Best Kept Secrets

Top 10 Schools that fly under the academic radar - but shouldn't

By Unigo Editors

There are Ivy League Schools and the New Ivies, but what about the academic institutions who fly so under the radar? You might not have even heard of them. Welcome to Unigo’s Top 10 Best Kept Secrets: the academic institutions that never get the fanfare, but still provide a superior educational experience. Don’t be surprised if you’re asking yourself just where these schools are located. You can be sure many of their current and past alumni know because they’ve pointed us in their direction.


Bard College

Bard College is small – 450 students per class year – and it’s in Annadale-on-Hudson, which students characterize as “Out. In. The. Middle. Of. The. Woods.” This size and location leaves a lot of time for students to focus on their academics, and on one another. Perhaps the most unusual aspect of Bard’s academics is moderation, the process by which students declare their majors. A senior explains,"The moderation process, occurring during your sophomore year, forces students to think about all of their classwork to date before attempting to major in any one subject. Unlike other schools, the departments at Bard reserve the right to refuse a potential major. Students are admitted through the moderation process, during which they must choose a major, then write and defend a paper in that area against a panel of professors to gain entry. Before graduating, the student completes a senior project of their choice over the course of two semesters, then goes back before that same panel once again to discuss their progress. It’s a really challenging and rewarding process.” Students go through the moderation process together, and their unique character largely defines Bard. The typical Bard student is said to be a “…radical hyper-intellectual philosopher/artist who is too hip for his/her own good, and can frequently be found dragging on cigarettes in ironic t-shirts and skin tight jeans, discussing Hegel with their equally hip friends.” Another student adds: “Bard students are certainly hyper intellectual … they are encouraged from their first day of college to push the envelope and expand their perspectives.” A third chimes in, “a hobby or interest or personality that may have been thought of as ‘weird’ in high school is totally embraced here … people are more prone to finding other people's obscure interests exciting and interesting. Depending on where you are from, it can be the most wonderful feeling ever to finally meet kids who are like you.” If you’re a strong, intellectual student who feels like you never truly fit in with the regular kids in high school, and you’re looking for a small school that offers truly personalized academic attention, Bard College may be just the place for you.


Denison University

“The best thing about Denison is our sense of community. It's a small school, approximately 2,100 students. Everyone is on campus all the time.” This small size can have big academic benefits. A freshman double majoring in studio art and biology says, “My favorite thing about Denison is that the lecture halls have thirty chairs. LECTURE HALLS with only thirty seats. That is absolutely unheard-of.” Small class sizes mean students have close relationships with their professors, and it isn’t uncommon to hang out with a professor outside of class. “I know of more than one case where a classmate has played in a concert or acted in a play, and they invited a professor to come see them. Professors at Denison are your friends, not some enigma you never get close to.” Students spend most of their time on campus, but Denison’s hometown, Granville, Ohio, is a quaint hangout spot for those itching to escape the college grounds. Students wanting a little more excitement head to the nearest Ohio metropolis: A sophomore notes, “If you need a big city fix, downtown Columbus is an easy twenty five minute drive off campus.” Overall, Denisonites truly appreciate the chummy atmosphere, and the school that provides them with a close academic community that really feels like family.


Hampshire College

Hampshire College has built its reputation on going against the grain. “The best thing about Hampshire is the freedom that you get.” Most students create their majors themselves, then select the classes that would suit that major. The school, for its part, stays true to its original mission of discouraging letter grades, encouraging student-led discussions, and championing its unique brand of education. A senior Environmental Studies major explains: “Hampshire's learning is geared towards whatever your mind is geared towards. The rules are more like guidelines than rules. If there is a rule, there is an acceptable way to break it.” As for the students, universal weirdness seems to be what ultimately unites and defines them. A theater major says, “There's this saying on campus that Hampshire is made up entirely of kids who were the outcasts in their high school, which I think is pretty spot-on. It's strange, because everyone is so unique individually, but when you see us all together, we all look the same.” The off-kilter quality makes Hampshire a welcoming haven for students who, before coming to college, might never have thought they’d fit in. One junior sums up Hampshire’s overall experience like this: “If you DON’T like arguing, the general spirit of activism, the smell of marijuana, really smart people who do too many drugs and manage to write insanely good essays anyway, or woodland creatures … and if you DO like a whole lot of direction in your academic work, then Hampshire isn’t for you.” Another interesting fact: despite the lack of cohesive structure at Hampshire, its students have one of the highest graduate-school acceptance rates in the country.


