The ultimate guide to liberal arts colleges


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When applying for college, a young adult has a dizzying array of choices to make, like public vs. private schools and colleges vs. universities. Add to the mix liberal arts colleges, which can be a good choice for creatives and those seeking a broad education resulting in exemplary problem solving and communication skills.

So, the first question to answer is, exactly what is a liberal arts college? And how are liberal arts colleges different from other colleges and universities?

Liberal arts colleges put more focus on broad academics and personal growth than on professional training programs. An education from a liberal arts college is still valuable in helping students start their careers, but the emphasis is more on producing well-rounded individuals than putting graduates on a specific career track like engineering.

Students can study and possibly major in a number of subjects at a liberal arts college that include the arts, literature, philosophy, social sciences, natural sciences, and even math.

These colleges are meant to be a place that values learning, without strictly limiting what students are learning.

Related: How to make FAFSA

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A More Personal Vibe

So what are some differences between liberal arts colleges and public universities?

Though both types of schools will help prepare students for entering the working world, there are some key differences in what the experience will be like:

  1. Liberal arts colleges are smaller. Most classes will have far fewer students than is the case at a university lecture hall, which can have hundreds attending at the same time.
  2. Because of the smaller size, it’s easier for students to bond with their professors. The faculty members have more time to spend with their students.
  3. The focus of a liberal arts school is undergraduate education. At universities, there will likely be graduate programs and major research efforts.

A liberal arts college may be the best college fit for students who prefer a more personal experience where they can get to know faculty members and other students.

Those trying to decide which college is right for them can take this eight-question college fit quiz.

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The Admissions Process

The application process for getting into a liberal arts college isn’t too different from any other school of higher learning. Students will have to submit the usual components: an application with transcripts, test scores, essays and letters of recommendation.

Liberal arts colleges may have a different focus when it comes to reviewing applications, though, so it’s essential to keep the following information in mind when applying to a liberal arts college.

When it comes to test scores and grades, liberal arts colleges don’t always have specific requirements. Admissions can still be very competitive at these schools, but they’re more interested in whether or not students challenged themselves in high school. They want to see that applicants are well rounded but also have an area of interest they specialize in.

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Choosing Extracurriculars

Extracurriculars are important when applying to any college, but liberal arts colleges value different kinds, and not just those that involve leadership.

A liberal arts college may be more likely to value extracurricular activities that are outside the box, so students applying to these schools have more options for what they can get involved in.

The Common Application (, which can be used to apply to more than 900 schools, only requires one essay, but most liberal arts colleges will require at least two supplemental essays.

These schools are more focused on writing and critical thinking, which is why they require more essays than other schools. This can be beneficial for students who have strong writing skills but may be weaker in other areas.

Many liberal arts colleges value a student’s character and how they’ll contribute to the school more than academic achievements, so they may put more weight on letters of recommendation and interviews.

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Top Ranked Liberal Arts Colleges

The Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education and U.S. News released their rankings for the top five liberal arts colleges for 2021. They all ranked the same schools in the top five, with the order differing slightly.

The Wall Street Journal and Times Higher Education ranked the top five schools as:

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1. Amherst College and Williams College (both in Massachusetts) tied for first

Image Credit: Williams College, Williamstown, Mass..

2. Pomona College (California)

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3. Wellesley College (Massachusetts)

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4. Swarthmore College (Pennsylvania)

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U.S. News’ Top 5

U.S. News ranked the top five schools as:

  1. Williams College
  2. Amherst College
  3. Swarthmore College
  4. Pomona College and Wellesley College tied for fourth

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Financial Value of a Liberal Arts Education

There’s a stereotype about people who pursue a liberal arts education: that they won’t find financial success and their degree could be useless. This claim isn’t backed by evidence, though, so students who feel like a liberal arts college is the right choice for them shouldn’t be scared away by this untrue narrative.

The gap in income between those who attend a liberal arts college and those who attend other schools isn’t necessarily linked to the institution.

Instead, it’s determined more by a student’s career path and the market forces at the time, according to two economists who analyzed the payoff of a liberal arts college education.

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Topics Covered at Liberal Arts Schools

Another reason for this misconception is that people are unaware of the diverse selection of topics that are studied at liberal arts colleges. If people don’t actually know what is being studied at these colleges, they’ll have a more difficult time conceptualizing what a student’s future could entail.

Though graduates of liberal arts colleges may not earn as much as those from STEM-oriented institutions, the economists’ study found that 60% of students ended up in the top 40% of U.S. income after graduation, even if they started out in the bottom 60%.

Choosing where to attend college and whether or not it will have a “payoff” is personal to each student.

Attending a liberal arts college can lead to upward mobility, but students also have to take into account the cost of the education and the availability of financial aid when choosing which school will have the most value for them.

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Paying for College

Along with the painstaking process of choosing where to apply for college and making a final decision, there is another difficult process: figuring out the cost of tuition and how to pay for it all.

Luckily, students usually have access to a few options that may help fund the yearly cost of attendance, which goes beyond tuition and fees to usually include room and board, books, supplies, transportation, loan fees, costs related to a disability, and reasonable costs for eligible study-abroad programs.

Students could be eligible for federal student aid or private student loans. It’s possible to use a combination to cover the cost of attending college.

It’s recommended that students apply for FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The aid can come in the form of grants or loans.

Some private colleges use a supplemental form, the College Scholarship Service Profile, to determine how to give out their own financial aid. The form is more detailed than the FAFSA.

Almost every college that meets financial need for all enrolled students without federal student loans uses the CSS Profile.

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Liberal Arts School Costs

Most liberal arts colleges are private and carry a relatively high “sticker price,” which includes tuition, fees, room and board. (Tuition and fees alone averaged $37,650 at private colleges for the 2020-21 academic year.) But students will typically pay less, and sometimes far less, when grants, scholarships, and tax benefits are factored in.

If students will require loans to cover the cost of college, it’s recommended they take out federal loans before private loans, because the former come with benefits that the latter usually do not, like lower fixed interest rates and income-driven repayment plans.

Scholarships are also widely available. Some are need based; others are merit based. They’re offered by schools, companies, community organizations, religious groups, and more.

Private student loans are an option as well. Eligibility usually depends on a student’s income and credit score or those of a cosigner. These loans are given out by private institutions, and the terms will vary from one lender to another.

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The Takeaway

Whether you choose to go to a state university or a private liberal arts college, the experience will be enriching. The notion that a degree from a Hogwarts-type liberal arts college is worthless is hogwash, the evidence shows.

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