College Panel: From Amherst, MA to Palo Alto, CA

Advice and stories about college search, selection and student experience, from our college staff.

936676_10152740861545555_7268184094495266119_nHeather Nielsen is the Financial Aid Director at Great Books, and considers the Stanford program campus to be her second home. Heather hails from Connecticut but went to school in the Amherst area for her undergraduate and Master’s studies. She’s a Mark Twain buff and knows way too much about cemetery architecture.

College: Hampshire College

Studied: American Studies, Public History and Museum Studies

How many schools did you look at?

This is a complicated story, but bear with me. When I was 15, I read about St. John’s College (a great books college!), and I was sure it was the perfect school for me. Students spend most of their 4 years at St. John’s reading the same foundational texts, and I could think of nothing I wanted to do more than read all the time. I visited at the beginning of my junior year of high school, I applied early through their rolling admissions process, and by April of my junior year I was accepted to St. John’s. My mom made me tour a few small liberal arts schools in New England because she wanted me to have points of comparison, but I was sure St. John’s was the school for me.

At the time, St. John’s didn’t offer much by way of financial aid (this has since changed), and by December of my senior year I realized I would have to go somewhere else for college. I freaked out and scrambled and applied everywhere I could think of that didn’t require the SAT IIs, and ultimately I found Hampshire College through some frantic Googling and an interest in Amherst. It seemed perfect, though very different than St. John’s.

I wrote my college essay about how Hampshire was not my Dream School, but I was learning that life was about adjusting your expectations and making the most of whatever is thrown your way. I can’t believe they accepted me with an essay that was basically “Why I Don’t Want to Go to Your College,” but I guess I had a point (I’m not sure if I would recommend this approach, however).

Why I told you this long story: You may have a Dream School. It may be perfect for you and you may not be able to envision yourself having the Ideal College Experience anywhere else. And you may not get in, or they may not give you enough financial aid. It’s hard to see in the moment, but know that there are other schools that will be perfect for you, especially if you go into college wanting to get the most out of it. Post-college, I can’t imagine reading the same books as everyone else for four entire years, and Hampshire College was definitely the Dream School I didn’t know I had waiting for me.

Stanford Admin

When did you start looking? Early my junior year, because I was applying to college early. I recommend taking time to explore colleges before your senior year so you have a sense of the kinds of college flavors you may like—I don’t recommend applying early, though.

Was location an important factor in your school selection? Not really. I swore I wanted to live far away from my hometown in CT, but ultimately I chose a school an hour and a half from home because it was the perfect school.

Was the size of the school a factor for you? Yes. I was drawn to programs that had small, discussion-based classes and close-knit communities.

What questions should you ask your college tour guide?

How do people spend time out of class?

– How easy is it to start a new student group?

– Where do you get food late at night?

What did you love most about Hampshire?

  • Academic structure: Hampshire has no majors, no tests, and no grades. Students follow a divisional system that lets them create their own major with the help of advisors; instead of exams, most classes require a final paper on an in-depth topic of your interest; instead of grades, professors write each student a narrative evaluation discussing their performance and areas for improvement. This gave me much more space to take intellectual and creative risks. I wasn’t afraid to tackle a difficult paper topic because I was getting an assessment, not a letter grade. I started with a concentration in neuropsychology, followed that to education, followed that to alternative educational spaces, followed that to museums, and my advisors and I both felt these steps were logical, not wastes of time.
  • Classes: It’s hard to find a survey course at Hampshire. Most classes are based on the specific interests of professors, and teach background information while diving deeply into a specific subject. After a semester of each, I felt like an expert on subjects ranging from Venetian Renaissance art to genetic trait heritability.
  • The Five College Consortium: Hampshire began as a collaborative effort between Amherst College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, and the University of Massachusetts. You can take classes, borrow books, use facilities, and join clubs at any of the Five Colleges, and there is a free bus system between all the schools.
  • Creative freedom: Hampshire gives students so many resources to explore and create. All it takes to start a college-funded student group is to find two other people who are passionate about something and get them to sign a form with you. During our first year, my friends and I started a club called “Shake and Bake”, where we would meet weekly to read Shakespeare aloud while baking punny-named pies (Apples You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Cream, The Cherry Wives of Windsor…).

