Washington University in St. Louis (Visited 4/13/13)
Sometimes, what you see really is what you get; at WashU, the large Gothic building on their promo material IS what you get. Most buildings on the academic side are built in this style; a new building that will house the business school expansion was going up when we toured, and it’s exactly the same as the others (if Stepford Wives had inanimate counterparts, this would be it!). The library (with two of its floors underground) was the only building on that side of campus that didn’t look like the others.
I visited campus with two other college counselors, and we participated in the same program that potential students would do during their visit. This started with perhaps the best info session I’ve seen. An admissions counselor, a student, and a professor took turns speaking without relying on a PowerPoint. The professor introduced himself and said, “I’ve been here since 1973. I know that’s way before most of you were born. I’m dealing with it.” He was engaging and interesting; I would have signed up to take a class with him.
Both James (the student) and Bill (the professor) talked about the advising system. Students are assigned advisors “T-60,” as James put it: he got an introductory email two months before classes began which started a dialogue before he stepped on campus. Faculty Advisors are only part of the support system; students have multiple people looking out for them: dorm advisors, pre-professional advisors if they’re on that track, career advisors, etc. They’re all there to help kids get to where they want to go without pressure to do something else. As Bill said, “What you want to do doesn’t need to make sense to me. It only needs to make sense to YOU.”
The 6,000 undergrads (and about as many grad students) are “diverse in every sense of the word.” They come from every state and 50 countries, represent all sorts of religions and political beliefs, and are “even diverse in what they choose to study” according to the admissions rep. There are five colleges: Arts and Sciences is the biggest, and everyone takes classes in this area as part of the liberal arts experience. Applied Science and Engineering is next followed by the Business School (with freshman entry). The smallest schools are Arts and Architecture, both of which give freshman a strong design base before they specialize. Seventy percent of students study more than one thing (double major, major/minor); the areas don’t have to be in the same college. Our Tour Guide was a PNP major (Philosophy, Neurosci, and Psych) major and a Gender Studies minor.
The students mentioned some unusual classes that stood out. One was “The Psychology of Young Adulthood” with topics applicable to what they were going through such as how sleep affects moods. The Freshman-Focus program got high marks across the board. One is called “Bad Leadership;” students learn what NOT to do by focusing on people who didn’t succeed, or who had succeeded but made bad decisions and crashed. Another was called “Literature of Post-adolescence.” A third focused on Cuba, and the students traveled there at the end of the year.
Adding a travel component to classes is becoming a big deal, adding real-world applications to the theory. Teachers have taken groups to study biofuels in Brazil, bio-resources in Australia, air quality in Beijing, Mumbai, Seoul, etc. James, who spoke at the info session, took a class as a freshman called “Euro Business Sampler” which involved a trip to Europe in May; they learned about things such as the EU and business laws and regulations as well as going on company visits. He’s now taking “Luxury Retail Industry” and will travel to London, Paris, and Milan to visit several major fashion companies such as Gucci.
WashU deliberately keeps classes small. Eighty percent of classes have 25 or fewer students, and only 2% exceed 100. The largest lecture hall on campuses has 300 seats but is rarely used. During the info session, James told us that he had a large lecture class, and the professor had memorized a bunch of names and faces before the first class and was able to call on people by name. The admissions rep at the info session was a WashU grad; she had a couple classes with 2 or 3 people. Our tour guide, a freshman, has a class of 12.
Beyond academics, WashU takes good care of the students. The “South 40” is the residential portion of campus (the part not built in the gothic style) and looks like a little town-center, with roads meeting at a central square and a clock (all the local delivery places know the Clock so students often get delivery there), and several student-owned businesses (and are sold by graduating seniors to underclassmen). This was the happening place on the weekend; we were there late on a Saturday morning, and a music group was already jamming next to a dorm, and several clubs had tables set up with various activities including a burger table. Seven Residential Colleges mostly house freshmen and sophomores. Incoming students cannot request a specific one which our tour guide says is fine since they don’t know the difference, anyways. During orientation, students get a t-shirt specific to their college to wear for convocation, so upperclassmen can ID the new students in the college. The “Modern Colleges” are suite style, but sometimes the Traditional Colleges are even nicer: they have TempurPedic mattress, for example. All colleges have RAs, Tutors, and faculty associates. Most Juniors live in The Village or off-campus, and most Seniors are in campus housing off-campus
Of all the clubs mentioned, the most unusual was the Butter Churning Club (there’s a first for everything!). They offer three levels of athletics: DIII, club, and intramural (including arm wrestling and inner-tube water polo!). About 80% of students participate in community service, and the musical groups are active and popular, including ten a cappella groups (one of which sings only Disney songs). Our tour guide’s favorite tradition is Thirteen Carnival, the oldest student-run carnival in the nation. Also, we got to see the set-up for the tradition in which fraternities and sororities pair up to build something based on the theme for that year and raise money for charity. The university makes it easy to get off campus by providing a free unlimited Metropass. There are 2 light-rail stops on campus that go to the airport or to downtown. The pass also works on the buses. Forest Park (bigger than Central Park) hosts festivals such as the Chinese Lantern Festival, and has a free science center and botanical garden. For science students, this top-notch plant research center serves as a place for internships and research.
In terms of admissions, they obviously look for academic fit, but also for character, integrity, collaboration, and how a student will contribute to the dynamic community. Their guiding question is “Going to school has been your job. What did you do there?” They only require 1 teacher rec and ask that if a student sends more than that, the additional letter says something new. They take the Common App with a short supplement (no additional essay). They superscore both the SAT and ACT, but don’t require ACT writing or SATIIs. If a student has earned a 4 or a 5 on AP exams, they will allow the student to enter with up to 15 credits. January 15 is their hard deadline for scholarship consideration.