Rice divides its classes into three basic categories: D1 (Humanities), D2 (Social Sciences), and D3 (maths and sciences). D stands for distribution. To graduate, Rice has distribution requirements to ensure that you are "well rounded" in all the subjects. For example, my major is political science, a D2. To graduate, I will have to take 12 credit hours (normally four classes) in D1 and D3 classes. The math and science majors complain a lot about distribution because their majors have harsher requirements. For comparison's sake, Political Science is very lenient about required credits and there is a lot more choice for electives than other majors allow. However classes are seriously difficult. Most students here were top of their high school class and quite a few of them are struggling to maintain even a B average. Grading is curved and it takes a bunch of work to get an A. The amount of homework assigned is sometimes unreasonable and whenever exam time comes along, students withdraw into their rooms or library to study. Again, the amount of homework is ridiculous. As a freshmen, I have classes that assign 200 pages of reading a week. Balancing homework is difficult for all majors, and many students think that in Rice's continual quest to be comparable to the Ivy League colleges, they assign more work (apparently more work = better school). There is definitely a lot of pressure to succeed here, and some students don't even eat meals in the cafeteria because they are too busy studying. Studying definitely will take up a majority of any student's time at Rice, but students are not outwardly competitive. Students are friendly and helpful, and it's definitely common to see late-night study groups cramming before the big midterm. Class size honestly depends on the major and the year you are. Engineering/science students have it the worst. My roommate is a pre-med major and his intro Chemistry, Biology, Anatomy, etc classes have over 80 students in them (he describes them as "typical lecture hall classes"). My largest class has been an Intro to Sociology course which had 80 students in it. The luxury of Rice, however, is that these large classes don't last long. Keep in mind that I'm a freshman and one of my classes has 4 people in it. You definitely wouldn't find that at a state university. Rice prides itself on its (I believe) 5:1 student faculty ratio, and it is a great way to build relationships with your professors. Even the professors of our large classes encourage the students to come to their office hours, and I've never had any difficulty talking with a professor about the class/assignments.
The quality of academics at Rice is very high, but of course various by department. On average, the classes are small; we only have two or three big lecture halls and they're usually not filled. On top of that, the professors are extremely accessible. If you e-mail them, you will almost always get a reply within 24 hours, and they all have office hours in which you can visit. On top of that, most of them don't care if you stop by at any time you like. I even had one professor give us his home phone number, and just asked us not to wake up his wife. I can't tell you how invaluable it was having professors be that accessible and amenable to questions! The first thing you'll notice when you look at Rice's curriculum is that there is no core curriculum. There are literally no classes you are required to take other than the ones for your major(s). Note, there is a writing exam you have to take when you first get there that,if you don't pass, you're required to take at least one of the sundry English composition classes available. Instead of a core curriculum, you have to fulfill "distribution requirements". Basically, 3 to 4 classes in each of three areas: humanities/arts, social sciences, and math/engineering. For many students most of these will be covered by their major(s), and the huge benefit of not having a core curriculum is that you can have multiple majors without a problem. I graduated in 4 years with a double major and had extra time for lots of electives. I know several people who triple majored, and even one who graduated with 4 majors. One note of caution: Rice is not trying to prepare you for a job. I know people from virtually every department, and excluding music, Rice is not trying to provide you with what you need to go into the workforce. Instead, Rice tries to give you the concepts that will help you to understand and excel at whatever you end up doing. I did not get an education that made me good at any particular job, but because of my education I am one of the best at the job I ended up getting.
Academics at Rice are indeed difficult but that is expected as Rice is a highly ranked university. Students range across the spectrum in terms of competitiveness but are not annoyingly so by any means. One of the best things about academics at Rice is the professors. They are always willing to spend extra time helping you out and you will often see them at events around campus so you can build a relationship with them that transcends the simple student-teacher stigma. The major departments at Rice are Engineering, Humanities, Social Sciences, Architecture, and Music. Engineering and Music are considered to be the hardest while Architecture is supposed to be the most time consuming and strenuous. I am an engineer and feel that the program is challenging but fair. The requirements are more than other departments but you can clearly see the need for each and every course and it reflects the value of your degree when you graduate. The diversity and number of classes at Rice is staggering considering the comparatively small student body. One of the most unique aspects is Student Taught Courses. These are 1 credit courses are taught by a student and can be of any topic they choose. Some examples are classes on Bollywood, Harry Potter, and a class on Jeopardy! Any student can apply to teach a course and they are responsible for making the curriculum, syllabus, and giving out grades as well.