Are sports a huge part of the social scene? Do you spectate? Hampshire doesn’t have any varsity sports, but their Ultimate Frisbee team, the Red Scare, has star status and competes in national Ultimate tournaments. They are much more popular than the football team, which has been undefeated since 1965 and does not exist.

What about the food? Eating at Hampshire is all about local, sustainable, healthy food and the Hampshire College Farm. The dining hall works with the farm to make sure most of its meals include fresh produce that was literally grown in the back yard or on other farms in Western MA. Upperclassmen tend to live in apartment-style housing and cook for themselves, and many students purchase CSA farm-shaHampshireCollege2res from Hampshire.

Describe the student body: Wonderfully weird. When you think Hampshire, you think hipsters and hippies, and there definitely are a lot of those. Like most colleges, you get every type of person at Hampshire, and because the college’s structure gives you the freedom to explore your interests so intensely, everyone is just incredibly passionate and open to new ideas.

What were your top three favorite classes during your time in college?

“Writing the Civil War” with Susan Tracy and Will Ryan: This was my absolute favorite college class, and the one where I learned the most. We spent the entire semester reading every possible genre associated with the American Civil War – history textbook, contemporary fiction, historical fiction, literary review, journals and letters, battle narratives, biographies – and workshopped writing history in those selected styles. It honed my critical reading skills like nothing else, and forced me to struggle through writing biography and battle narratives.

“Preserving the Past, Preparing for the Future” with James Wald: This course combined preservation theory, history, and method by utilizing the richly historical Pioneer Valley. We debated the importance of saving physical remnants of history, and explored historic preservation sites like Amherst’s cemeteries, Emily Dickinson’s House, and historic Deerfield.

“Advanced Shakespeare Seminar” with Brown Kennedy: Hampshire has a lot of courses that let you explore one subject, in-depth, all semester. There were 7 of us in this course, and we read Shakespeare, talked Shakespeare, debated Shakespeare, ate, slept, and breathed Shakespeare. It was luxurious and mind-blowing in that way you always dream college seminars will be.
maxMax Suechting is the Creative Writing elective leader at the Stanford program campus, and leads the Senior Seminar program at Amherst, a pre-college prep and advanced topics 2-week session for graduated high school students. Max studied at Amherst College for his undergrad, and is now on the West Coast at Stanford University. Importantly, Max is the Head Organizer of Capture the Flag, a traditional Wednesday event at the Amherst program involving campus-wide flag-capturing, and tons of fun.

College: Amherst College ’11

Currently studying: In a Ph.D. program at Stanford University, studying music, literature, critical theory.

What are you doing now? I’m a graduate student in an interdisciplinary humanities department at Stanford University.

Was the size of the school a factor in your search and selection? Absolutely. I knew I wanted to be at a small school where I would have a chance to get to know my professors and to build rich personal and academic relationships with them.

 What were three key qualities you looked for in your college? If you plan on studying a humanities subject, access to faculty and small class size are both absolutely crucial in my opinion. Finding a school with solid need-based financial aid was important to me as well – not only because student loan debt is a big burden to carry forward, but also because it plays a large part in supporting a diverse student population.

 What questions should you ask your college tour guide? Ask your tour guide (or, even better, students not employed by the admissions office) about student life outside of academics.

I think it’s really important to think carefully about non-academic aspects of a college experience (eg. food, mattresses, campus social life) as well as academic ones. Those aren’t just secondary concerns – how you feel and your day-to-day life at a school drastically inflects your ability to learn.

download What do you love most about your school? It’s a tie between the waffle machines in the dining hall in the mornings and the lack of distribution requirements (Amherst has an “open curriculum”).

What were your top three favorite classes during your time in college so far? I took a life-changing seminar on improvisation with Jason Robinson, who became my mentor and ultimately one of my best friends; I’m still trying to unpack all the reading I did in John Drabinski’s seminar on The Afro-Postmodern; and Ted Melillo’s amazing course on Commodities, Nature, and Society drastically re-shaped how I thought about the relationship between philosophy, economics, and culture.

