Every college has a distinctive profile- a confluence of courses, student types, extracurriculars, even food, that contributes to student happiness. That’s a lot to consider when you’re thinking about the right college fit for you. Here, two GBSP staff members talk about their colleges in detail. Fun fact: both of these schools are in CT!
Name: Julia Fisher
Studying: English (though I studied much more than that, too)
In your college search, how many schools did you look at and when did you start looking?
I started casually reading a few guide books around Thanksgiving of my junior year, then started visiting a couple schools that winter. I did the bulk of it on a big junior year spring break driving trip.
Was location and the size of the school important to you?
Sort of. I went to a very small high school, so all colleges sounded huge and scary to me. I initially didn’t expect to like Yale because I thought it was too big; it was only when I went on a tour that I changed my mind. I knew I didn’t want to go anywhere very big, but I ended up torn between small and medium (Yale-sized) schools. In retrospect, I am enormously glad I ended up at a bigger school. One thing I did that I would highly recommend is to read course catalogues. Just about any good school’s catalogue will probably make your mouth water. But look not just at what courses are listed but at which ones are actually offered in any given semester. That exercise was my first hint that I would prefer a bigger school. I wish I had caught on to more of the reasons I’d be happier in a bigger place at the time; it was in part thanks to luck that I ended up at Yale rather than somewhere much smaller.
“I was looking for a school where I thought I would make friends and fall in love, whether with ideas, people, or whatever else.”
What were three key qualities you looked for in your college?
That’s tough to say, actually. I guess my first factor was that I wanted a place with top notch academics. After that, it was really all about the feel of the place–I wanted to find a school with students who excited me and where passion was palpable. I was looking for a school where I thought I would make friends and fall in love, whether with ideas, people, or whatever else. And I guess, though I don’t think I would have known to articulate it this way at the time, I was looking for a place where I thought I would be surprised.
What did you love most about Yale?
I could write tomes in response to this question, but let’s go with this: the spectacular abundance of passionate people and the wealth of activities and adventures they create. At Yale, I was constantly surrounded by people doing fascinating things and devoting themselves to what they loved. Curiosity was everywhere, and when so many people with such diverse interests are in such a small space, there’s no way to avoid learning about other people’s passions. Those passions spill into extracurriculars, about which Yalies tend to be pretty obsessive, but also into conversations at meals or parties. Everything seems to matter because everyone cares so deeply about something or other, and that makes life much more exciting.
What about the food?
It’s really not bad at all–I might go so far as to say it’s downright good. I complained about it a lot as an undergrad. I even wrote a couple columns complaining about the dining hall food–one of which the manager of my dining hall liked enough to post it on the wall for a couple years. But in retrospect the dining halls are one of the things I miss most about Yale. The food is pretty good–it just got a little boring after a while–but the dining hall culture is, I think, essential to the Yale experience and one of the things that really distinguishes Yale from other schools. I would usually try to take long dinners, and I’d sit in the dining hall for two hours as friends rotated in and out. Yale’s residential college system ensured that I could walk into my college’s dining hall at pretty much any time and be sure to find a group of people I knew. Meals are a great opportunity to catch up with friends and talk to people you wouldn’t really go out of your way to see but with whom you might end up having really involved conversations. It’s a great way to broaden your social horizons and to feel more at home in the college.
What were your top three favorite classes at Yale?
This is also very tough. One has to be a romantic poetry lecture with Paul Fry–just a spectacular performance I got to witness twice a week, and I always left class elated. I’ll give another slot to my freshman year philosophy seminar, which was part of a program called Directed Studies. The program is basically an overview of the western canon for a group of about 100 freshmen, with sections in philosophy, literature, and history and politics. There are both lectures and seminars, and my fall philosophy seminar bonded together in a way that proved the perfect introduction to college. We always adjourned to lunch together after class, and eventually our professor started coming with us so we could continue our discussions from class. We had weekly dinners together for the duration of our college careers. We locked ourselves into a building overnight so we could hang out, argue about Aristotle, and play sardines. One day, we decided to enter the classroom en masse through the window, playing Katy Perry, as a trick on our professor. I’m not precisely sure why–we were weird–but it was fun. And while there are a lot more lectures that might deserve the third slot, I’ll give it to my poetry seminar with Harold Bloom. What better way to spend a winter afternoon than by walking a mile in the snow up to an old professor’s book-lined living room for tea and discussion of Wallace Stevens?
College: Wesleyan University
Studied: College of Letters (academic program at Wesleyan that combines History, Philosophy, Literature, and Language), German Studies
How many schools did you look at? I looked at about ten different campuses and went on eight official tours.
When did you start looking? I started looking in earnest over spring break of my junior year. That’s when I first went on campus tours.
Was size and location an important factor in your school selection? I applied to schools on the east coast and in the Midwest simply because I found schools that I liked in those regions of the country. I felt early on that I wanted to attend a smaller school, and I let that impulse drive my college search.
What were three key qualities you looked for in your college? Intellectual students (i.e., students who love learning for its own sake and who enjoy discussing big, challenging ideas both inside and outside the classroom), politically engaged students, small class sizes.
What questions should you ask your college tour guide? Ask them about their academic lives! Are they doing any independent research at the moment? What are their relationships with their professors like? What is the most interesting class they’ve taken? In their pitch to students, I think college admissions offices and tour guides tend to overemphasize the social aspect of college at the expense of the academic aspect. I heard a lot about acapella groups and broomball leagues on my tours, and somewhat less about Gender Studies research papers or Intro to Philosophy reading lists, which is a shame, especially because I probably would have been more interested in the latter anyway. I think that often a tour guide’s individual academic experience will interest prospective students more than a generic litany of extracurriculars.
“There are many different kinds of students at my university, which sometimes leads to tensions and conflict but seems to me to be a normatively good thing.”
What did you love most about Wesleyan?
For whatever reason, I think my university successfully manages to attract a lot of student activists and other students who are concerned with social justice and not afraid to question authority.
Are sports a huge part of the social scene? Do you spectate? Sports is not a big part of the social scene, although it is certainly a part of it. Because the school is small, a relatively high percentage of students are NCAA athletes. Some of the teams have dedicated fan followings.
What about the food? The food is excellent! It is also incredibly vegan friendly.
Describe the student body at Wesleyan: Strong arts departments attract a fair amount of artsy types, and relatively abundant science research facilities draw a lot of aspiring doctors and scientists. There’s a strong undergraduate music scene featuring a lot of different student bands, and there’s also a culture of students booking outside acts to come and play shows on campus. As I mentioned before, a significant percentage of our students are also NCAA athletes, and there’s also a visible presence of political activists and activism. There are many different kinds of students at my university, which sometimes leads to tensions and conflict but seems to me to be a normatively good thing.
What were your top three favorite classes during your time at Wesleyan so far?
I took a philosophy class titled “Existentialism, Platonism, Pragmatism” during my freshman year, which was amazing. We read Plato’s Republic, excerpts from Jean Paul Sarte and Albert Camus, and finally, excerpts from John Dewey, and discussed how the three seemingly disparate modes of philosophy of Existentialism, Platonism, and Pragmatism can be productively analyzed alongside each other to reveal further insights about ethics and the human experience.
Also my freshman year, I took a class called German Aesthetic Theory, which focused on the attempt by German philosophers from the 18th through the 20th centuries to articulate art’s relationship to truth.
My senior year, I took a tutorial (a class with one other student and a professor) on the Frankfurt School, a group of philosophers, sociologists, and theorists who sought to uncover the hidden psychological and cultural mechanisms underpinning capitalist society.