Elias van Emmerick is a Belgian student who completed his IB at 16 and is a rising sophomore at Pomona College in California - Forbes’ #1 Liberal Arts College in 2017. He gained a great deal of experience with university applications by applying to both UK and US schools. He interviewed at Oxford, Stanford, Yale, Brown, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Chicago.
Liberal arts colleges are something fairly unique to the US. We don’t really have something comparable either in Europe or the UK, but I personally think they encompass what’s different about education in the US versus other countries. The small class sizes, free course choice and community that I associate with American universities can be found at their best at liberal arts colleges. With that being said, international students often don’t apply to these colleges, instead choosing 'big brand' schools. I think there are a ton of reasons to apply to liberal arts colleges as well, and here are the main five:
I have a good friend who’s currently attending a well-known US university, mainly for its impressive, Nobel Prize winning faculty. Imagine her surprise when it turned out her first-year classes were taught mostly by TAs and that professors rarely had time to meet her outside of class. This seems to be a reality for a large number of US universities - because they have both undergraduate and graduate students, professors have to divide their time between these two groups.
Liberal arts colleges don’t have graduate students. I personally think that this is the biggest reason to choose to study at one, and you’ll notice that all of the other reasons on this list stem from this fact. Because there are only undergraduate students, they automatically receive more attention from professors and staff. This means that all the best classes are available to undergrads, there are more research opportunities available for undergrads, and campus events (job fairs, sponsored activities, alumni events…) are more centered around and accessible to undergrads.
Because there are no graduate students, liberal arts colleges tend to be a lot smaller. My school has about 400 students per year, or 1600 in total. I can honestly say I have talked to everyone in my year at least once – something that’s fairly impossible at larger schools. I think I managed to meet half my school in my first month there. This results in smaller class sizes (think 8-10 people on average), smaller and more tight-knit clubs, and a much more friendly and familiar atmosphere.
Smaller class sizes and less students means that professors have a lot more time to spend on each student. Most of them will almost force you to come to office hours at least once, often just to get to know you. Often, you’ll get pretty close with some; I had a great Politics professor in my first semester, so now my friends and I get lunch with her every now and then to catch up.
The extra time you get with them isn’t just for niceties – professors will go over your work with you, give you detailed feedback, and help you improve. I wrote (honestly) terrible essays when I started, but because two of my professors took the time to go over some drafts with me, I’m now able to produce readable papers.
The foundation of every liberal arts college is its liberal arts curriculum. Rest assured, you won’t be able to graduate without taking classes in something you’ve never heard of. Whether or not this is good really depends on what type of person you are. It can be a great way to get out of your academic comfort zone, or it can be an annoying distraction from your major. To be honest, I don’t really know anyone that’s been forced to take a class they didn’t like just to fulfill the curriculum requirement. I thought I’d be the first when I signed up for a Geology class, but even that one turned out interesting – I never imagined I’d be interested in rocks, but now I get excited about fault gouges and decompression melting.
Employers are also quite fond of liberal arts curricula. Because liberal arts students have to study so many different things, they tend to be really well-rounded and good at a variety of tasks – exactly the type of people employers like to hire.
Lastly, liberal arts colleges love to spend money on their students. They don’t typically have extremely expensive research projects they need to fund, nor do they have graduate students or PhD students they need to pay salaries to TA. The math is simple: less students plus less expenses means more money available per student. This translates to a lot of cool opportunities that your college will make available for you. For example, my school gave me a sizeable grant in case I wanted to do an unpaid internship, will fund me to do research over the summer, and regularly flies out students to academic conferences all over America. There’s also a whole lot of free food, basically all the time.
I’m really happy that I chose to attend a liberal arts college. I feel it’s the right place for me, and if this list of reasons sounds appealing to you, it might be the right place for you as well. If you like small communities, tight-knit groups and exploring a lot of academic interests, I really encourage you to apply to a few liberal arts colleges. In my opinion, they offer the essence of what a college education should be.