Selecting a place to spend the four potentially most formative years of your life isn't easy, and students who decide to come to Swarthmore take their college selection process very seriously. With clearly defined criteria for what constitutes the ideal college experience, six current students reflect on the College's perennial admissions essay question and explain how, once they've been here for a year or so, Swarthmore measures up to their exacting expectations.
Emmanuel Afrifa '11 enjoys participating in campus discussion groups, many of which take place in the Black Cultural Center.
What I Wanted:
A place where everyone has a voice
As a member of a college prep program in high school, I took a bus tour to check out some small colleges. Although I was familiar with the Ivy League schools, I didn't know anything about smaller institutions.
My first impression of Swarthmore was the beautiful campus. I was able to imagine myself walking around there, but I wasn't sure whether life here would be the right fit for me. On a tour, I saw students in their natural habitat - dorm life - uncensored. I liked it. The students I spoke with answered my questions honestly, and I was grateful for their candidness. They clearly enjoyed being there. It was the student body that made the difference for me, the perception that I was in a place where no individual was trying to be the apple of the professor's eye, but rather where there's an emphasis on study groups and on ensuring that everyone has a voice on campus. That attitude really spoke to me.
I'm not a Quaker, but I believe in Quaker ideals and in their necessity and value both in the institution and the world. I wanted to become a part of that.
What I Found:
A dynamic student body, social awareness, and lack of bias
After being at Swarthmore for over three years, I can honestly say that the school has met my expectations. Swarthmore students for the most part are outspoken about their viewpoints, but willing to listen to other approaches. You will never be in a class where students are trying to outshine one another or hamper the success of their fellow classmates. Such openness only serves to help an individual grow intellectually and socially.
Emmanuel Afrifa '11
As a member of the Garnet Cross Country team, Ali Farnós-Wilker '11 has spent many happy moments on the Skallerup Track.
What I Wanted:
An inspiring place, with academic and social challenges
Swarthmore made it onto my list of colleges because it was geographically close to my hometown. My dad is also an alumnus [Charles Wilker '77] who would talk about his college years and bring me along to Alumni Weekend as a kid. While I've always felt a connection to Swarthmore through his experiences, I wanted to carve my own path and tried to identify all the reasons why it was not a good fit for me. But despite my resistance, as I learned more about the College, I fell more in love with it! During my junior and senior year, I visited the campus several times to really get a sense if it was the right place for me. Everything I heard appealed to me: the freedom to study all kinds of things that interest me, opportunities in interdisciplinary work, externships, study abroad, the fluid social culture, and the emphasis on social responsibility.
At some point, I contacted a friend who was already attending Swarthmore to ask him about his personal experience. He had been a very quiet guy in high school and I was surprised to discover that after spending only a year at Swarthmore, he seemed to have really come out of his shell. He spoke excitedly about the amazing friends he'd made. I thought, I want to have friends like that, too, and grow and learn in a community such as the one he described. As a learner and thinker, I believed Swarthmore would challenge me not only academically but also socially, pushing me to think more critically about my decisions, be more socially responsible, and re-examine my core beliefs. It seemed like such an inspiring place. By the time I was making my final decision on where to attend college, there was no doubt in my mind that Swarthmore was exactly where I wanted to be.
What I Found:
A diverse community of passionate learners
Although I expected academic rigor and intellectual intensity, I didn't fully understand what that meant until I was actually here as a student. The friends I've made and the peers I've studied with have a passion for their interests that's contagious, so I believe that in part I've been shaped by the passions of this community. It motivates me to think more deeply, ask interesting questions, examine critically, and be open to new ways of thinking and new ways of approaching a subject. My friends are endlessly more diverse - from many different experiences and regions as well as family and educational backgrounds - than any group of friends I've ever had before. I knew that Swarthmore would be academically rigorous, and I welcomed that, but I didn't anticipate the value of being in a community where my peers are equally as excited about learning and eager to engage with their ideas. In my experience, I've found that Swarthmore, as an educational institution, really values community discourse. As such, the College supports organizations that seek to create spaces where diverse groups can engage in meaningful dialogue and confront issues that are not always comfortable, such as the Sager Symposium or the Clothesline Project.