What led you to pursue a PhD, and why Stanford? What do you like most about your program?

After I graduated from Amherst in 2011 I spent a couple of years working in Boston and New York while also trying to start an online magazine with a group of friends (many of them past and/or present Great Books staff members: Mike, Sam, Thea, Adina, Izzy, Becky, Melih), playing music, and eating an absolutely mortifying quantity of Chinese takeout (shouts outs to the curry dumpling lunch special at Food Wall in Jamaica Plain). It took me about a year and a half to realize that even though I more or less enjoyed my “real” jobs, the things that seemed important and pressing to me on a personal level were academic. Specifically, I was reading a lot of writing on music, and particularly pop music, that treated music as essentially a vehicle for coded messages about political or social issues and seemed unconcerned with the materiality or music-y-ness of music. It felt important that I find a way to write about music that could express some of that materiality without ejecting a concern for politics.


Unfortunately this is an extremely vague project, if it has any definition at all; because my interests are grouped around a set of issues rather than within a particular field or medium, I applied almost exclusively to interdisciplinary humanities programs, with my top choices being my current program (Modern Thought & Literature) and Brown’s Modern Culture and Media. As for what I like most – it’s hard not to mention the near-constant seventy-degree weather and panoply of taquerias, but the more responsible answer is definitely the community. Maybe because Stanford is so removed from the hive of East Coast academia, there are few disciplinary turf wars, and both faculty and grad students seem interested in thinking beyond their disciplines without giving up rigor. Stanford has a huge number of humanities faculty whose work is respected both within their fields and across academic disciplines, and many of them are affiliated (via advising relationships, the Committee In Charge, or the seminars and grad student workshops) with MTL.

College Panel

Your burning questions about college answered. We interviewed Program Assistants Lily Peterson and Peter Myers for their college search stories and advice.

lily_petersonLily Peterson is a Program Assistant at Great Books- Stanford and hails from Northern California.

College: Pitzer College

Studying: undeclared

When in high school did you start looking at colleges?

I started visiting schools my sophomore year but it wasn’t until junior year that I was serious about the schools I visited.

 Was the size of the school a factor in your search and selection?

Yes! I knew that I wanted to go to a smaller college because I wanted small class sizes and more opportunities to make relationships with professors. At the same time I didn’t want to feel trapped or isolated. Pitzer College is the perfect balance because it is part of the Claremont Consortium which is made up of five undergraduate colleges: Pomona, Claremont McKenna, Scripps, and Harvey Mudd. At Pitzer I reap all the benefits of being at a small school, but I also get to take classes, attend events, hear speakers, and eat food at all of the other colleges!

You can read more about the Claremont Consortium here<>.

Why did you ultimately choose Pitzer?

As someone who didn’t know what I wanted to major in, I knew I wanted to receive a liberal arts education at a school that would support me in exploring my many interests. Additionally, I resonated with the values of the college. When I visited, I found the community to be welcoming, relaxed, and engaged. One of my favorite things about Pitzer (other than the food) is that although people hold very different opinions and values they are open and accepting of diversity.

 What’s the major benefit of attending a Consortium college?24e69aa8-9a7a-4473-927a-9359ea4d852f

My favorite part about being at the Claremont Colleges is that at Pitzer I have all the advantages of of being at a small school, while still having the opportunity to take classes, attend events, join clubs, and eat food at Harvey Mudd, Scripps, Pomona, or Claremont McKenna!

What is there to do in the surrounding area of Pitzer? Do most people stay on campus?

The city of Claremont is small and charming. Activities in the area are limited mostly to eating and shopping. Many students take day or weekend trips to the San Gabriel Mountains or Joshua Tree National Park. Students do spend most of their time on campus, but luckily there are so many activities to be involved in that you want to stay on campus.

 What’s your favorite class at the moment?

At the moment I am studying abroad in Italy so my favorite classes are Italian and Art History! Another great thing about Pitzer is that it encourages its students to study abroad and has many programs available. I am even planning on studying abroad again next year!

