Within the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts sits the 1,000-acre campus of Amherst College.According to the school’s mission statement:
Amherst College educates men and women of exceptional potential from
all backgrounds so that they may seek, value, and advance knowledge, engage
the world around them, and lead principled lives of consequence.
Amherst brings together the most promising students, whatever their financial
need, in order to promote diversity of experience and ideas within a purposefully
small residential community. Working with faculty, staff, and
administrators dedicated to intellectual freedom and the highest standards of
instruction in the liberal arts, Amherst undergraduates assume substantial
responsibility for undertaking inquiry and for shaping their education within
and beyond the curriculum.
The college is committed to learning through close colloquy and to
expanding the realm of knowledge through scholarly research and artistic
creation at the highest level. Its graduates link learning with leadership—in
service to the college, to their communities, and to the world beyond.
Of those who come in as first-year students, ninety-seven percent remain to graduate. Many graduates stay to work here,
and some even come back as professors. Each year, more than sixty percent of alumni donate to their college, and hundreds return to campus for Homecoming and Reunion.
Academics are challenging here. Each class requires hours of reading, writing, problem-solving, and conversation—and discussions often spill over from the classroom into the professors’ offices, dining hall, and dorms. Help is
available from Academic Peer Mentors, The Writing Center, and the Moss Quantitative Center. There is a two-week
Add/Drop period at the start of each semester, so students can shop around for the right courses before committing.
Professors and the Advisor System
The average class size is seventeen students. Every professor holds regularoffice hours so that students may come in to get clarification on ideas and assignments. Many professors hire student research assistants. A program called TYPO (Take Your Professor Out) lets students invite favorite professors to dinner at local restaurants. Some students suggest choosing courses based not on their topics, but on their teachers.
Each incoming student is assigned a faculty advisor—a particular professor who helps him or her choose each semester’s course load based on interests, goals, and the ideal of a well-rounded liberal arts education. Once a student declares a major, he or she gets an advisor in that department. A student who chooses to do a senior honors project gets at least one special thesis advisor whose area of expertise most closely reflects the topic of the project.
To graduate, a student must complete four courses per semester over eight semesters—thirty-two courses in all. Unlike most colleges, Amherst has no core curriculum. Other than the courses necessary for one’s major, the only required course is a First-Year Seminar, and there are dozens of these to choose from.
Students may major in any of thirty-two different subjects or design an interdisciplinary major. Many choose to double-major in combinations of any two subjects. The most popular majors (in varying order) are economics, English, psychology, and political science.Depending on the department, a major will involve anywhere from eight to fourteen required courses and perhaps a comprehensive final exam or a senior project. It’s not only allowed but common for a student to change majors once or twice over four years.
Interterm is the three-week period in January, between the fall and spring semesters. Students may stay home for Interterm, or they may return to campus to take noncredit courses or do research. Some also do urban
education “Winternships” or other volunteer work. And every Interterm includes at least one colloquium in the new Amherst
College Colloquium Series, in which well-known experts are invited to teach classes and debate divergent viewpoints on important and controversial topics. Past colloquium guests (for Interterm and during the spring and fall semesters) have included columnists David Brooks and E. J. Dionne, General Wesley Clark,and former New Jersey GovernorChristine Todd Whitman.
Roughly half of all students take on ambitious thesis projects—usually
research papers; reports on lab experiments; or original works of art, literature, music,
or drama—to serve as capstones for their college careers and earn them Latin honors. Any
student who completes a thesis of acceptable quality may graduate cum laude; thesis writers
whose GPAs are in the top twenty-five percent of the class might graduate magna or
summa cum laude. All whose grades are in the top quarter, with or without a thesis, get
English honors—they graduate “With Distinction.” Amherst also has chapters of the
national honors societies Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Xi.
The Five College Consortium
Amherst works in partnership with the nearby University of Massachusetts
Amherst, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College, and Smith College. Students can
go to any of the other four campuses to take courses for credit; complete certificate programs in, for example, logic or international relations; audition for performances; or attend
sporting events and concerts. There is a free bus connecting the campuses.
