Campus Visit Notes: Reed College

College:  Reed College

Location: Portland, OR

Type of Institution: Private liberal arts

Size: 1,400 students

Admissions Advice: Reed College is all about fit. Most applicants have top scores and GPAs, so readers look beyond that and focus on elements like intellectual curiosity, interest in interdisciplinary learning, and communication and debate skills. They place a high value on letters of recommendation (again, ideally with a focus on fit) and the supplemental essay.

Most popular majors: Biology, Psychology, English, Math, Physics, Social Sciences

Words to describe students I met: intellectual, quirky, scholars, independent, inquisitive, liberal

Unique academic aspects:  For a school with such an “alternative” reputation, Reed College actually has quite a strict set of core requirements. For example, every freshman will take the Humanities 110 seminar which includes interdisciplinary courses based on Greek, Roman, and Mediterranean literature. Additionally, there are a range of core requirements across arts/humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, among other areas. Reed wants to make sure students come out of the experience knowing how to think critically about a range of interconnected topics and ideas.

Reed is also a science powerhouse. Students majoring in the sciences get their own lab space and funding for materials (if needed) as they complete their senior thesis projects. They have strong connections with other universities, such as 3 + 2 engineering programs with CalTech, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Columbia University, and a computer science degree partnership with University of Washington.

Unique social/cultural aspects: Renn Fayre (aka “Renaissance Fair”) is kind of a big deal at Reed College. This multi-day celebration is thrown by the junior class and takes place after seniors turn in their thesis projects. It features a parade, parties, crafting, fireworks, and many other activities.

I was also impressed to learn about the fine and performing arts facilities at Reed, and just how common it is for students to take classes in these areas. The campus has two theaters, a new performing arts center, tons of instrument practice rooms, and dance studios for use by classes, student groups, and even the community in general.

Colleges that seem similar:  Brown University, Oberlin College, Lewis & Clark College, Grinnell College, Pitzer College

Concerns about this college:  Reed often doesn’t receive serious consideration from my students because the college doesn’t have any sports teams. Sure, there are a range of PE classes and club teams students can join, but there aren’t opportunities to support your team and show your school spirit in a more formal, traditional way. Additionally, much like neighboring Lewis & Clark College, the campus political vibe is extremely left-leaning. While vibrant discussion and debate are common on campus, students likely won’t get much exposure to conservative viewpoints here.

Overall impressions: Reed lived up to its quirky and intellectual reputation. I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about the amazing academic culture on campus and opportunities through programs like “Paideia” and the the celebration surrounding the completion of senior thesis projects. The campus was quiet, calm, and beautiful – a perfect setting for deep reflection and focus – while the exciting city of Portland isn’t too far away. My visit confirmed that Reed isn’t a school for everyone, but for the right student, it is an amazing place to grow intellectually.

Campus Visit Notes: Muhlenberg College

College: Muhlenberg College

Location: Allentown, PA

Type of Institution: Private liberal arts

Size: 2,200

Admissions Advice:  Muhlenberg values demonstrated interest in the review process, so students should really try to build a relationship with their admission representative over time. Campus visits, interviews, and interactions during high school visits are just some of the ways of helping them get to know you and your interest in the college. Though the college is test-optional, they do want to see scores for students seeking merit scholarships. And finally, this is more of a regional college, so students from farther away (West Coast) may have a slight advantage in the process as they seek to diversify the freshman class.

Most popular majors: Business, Biology (pre-med, pre-health tracks), Theater, Dance, Psychology

Words to describe students I met: Articulate, well-rounded, friendly, artistic, grounded

Unique academic aspects: Muhlenberg is one of the unique liberal arts colleges which also has a pre-professional focus and culture. Business is a popular major, and lots of students come here to prepare for graduate programs in the health sciences, so it doesn’t feel quite as removed from the job market compared to other liberal arts colleges. It is common for students to seek out internships as early as freshman year, and the career services center is very strong.