The academics at Rice are generally very strong. The general distribution requirements are pretty flexible, so if you want to focus on the challenging courses within your major, you can usually find "easy" classes that make the requirements less burdensome, but you can also use the requirements to expand your horizons. The quality of the classes varies by professor, but there are always plenty of people around to give you sound advice - along with your assigned advisor, there are student faculty advisors at every college, and upperclassmen are always willing to help out underclassmen. Most people at Rice are incredibly smart and interesting, yet also laid-back. A lot of people study a lot and work hard, but generally there is an atmosphere of collaboration rather than competition. As a music major, I've really appreciated the lack of hostility and cut-throat competition that can be rampant at other music schools. I really appreciate the diversity of academic interests at Rice. About half the students seem to be Pre-med, but these students major in everything from Bio-engineering to English. About half the students also seem to be either double-majoring or triple-majoring. At Rice you become friends with insightful philosophers, intelligent musicians, passionate mathematicians, talented writers, and surprisingly hip computer geniuses.
Your first year will mostly be intro classes, which (in the sciences anyways) are about 80 people. These numbers go down as you go to higher levels of science, or if you take an liberal arts class (which are hardly ever bigger than 50 students). Professors in these smaller classes often get to know your name, especially if you speak in class (which is often encouraged). The best thing about the professors is your ability to communicate with them outside of class. Many of them are what we call "associates", which belong to one of the 9 residential colleges on campus. They will be seen eating meals with you in your servery, and will always be there to offer advice. I got to know this physics professor really well this year, despite hating Physics and never having him- he just was an interesting character at the dinner table. Academically, Rice is very challenging. It's not in the Top 20 for nothing, and it doesn't inflate its grades like most upper-tier colleges do. Be prepared to work, and be prepared NOT to get straight A's. You study every day (except possibly Friday), and you work hard, play hard. At Rice, most education is geared towards increasing creativity and interest in a subject; many of the students go on to some post-grad work, and besides the motto of Rice is to increase intellectual curiosity.
Rice students are smart and dedicated, but we're also the most helpful bunch you can find! There are students who spend as much time doing their own homework as they do helping others. Everyone is competitive with themselves, wanting to get good grades, but we don't have any cut-throat competition against each other; Rice is truly a collaborate learning experience! The classes can range from large to small, but you can definitely get into small classes even as a freshman. The professors make an effort to get to know your name in most cases (larger pre-med classes being a personal exception). Class participation is quite common with teachers posing questions that students argue and ponder about among themselves. Rice does have distribution requirements, but most people are truly grateful for them. They are not too hard a task, and they allow you the opportunity to explore different areas; even though engineers may not want to take a social science class, there are so many interesting classes in all fields that end up attracting the unlikely candidates.
The academics at Rice are top-notch, as would be expected from a school of its caliber. I think it is difficult to compare the quality of teaching among top schools, though, since the faculty move around a lot among them. When professors who just arrived from Stanford and MIT teach us, their teaching does not change much. So, are we receiving an education that is better or worse than that of a student at Stanford? Probably not. In nearly every class I've taken here, the professor has learned my name. Rice students regularly chat, dine, and even hang out with our highly accomplished professors. It's also not unusual for them to exchange cell phone numbers and become friends on Facebook. More often than not, profs here have us use their first names, which was somewhat uncomfortable for me at first. But I discovered it makes for a more relaxed intellectual environment in which students are more comfortable with sharing their thoughts. Very nice.
Once you finish the big freshmen lecture classes, the class size tends to drop off rapidly and I know most of my professors personally. Most Rice students are busy *all* the time. Most of that might be spent studying, but people are also heavily involved in extracurriculars. People are much more collaborative than competitive, probably because you get to be friends with your potential "competition". I'll usually meet different professors socially outside the university setting (at the house, for dinner, etc.) a few times a semester. Almost all classes are taught by tenure-track professors and most really enjoy it (the few who don't usually find some bureaucratic loophole to get out of it). I engage in intellectual conversations outside class all the time. Every party I've attended has involved discussion about recent advances in nanotechnology, biotechnology, or philosophical questions.
Most professors know my name, even in larger lecture classes and even if I don't really participate. Some classes are hard, and some are just like high school. I don't feel that Rice is really that hard, but it might be harder than some public schools. We get to see certain professors around all of the time, and we can talk to them, say hi, etc. Sometimes, I even forget that they might be famous professors because they are so down-to-earth. The most unique class I will take is neurology and its applications to law. The professor is not super easy but really great. In the psychology department, all of the teachers are really excited about what they do and are all really great people to talk to. Rice students are intellectual and we can have intellectual conversations, but we work hard and play hard.
Professors definitely know your name. Outside of introductory classes, class sizes are small. Students study all the time. Class participation is very common. Students definitely have intellectual conversations outside of class...people at rice are very smart. Students are competitive in classes where the curve is important, but it is not oppressive or painful. The computer science department at Rice is really great. I learned a ton and got a good job. I feel well prepared for handling changing technology...Rice is not a technical school and as such they do not teach for the purpose of getting you a job. However, everyone I know in my department got great jobs after graduating, especially since Rice has good recruiting relationships with great companies (Amazon, Google, Microsoft, etc).