Even in the dorms, where you have first-years, sophomores, juniors, and seniors living on the same hall, there is an exchange of widely varying opinions and experiences. As a student of the social sciences and humanities, I'd never imagined being interested in astrophysics. But during my freshman year, I found myself wanting to explore an astronomy course because a senior on my hall was working on his thesis in astrophysics and spoke about it with such excitement. I think being here has opened my mind so much and I believe that at least as much of that has happened outside the classroom as inside. That's been the biggest and happiest surprise.
Alicia "Ali" Farnós-Wilker '11
Will Hopkins '11, a resident assistant, enjoys spending time in the meadow that houses the Scott Arboretum's cherry collection and a number of enticing wooden benches in secluded corners.
What I Wanted:
Engineering with the option to switch; friends I could relate to
Actually, my "Why Swarthmore?" essay was the one I spent the least time on and the one I cared least about. Because of that, I believe it was one of my better written ones and probably more natural and honest.
Part of that had to do with Swarthmore's Quaker tradition. I was raised Quaker, so the Quaker outlook on education and its purpose attracted me. I was also an avowed engineer at the time, and nothing was going to sway me from that. I knew that Swarthmore had a strong engineering program, but that, as a liberal arts college, it wouldn't lock me into a course of study I may choose not to pursue at a later point. I could do engineering but switch to something else if I wanted - which is what eventually happened.
At Ride the Tide, the event for admitted students, I found Psi Phi, the science fiction club, at the Activities Fair. I love science fiction. "OK, I've found my people," I thought. "If I come here, I'll find friends I can relate to."
What I Found:
Twelve possible majors, no academic limits, challenges beyond my wildest dreams
The Psi Phi Club was the hook that drew me in, but it's only a part of what I do now. In the last three years, I've considered about 12 different majors, and any of them would have been a possibility. There seemed to be no limits to what I could do academically except that I had to decide what to actually do. I settled on an honors psychology major with a course major and honors minor in English literature. I considered a double major in engineering and studio art, but they're both among the most rigorous majors in terms of courses you need and sheer numbers of classes you have to take.
I've been challenged academically and socially beyond my wildest dreams, and that has helped me to grow a lot. My first semester was difficult because I took an upper level science class that I wasn't prepared for. It's a good and humbling experience to realize that there are some things you're just not able to do yet - they're still just beyond your reach - but that you can get up and still keep going.
My professors have been extremely helpful in counseling me on majors and helping me determine what I want to do, in advising in particular subjects, and on life goals. You can't open your eyes around here without seeing someone who can give you advice on something.
I'm really enjoying it. I couldn't imagine making a better decision than to come here.
Will Hopkins '11
The Lang Music Building is a "home away from home" for Holly Kinnamount ‘12. One of her favorite places is the Buttenwieser Terrace which, adjoining Lang, looks into the dense greenery of the Crum Woods.
What I Wanted:
A small, quirky school with close professor-student interactions
I knew I wanted a small school where a lot of attention would be given to students. I looked at some larger schools, but they really didn't have the one-on-one interactions with professors that exist here. That became a primary criterion for me. Also, at the time, I wanted to be a medieval studies major. I'm an English literature and film studies major now, but the fact that Swarthmore offered medieval studies made it quirky enough to be appealing to me.
The first time I visited campus, my tour guide was extremely bubbly and excited. He claimed, "We're geeks, and we love it!" That level of excitement impressed me. I looked at a lot of schools in the Philadelphia area, but I just kept coming back to Swarthmore. I visited four or five times, and each time, everyone was so welcoming and friendly and willing to share their enthusiasm. Then I did an overnight stay; it was fantastic. I sat in on classes; they were amazing. I applied early decision and, by December, I was in.
What I Found:
An exciting and driven community - with pizza and popcorn at 3 a.m.
When you go to college, you prepare for a community, for a totally different vibe, but nothing prepared me for the real sense of community that Swarthmore has.
Academically, everyone is so eager to share each other's ideas, and that's what contributes to our intensity. I give tours, and visitors always bring up that we're competitive. We're not. We don't ever compare grades, we don't compete with one another, we support each other. People are exceptionally open with one another. That has really exceeded the expectations I had of the place when I applied.