Harvey Mudd College

Mix math-science brilliance, liberal politics, a slavish work ethic and a commitment to social life, and you’ve got the typical Harvey Mudd student. Mudd is a tiny school of fewer than 750 students and nine majors, all of which are in math or science. The guy-girl ratio is far from even (guys outnumber girls seven to three), but all-girls Scripps College is right next door. “The academic requirements here are extremely tough … I’ve enjoyed the depth and breadth, however, and to some degree I pity people who haven’t spent as much time studying the sciences as I have." Says another student, “The one word to describe Mudd's academics is INTENSE. Academics are a 24/7 pursuit. It’s not uncommon to be incredibly drunk and still be discussing your current science class or project.” Adds a third, “Quantum physics is always good breakfast conversation, and my roommate and suite mate talk about philosophy a lot. We spend hours upon hours doing homework and studying, and then when we're done we still want to talk about science.” Since the school is so small, professors form close relationships with undergrads and often engage with them outside of the classroom. Mudd has no Greek life—the social scene is all about the dorms. “The social life you have revolves around the dorm you live in, as all the dorms have a personality and this creates an amazing sense of community. As a freshman you take a 3-page survey that will place you in a dorm that works best with you as a person. The people who pick dorms and roommates generally do a very good job.” The dorms’ characterizations range from stoner to homebody to jock, and each hosts social events. Lastly, Harvey Mudd operates by an honor code that allows students to take exams in their dorms and leave their bags unattended—and facilitates the acceptance and collaboration that Mudders truly value.


Kenyon College

Kenyon College, one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country, offers a first-rate education in an unpretentious Midwestern atmosphere. The students who land in Gambier, OH tend to do so with purpose, excited to spend four years learning with 1,600 other bright, quirky, friendly individuals. And, for the right kind of student, they should be excited – the commitment to academics at Kenyon is unique even among other top-notch institutions. As one alum writes, “There's a well-known phrase on campus that ‘football is to The Ohio State University what academics and writing are to Kenyon’.” This is partly thanks to the pedigree associated with the Kenyon Review, the national literary journal. But beyond that, students don’t just take classes—they are excited about them, especially those in the famous English department. In turn, professors take students seriously. As one sophomore claims, “Every professor knows my name, even some whose classes I have never taken.” Another says, “I have never, in both my completed years at Kenyon, had one class that I didn't adore.” There are, of course, trade-offs. Kenyon students are described as brainy and quirky and, just as often, awkward. One sophomore pleads, “The students are brilliant … but seriously ... seriously ... can we work on social skills first???” Some students also express their frustration with the limitations of Kenyon’s social life, especially during the long snowy winters. One sophomore sums up the options this way: “As Bob Dylan once said about Kenyon, ‘If I went here, all I would do is go out into the woods and drink.’ Bob, you are right on the mark.” Nonetheless, students seem to be very happy. As a final student says, “ “The thing I love most about Kenyon is that whatever you want to do, as long as you're not hurting yourself or others, it's cool. If you want to stay in and watch movies and eat pizza with friends, that's great. If you want to go to parties, there are always some raging down South. If you want to join a band and play (or go to!) gigs, there's probably a free concert. Because we are small, the attitude is get as many people involved as possible, so things are usually cheap and doors in dorms are open. If you're bored at Kenyon, you're not trying.”


