Sunday, March 28, 2010

Swarthmore College

Swarthmore, PA
March 27, 2010

Since most of you have probably not heard of Swarthmore, let me briefly assure you that it is indeed a top college worth considering. Swarthmore is a small liberal arts school of 1490 undergraduates located half an hour southwest of Philadelphia, in the sheltered suburb of Swarthmore, PA. Swarthmore’s main attributes are its honor code - which is descended from the college’s Quaker origins, its honors program - through which one third of the student body undergoes a quarter of their credit hours in rigorous graduate level seminars, and for its blend of a rich liberal arts background with practical programs such as majors in engineering and public policy. For the class of 2013, exactly 50% of students were in the top 2% of their class, and 15.7% of students were admitted.

From what I’ve just told you, Swarthmore seems like a one of a kind school, and it is in many ways. I went on a campus tour expecting another New England liberal arts college akin to Williams, Bowdoin, or Middlebury. What I saw was ultimately quite different from that expectation and belongs in its own category. My initial reaction was that the immediate campus atmosphere was far more friendly and quirky than those aforementioned, typical liberal arts colleges. The campus almost looks like it belongs permanently in spring, with dollhouse-like white trim and fences everywhere and gorgeous, well maintained grounds and foliage. Meanwhile, students are out soaking up the sun on the lawn, creating a really welcoming environment. Now, contrast this scene with typical collegiate gothic campus with students scurrying around like robots, not acknowledging each other. This is the first major distinction that Swarthmore brings to the table, already securing it as a place of utmost community, as inspired by its Quaker founders. To further this theme, many campus buildings are open 24/7, the college has only one communal dining hall, and faculty have office hours at least twice a week.

Next, take in Swarthmore’s academic prowess. It is currently ranked third among all liberal arts colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report, behind Williams and Amherst. It is also ranked third in the country, behind only small engineering colleges, for the percentage of graduates going on to earn PhD’s, which is nearly one in five students. This is the typical study for gauging how intellectually oriented a college is. However, Swarthmore is also competitive in graduate school placement for professional schools such as business, law, and medicine, as it was ranked tenth in the nation for placement into top programs by the Wall Street Journal.

This clearly outstanding academic program doesn’t train the best students in the country by coincidence. Swarthmore has tailored its academic program to near perfection over its long existence. The most distinctive part of this program is the option students have to take any major on what is called the “honors” program, which is more focused and graduate school oriented than the typical “course” option, which allows for more course freedom. I can’t tell you how many times it was stressed to me that neither program is “better” or more rigorous than the other; they are simply different styles of learning. The colleges distinctive honors program requires four double credit seminars in the major to be taken each semester over a students junior and senior years. These seminars are capped at ten students and really practice graduate level immersion in coursework. Honors seminars meet once a week for extended amounts of time - usually around five hours - and are discussion and theory based responses to the ungodly amounts of reading assigned between weekly classes, which is typically a few hundred pages. Keep in mind that these seminars count for double credit, so a junior or senior schedule in honors consists of one honors seminar and only two elective or major required classes. For this reason, many students opt to take only course majors so that they can still take advanced non-honors courses in their course major and also fit in three classes, both elective and major oriented. In either case, all Swarthmore students must submit a thesis to graduate. However, honors applicants must defend their thesis in an hour long oral examination by external examiners, typically experts in the field from other institutions, while course majors must only submit a written thesis. Ultimately, one in three students at Swarthmore chooses to major with honors. Though no prospective student can know already whether or not honors is for them, this is an amazing resource available to students and it really highlights Swarthmore’s main priority of outstanding, intense academics. The school seems to understand an academic balance between student-teacher interaction, with an outstanding ratio of eight students to each faculty member, with an amazing amount of student activism and ownership of their own Swarthmore education. My tour guide stressed that the academic experience at Swarthmore permeates all times of the day and all corners of campus. The academic experience depends more on the quality of the student body than on the professors or the academic program.

Swarthmore’s general academic philosophy is bringing together new ways of thinking into every classroom. In the information session I attended, the admissions representative spoke of a tree in the middle of the room. He went around the room calling on prospective students, asking their intended major and supposing ways they might think about the tree; the biology major attempts to classify it, the physics major analyzes its structure, the sociology major wonders how people have interacted with it, the history major wonders why and when it was planted, etc. This seems very indicative of the academic soup brewing at Swarthmore; students of all different perspectives with their own ways of thinking rub off onto others and constantly create new paths of thinking. This type of exploration and meshing together of students with varied interests is incentivized the the college through extensive pass/fail course options. For all students at Swarthmore, the first semester is taken entirely pass/fail. This gives students the opportunity to assimilate to the expectations of academic and residential life at Swarthmore without overwhelming them with grade expectations. In addition, students may take four other courses pass/fail. For science or math oriented students, this means that they can take that intense literature course they have been eyeing without fear of earning a bad grade. For artistic or language based students, this means that you can take a few of your three science or math classes in Swarthmore’s distribution requirements for pass/fail credit. The school has thus developed an academic program that encourages new ways of thinking and minimizes the risk to students that typically forces them to graduate without branching out academically.

Anyways, in case this academic scene seems a little overwhelming, Swarthmore also offers an interesting, balanced social atmosphere. With Philadelphia only a twenty minute train ride away from the Swarthmore campus, a brief escape from academics is typically welcome among Swatties. The school has two small fraternities that offer the campus a social break on the weekends. One guidebook I typically profile for all schools, the ISI guidebook, really framed Swarthmore as a liberal place. Swarthmore recently attracted national criticism when it canceled its football program to enact more serious affirmative action policies - certainly a controversial, but meaningful change. From the admissions video I watched, students seemed amazingly down to earth. Each student had their own story to tell and both their academic interests and extracurricular involvements seemed extremely well grounded in unique passions. Students seem to be those “organizational kids” who somehow manage to take advantage of every opportunity available to them, and are phrased more as “hard workers” than “geniuses.” Everywhere I went on the tour, there were dozens of posters for guest speakers, club events, and social activities all for the next weekend. My tour guide furthered that students frequently get behind in their schoolwork because they overload on the many social and extracurricular options at Swarthmore. Strange social activities like “screw your roommate” and a yearly “pterodactyl hunt” in addition to a ton of school provided alcohol on the weekends seem to liberate students from their academic blinders. The administration seems to have a great grasp on what the students need to balance intense academics with a constructive social scene, and students seem generally satisfied with the overall experience.


  1. Nice review, but I've got a few corrections. First, we don't have an honor code. We often talk about Quaker values, but there is no official honor code. Second, not everyone has to do a thesis. In fact, most majors do not involve a thesis, but many students at least have the option of pursuing one.

  2. I second Will. Also, though though these are minor points, it bears mention that the honors program involves three 'preparations' in a major and one in a minor, not four in a major, and honors seminars are typically capped at 12 students, not 10.

  3. Thanks so much for sharing this. I have a friend who is considering this school and many other colleges in PA that are close in proximity to him. Fortunately he has a lot of options to consider.