AMHERST COLLEGE (Visited 10/15/12)
I don’t know of any other college that lets the winners of a lip-sync contest get first dibs on housing. Most students live on campus, and like many campuses, there are plenty of options for living arrangements. After the first year, housing is done on the lottery system; each person is given points based on GPA, seniority, etc. Groups of people wanting to live together have their points averaged for their place in the lottery. However, one of the big traditions on campus is the lip-sync contest in which groups can compete to move up in the lottery. The winners of the contest actually get moved to the front of the line. Amherst is a bit quirky like that.
Coming onto this campus was a much different experience than going onto the UMass campus! This felt like the traditional campus that people come to expect from New England colleges. There was quite a bit of green, and the buildings were well maintained. The campus was also much more sedate as we were driving through; fewer students were walking around, but that might have been a result that classes were in session.
A recent graduate sat with us at lunch and answered a lot of questions; she came from Buffalo, NY and applied here Early Decision because she just knew this was the place. As a history major, she got to do some great things. Her senior thesis was an analysis of Holocaust photos in context of victimization and retaking of power. She did a great deal of this at Hampshire because they have a theoretical photography department. Most of her books were used from the other libraries, so she said that the 5CC affected her academically. She also loved the social “expansion” including “Concert hopping” in the spring.
Amherst has a true open curriculum meaning that the students will fulfill the requirements for a major but have no distribution requirements. One student on the panel said, “It’s what drew me here. I like to dabble. I’ve taken classes in 10 departments, and I like to stretch myself.” One of the panelists decided not to double major because he was having so much fun taking a lot of different types of classes. The open curriculum is great in many ways and makes Amherst a match for different types of people – those who have no idea what they want to do all the way up to those who want to really focus in one area. The admissions person said that in some ways, having this open curriculum defines a true “liberal arts” curriculum since students are taking so many different types of classes that they probably would not have otherwise.
Admission decisions are made by committee so it’s “about as fair as this can be.” Applications are read by two people and then taken to committee; those that don’t get sent to committee are clearly not admissible, and that’s agreed upon by both readers. Everyone comes in thinking everyone is more amazing and that they haven’t done anything. “Even if you ARE the 5th in the world at chess and won the debate championship and cured cancer, you feel it.” That being said, it’s not a competitive environment. People collaborate all the time and will not sabotage each other because they’re looking for that one A – “if people deserve an A, they’ll all get it.” That being said, there are a couple departments that will grade on a curve, like Econ. But even in a situation where people should be fending for themselves, they still help out. You have to want to come here and be competitive. You have to want to learn. But once you’re here, it’s not like that. It’s competition with yourself and be the best you can be. Once admitted, Amherst will meet demonstrated need without loans; students graduate debt-free unless the family took out an outside loan.
Currently, the student-faculty ratio is 8:1, but with 18 new faculty members being added, this will change. Introductory classes might have 80 or 90 students but this is far from the norm. One panelist has a class with 4 people in it. The faculty teaches the students how to do scholarly research and expect that sort of research to be produced. “Professors guide us, but not to hold our hands. They let us stumble and then will help to pick us up and get us back on track.” Professors are willing to spend as much time as it takes in class, and out – they teach very few sections each term so they have time to devote to the students. One of the panelists was in a music seminar class, and each class meeting “took as long as it took. The students and the prof would stay until we were done.”
Students are knowledgeable about the world and current events, and they like talking about what’s going on in the world and on campus. Students have a voice, and they regularly bring up issues and work with the powers-that-be to improve campus. “They actually care about student opinions. People are shocked when they sit in on meetings and see that our voices matter.” Women’s rights tend to be a big topic on campus; the students think this is because Amherst had been an all-male school for a long time. The night before we talked to the student panel, a group talked about the topic of sexual misconduct with the president. The college provides free copies of the NYT in the dining hall, and they’re widely read. “Things change in the world. We’re ready and willing to change with it.”
What has Amherst done for you to prepare you for whatever you want to do next?
- “Science. It’s so not true that you can’t do science at a LA school. I did an internship at the flagship UT campus but was more prepared than their students.” She learned to integrate information, to think outside the box, to think critically. “It’s allowed me to realize what’s important in the questions I’m asking and to synthesis important information.”
- “There’s a reason why Bain and JPMorgan and others recruit here. Students here take the time to learn on their own. We’re some of the best thinkers they have because we challenge the information.”
- “Time management. I could stop doing all the extras and concentrate on classes; I’d do marginally better grades, but that wouldn’t be a good use of my time. We get as much flexibility to organize our time, but it’s on us to prioritize.”
What do you wish you had known before you came to college that we can share with our students?
- Try lots of new things.
- Don’t go in thinking you know exactly what you want to do. Be open minded.
- Look at LA schools because you’re here to challenge your ideas rather than listening to lectures.
What traditions are your favorites?
- “The rivalry between Williams and Amherst is HUGE. Homecoming is a big deal here. Alums will get together and watch the games and there’s a bonfire on campus. A blog on ESPN listed us as one of the top places to tailgate in the US because you can tailgate 6 feet from the endzone.”
- “We have things going on about every 2 weeks, so I can’t really talk about just one. Of course, it’s hard from me b/c I perform [in the a cappella group] about a dozen times at each of these weekends”