Also, for such a small college, Muhlenberg really takes Theater seriously. They have 7-9 productions a year, with those offered in the summer done by professional actors in collaboration with students. There are also 12 black box productions and generally 15-20 one-act or shorter theater productions a year. They offer several majors within Theater, including stage management, directing, and technical theater. The facilities I saw were pretty awesome, and the Theater student I met (double majoring in English) choose Muhlenberg over other more well-known programs because of the tight-knit and supportive community. Scholarships are available and an audition, interview and/or portfolio are recommended for the best consideration.

Unique social/cultural aspects: As mentioned above, there is an interesting mix of theater and fine arts culture and support on campus,  as well as strong programs in business and pre-med. I was also surprised to learn that there are 4 fraternities and 4 sororities at Muhlenberg, and about 20% of the total student body participates.

Colleges that seem similar:  Franklin and Marshall College, Trinity University, Ithaca College, Skidmore College, Rhodes College

Concerns about this college: I didn’t get much time to explore the surrounding area of Allentown, but it did not strike me as the most exciting place to go to college. There is a district with restaurants, art galleries, theaters, etc. within a mile walk of campus, and there are plenty of the college student basics within a short drive. It is also about an hour outside of Philadelphia and 1.5 hours from New York City, which students take advantage of from time to time.

Overall impressions: After hearing about the college in a presentation last year, I was intrigued and excited to learn more. This campus visit did not disappoint. It really feels like a family, and the students I met were bubbling over with enthusiasm for their college. Muhlenberg is a great place for students with an interest and appreciation for the arts, interfaith dialogue, career preparation, and a well-rounded college experience.

Campus Visit Notes: Lewis & Clark College

College:  Lewis & Clark College

Location: Portland, OR

Type of Institution: Private liberal arts

Size: 2,000

Admissions Advice: Lewis & Clark offers a great test-optional opportunity for students who shine in areas other than SAT or ACT, and those who choose to apply without scores are still eligible for merit scholarships. It is a moderately selective school, admitting about 60% of applicants in recent years. Average GPAs are high and readers pay attention to “fit” as demonstrated through their supplemental essay.

Most popular majors: International Affairs, Environmental Science, Psychology, Biology

Words to describe students I met: progressive, curious, globally-minded, creative, outdoorsy

Unique academic aspects:  Lewis & Clark is a popular school for my students with interests in international studies, sustainability, and other social science fields. More than 60% of L & C students study abroad, and there is a big focus on this aspect of the college’s mission throughout the student’s educational experience. Though Lewis & Clark is most known for strengths in the social sciences and languages, there are also excellent opportunities for science and math students. For example, they offer a 10-week science and math research program where students conduct paid research and end their time with a publication.

I was also really impressed to learn about all of the orientation and welcoming activities for students as they transition to college. There is “Exploration and Discovery”, for example, which places 18 students together to learn about college level expectations and campus resources. This same group then spends the second semester together in another course in the faculty leaders’ area of expertise. The Pioneer Success Institute is another example of this excellent first-year support.

Unique social/cultural aspects:  Lewis & Clark’s social culture is seriously progressive. For starters, the college has gender neutral bathrooms and housing options. They are consistently ranked as one of the most sustainable campuses in the country. All buildings must meet LEED certification standards, and the campus electricity is from alternative sources (wind power). While this isn’t necessarily that unique on the west coast, I felt like Lewis & Clark took this to the next level through both academics and the social culture of campus.

Colleges that seem similar: Willamette University, Whitman College, Dickinson College, Pitzer College, Colorado College

Concerns about this college:  Lewis & Clark would not be a good place for a more socially or politically conservative student. The campus culture is very left-leaning, as is the city of Portland, which means that students may not get much in the way of balanced debate in the classroom. Another concern is that while L & C is located in Portland city limits, it is still a solid 20+ minutes from downtown Portland, depending on traffic. So though the brochure says “Portland”, this is essentially located in a wealthy suburb of the city. The college does provide regular shuttles to downtown, however.

