Campus Visit Debriefing: Swarthmore College

I recently returned from IECA Summer Training Institute, which was held at Swarthmore College.  Part of the conference included a group meeting with Martha Allen, associate dean of admissions, and a tour with a current student.  I officially visited Swarthmore on Wednesday, July 29, 2015.

Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania

Fun fact: Swarthmore College is a nationally registered arboretum.  As such, it overflows with beautiful and unique plant life, including flowers, shrubs, and trees.  But what is an arboretum to do when it loses a tree to disease or some other fatal flaw?  Paint it, of course!  The school's home page (click on "Swarthmore College" above to go there) currently has an image of a shockingly purple weeping hemlock tree which is slowly dying.  The vibrant color is there "to acknowledge its beautiful branching even in death."  Read more about this tree-painting habit in this article from 2010.

Ease of application: Swarthmore College, one of the quite selective, small, liberal arts schools in the nation, matriculates about 400 freshmen every year.  It only offers fall admission (no spring transfers here!).  When evaluating applicants, the admissions office wants to see not only how smart you are but also what you're doing with those smarts to create good in the world.  Swarthmore uses the Common App and includes a supplemental "Why Swarthmore?" essay.  Interviews are not required but are recommended (so, do one if it's feasible for you.).  Your application should convey that you understand, appreciate, and want to be part of Swarthmore's culture.

Overall impression: Swarthmore is so pretty and so small.  The adjacent village of Swarthmore is quaint: it includes a train station and a couple of little roads of cute shops and restaurants.  Restaurants include a variety of options, from the chain Dunkin' Donuts to the local Aria Mediterranean hole-in-the-wall place. There was also a place called Vicky's that looks like an amazing greasy spoon breakfast spot!  Okay, okay, back to the college itself...

This is a very traditional college and a very liberal college at the same time.  I guess I could include some sort of double-play about "liberal arts" here.  On the traditional side, it clings tightly to its vision of a two-semester system (no J-term, no May-mester, no summer school).  It is an undergraduate-only college (no graduate TAs teaching sections or intro courses).  About 90% of the students graduate with a BA, and all students fulfill a thorough liberal arts curriculum.  The campus has just one dining hall in order to foster community and discourse across disciplines.  One of my fellow IECA Training attendees said that Sharples Dining Hall gave off a "Harry Potter goes to summer camp" vibe.  I totally agree.  Students describe lively intellectual discussions taking place at Sharples and around the beautiful campus.

Now let's look at the other side of the coin: Swarthmore is a unique liberal arts school in that it offers engineering.  Fascinating.  About 10% of students graduate with a BS in engineering.  This trait is a rarity among Swarthmore's peer schools.  Engineering students still have to fulfill the core liberal arts curriculum requirements.  Also, in terms of living situations, the campus is very free.  Guys and girls are welcome to room together and many dorm bathrooms are gender-neutral.  "I believe gender is a lie," stated my tour guide, who readily admitted that Swarthmore's population leans heavily to the left.  You can find conservatives around (the admissions office wants a diverse population, remember?), but they'll definitely be a severe minority.

If you're visiting Philadelphia, you should hop on a SEPTA train and ride over to Swarthmore to check it out, both as a school and as an arboretum!