Knox College

Knox College is for the intellectual, liberal, passionate student who avoided the popular/jock high school scene. As its latest slogan proclaims, “We are Knox.” Who is that, exactly? Says one freshman, “We are a quirky school with a long history of unique traditions.” (Traditions include Pumphandle - on the first day of classes, every faculty member, administrator, and student forms a giant line and shakes the hand of everyone else.) Knox isn’t as worried about fitting in as it is eager to stand out with its small, tight-knit community of intellectually curious, offbeat personalities. “At Knox, I have always felt free to be myself, however weird and wacky that might be.” Another student says, “A large percentage of the student body comes from the outcast high school role, so there are a bunch of ‘oddballs’ here. And we all get along famously,” says a senior. It also helps that Galesburg, Illinois, the town that Knox calls home, offers few escape options. “Galesburg is in the middle of nowhere, and the campus is not situated in the safest of neighborhoods,” says a sophomore. “There really isn’t anywhere to go even if you do leave campus.” As a result, students stick close inside the “Knox Bubble.” Academically, Knox operates on a unique 3-3-3 trimester system, in which students take three classes per term for three terms each year (which includes a long, six-week holiday break.) “The workloads can be quite rough,” according to one sophomore, “but the trimester academic system keeps things manageable.” While the majority of Knox students might aspire “to be movers and shakers who will be able to make a difference in the world (even if it means we will be eating ramen for the next ten years along the way),” the school makes an effort to connect in-class contemplation to real-world career options. “Knox focuses on learning for its own sake but also has job placement and viable marketing techniques to make sure, regardless of your major, you have numerous opportunities upon graduation,” writes a recent alumna.


Ohio Wesleyan University

Students are head-over-heels for Ohio Wesleyan’s small classroom-based academics. “The classes at Ohio Wesleyan are very personal and intimate,” says a sophomore music major. “The professors are always willing to meet with you and help you out, and the atmosphere is relaxed and enjoyable while still being well-structured.” Another student comments on her favorite class, a “history class about Latin America in Revolution. The way that the class was set up was really great. There were only 10 students. It was entirely discussion. And never did I feel that I had to say what the professor wanted. The floor was open for any student to say what they thought about the subject in question.” As for the students - “OWU's student body is an interesting thing. We have one of the highest percentages of international students for liberal arts colleges, and I think it really adds to our education outside the classroom.” OWU also makes a concerted effort to involve all of its students with community service to some degree. “Community service in general is huge at OWU. Almost everyone is involved in a community service organization.” They’re also very involved in literary pursuits, including The Transcript, which is the oldest independent college newspaper in the US, and the Owl, which is one of the oldest literary magazines in the country. As for their surroundings, students says OWU is situated in “a beautiful town. Small, for sure. But it's home to the best ice cream in the midwest, and the best pizza shop too. Overall, college life at OWU can be summed up as ‘idyllic.’”


Reed College

Reed College is one of the most unusual schools in the country, a fact that is reflected in the prevalent stereotypes about its student population. “Reed is a school full of hardworking hippies who do a lot of drugs, sleep very little, and are all bizarre individuals in some respect,” writes a freshman when reflecting on how the outside world views his college. While these tags don't accurately describe each individual student, most agree that pretty much everyone at Reed is interesting and unique - and most importantly, extraordinarily bright. “Once at a friend’s house I met a Reedie who grew up with his dad in a teepee," writes a recent alum. "This sort of experience isn’t that uncommon. In addition, there are all sorts of student groups building and fixing bikes, brewing beer, fire dancing, ‘buildering’ (aka climbing buildings as well as [taking] outdoor trips), planning a Cascadian revolution, you name it.” No matter how different or quirky, or how varied their interests, Reedies are united by their self-professed “weirdness,” curiosity, and intellectual fervor. Especially their intellectual fervor. There are no two ways about it: Reed is heaven for the academically obsessed. There are few other colleges in the country, Ivy League included, where the bar for academic excellence is set so high, and where students are as committed to meeting those standards. “Not studying is not an option," explains one student who claims to hit the books a minimum of five hours a day. "Not studying enough is also not an option. The workload and academic expectations are enormous - prepare for the onslaught or you WILL be crushed. No, really.” Students often cite reading assignments topping 300 pages a night, 20-page papers, and the “stress culture” that these rigorous demands breed. "Do not go to Reed if you do not want to push yourself to learn, and if you are not enthused by reading, by writing long papers, and by discussing things in class,” writes one junior. The workload may often seem overwhelming, and it probably is, but students are bolstered by their professors, who treat them as peers and insist that students refer to them on a first-name basis. “[My professors] know who I date, they know how I really feel about those people,” writes a junior majoring in religion. “They know my strengths and my weaknesses and whether I am, at any given moment, strong, weak, or falling apart.” Reed’s Honor Principle, which governs every aspect of Reed life and enables the administration to take more of a hands-off approach to governing the student body. A sociology major explains: “Instead of having a long series of penal codes and regulations, we have the Honor Principle. Basically, it asks that students be considerate. Reedies are to consider their actions and not do anything which may bother or harm another. The campus is pretty free of litter. People rarely cheat on tests, even when professors allow us to take them home and do them on our own. Reedies will follow the time limit, not use notes, etc.” Reed a welcome sanctuary from the outside world. But, as one student writes, “Reed will drive you crazy. If it doesn't, you didn't do it right. It's small, it's intense, and it's lovely. It's a haven for displaced and disenchanted intellectuals and we like it that way.”