What questions should you ask your college tour guide?

I would ask: What are the students like? Are they happy? Are they stressed?

 What do you love most about Pitzer?

When I walk onto Pitzer’s campus I immediately feel like I am in a safe space. Although people hold very different opinions and values they are open and accepting of diversity.

What about the food?

You will never go hungry as a student at Pitzer College. Pitzer offers healthy and delicious meals. If you do get sick of Pitzer you can eat at any of the other colleges!

peter_myersPeter Myers has been a Program Assistant at Great Books Amherst and Stanford. This past year, Peter has been working and living in Chile.

College: Graduate of Wesleyan University

Studied: An interdisciplinary mix of history, philosophy, and literature.

When in high school did you start looking at colleges?

My college search was pretty arbitrary, and I think I’m very lucky that I ended up at the school I did, a school I really loved. I started thinking about college near the middle or end of my junior year, and did some college visits over the summer before my senior year. I didn’t really know what I wanted, so I just looked at the most prestigious colleges  with a software my high school used–it employed an algorithm generated by GPA/test score data. It told me what schools I was a “competitive” applicant for. I also looked college mailings,  heard about schools through word of mouth or found schools on Wikipedia (this is how I first heard of Wesleyan, the school I ended up attending).

How many schools did you look at?

I visited like 10-15 schools, applied to 12 (mostly chosen, as I said before, arbitrarily), got accepted at 6.

Was the location of the school important to you?

As far as location goes, I looked at schools in both cities and smaller towns, mostly in the Mid-Atlantic/Northeast, Chicago area and one school on the West Coast. I didn’t want to be out in the middle of nowhere, but I didn’t need to be in NYC or Philadelphia by any means.

How about size of school?wesleyan

Size was probably one of the main things I thought about when choosing schools to apply to. For most of the process, I thought I wanted to go to a mid-sized school, maybe four to ten thousand people. Almost all the schools I applied to were in that range. But it was Wesleyan (about 2700 undergrads), that I actually ended up going to. It wasn’t until April, when I had to get down to it and decide what I was going to do with myself for the next four years, that realized I wanted to go to a small school, with a close-knit campus community where I’d be able to meet people easily. I didn’t realize a smaller school was what I wanted until the very end of my college search.

What were the key qualities you were looking for in a school?

Three key qualities I looked for: academics, first and foremost. Do they offer the things I am (or think I might possibly be) interested in studying? Are the students as serious about academics as I am? The second one would be the campus community/culture. What is the social scene like? Is it dominated by Greek Life? Do people live mostly far off campus or nearby? The third quality: surroundings. Is it in a city? A small town? Somewhere in between? Wherever it is, is it a place I’m comfortable with?

What was the student body and culture at Wesleyan like?

As for what I loved most about Wesleyan…there are two answers that immediately come to mind: the people and the academic environment. Those two things aren’t really separable, because they co-constituted each other and thus created the one thing that I loved most about Wesleyan: the community of ideas I was a part of. By that I mean being constantly surrounded by people who were as passionate about talking about the things that I was. The conversations we had in lectures or seminars didn’t end when class let out, but continued, evolved, and morphed into beasts of their own. I remember my freshman year advisor (who was also the professor most responsible for whipping me into shape academically for the first couple semesters I was there–his use of the word “lurid” to describe my writing was a much needed wake-up call for my 19-year-old self) telling me that the most important things in college you learn outside of class, which I think is definitely true.

Name three of your favorite classes of all time

My three favorite classes would be a class called “Modernity and the Work of History,” which I took the spring of my junior year. In addition to directly inspiring my thesis topic, the class was also one of the most fun I took in college. It was a small seminar, just seven students, including me, and a fantastic professor. I took Antiquity Colloquium  for my major- a larger seminar (20 students and 2 professors), but we still had a lot of fascinating discussions. My third favorite class- all five writing classes I took, just because they were all challenging, valuable and they were all part of the process that resulted in me writing the way I do now.