Overall impressions: The physical space and greenery of this campus is absolutely beautiful. I particularly loved walking across the wooded ravine which separates the academic and residential portions of campus. I wasn’t a big fan of the architecture of the residential portion of campus, but that isn’t a reason to rule out this college. This is a great fit for students seeking a traditional liberal arts college experience with very progressive, idealistic, and internationally-minded fellow students.

How to Write a Stellar “Why Us?” Essay

For students applying to selective universities, the “Why Us?” supplemental essay can be a very important part of the admissions process. The Common Application makes it incredibly easy for students to apply to a large number of colleges with the simple click of a button, but more selective universities seek specific details on why a student is interested in their college or university. Smaller colleges and more selective universities tend to include a supplemental essay in the application as a way of ensuring that the student understands the mission and culture of that unique university. However, larger and less selective universities are now also including similar essays. With many students applying to ten, fifteen, even twenty colleges, the “Why Us?” essay can be the deciding factor for students on the cusp.

So what makes a thoughtful and quality “Why Us?” essay?

• Change the response to “Why Me”. Students should use the essay space to talk about why they would be a good fit at that specific college. Applicants should tie in their academic and extracurricular experiences to opportunities at that college.

• Be as specific as possible. Responses to this essay should be extremely specific to that college, and the response should ultimately be something that could not be used for any other college. When writing about an interest in a specific major, students should go beyond just mentioning the program name. Rather, they should talk about specific classes they hope to take, or a particular professor who is doing interesting work at that university.

• Write about experiences on that campus or meetings with representatives or alumni. Chances are the college has tracked a student’s interaction with them over time; however, it doesn’t hurt to reiterate this demonstrated interest. If a student had a meaningful interaction with an alumnus or admission officer, or if the student fell in love with the college during a campus tour, these are great examples to cite in the essay.

What should students avoid?

• Location, location, location. If a student is applying to college in California because he loves sunshine, this might not be the best topic to write about in the limited essay space. Likewise, if a student is excited to attend a college because it is a mere 1.5 hours from NYC, it suggests the student is more interested in activities off-campus than spending time at the college itself. Certainly location is a big factor in choosing a college, but it should not be the focal point of this brief essay.

• Sports teams, mascots, and school colors. Applicants should not waste the supplemental essay space with a response focused on athletics. Application readers know their school colors and mascot’s name already, so students should not simply re-state those facts. One obvious exception would be the student who is planning to play a sport and is a recruited athlete.

Keep in mind the majority of these supplemental essays are very short, between 100-300 words on average. Students don’t generally have space to write a well-developed multi-paragraph essay, so essays that get straight to the point often work best. The main Common Application essay is a better place for students to showcase their unique writing style and voice, while the supplemental essay is the perfect place to pinpoint interest and interactions with the college. Outside of the evaluative admission interview, it is the best place for students to paint a picture of themselves as future leaders and community members on that campus.

Campus Visit Notes: Swarthmore College

College: Swarthmore College

Location: Swarthmore, PA (20 minutes from Philadelphia)

Type of Institution: Private liberal arts

Size: 1,550

Admissions Advice:  Swarthmore is competitive (17% admit rate), so GPA or test scores alone will not get a student in the door. In fact, the college is scaling back on testing requirements for next year, doing away with the SAT II subject tests as they didn’t find these exams to be strong predictors of success in college. The review is very holistic, and reviewers focus on factors such as intellectual curiosity and diversity of perspectives. They have the luxury of selecting students to build the class they desire.

Most popular majors: Computer Science (yes, really!), Math, Social Sciences, Biology

Words to describe students I met: friendly, studious, worldly, well-rounded, intellectual

Unique academic aspects:  Swarthmore has an interesting option for students in their academic majors. A student can choose to take a seminar, a class of 6-12 students that meet for a few hours once a week. The classes are often held in more informal meeting spaces and include food and vibrant discussions of student research and writing. At the end of the seminar, each student is evaluated by a completely independent third party, either someone from industry, or professors from other institutions. They receive a regular degree, Honors, or High Honors as a result. This not only encourages the student to really know the subject matter, but also motivates faculty to teach and engage with students at the highest level.

