What are liberal arts colleges?

Posted on 26th July 2022

What are liberal arts colleges?

If you're thinking about applying to US colleges, you have probably heard the term 'liberal arts.' This can be a bit confusing, as the term can be used in two ways. First, it can refer to the curriculum at US undergraduate colleges (with a few exceptions), in which students study a range of academic subjects—including humanities, arts, social sciences, and natural sciences—rather than specialising immediately in their intended courses.

Second, the term can refer to a particular type of US college that focus on undergraduate education, have a smaller student body (usually under 3,000), focus on intellectual exploration and building critical thinking skills, and have small discussion-based classes with high-quality teaching. The latter use of the term will be the focus of this blog.

What is it like to study at a liberal arts college?

If you attend a liberal arts college, you will likely be required to take a range of in-depth courses in literature, history, social sciences, and natural sciences, regardless of what your intended major (course) may be. At Pomona (part of the Claremont Colleges group in California) among the required courses are a Critical Inquiry seminar for first year students, and area requirements in:

  • Criticism, Analysis, and Contextual Study of Works of the Human Imagination and Social Institutions
  • Analysing Difference
  • Human Behaviour

These are in addition to other core requirements like science, maths, languages, and writing, which you would find at other types of US colleges. Required courses like those at Pomona illustrate the often more theoretical bent of liberal arts colleges’ curricula.

At Bowdoin, in their first two years of study, every student must complete one first-year writing seminar and at least one course in each of five distribution areas:

  • Mathematical, Computational, or Statistical Reasoning
  • Inquiry in the Natural Sciences
  • Exploring Social Difference
  • International Perspectives
  • Visual and Performing Arts

Regardless of variations from institution to institution, the idea behind the curriculum at a liberal arts college is to foster intellectual discussion and close collaboration between students and professors and within your peer group. This approach should help you build critical thinking and soft skills that will benefit you whatever career you choose, and enrich your non-professional life too!

Would I be a good fit at a liberal arts college?

If you're someone who wants a pre-professional experience at undergraduate level, and view attending university as a way to learn particular skills to prepare you for that career, a liberal arts college may not be for you. If you're someone who enjoys discussing different intellectual ideas (whether in class, or with your friends in your free time), someone who prefers small classes to large lectures, and someone who learns better through discussion and collaboration than through listening and note-taking, then you are likely to fit in well at a liberal arts college. A liberal arts college may be a good option if you want to explore a range of subjects before specialising, or have interests in different, varied subject areas (like fine art and biology!)

How will attending a liberal arts college benefit me?

Liberal arts colleges are, for the most part, undergraduate only. What this means for you as a student is that professors’ main focus is on students and teaching. Classes are also small, and these things combined mean that the standard of teaching at liberal arts colleges is excellent.

Additionally, students will have more access to professors, and have opportunities to collaborate on work together or be mentored by faculty. At Williams, Swarthmore, and Sarah Lawrence, students take part in faculty tutorials that resemble those at Oxford.

Since liberal arts colleges are smaller, the community will feel very close-knit. At Bucknell, campus housing is guaranteed for all four years, strengthening that community feeling. If you’re more of an introvert who is intimidated by larger groups, being part of this type of small, close educational community can help you feel more comfortable in the learning environment. At Emory University, students have the option of applying to the larger, main college, or to Oxford College. Oxford College has the feel of a liberal arts college, and students transfer from this campus to the main campus after their second year. This could be a great option for students coming from a smaller high school to transition into a larger university at a speed that doesn’t overwhelm them.

How do employers view liberal arts colleges?

Sometimes, our students wonder whether liberal arts colleges, who often have less international ‘name-brand’ recognition than other elite US colleges, will be a good stepping stone to graduate school and successful careers. An undergraduate degree from a liberal arts college is viewed favourably by graduate institutions; you can view here a list of undergraduate institutions attended by students accepted into Harvard Law School. Appearing on the list are excellent but lesser-known liberal arts colleges Carleton, Dickinson, Hamilton, Swarthmore, and Wheaton. One reason a liberal arts college education is viewed so favourably is that the teaching style facilitates a lot of spoken and written communication, so liberal arts graduates will be strong communicators: this is an asset in almost all careers.

If you’re a student who has wide-ranging subject interests, enjoys discussing intellectual ideas, wants close collaboration with faculty and other students as a main part of your university experience, and thrives in a small community, a liberal arts college could be a great fit for you. If you need help researching liberal arts options for your college list, or are just looking for general help with the US application process, our college counselling services can help: email us at info@ueseducation.com or consultancy@ueseducation.com.

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