Most Popular Fields of Study
Amherst is one of the most competitive liberal arts colleges in America. While academic achievement is the most important factor for admission, it is not the only one. Nor is there any set formula—staffers do not sit around plugging your test scores, extracurriculars, or class rank into a computer to determine a winning applicant. Instead, they read through each application looking at the whole profile.
Of course there are some general requirements: the SAT and SAT Subject tests or the ACT. There are also some recommendations: four years of English, math through precalculus, three or four years of a foreign language, two years of history and social science, at least two years of natural science (including a laboratory science).
Realizing that students bring to the table different backgrounds and experiences, and that each student has been presented with various opportunities that others haven’t, admissions officers look at how students made use of where they were and what they were offered. The college seeks multifaceted students who will not only give their intellects, energies, and talents to the school, but who will also gain the most from their education and experience.
Insufficient family income will never be an impediment to a qualified student, as the college maintains a need blind
admissions policy. In fact, Amherst is now one of very
few schools to be need-blind for international students as well as Americans. The college has
also replaced all loans with scholarships in its financial aid packages, so that no student need
ever graduate with debt. If a student is on financial aid, that aid also applies to
studying abroad as well.
More than half of students take part-time
jobs on campus, whether or not work-study is part
of their financial aid packages. Jobs are available in
Valentine Dining Hall, Frost Library, Keefe
Campus Center, the Physical Plant, and elsewhere.
Many students spend at least one summer
working on campus in an office internship or a
research fellowship. The Center for Community
Engagement also offers Fellowships for Action to support
students who wish to spend the summer doing
community outreach work, domestically or abroad.
Student Financial Aid Details
The campus boasts more than 100 student organizations and a rich calendar of popular entertainers. Every weekend,a student group called FLICS screens a different film free in Keefe Campus Center. Frost Library hosts a weekly Community Tea, Valentine Dining Hall periodically puts on a festive Luau, and every year, there’s a Casino night to raise money for local charities. There is a rich social life on campus and no Greek system.
There’s plenty of fun and enrichment off-campus, too. The New York Times has called
The Pioneer Valley “arguably the most author-saturated, book-cherishing, literature-celebrating
place in the nation.” Community theater, amateur and professional music, and social dancing
all thrive in the area.
Student Enrollment Demographics
Student Graduation Demographics
Amherst is an NCAA Division III
school and a charter member of the
New England Small College Athletic
Conference (NESCAC), with thirteen
varsity sports teams for women and
fourteen for men. There
are also six intramural sports for
women and six for men, including
rugby and Ultimate Frisbee. About
one-third of the student body are varsity athletes, and as many as eighty percent play on the
Athletic facilities include Pratt Pool, Orr Rink, indoor and outdoor tracks,
thirty-three tennis courts, baseball and softball diamonds, and a nine-hole golf course. More
casual fitness buffs can simply work out in the Wolff Fitness Center, go for a walk in the bird
sanctuary, or take any of several free, noncredit physical education classes.
Amherst has a long roster of well-known alumni, including:
- Henry Ward Beecher, 1834, preacher
- Joseph Hardy Neesima, 1870, first
Japanese graduate of a Western
college and founder of Doshisha
- Melvil Dewey, 1874, inventor of the
Dewey Decimal System
- Calvin Coolidge, 1895, thirtieth
President of the United States
- Charles Drew, 1926, surgeon and
inventor of blood banking
- Richard Wilbur, 1942, U.S. Poet
Laureate and winner of two Pulitzer
- Joseph Stiglitz, 1964, Nobel Prizewinning
- Teller, 1969, illusionist (of Penn &
- Patrick Fitzgerald, 1982, U.S.
- David Foster Wallace, 1985, author
- Jeffrey Wright, 1987, stage and
- Debby Applegate, 1989, Pulitzer
- Lauren Groff, 2001, bestselling author
- Kimmie Weeks, 2005, founder of
Youth Action International
Elisabeth Bailey is a freelance writer and editor with particular interests in academics, food,and sustainability . She is also the author of A Taste of the Maritimes: Local, Seasonal Recipes the Whole Year Round and writes regularly for Canadian Farmers’ Almanac and the National Wildlife Federation. Elisabeth and her family live and enjoy great local food in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.