What Is A Liberal Arts College?

A huge congratulations to our EduSmith class of 2020! Our students have been hearing back from their dream colleges around the United States, and many have been accepted to top-tier Liberal Arts Colleges, including Williams College, Bowdoin College, Middlebury College, Wesleyan University, and Harvey Mudd College. All of us on the EduSmith team are incredibly proud of our high school seniors, and are delighted to see their hard work pay off.

While our seniors can pause to rest now after the bustle of application season, this is a great opportunity for younger EduSmith students and their families to ask: what exactly is a Liberal Arts College (LAC)? And why are so many students applying to them? Should I apply to any LACs as well?

EduSmith is here to help.

A Liberal Arts College is a type of college very unique to the United States. The U.S. is home to many, many LACs, including a wide variety of renowned institutions like Williams College, Pomona College, Reed College, Amherst College, and more. Although different LACs take slightly different approaches, they share a set of core values: small class sizes, elite academics, theory over practice, and exploration outside of one’s comfort zone. Let’s tackle these principles one by one, and discuss how they are embodied at Williams College, the alma mater of two of our senior counselors.

Small Class Sizes: LACs are known for their small student bodies, and their high faculty-to-student ratios. This means that most classes at typical liberal arts colleges will have only ten to twenty students, with the possible exception of introductory classes. Contrast this with larger research universities, where classes are likely to be taught in auditoriums with hundreds of students. At LACs, students are more likely to have direct interactions with their professors, both in office hours and in class. They are able to cultivate close relationships that advance their college career in a myriad of ways, from winning research assistantship positions during college to obtaining amazing recommendations when they apply for graduate school. Williams College takes the concept of small class sizes one step further with their Oxford-style tutorials, in which two students meet weekly with a professor for a deep dive into challenging material to allow a more student-driven, nuanced approach to subject material.

Elite Academics: Liberal Arts Colleges are known for their high-quality academics. While this  varies depending on the institution, you can generally expect top-notch curricula at liberal arts colleges, from world-renowned professors and scholars to wide-ranging and challenging curricula. In fact, many of the liberal arts colleges in New England are known as the “Little Ivy’s” because of their platinum-tier academics, and compete in national rankings against bigger names like Yale, Harvard, and Stanford. Williams College was ranked as the United States’ #1 college by Forbes magazine in 2010, 2011, and 2014, besting even the Ivy Leagues. 

Theory Over Practice: This is where a lot of folks become confused about LACs. LACs tend not to offer professional  and technical degrees; that is to say, you will rarely find accounting, engineering, or administrative programs at Liberal Arts Colleges. The LAC philosophy instead pushes students towards theory: study physics rather than engineering; study economics rather than accounting. By mastering the underlying theory, it will be relatively easy to apply that theory to a technical career after graduation, or to acquire a more specialized graduate degree. Some people mistakenly believe that LACs do not have robust math and science programs. This is a myth. It is not uncommon for students from LACs to attend medical school, or graduate school in applied sciences and engineering. LACs have very well developed science and mathematics departments, with excellent laboratory facilities and research opportunities. However, course offerings from these departments will likely focus on pure science as opposed to industry-specific information. An aspiring engineer, for instance, would find excellent instruction in statics, dynamics, and electrophysics, but perhaps would have to take courses about concrete construction and structural steel during their graduate degree program.

Academic Exploration: A key principle of LACs is academic exploration. While students are given ample opportunity to specialize in their degree of choice, they are not required to declare their majors until late in their academic careers. Furthermore, LACs are not institutionally divided between disciplines, so no administrative barriers exist if an anthropology major wishes to take a geology class. It is very easy for students to take a wide range of classes, and develop a number of skills outside of their specialization. This offers real advantages to students, who can learn to communicate across disciplines, a skill that will become increasingly important to employers as society moves to tackle more and more sophisticated problems. An English major who can write well is powerful; but an English major who can write well and understand complex scientific principles is a force to be reckoned with. At Williams, students are encouraged to take a wide variety of classes in addition to their major-track, and majors are not declared until the end of sophomore year.

We hope you put a few LACs on your list of potential colleges. And of course, if you have any questions about LACs or college at-large, EduSmith’s experienced counselors are here for you. Happy college hunting!

About the author:

Jackson Barber is a senior counselor and a lead Mathematics coach at EduSmith. He graduated from Williams College, a top-ranked liberal arts college, with highest honours in Mathematics.

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