College Panel for December

Our monthly post of college advice, dished out by our brilliant Program Assistants. We know the college search is on your mind, so we interviewed Program Assistants, Spencer Lenfield and Christina Lamoureux to reveal what went into their decision-making.

hello from the basilique de sacré-coeurName: Spencer Lenfield

Attended: Harvard University

Currently studying: History and Literature, Rhodes Scholar, Oxford University

How many schools did you look at during your college search? Too few! I didn’t know what I was doing, and should have looked at more. I looked seriously at maybe 8 schools, and only applied to 5.

When did you start looking? I started thinking about colleges seriously near the beginning of my junior year, and took the classic “road trip” to visit a bunch with my dad in the summer between junior and senior year.

 Was location an important factor in your school selection? No; I hadn’t lived in enough places to have any kind of preference, though in the end, Harvard’s position in a small city next to a large city was perfect, since I grew up in a small town.

Was the size of the school important? No—I looked at little liberal arts colleges and big state universities both, without a strong preference. In the end, Harvard’s size was great. It’s a research university, but its undergraduate program is small compared to most—there are only 1,700 students or so in every class year.

What were three key qualities you looked for in your college? I wanted someplace where intelligence was highly valued. (Ideally, every college would, but unfortunately that’s not necessarily the case.) I also wanted a college with opportunities to play and listen to a lot of music. Last, I was hoping for a university with good food. Fortunately, Harvard had all three of those things!

“High school students also almost never ask about the quality of medical care on-campus—physical, mental, dental, and otherwise—but in practice, this can matter a ton.”

What questions should you ask your college tour guide? High school students rarely think to ask about what housing costs are like—both for freshmen and upperclassmen. (At many universities—though not my own—upperclassmen tend to live off campus, as opposed to freshmen, who usually live in dorms.) But this is actually one of the most important things you can ask about, as much if not more than tuition. High school students also almost never ask about the quality of medical care on-campus—physical, mental, dental, and otherwise—but in practice, this can matter a ton. Lastly, most people never ask about the availability of travel and research funding (which is quite different from the availability of opportunities) or about the quality of on-campus job fairs and employer recruitment. If you ask about all these things, you’re ahead of 90% of 17-year-olds when it comes to thinking about where to go for college.

 What did you love most about Harvard?  The faculty attention is remarkable, the advising extensive, and the teaching is excellent. If you put a little bit of effort into going to office hours and speaking to your professors, even the most world-famous faculty members are completely willing not just to talk to you, but to take your ideas seriously and treat you like an adult. Moreover, the advising system really does keep track of people as individuals and worry not just about their grades, but their well-being. It’s not a university where people get lost in the mix.

 Are sports a huge part of the social scene? Do you spectate?  Harvard has a ton of student athletes, many of whom have lively social lives built around their sports. But sports events are rarely a huge draw, except for the Harvard-Yale game, when everyone sits down in freezing weather and pretends to know the rules for offsides.

 What about the food? Excellent, and I miss it most days, even though it’s easy to take for granted when you’re there. Harvard doesn’t make you pay for food per item—it’s all in one big meal plan—so you never have to worry about running out of money in the cafeteria.

How are the people? Extremely human, and generally self-aware, modest, and vulnerable. Contrary to stereotype, most Harvard/Ivy League students are keenly aware that they are no better than anyone else. That said, they’re also quite energetic and ambitious. They’re also normal people: it’s not a place full of classical music and cravats—people walk around in t-shirts and listen to Arcade Fire albums.

What were your top three favorite classes during your time at Harvard? I took a great class in my freshman year on the 19th-century European novel with two wonderful professors, Leah Price and Louis Menand. A seminar on Keats with the reverend poetry critic Helen Vendler changed the way I read poetry forever. And a brilliant lecture course on the history of photography under the funny, charming art historian Robin Kelsey taught me how to understand and even love and art form I’d previously found baffling and difficult.

What were your top three favorite classes ? In Search of the Enlightenment (History), The Making of the Modern World Order (History), and Hidden Worlds (cross listed Anthropology/English).

10632813_10152741067770555_930441337543382683_nName: Christina Lamoureux

Currently attending: Georgetown University (junior)

Studying: English and Government, minor in French

When you were choosing schools, how many did you consider? I looked at about 10 seriously, and ended up applying to about 12.

