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Standing Out in the Liberal Arts College Admissions Process

By IvyWise College Admissions Counselors

I’ve always been fond of the small but mighty group of institutions called liberal arts colleges. Maybe it’s because I began my admissions career at a liberal arts college. It might also be because, as numerous highly selective universities share that their number of applications increase by tens of thousands (and in some cases, eclipse 100,000!), liberal arts colleges continue to embrace the smaller but more personalized approach. Maybe it’s also because I hold high regard for the high school junior who is certain about what they want to study yet sincerely respects (and relates to) their peer who is open about remaining undecided. Whatever the reasons, it’s fair to say it’s all three of these and many more.

As the competitive admissions landscape and process have changed over the last 5-10 years, longstanding, traditional liberal arts colleges have been impacted as well. More and more universities want students to be strong academics and reliable community members, but also have one or two “specialties” that make them stand out from an extremely crowded applicant pool. Nobody wants to be labeled, but in the admissions process, you absolutely do. You want to be the Inner-City Hydroponic Gardener or the Local Arts Advocate by Day and Star Basketball Player by Night. Yet, the notion of liberal arts implies “broad”—a buffet from which you take a little of everything. If you specialize, aren’t you the antithesis of what a liberal arts college seeks? That’s a common misconception.

To be successful in the elite liberal arts college admissions process, it’s important that students offer breadth and depth, show intellectual curiosity through a passion for one (or maybe two) subjects while being open to exploring others, and take individual initiative while demonstrating an ability to serve as the pillar of a community.

What to Keep in Mind When Applying to a Liberal Arts College

By the end of a four-year liberal arts college education, students will learn to think critically, analyze closely, and communicate articulately. And yet, each graduate will have a bachelor’s degree in a major that constituted 30% of their time. This is a microcosm for successfully applying to the best liberal arts colleges out there:

  • Take the most rigorous courses available in a variety of subjects. Pursue AP Calculus, AP English Literature, and AP Spanish Language because you enjoy learning about each at a high level but feel confident about what you love to study and dig deeper via research opportunities and additional academic enrichment. However, stay well-rounded by staying in Math Olympiad, the literary magazine, and serving as President of the Spanish Club.
  • Find ways to be a collaborative leader, whether in school clubs or the local community. Bringing people together and forming bonds over shared experiences, be it as captain of a sports team or the head of a volunteer opportunity, is a wonderful intro to doing the same at a liberal arts college.
  • Reflect on why a smaller class size, interaction with professors, and discussion-style courses are preferable. These are the hallmarks of a liberal arts education, and that desire needs to be illustrated accurately and genuinely in your essay prompts. Show that you’re interesting and interested. Liberal arts colleges will notice!

Show Fit and Nuance in Supplemental Essays

The requirement for applicants to showcase a ‘specialty’ isn’t so different from applying to other types of universities. Where the nuances exist, however, is put on display in supplemental essay options—after all, the colleges wrote them.

  • From Williams College: Imagine having a late-night conversation with your Entrymates about a community that you value. Describe that community and why it’s important to you.
  • From Pomona College: Quick takes: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given? What’s your favorite way to eat a potato? You’re relaxing on a Friday night. Suddenly, your favorite song pops into your head. What is it?
  • From Haverford College: Tell us about a topic or issue that sparks your curiosity and gets you intellectually excited. How do you think the environment at Haverford, including the framework of the Honor Code, would foster your continued intellectual growth?
  • From Wellesley College: When choosing a college community, you are choosing an intellectual community and a place where you believe that you can live, learn, and flourish. We know that there are more than 100 reasons to choose Wellesley, but it’s a good place to start. Visit the Wellesley 100 and select one or two items that attract, inspire, or energize you.

Williams wants to know how you interact within your close community, but more importantly, why you choose to make that one of your close communities. Why do you devote time to your hobbies? What characteristics make your friends people you want to be around?

Pomona wants you to be real. There are other essays and areas of your application to demonstrate achievement. Much like an interview, these quick takes want you to be honest, creative, but most of all, authentic.

Haverford wants you to show depth yet be open to seeking breadth. What subject or topic can you write about with gusto because you can’t get enough of it? You won’t be studying only that at Haverford, though, just like you cannot grow intellectually in only one department.

Wellesley wants to know why you want to go there. In most cases, liberal arts colleges have a graduating class of under 600 students. With so few students compared to their university brethren, each student impacts the campus in a proportionally bigger way. Be sure you’re a strong fit for that tight-knit college.

At IvyWise, our team of expert counselors work with students to find the schools where they will be happy and successful. Contact us today for more information on our college counseling services and how we can help you create a balanced list of best-fit colleges as part of your college prep.


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