Sarah Lawrence College

The school motto at Sarah Lawrence College is “You are different. So are we.” Most students will tell you, however, that as far as the student body is concerned, many are “different”, but in the same liberal, quirky, hipster/hippie way. There is little ethnic diversity, nor gender diversity – the male to female ratio is 30:70. That said, on the academic front, Sarah Lawrence really does have a unique and nontraditional approach, borrowed from the Oxford/Cambridge tutorial model. Firstly, there are no majors here; rather, students pursue “concentrations” of their choosing by selecting courses in four areas of study (creative arts, history, natural sciences and mathematics, and humanities). Classes are taught in seminars of 15 students or less, and supplemented with one-on-one student/professor conferences where students are given individualized assignments tailored to their interests. Every student is assigned a faculty “don” who serves as the student’s academic and personal advisor and helps define the scope of their academic work. Written evaluations take the place of traditional grades, and there are no tests (just excruciatingly long papers). Some students thrive in this independent study environment; others have a hard time adapting to the lack of structure. “Because all the academics are self-directed, people actually care about their work,” writes one sophomore, “” Another student says “you will never have a teacher at SLC who doesn't know your name. In fact, they'll know your name, your hometown, your email address, phone number, your favorite books, what you did last weekend, and maybe even your social security number,” says another sophomore. LGBT students also find an enthusiastic and supportive community on campus. “The student body is quite diverse sexually - in fact, at this school, it is controversial to say you don't believe in a sexual continuum and a broad gender binary," writes a senior. "To say that a man is a man and a woman is a woman - regardless of their sexual orientation - is utter blasphemy to most.” A final student chimes in, “I tell people that anyone who liked the football team at their high school, owns more than 3 items from Abercrombie, or values social cliques should steer clear of SLC.”


Wabash College

One of only four remaining all-men’s schools in the US today, Wabash College is a haven for men seeking a well-rounded liberal arts education. One could call Wabash the campus “where everybody knows your name,” as professors are known for being highly accessible and for personally engaging with students. Although the majority of this school’s small population of about 900 students hail from Wabash’s own state of Indiana, there is a growing international presence, and diversity is steadily on the rise. Students here love their school, and the strong sense of tradition it breeds. According to one sophomore economics major, "That tradition lasts after you graduate, so strongly that the students have nicknamed the alumni network the 'Wabash Mafia.” While one junior jokes that the worst thing about Wabash is "that there isn't an all-female college thirty minutes away," its students value the school's all-male status. "Our college is special, and we feel that the all-male atmosphere stimulates a higher educational experience." The no-girls-allowed classroom and social environment sometimes leads to the impression that Wabash men are chauvinistic, but students deny that the stereotype holds true. Says a senior in the economics department, "Because there are no women around, I feel that Wabash men more often than not respect women and each other, more so than their peers at large, co-ed state schools." A sophomore adds, "Having only males in the classroom lets the students express themselves without fear of feeling stupid in front of the girls. Life outside the classroom is more boisterous and more tuned to male entertainment and male ways of doing things." Wabash ensures a tight-knit academic community by keeping the student-faculty ratio low, usually below 10-to-1.