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Liberal Arts Schools

By Adam Sapp
Admissions Officer, Claremont McKenna College

You have probably heard the phrase "liberal arts college" during your search, but may not be sure exactly what it means. The term "liberal arts college" tends to refer to a class of schools whose main goal is to develop well-rounded students by immersing them in all areas of study: social sciences, humanities, physical sciences, and the arts. These schools do not focus on training students for a specific career path, but rather equipping them with critical-thinking skills applicable to all career paths.

While liberal arts colleges come in many forms, most tend to be smaller private schools, where students live on campus and are part of an all-encompassing academic and social environment. The majority of liberal arts colleges are independent institutions. However, many large universities have a liberal arts school within them. Although each institution is different, the independent liberal arts colleges often have a few characteristics in common:

  • Small student populations, between 700 and 2500 students
  • A high percentage of students living on campus, anywhere from 70 to 100 percent
  • Small classes, averaging between 12 and 30 students per class
  • A focus on undergraduate education (although some offer limited graduate programs in a small number of areas)
  • Pre-professional advising systems for law, medical, business and Ph.D. programs

Faculty-student relationships are the backbone of the liberal arts education. While research may be the primary concern of professors at many institutions, liberal arts colleges emphasize teaching with equal vigor. Personal attention, life advice, and academic guidance are just a few of the perks of small classes. Professors at liberal arts colleges want to talk with their students. They keep their ears open for interesting internship opportunities to pass along to their students. They invite students to their homes for dinner and they stay in contact with graduates and former advisees. These student-faculty relationships impart more than an understanding of a particular subject like history or biology; they are relationships the students remember long after they have moved out of the dormitory rooms and dining halls. Because of their focus on students, liberal arts colleges provide excellent preparation for professional school. Most have high four-year graduation rates and offer intensive academic and career counseling support from the very beginning. As a result, they often boast high acceptance rates to business, law and medical schools, as well as a high number of graduates who go on to PhD programs.

Because the large majority of students live on campus, these institutions have vibrant social communities. School-affiliated groups have a very strong influence on campus life—activities do not end when classes do. Group meetings, athletic practices, lectures, and concerts take place all afternoon and into the late evening in areas that are within walking distance of your residence hall. Whether the institution is rural, suburban, or in a city center, small liberal arts colleges tend to prefer a self-enclosed campus, where students can access the world outside because they want to, not necessarily because they have to. Many students at these institutions take advantage of study abroad experiences, learn a foreign language, or complete some kind of diversity or cultural enrichment experience prior to graduation. Because of their broad preparation, these institutions feel their graduates leave with the creative, flexible minds that allow them to adapt to the work place effectively, and to communicate (both orally and with the written word) in a way that makes them desirable to employers.

Liberal arts colleges do not expect the average freshman to have everything figured out. They allow students to explore various opportunities, to dabble in classes ranging from English to Psychology to Economics, and to change direction when they find something that strikes a chord in them. Liberal arts colleges do not require a student to choose a specific major upon entering. Most offer students the option to take courses for two years before selecting a major. These institutions hope to make their students open to new experiences and develop in them not just a passion for one subject, but rather, an interest in learning for learning's sake, and with that, an appreciation for the interconnectedness of all academic areas.


About the School

Claremont McKenna College (CMC) is a four-year liberal arts college located in Claremont, California, 35 miles east of Los Angeles. CMC is part of the Claremont Colleges, which includes four other undergraduate liberal arts colleges. It offers excellent preparation for professional and graduate school, with 75% of graduates receiving advanced degrees within 5 years of graduation.