When did you start looking? The beginning of my junior year of high school.

Was the size of the school a factor in your search and selection? Yes – I ultimately turned down two schools I loved because the student body size was so small, but I knew from the start I didn’t want a school with a huge student body. Georgetown’s size is perfect for me, since it feels big enough that you’re always meeting new people, but small enough that you’re able to recognize and get to know a good amount of the student body.

What were three key qualities you looked for in your college? I knew I wanted a school that was in a college town or near a city. I also wanted a school with a strong English program that had a variety of electives and a good faculty to student ratio, as well as a strong overall focus on the humanities.

What questions should you ask your college tour guide? Ask what their favorite classes are this semester – it can be a good way to see the diversity of classes offered. It’s also a good idea to ask what people generally do in their free time and what the party/nightlife scene is like on campus.

“People are surprisingly friendly to one another, and it’s not uncommon to strike up a conversation with a total stranger.”

What do you love most about Georgetown? My favorite thing about Georgetown is the wealth of opportunities that being near DC allows students. I’ve been lucky enough to attend a vast variety of events within DC, from poetry readings to concerts to contemporary plays, because it’s so easy to get on the Metro and be anywhere in DC in under half an hour. Georgetown also brings some fantastic speakers to campus – one of my favorite experiences at Georgetown has been seeing both Bill and Hillary Clinton! Additionally, it’s easy for students to get great internships in Georgetown and DC.

What about the food? Decent, but not outstanding. However, the on-campus food scene has improved since I was a freshman – there are a lot of new vendors and items available at our stores on campus. Georgetown and DC also have infinite possibilities for awesome food offerings if you have the time to get off campus.

How are the people? The student body is one of my favorite aspects of life at Georgetown. Everyone at Georgetown seems incredibly happy to be there, and genuinely loves being a Hoya. People are surprisingly friendly to one another, and it’s not uncommon to strike up a conversation with a total stranger. The student body at Georgetown is also incredibly involved on-campus – people are generally involved in at least two or three clubs or organizations, and most of the time even more than that.

What were your top three favorite classes during your time in college so far? American Expatriate Writers, Roman Sexuality, and an advanced contemporary poetry-writing seminar (honorable mention: Constitutional Law).

Do you have questions about college that you want answered? Submit them to us! Email Program Coordinator, Melody Kasulis:

College Panel for November

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

College: Yalegreatbookspic (2)

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 theyaley 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?

Name: Adam Rashkoffadam_rashkoff

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?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.

College Panel Post for October

In the college search process, it’s important to consider factors like size, type, location, and student life. Are you interested in a large research university or a small, private liberal arts school? Do you enjoy STEM courses, the humanities, or both? What extracurriculars would you like to get involved in? Importantly, what questions should you ask to ensure the school is a good fit? Two GBSP PA’s from two very different schools share their insights with us.


Ben Groner, PA ’13 and ’14, leads Theater Games with students at our Stanford program

Ben Groner

Attended: Texas A&M University

Major: English

Relationship to Great Books: Program Assistant ’13, ’14

How many schools did you look at?

I considered close to 15 schools, and applied to 10 of them.

Was location an important factor in your college selection?

Yes; my goal was to explore a new part of the country during my college years, so about two thirds of the schools I applied to were outside Texas. As fate would have it, the schools I was accepted to were all in-state.

Was the size of the school a factor in your search and selection?

Yes, I originally wanted to go to a small or mid-size liberal arts college. Ironically, I ended up at one of the largest universities in the nation (58,000+ students); one that is known mostly for business, agriculture and engineering.

What were three key qualities you looked for in your college?

I was looking for a college that would challenge and grow me intellectually, socially, and spiritually.

What do you love most about your current or former college/university?