I've found friends from all walks of life with tons of interesting ideas, and they impact my own opinions and push me. The conversations I've had at 3 a.m. with my hall mates, with chocolate and popcorn and pizza, stick out in my mind just as much as my seminars. The fact that this is so is, I think, due to Swarthmore attracting students who are academically driven to do well, but even more than that, to do good - in the world and, by extension, for themselves.
I love it here. I want people to come here - to be excited, to be quirky, to have fun, and be driven.
Holly Kinnamont '12
Katherine Lam '11, a Lang Opportunity Scholar, says one of her favorite spots on campus is Magill Walk which, bordered by majestic white oaks, provides a shady and gentle downhill walk to the railway station and the Ville.
What I Wanted:
An intangible quality that set apart a good from a great school
I sought academic challenge and it seemed as if every school I looked at offered that. So I set out to find the intangible quality that sets apart a good school from a great school. Swarthmore had always been on my list of colleges that I was interested in, but it wasn't until a friend urged me to look deeper into the College that I fell in love with the school. I looked online, e-mailed current and past students, and found things like the Honors Program and the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility. As a person who really values different experiences, I wanted to be in a place where there were no guarantees of what was going to happen except that I'd be challenged and end up with many good stories. Although admissions officers tell you never to apply early decision without visiting the school, I did just that. Since I'm from California, it was too far to fly over, but I'd visited four or five other schools and I knew what I didn't want. Knowing what I didn't want helped me decide what I did want, and Swarthmore seemed to fit.
What I Found:
The Honors Program, a love affair with learning, mind-blowing excitement
I was very naïve coming into college, believing that here, I'd solve all my life questions and discover the one thing I'd do for the rest of my life. Needless to say, it's been much more complicated than that, and I've learned to relax a little more knowing that a Swarthmore education will give me the flexibility to do many things in my life. I entered college intending to study international relations so I took a course in that, but it didn't really resonate with me. I then tried American politics - loved it - took a semester off to work in D.C. politics, came back, took an honors American politics seminar - loved it - took a globalization class simultaneously - loved it, too - and fell in love with international relations all over again. My Swarthmore experience has shown me that I have many interests. And after four years here, I think I'll walk away with more questions than answers.
Another cool thing I learned here is that there's more to learning and studying hard than just getting good grades, which was my main focus before Swarthmore. I liked learning and was curious but, strangely enough, I didn't know how to really engage in learning and put aside my desire to get the "A." There were things in high school I would study and memorize even if I wasn't interested in the subject. But here, for some reason, everything is interesting. Students learn out of love for what they're doing, and it's infectious. One of my roommates loves paleontology and biology and every time she talks about it, she gets me excited about it, too.
Those kinds of exciting conversations happen naturally here at Swarthmore, and elsewhere, too - even on a spring break trip with Swatties. We lazed around on the beach, visited historical sites, and went out at night, but we also spent time drinking Puerto Rican beer by the shore and observing the stars and constellations. I'd never appreciated constellations until I listened to my friends talk about them. Just like evolutionary charts in biology, I love learning about the things that excite my friends that I never thought could have excited me.
I wrote in my "Why Swarthmore?" essay that I didn't want to be in a school where learning takes place only in the classroom. I want it to be everywhere and here, it really is. This is a very academically focused environment, where your professors really challenge you and are still patient with you after you tell them the confusing, crazy thoughts and questions going on in your head. I learn a lot from them, but the learning continues to happen just in natural, spontaneous conversation. That mutual ability to excite is mind-blowing.
Swarthmore is everything I wanted it to be and so much more - it's been a transformative education.
Katherine Lam '11
Monterey Park, Calif.
Tayler Tucker '13, who discovered a passion for art history at Swarthmore, enjoys being around campus artworks including Alexander Calder's Return to Rio, which stands outside the Science Center.
What I Wanted:
A small setting, Quaker-like values, academic intensity, community outreach
I was looking for a small, quiet liberal arts college with Quaker-like values, intense academics, and tons of diverse, intellectually curious people as well as outreach into the community beyond the college. The beauty of the campus was definitely a draw. I'm from Phoenix, Ariz,, so I was interested in the East Coast, where I might explore small ethnic neighborhoods on winding city streets and be surrounded by lush greenery.
The freedom to explore multiple academic interests was of great importance. Throughout my life, I've switched between a variety of possible career choices, including forensic pathologist, lawyer, and pastry chef. I wanted to be at a school where I could dabble and find out what I really loved.
