American students and others from different countries has been an enriching educational experience, and I would go to the extent of saying that it has changed the way I perceive life. However, having a small international population or for that matter having a largely white student body does have its drawbacks. While I have personally never faced any problems, people from smaller ethnic groups seem to feel threatened at times, and this has resulted in tensions on a few occasions. Such issues often have a magnified impact at a smaller school.”

These colleges also give you the liberty to change courses. Amar Sarkar, currently a mathematics major at Grinnell college (www.grinnell.edu), began as a psychology and economics double major. “These interests change with time and that’s no surprise. One of the main advantages of the liberal arts system is the ability to choose your major field and change your choice while you’re there. As far a general education is concerned, a variety of courses in different disciplines helps cultivate the skills (critical reading and thinking, analytical skills, research skills and most importantly, writing skills) that the college is trying to teach you,” says Sarkar. Rather than looking at the size of the student body as a whole, you should look at student to faculty ratio. “At Grinnell, it is 7:1, which is quite impressive. For undergraduate education, aim for a smaller class size so that you can learn the skills (note, I’m saying skills, not content) to the best of your ability,” advises Sarkar.

Another important criteria while searching for colleges is to assess the personality of the student body each represents, a point often overlooked by students and parents in India. Says Bajoria, “Coming from an all-girls high school in Kolkata with little diversity, my perception of diversity has undergone a complete change, but for the better. The student body at Bryn Mawr is very liberal, outspoken and opinionated. They are also extremely accepting. I really like the intellectual drive and curiosity that I see in most students.

“However, being an all-women’s institution, there is also a tendency towards non-conformity for the sake of non-conformity, which I don’t really like because it’s insincere.

“A lot of gender stereotypes are played up in order to allow male-bashing and militant feminism, which can also get very annoying. But besides that, I generally admire a lot of students I go to school with!”

Working with several students for almost a decade, I’ve seen how quickly their perspective on liberal arts colleges has changed from the time of the application to when they come to college. Many are not even sure they would apply to some of the highly-ranked national universities they would have died to get into initially.

The author is an independent college admissions counsellor and also runs www.YouCanWriteNow.com a blog helping students write
college application essays.