They are also one of the few liberal arts colleges to offer Engineering. The program is small, graduating just 15-20 students per year, but these students go on to very successful careers in the field or graduate study at top research institutions.

Unique social/cultural aspects: I was surprised to learn that the school actually has two residential fraternities and one sorority. The campus has lot of activities on the weekends, though it is also popular for students to take the train in to Philadelphia for bigger city activities. If a student chooses to go off-campus for an event, or even a party at another college, they have an app where students can set their expected return time. If they aren’t back around that time, a resident assistant or other campus member will be notified and will get in touch to check that everything is alright. This is a school community which trusts students to make good decisions, not a school where RAs and public safety officers are looking for an excuse to get people in trouble.

Colleges that seem similar: Brown University, Carleton College, Yale University, Harvard University, Princeton University, Pomona College

Concerns about this college: Though they are a part of the consortium with Bryn Mawr and Haverford, Swatties don’t utilize this quite as much due to their distance (20-25 minutes) away from the other campuses and ability to get most of their needed classes right at home. In fact, students are not allowed to take classes at the other schools if they are already offered at Swarthmore. Some students do access U Penn classes as the train to Philadelphia literally runs through campus; however, it is still not quite as connected as the Claremont Colleges, for example. While this isn’t necessarily a concern, it is definitely something for students to be aware of if they are primarily attracted to the consortium aspect.

Overall impressions: Swarthmore feels like the quintessential liberal arts college. Facilities were modern and beautiful across the board, from dance studios to science labs. The college really invests in its students and supports them in all disciplines. Everyone I interacted with during my visit was extremely enthusiastic about the college, from the tour guides to the Vice President. I think this would be an excellent match for a well-rounded student who is constantly asking questions and seeking to better understand the world around her, someone who is not afraid to work hard, debate peers, and take charge of her own education.


Campus Visit Notes: Bryn Mawr College

College: Bryn Mawr College –

Location: Bryn Mawr, PA, about 20 minutes from Philadelphia

Type of Institution: Private liberal arts women’s college

Size: 1,300 students

Admissions Advice:  Bryn Mawr really wants applicants to articulate why they are interested in the college in the supplemental essay. In the past, this essay prompt has focused on the Honor Code, a system of total self-governance that carries over to academics, social life, and even ensures that a Bryn Mawr student participates in all administrative decisions on campus. Bryn Mawr uses a holistic review similar to most selective liberal arts colleges. And obviously if you are a guy, don’t apply. But check out Haverford College down the street!

Most popular majors: Math, Psychology, English, Political Science, Fine Arts

Words to describe students I met: Bubbly, independent, strong-willed, activists, quirky, intellectual

Unique academic aspects: Bryn Mawr is part of a dynamic consortium with nearby co-ed Haverford College (Bi-Co). Students have unlimited course registration options across both campuses and can even choose a major at Haverford, located a short one mile away. For the more popular majors offered on both campuses, such as Biology and Political Science, each campus has its own niche and focus. Bryn Mawr’s Poli Sci program is more internationally-focused, while Haverford’s is more U.S.-centric, for example. If that consortium isn’t enough, students can also take classes at Swarthmore and University of Pennsylvania, both located a bit farther away (20-30 minutes by shuttle or train).

Bryn Mawr is also a huge producer of Ph.Ds, ranked among the top ten in the country on a percentage basis. Research and critical inquiry are really key here, and the college is a particularly great place for women to develop skills in the STEM fields. They also offer a major in Computer Science.

Unique social/cultural aspects: This college is huge on traditions. There is even a student representative appointed to be sure the Bryn Mawr traditions continue on, and to help ensure that new students are aware of the significance. One example is May Day, a day when all of the young women from all grade levels dress in white and celebrate together for the seniors last hurrah. I also learned that all of the dorms have an even split of students in each grade level, so you really do become a family with older students from day one.