As a biracial person - my father is Trinidadian African American and my mother is Czech German - I wanted a place where I could feel comfortable as a student of color, somewhere that I could explore my identity further in groups and clubs on campus.
What I Found:
Amazing professors, wonderful classes, unimaginable resources
Although I've only just completed my freshman year, I've been able to explore academically and have discovered that what I really love is art history. My professors have been amazing, and I've had one-on-one contact with them. My art history professor invited us over to her house for Indian food after a seminar. My classes have been wonderful. The professors treat you as if you're another scholar.
Before I came here, I had no idea of the resources and choices open to me, and the number of people available to advise me. There are student academic mentors on every hall in every dorm, a Writing Associates Program to offer advice on papers, and students in all the science and math departments who hold study sessions every evening. All the academic buildings are open 24 hours. If I have to watch a DVD for homework, instead of using my laptop, I can get the full DVD experience by just walking into a lecture hall and popping it into a DVD player. People trust me with that.
The feeling of the College is also not as small as I thought it would be. Fifteen hundred students is a good number because, although you know a lot of people, you don't know them all, so I continue to meet new people all the time on campus. I'm extremely happy here.
Tayler Tucker '13
As you sit down to write, consider this: Where do you and Swat overlap? List five to ten names of exact classes and student organizations you want to apply to. Then in a column besides the list, write down how your current life — high school course load, extracurriculars, entrepreneurial endeavors, personal projects — connects to each of the Swarthmore items.
Make sure to pick elements that set Swarthmore apart from other similar institutions in the Quaker Consortium. Avoid focusing on common Quaker traditions, or the familiar sentiment that Swarthmore offers a strong engineering major within a liberal arts college. Also, refrain from clichés like “the sense of community” or “the location” or the “liberal arts course of study.”
Next, choose two or three items from a variety of categories to incorporate in your essay. For example, instead of discussing three professors whose work you admire, describe one of their works and your connection to it in depth, and spend the rest of the space hashing out your excitement to practice in the Aikido Club, and lighting a candle at “First Collection.” Presenting a range of interests in various aspects of student life shows your breadth of knowledge about Swarthmore, and thereby demonstrates intense interest on your part.
Doing so also indicates that you are a well-rounded individual involved in not just the academic aspect of learning. However, having a unifying theme to your essay can be powerful too. If music moves you, and it shows in your extracurriculars (jazz band, a cappella, chamber music, etc.) you could discuss the appeal of the Lang Concert Hall, studying composition under the distinguished Professor Gerald Levinson, and attending events such as “An Evening with Chris Thile.”
Bring in personal anecdotes or past experiences to elucidate why you are interested in Swarthmore specifically. Remember, you should not only show admissions officers that the college is a good fit for you, but also why you are a good fit for it. Once they are done reading your essay, admissions officers should be able to picture you on their campus.
Let’s say, for instance, that you are specifically looking for an extremely diverse institution of higher learning, but with small class sizes not usually found at large, public universities. Swarthmore uniquely fits this niche, so point it out. You may take this route in your essay: Describe how the communities you hail from have lacked diversity in beliefs, religion, political views or ethnicity, and then name the specifics of Swarthmore College that stand in contrast to your own background. Then, explain how such characteristics will contribute to your personal development using concrete things you may learn about other cultures and initiatives you may start as examples.
Continuing along this vein, you need to illustrate vividly with details so that the admissions officers can clearly see you at the college. For example, you might write about encountering different styles of worship at the Swarthmore Interfaith Center or depict yourself moderating a public debate forum between Swarthmore Students for Liberty and Democratic Socialists of Swarthmore.
Above all, it is vital to ensure that your essay is unique to Swarthmore College. Be extremely wary of including broad statements that could apply to any number of schools. For instance, saying that you want to attend the college because it has “spectacular academic offerings” is something a candidate who has no idea about the school can write. You want to customize this essay so that it applies to the school exclusively. Instead of statements like this, you can achieve the “show, not tell” effect by naming specific offerings, like the Oxbridge tutorial-inspired Honors Program.
With these tips in mind, you are well on your way to writing a memorable Swarthmore College essay. We at CollegeVine wish you the best of luck!
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