Falling for Academia: Swarthmore’s Unconventional Appeal

By Tiff Dimm ’15

Our car meandered slowly through roads lined with trees crowned in their red-gold autumn hues and charming stone structures of a distinctly academic air. The campus of Swarthmore College exuded academia, calling to us to enter and grow in knowledge. As we stepped out into the parking lot, we were greeted by nature’s sweet fall perfume, the scent of the freshly-fallen leaves. Swarthmore’s campus was an arboretum, we learned, reminiscent of a secret garden. The campus was quiet, tranquil; the flora alone whispered to us, while the grey stone buildings, like wise professors, observed us calmly. The students were on holiday.

But we hurried; we were running late. We made our way to Parrish Hall, home of the admissions office. We climbed a staircase and entered a white-walled room, graced with tall windows and long bookshelves. And so began my introduction to Swarthmore College.

Swarthmore is a private liberal arts college near Philadelphia. As a member of the Tri-College Consortium with Haverford and Bryn Mawr, and of the Quaker Consortium, which includes the University of Pennsylvania, Swarthmore provides its students with the opportunity to take classes at other nearby colleges, and has a SEPTA station almost on campus. Half of its campus is forest, and the campus is designated “green.”

The third best liberal arts college nationally, according to the US News and World Report, Swarthmore boasts a one to eight student to professor ratio and an average class size of sixteen. Swarthmore designates seminar rooms for critical thinking in which students and professors may engage in thoughtful, educational discourse as equals, without the hand-raising or other formalities of a classroom. The first semester of freshman year at Swarthmore is pass or fail, and the grade does not appear on a student’s transcript. Swarthmore is a very collaborative, close-knit, non-competitive community. Its students don’t often talk about or compare grades, it does not have GPAs or class ranks, and its students elect the class valedictorian. Enlightenment, not competition, seemed to be the focus; this was in my eyes the college’s greatest asset, as learning opens minds but competition fosters bitterness.

Swarthmore’s housing arrangements may be a bit surprising to some. Parrish Hall is the only gender-separated dorm hall; the others not only are mixed gender, but also have gender-neutral bathrooms—and the showers don’t have locks! Swarthmore does not regulate drug or alcohol use, but instead allows roommates to write a contract for conduct for themselves. This freedom may be liberating and refreshing to some, and uncomfortable for others, depending on an individual’s values. Freshmen are required to live on campus.

Swarthmore has an honors program, but it is an unconventional one. Once again, the focus was on learning, not academic accolades. The honors program is not based on how “smart” a student is, but rather on how in-depth one wishes to get. A student can enter the honors program in junior or senior year, after officially declaring a major as a junior. The honors program is more specialized and in-depth than the traditional curriculum and comes with a heavier workload.

On the topic of admissions, Swarthmore exclusively uses the Common Application. A student’s academic record—the rigor of and grades in classes—are top priority, followed by standardized tests (SAT/ACT) and extracurricular engagements. Swarthmore requires either the SAT and two subject tests or the ACT with writing, and has no minimum cutoff score for admission. Swarthmore seeks out students with a variety of extracurricular activities. Early decision is binding and has two deadlines, November 1st and January 1st. Financial aid applies to study abroad trips as well, and the “sticker price” before any aid is around $60,000.

Overall, Swarthmore is an open-minded, liberal college which affords its students a fair amount of freedom. It has a unique academic perspective and a beautiful campus, along with unconventional housing arrangements. It is certainly a high-tier college worthy of consideration.