The Fears I Had Before Coming To Swarthmore

March 2021 — The portals updated one by one, pinging my inbox with new emails. Your admission status has updated! Your admission status has updated! Your admission status has updated! Over the course of a few weeks, I opened one college decision after another with trembling fingers, spending the time between each release date in a state of mild dread. Finally, by early April, all of the colleges I’d applied to had released their decisions. The dust settled.

But now that I finally had what I’d wanted for months — acceptance letters — I had to actually choose a school to go to. I dithered for weeks between Swarthmore and my other favorite option, a prestigious midsize research university. Why was my choice so hard?

Well, despite all of Swarthmore’s advantages — the renowned Honors program, a gorgeous arboretum campus, small close-knit classes and teaching-oriented professors, the peacefulness of suburb life and also the excitement of being next to Philadelphia, and so much more — I had a few lurking fears about Swarthmore, too:

  • Coming from a bustling public school with over 3,200 students, would I be bored with Swarthmore’s much smaller size?
  • Would Swarthmore, as a liberal arts college, have lower-quality STEM classes than the research university I was considering?
  • Given Swarthmore’s reputation as a hyper-intellectual college, would I have any free time, or would I instead be forced to work and work and work all day long?

Eventually, I realized that I truly did prefer the style of liberal arts college rather than a research university: I wanted easily-accessible professors instead of harried grad student TAs, and a tight-knit campus community rather than tens of thousands of strangers. So I committed to Swarthmore. I filled out the necessary paperwork, sent in my deposit, and nervously wondered if I’d made the right choice.

Now, a year later, here’s how I would respond to my high school self’s questions and fears about Swarthmore.

Does Swarthmore’s small student population make it boring? Even though Swarthmore is about half the size of my high school, it actually feels quite vibrant! I chalk this up to my fun fellow Swatties. Swarthmore’s absolutely bursting with students who have niche interests and wildly varied backgrounds. I’ve met friends who live and breathe techno music, linguistics classmates who could ramble about slant rhymes in poetry for hours, hallmates who happily spend 10 hours a week spiking volleyballs, thrifting buddies who’ve joined me on my quest to find the perfect funky blazer for under $10. (Side note: the thrifting culture is strong here.)

There’s also plenty to do on weekends here at Swarthmore. A brief sampler of recent/upcoming events: the spring formal filled with dancing and music, performances of classical French and Italian and German art songs, a sprawling live-action roleplay event.

And on drier days, when campus is quieter, students can easily take the SEPTA train to Philadelphia or Media. (Media is a nearby town with some fun restaurants and, most importantly of course, a Kung Fu Tea.) Swarthmore’s close proximity to Philly is, in my opinion, one of its greatest assets! Swarthmore offers the soothing small-campus “everyone knows each other” vibe, yes, but also the option to venture into one of America’s most populous cities for more excitement and adventure.

Are Swatties competitive with one another in the classroom? My high school was a public STEM magnet where all my classmates vied to demonstrate how smart and accomplished they were. It was exhausting, to try to stay afloat in this cutthroat world of one-upmanship, to carve out a spot in a school where your social worth was determined by your academic success. When I considered my college options, I knew that I wanted to get away from that toxic competitive environment.

And so, before arriving on campus, I was apprehensive: Swarthmore’s academic intensity is one of its key selling points; was “intensity” just a code word for “depressing student culture”? Once the semester started, I quickly found out my answer to that question.

At Swarthmore, most of my classes have been quite small; as a general rule, the introductory sciences classes can be on the larger side, but the grand majority of classes are much smaller than you’d find at a traditional university. (As reference, my five classes this semester consist of 4, 7, 9, 16, and 24 students. I’m taking courses in the German, English, Math, and Linguistics departments.) For that reason, I’ve been able to build close relationships with some of my classmates: we often grab lunch together after class or work together on problem sets. It feels cliché and a bit tourist brochure-ish to say that Swat is collaborative and supporting, but it’s true!

What advantages do liberal arts colleges have over research universities? Liberal arts colleges like Swarthmore are known for their broad curriculums. Rather than honing in on one laser-specific academic discipline (say, astrobiology or international business), students are encouraged to gain a firm grounding in a range of fields.

Because I, a first-year, am so very wobbly about my major, Swarthmore’s academic flexibility is quite a boon! I came into college thinking I’d major in English literature and double-minor in math and German. Then, after realizing that linguistics slots in very nicely alongside my interests, I started considering a linguistics major. My plans changed yet again when I took a music class for the heck of it and ended up loving it. So as of now, I’m wildly undecided and wildly excited to see where I end up.

Yet for students whose academic interests waver far less than mine, the liberal arts model doesn’t mean Swarthmore’s distribution requirements are stringent or obnoxious. Far from it, in fact! Swarthmore’s gen eds are surprisingly undemanding: to graduate, students must take at least one lab science class, and at least 3 classes in each of the 3 divisions (natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities). That’s it!

In contrast, most other schools, which are often ostensibly more flexible or major-focused than Swarthmore, have far more distribution requirements — even the research university I was considering attending before I decided to commit!

Maybe this is shallow of me, but is Sharples really that bad?

Do I wish Sharples offered more fresh fruit, or scrambled eggs that actually taste like eggs? Yes. But I also can’t complain about Swarthmore’s food too much — it’s typically decent and always plentiful. 

Most days, the Sharples fare is unremarkable: not amazing, but not terrible, either. On the rare occasions when the dining hall food is truly inedible — I once had a slice of turkey breast that had the jellylike consistency of baloney — there’s always the salad bar, the grill, and the panini press.

And yes, Swarthmore’s dining hall food can actually be stellar sometimes! Some of my favorite dishes include the fish tacos, roasted brussel sprouts, and jerk tofu. (I have been known to eat dinner twice on the days when Sharples serves fish tacos. More taco = happier me.) I could keep waxing poetic about the garlicky mashed potatoes or New England clam chowder or vegan key lime cake, but you get the idea.

All of this is not to say that Swarthmore is a perfect place. No college is! But I know that in taking the leap of faith and picking Swarthmore, I made the right choice. 

2 thoughts on “The Fears I Had Before Coming To Swarthmore

  1. Isabella, I enjoyed your article. My son graduated from Swarthmore in 08. Graduated from William and Mary Law School in 11. Swat was a great choice for him for many of the same reasons as yours. As a parent, I’m more familiar with Swat than most. Ryan played varsity soccer for four years. We live 1.5 hours away, so I attended almost all of the games. It was a wonderful four years for both of us. Your article brought back great memories. It’s nice that it’s working out for you. Best of luck.

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