Colleges that seem similar: Smith, Vassar, Haverford, Mount Holyoke, Scripps

Concerns about this college: Obviously the all-women’s college experience is not for everyone. My guides commented that “You can make it as co-ed as you want it to be”, but you still do live in dorms with women only and still have the culture of a women’s college. Despite this, retention rates are high, with 91% of students returning for their sophomore year, suggesting that it truly is a self-selecting group (and that admissions does a good job of assessing fit).

Overall impressions: This was one of the more beautiful campuses I have visited, filled with charming study spaces, grand pianos in every dorm, and impressive architecture. Aside from the physical space, I really got the sense that Bryn Mawr is a place where young women grow and flourish. Many of the students I met during my visit commented that they were shy in high school, but really gained confidence in this supportive environment. I am excited to continue to recommend this college to students interested in the women’s college experience.

Campus Visit Notes: Claremont McKenna College


College:  Claremont McKenna College

Location: Claremont, CA

Type of Institution: Private liberal arts college

Size: 1,300 students at CMC, but more than 6,000 in the Claremont consortium

Admissions Advice:  Claremont McKenna is a unique liberal arts college looking for pragmatic and real-world oriented students. The school is full of “leaders in the making” and seeks to identify these qualities in the application process. Students who are strong communicators should take advantage of an interview opportunity to stand out from the crowd. With an admission rate of about 11%, students should take advantage of opportunities to share why they believe CMC would be a good fit for their goals and aspirations.

Most popular majors: Economics, finance, government, psychology, PPE (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics), international relations

Words to describe students I met: motivated, career-oriented, outgoing, jocks/bros, worldly, leaders, politically-active. I had the privilege of attending this college for my own undergraduate experience, so these descriptions only scratch the surface. There are some amazing and interesting people at this college and across the consortium.

Unique academic aspects: Claremont McKenna is full of go-getters. Starting freshman year, students are already looking to set up fantastic summer internships and gain real-life work experience. Fortunately the college provides support for these motivated students in the form of grants for work with non-profits, funding for science research, and a top-notch career services center. The college has lots of high-profile alumni in the finance, business, tech and public policy realms in particular, and regularly connects current student to these individuals through networking trips and speaking events.

Unique social/cultural aspects: The Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum “the Ath” is a must-visit for students touring the campus. This event space hosts famous speakers every Monday to Thursday night, an opportunity for students to eat a fancy dinner with faculty and their spouses, community members, or even the speakers themselves. Some examples of visitors include: Anderson Cooper, Laverne Cox, Maureen Dowd, Bill Clinton, and Karl Rove. Also of note, the Ath offers weekday tea where students can load up on tea (duh!), coffee, pastries and chocolate-covered strawberries.

One of the best CMC traditions is Thesis Day. When students complete their thesis, typically a 40-70 page research paper or project, they receive a bottle of champagne from the college and proceed to celebrate in the fountain in the middle of campus. On a Monday afternoon. It is a great way of bringing together the senior class at the end of a long and stressful project.

Colleges that seem similar: Williams College, Washington & Lee, Dartmouth College, Vanderbilt University, Davidson College

Concerns about this college: CMC is one of many colleges that have been in the news lately for racial and socioeconomic class tensions on campus. As a middle class student from the heart of the Midwest, I admit feeling “out-of-place” at times during my own experience as there are many wealthy students, both domestic and international. However, I found the majority of my peers to be welcoming, curious, and respectful of my background as I was to theirs. The college is working to improve diversity on campus and provide better support for students of color. And for students from lower to middle income families, the financial aid here is amazing and one of the main reasons I choose to attend. They are need-blind and meet 100% of a family’s demonstrated need, and they have capped loans at $4,000 per year, significantly lower than most colleges.

Overall impressions: My four years at Claremont McKenna were pretty amazing, and the campus and area have only improved since I graduated. There is a strong sense of community here, and although 1,300 students seems small, the consortium makes it feel like a medium-size college with plenty of research opportunities as well. It is not necessarily a traditional liberal arts college, but you have access to a diversity of thought (particularly on the political spectrum) that isn’t present at many top-tier colleges, especially on the coasts.