I most love the atmosphere of tradition that permeates the university. Aggies have a history of sacrificing for others, serving in every conflict fought by the United States since the Spanish-American War, even commissioning 14,123 officers during WWII – more than the combined total of the US Naval Academy and West Point during the same time span. Also, the school’s reverence for those who have died is poignantly felt during the traditions of Silver Taps and Muster. If a current student dies, other students gather in silence as the deceased is honored by the bugle and 21-gun salute ceremony of Silver Taps. Muster celebrates camaraderie and remembers the lives of Aggies who have died that year in a ceremony that culminates when family members and friends answer “here” when their loved ones’ names are called in the roll call, or “muster.” Muster ceremonies are held in over 300 locations globally.

Are sports a huge part of the social scene? Do you spectate?

Absolutely. Since 2012, the Aggies have been a member of the SEC (the most elite football conference in the nation) and with 20 varsity teams competing in Division I of NCAA sports, there is always a sporting event to enjoy. But Aggies don’t just spectate, they participate. This is seen most clearly in the tradition of the 12th man, where the student body stands throughout the entirety of every football game to symbolize their “readiness, desire, and enthusiasm” to enter the game if it were necessary. During my time at Texas A&M, I attended tennis matches; basketball, volleyball, soccer and baseball games; and of course football games, standing for around 100 hours in Kyle Field, ready if the football team ever needed my 5’9”, 150 pound frame.

Describe the student body:

The student body stands out for being extremely involved, religious, happy and friendly. With over 1,000 student organizations, everyone can find his or her niche. Also, over 10,000 students regularly attend Breakaway, a weekly Bible study held in the basketball arena. As students pass each other on campus, they greet each other with a cheerful “Howdy!” Recent surveys have pegged Texas A&M as the “happiest” and “friendliest” campus in the nation.

What were your top three favorite classes during your time in college?

  • Writer’s Workshop: Prose
  • New Testament Studies
  • The Big Bang and Black Holes

Last thoughts:

Don’t worry if you don’t get into your top school(s). Texas A&M was 5th or 6th on my list and I ended up having an incredible experience there I wouldn’t trade for anything.


Hayley Goodrich, Program Assistant ’14, worked with Intermediate students (grades 6-8) at our program at Amherst College

Hayley Goodrich

Currently attending Hamilton College

Studying: Psychology and Environment Studies

Relationship to Great Books: PA ‘14

How many schools did you look at?


When did you start looking?

Spring/summer before senior year of high school


Was the size of the school a factor in your search and selection?

Yes! I thought I wanted a small school and I was so right—Hamilton is around 1800 students and I don’t think I could’ve gone anywhere bigger.


What were three key qualities you looked for in your college?

Good people, comfy chairs, and intimate classroom settings


What questions should you ask your college tour guide?

How would you describe the study body?

How do students blow off steam when they’re not doing work?

What made you decide to come to this school?

Will my professors know my name?

What do you love most about your current or former college/university?

THE PEOPLE! Hamilton is this amalgam of the most interesting, friendly, smart, funny, and compassionate people. People at Hamilton genuinely care about their peers, environment, classes, sports teams, clubs—and that passion for each of these things often comes out in the most wonderfully nerdy ways. And as an added bonus, Hamilton has an open curriculum and an incredibly warm, homey vibe (helped in part by the plethora of comfy chairs and cozy spaces scattered around campus) that really lets students explore everything that Hamilton has to offer in a safe and welcoming environment.


What about the food?

The food is surprisingly good for a college! We buy most of our food locally and have really good vegan/vegetarian/gluten-free options. Hamilton is actually a pretty easy place to be healthy, too! There’s the ever-tempting pizza and burgers but also an extensive salad and sandwich bar and a general omnipresence of leafy greens, squash, and eggplant.


Describe the student body

The way that Hamilton students describe themselves perfectly sums it up: we take our work seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously. While you’d be hard-pressed to find a more studious group, every student at Hamilton is equally goofy and weird as they are smart and hardworking. People here have an impressive grasp of priorities and know that things like friendship, emotional intelligence, and stepping out of your comfort zone can be just as important as the intellectual aspects of the college experience.


What are your top three favorite classes?

Truth, Lies in Literature with Prof. Janelle Schwartz – An English class devoted to exploring the role of lies, manipulation, and story-telling in a variety of works by Kurt Vonnegut, Tim O’Brien, Carlos Fuentes, and Warner Herzog documentaries. This class blew my mind every single day and gave me an eye-opening perspective as to why we need to tell stories—and what the stories we tell can say about us.

