The US liberal arts system is a unique approach to higher learning. It stresses your individuality as a student, giving you space to prioritise your own academic interests and needs.
Liberal arts colleges might be one of the key reasons you’re considering applying to study in the United States. They’re unlike institutions almost anywhere else in the world, and offer several interesting features. They’re not the right fit for everyone, but let’s see if they might be the right fit for you.
Instead of applying to a specific course, you’ll be able to take classes from the sciences, social sciences, humanities, and arts. The system emphasises the breadth of the learning experience, so you’ll probably be required to take a small range of classes (either a certain number from each discipline, or a set course of introductory classes) in addition to exploring your interests.
In most colleges the first two years are dedicated to this kind of exploration - you can pick and choose from whatever interests you, and you don’t necessarily need to start narrowing things down into a specific major or concentration until the end of the second year. You’ll usually declare your major starting in the third year, and graduate with a Bachelor of Arts, a Bachelor of Science or even a Bachelor in Fine Arts.
To make the most of this way of studying, you need to be ready to think a lot about your own academic path - not just by studying for each individual course, but thinking really broadly about what you want to learn and why. Because there isn’t as clear of a progression through subjects in a liberal arts college, you’ll need to make sure you aren’t accidentally leaving gaps in your knowledge, particularly if you want to go on to graduate study.
A liberal arts college wants you to have the autonomy to pursue your own interests, and to develop the critical and analytical skills you need to ask questions and make decisions for yourself. So basically, rather than following a pre-made path, you’re in control of what you learn.
For example, you might decide you’re really interested in the environment. You’ll take some environmental science classes, of course. But then you also take some literature classes focused on how people write about nature, and Spanish classes so that you can go do some research in Mexico over the summer. Meanwhile, another student in your environmental science class is also taking politics classes to learn more about how to influence environmental law, and a documentary film class because they think they’d like to try their hand at making a film about climate change. One topic, two really different journeys.
You’re not totally on your own in forging these paths, of course. Because many liberal arts colleges are relatively small, professors can offer really direct support as you work to build a class schedule that makes you really excited to study.
Speaking of size... as opposed to large universities with large class sizes (for example, the University of California, Los Angeles has an average undergraduate class of 31,000 students), liberal arts colleges tend to be small (nearby Pomona's undergraduate class is just 1,663 students). This means smaller, discussion-based seminars are the norm instead of large lectures, and you tend to have much more direct and connected relationships with your professors, who may well become mentors for life.
The flip side is that there’s no way to hide in the crowd! You’ll be expected to contribute to class discussions as part of your marks, and likewise, professors will expect you to come by and talk to them about your work. Just doing your coursework and avoiding being noticed doesn’t really fly in such a small university.
Even though they don’t tend to be as famous as the Ivy League universities or some of the big state universities, liberal arts colleges are well-known to employers and have post-graduation employment rates equivalent to the Ivies.
Plus, students at liberal arts colleges were actually likelier than students at Ivies to rate their studies as “difficult” or “very difficult,” and reported spending more time studying per day. So if it’s academic rigour you’re after, liberal arts colleges may in fact serve you better than more famously selective schools.