Advice and stories about college search, selection and student experience, from our college staff.
Heather 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.
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-shares 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.
Max 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.
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.