Cultural and Natural History of the Adirondack Park with Prof. Janelle Schwartz – An interdisciplinary course that examines the Adirondack Park from cultural, historical, ecological, literary, geological, and economical vantage points. We talk a lot about how humans have affected the Adirondack landscape, how that landscape has affected us, and what the human-environment relationship in the Adirondacks can teach us about our place in natural systems on a larger, long-term scale.

Human Memory with Prof. Azriel Grysman – A psychology course that looks to understand memory as the basis of human consciousness. We discuss everything from the neurological processes that underpin memory to the evolutionary relationship between memory and the sense of self, discussions that extend to real-life applications like the place of false memories in the court room or the understanding of memory deficiencies in Alzeheimer’s Disease, amnesia, and semantic dementia.

Great Books staff members hail from excellent colleges and universities from all around the world. GBSP College Panel is a monthly post that shares the insights of our current or graduated staff with our college-bound community!

GBSP College Panel for September

The fall season is upon us, school is in full swing and if you are a Junior or Senior in high school, college is on your mind, a lot. Planning college tours, tackling common apps, and deciding on a school may seem overwhelming, so we brought the GBSP College Panel to our blog to help answer some of your questions!

We had the delight of interviewing GBSP PA’s Sarah Blatt-Herold, Jamie Doucette and Annie Youchah on their college search, to give you some insight and inspiration on the big question, “How do I Choose a College?”


Camper ’07-’13, Staff ’14

Sarah Blatt-Herold

Freshman at Harvard College

Major: English and Philosophy

When did you start your college tours?

The summer after my sophomore year of high school.

How many schools did you visit?

I visited eight schools, but had a list of 15 that I really, really liked.

What kinds of schools were you interested in?

As my interests were in English and Philosophy, I was definitely looking at smaller liberal arts schools and medium schools.  I didn’t want a big school; I wanted small classes, a good faculty to student ratio, and small departments with a lot of individual attention.

How did you ultimately make your college selection?

I ultimately made my college decision based on the humanities program and the mission of the school.  One school I was looking at has a great humanities program, but it is very isolated; the overall mission of the school concerns engineering and advancing sciences.

At Harvard, the humanities program is also amazing; however, it is also extremely inclusive, and the greater mission of the school is about changing the world in general, not changing the world through technology. I wanted to feel a part of the greater school community, and I didn’t feel that way about the other school I was considering.  Of course, this is my opinion and my personal experience, not hard fact.

Jamie Doucette

Camper ’12, Staff ’14

Jamie Doucette

Sophomore at Stanford University

Considering: Major in Public Policy

How many schools did you look at?

I looked at 5 schools during my search and ended up only applying to one.

Was location an important factor in your school selection?

Location was a factor: I wanted to be away from home, but still have the ability to get back without too much hassle.

How about student body?

In my school, I was looking for a diverse community of intellectually curious and fun people.

 What questions should you ask your college tour guide?

Ask your tour guide about the quality of food available late at night.

Annie Youchah

Camper ’08-’13, Staff ’14

Annie Youchah

Sophomore at University of California San Diego

Major: Philosophy

How many schools did you look at?

I applied to 11 schools in total (four of which were part of the University of California system), but I considered and visited at least five others.

Was the size of the school an important factor to you?

Yes, I wanted a large school because I wanted to have the opportunity to meet as many people as possible. It’s important to remember, though, that all sizes of schools have their advantages and disadvantages, so in retrospect I wish I had focused less on this aspect.

What questions should you ask your college tour guide?

Ask what people do on the weekends for fun. I know it sounds like a strange question, but you’ll get a sense of what the student body is like by asking that.

 Words of advice?

Remember that there isn’t such a thing as the perfect school. It’s still important to research your options and not just apply to every school. When you pick out a good bunch of schools to apply to, remember that what might be your top choice might not end up working out, and that’s okay!

What questions about college do you want answered? Join the conversation on our Facebook, post your questions and get answers from current and graduate college students in the GBSP community!