With its dauntingly small acceptance rate and open curriculum, Amherst College is an ideal community for the country's top students to pursue their interests both in and out of the classroom. "The open curriculum is great for students who want to explore a little of everything and get a really well-rounded education. Intellectual curiosity is fed and encouraged, with many opportunities for students to conduct their own research and experiments on topics of their choice." One freshman has this to say of her time at Amherst so far: "I love Amherst, but it can definitely be very stressful at times. Most people here are huge overachievers; they're balancing schoolwork with a sport and another time-consuming extracurricular without neglecting their social lives."
Carnegie Mellon University
One of the biggest perks of heading off to college is the chance to surround oneself with like-minded individuals. For students who were considered outcasts in high school, Carnegie Mellon will feel right at home. According to one biology major, "Everyone is brilliant, everyone is a geek, everyone is driven, everyone is awkward, everyone is a work-a-holic." Carnegie Mellon is often named one of the country's most elite college and students are challenged daily by both their professors and peers. "You walk in smart, you walk out smarter and you learn all you can."
The only thing that can rival Duke University's academic reputation is the fierce school pride of its students. One junior boasts, "Academics are Duke's true selling point, with most departments improving constantly and many boasting some of the world's top scholars in their field." And while getting accepted to Duke may be an impressive feat, that is just the first of many challenges that await. One student put it a bit more bluntly: "Duke is a top notch college, so there's really no f*cking around when it comes to getting down to the grind. And kids here are really, really smart."
Macalester College is both one of the nation's smallest and top-rated liberal arts colleges that often flies under the radar, and students here like it that way. "Professors know your name, where you're from, what you did last weekend, and how you did on your last paper. The departments are not clique-ish in terms of friend groups. That leads to spirited and interdisciplinary discussions about everything from sex, to Kant, to the Environment, to campus politics." The academic intimacy allows students to really immerse themselves in their chosen study, but also creates a challenging course load that leaves little room for slacking off. One sophomore anthropology student warns, "Most students study a LOT. Most classes here, and certainly upper level classes, require tons of reading and lots of out-of-class work in order to master the material and get a good grade. Macalester students definitely have lots of intellectual conversations outside of class as well."
Located in the sleepy Vermont town of the same name, Middlebury College is ideal for pressure and distraction-free academic pursuit, and its small size creates an intimate learning environment. One theatre student says, "Academics at Middlebury are known to be top notch. Because the classes are usually pretty small, professors are more than willing to give you personal attention and most, if not all of them, come from amazing academic and worldly backgrounds." Students at Middlebury are excited about their education and unanimous in their praise of the school's academic life. Another student has this to say: "The classes are awesome here. Classes are engaging and challenging and push me to do my hardest. I always feel like I'm learning a lot and am generally very close with my professors."
Rice University is both one of the nation's top research institutions and, by reputation, home to one of the most eccentric student bodies. This combination of intelligence and unique personalities makes for an exciting learning environment. According to a political science student, "Everyone at Rice is unbelievably smart and has worked their butt off to get where they are. Discussions in classes are robust, and the diverse student body ensures that there will be an interesting perspective on issues." Students here also take their academics very seriously and ensure that they leave Rice with as much new knowledge as possible. "Everyone here seems to be very intelligent and very committed to academics. People are sometimes overly ambitious (almost everyone double and triple majors) and very dedicated to their studies," claims one sophomore.
While Swarthmore doesn't calculate GPA or class rank, this does not mean that students coast through their course work. Instead, the school's unique academic system allows students to focus on their own studies and pursuit of knowledge. According to one pre-med student, the challenging coursework is enough without having to worry about competition. "It's true that the classes at Swarthmore are generally very tough...but the relationships with professors and the camaraderie (and lack of cut-throat competition) really makes things seem less bleak." One English major describes the academics at Swarthmore with a little more…enthusiasm: "I've had some classes that were so amazing I would basically walk out the door and have my head explode with all the insight and information I gleaned from that one class. Professors here truly love the material they're teaching."
"Tufts students (or at least a good portion) are really smart, sometimes intimidatingly so, and very active citizens. In fact, at times it's overwhelming how many causes everyone wants you to be involved in," says one international relations student. Whether spear-heading a new club, playing a sport, or taking advantage of internship opportunities in nearby Boston, students here take advantage of every opportunity offered at Tufts. On top of all the extracurricular activities, students somehow manage to squeeze in time for their regular studies as well. "Students definitely take their classes very seriously. However, there isn't much competition between students. It's primarily students being competitive with themselves and holding themselves to high standards."
Washington University in St. Louis
Students at Washington University in St. Louis are so passionate about their studies that the line between academic and social life is often blurred. "Students here are really smart, and it's not just in the classroom. People here talk about classes, academics, and current events all the time. At parties, it's funny to hear people talking about their most recent chemistry test or some funny lecture they had," claims one freshman. Another student has this to say: "As the 11th ranked school in the nation, people do take their academics seriously and you struggle to find a seat in the library come finals." That might read as a good warning for prospective students to make sure you really love the subject you're studying.
Williams College provides a unique, rigorous academic experience that allows students to really become experts in their field of choice. As one senior explains, "Tutorials are a huge part of the Williams experience, and definitely deserve mention. They consist of two students who meet once a week with a professor and alternate writing papers (or doing problem sets if the tutorial happens to be math or science based) and critiquing their partner's paper. During the meeting, the students present their papers and critiques, and then discuss with the professor." Another student has this to say: "It's a lot of work, and most of your professors know you by name and are quite friendly, which makes slacking off difficult. Everyone works a lot, but classes are, for the most part, interesting and you have plenty of flexibility, so you rarely are forced to take classes on subjects that don't interest you." So if you're signed up to go to Williams, expect to have an intimate knowledge of the library, but be comforted in knowing that you'll at least be studying something interesting.