Founded by Quakers in 1864, Swarthmore’s grounds comprise the Scott Arboretum.
The campus is located about ten miles southwest of Philadelphia in southeastern
Pennsylvania. It is a coeducational liberal arts and engineering college. It offers a robust
and diverse academic program across many different disciplines and subject areas with
limited distribution requirements across fields. At the core of the school lies its dedication
to the value of a liberal arts education, and a belief in the limitless boundaries of its students’
Upon stepping out of my family’s car on my first visit to Swarthmore, I
found myself overcome with the urge to wander its verdant grounds. Rather than
head immediately to the Admissions Office, I found myself following
Swarthmore’s various circuitous paths that lead through carefully manicured
lawns and gardens. As if transported, I stopped at the Lilac Garden, examined
the buds of the famous Dean Bond Rose Garden, and sat in the warm summer air
in the cloistered and pungent Fragrance Garden. Upon approaching the grand
Scott Amphitheater I became aware of a different part of the campus. Enrobing
the Amphitheater’s lush grass terraces and stately canopy of branches was the
Crum Woods, a rich wilderness through which trickles the Crum Creek. Dotted
throughout this idyllic 357-acre campus were dozens, if not hundreds, of spots
designed for reading, thinking, and embracing the academic, the personal, and
the peaceful. As I trotted back to the Admissions Office with my father in tow, I
found myself feeling something I hadn’t yet experienced at the other colleges I
visited: I yearned to belong to Swarthmore and have Swarthmore belong to me.
It was not until a year later, in my first semester at Swarthmore, that I
understood how appropriate its grounds are as a reflection of the broader institution.
The juxtaposition of overflowing wilderness with artfully sculpted order
is an ideal frame for a school where classes and professors provide intellectual
structure, yet also encourage and, indeed, force students into the wilderness of
knowledge. For four years, I was constantly pushed into the academic forests
with the expectation that I would return and, together with my fellow students,
create my own ordered academic garden. Through passionate arguing, furious
research, and marathon late-night writing sessions, my peers and I plunged into
the tangle of knowledge ostensibly looking for an answer, but learning that the
search was equally valuable.
Swarthmore’s student body includes residents of forty-eight states, more than thirtyfive
countries, and innumerable backgrounds, traditions, ethnicities, identities, and orientations.
Despite these impressive statistics, it is still a small school by any standard, having
a student body of approximately 1,500. This small size has its downsides. Although it is an
easy twenty-minute train ride into the United States’ sixth largest city—Philadelphia—for
some applicants it may be too secluded and suburban. Additionally, the small student body lends itself to an intimate knowledge of many (if not most) of one’s fellow students. The size
also has its benefits, however, and most students agree that these outweigh the negatives.
The student:faculty ratio, for example, is an almost unheard-of 8:1 supported by 173 faculty
members. This lends itself to an average class size of fifteen in regular courses, and an
emphasis on small, seminar-style learning built on strong student-faculty relationships.
Additionally, Swarthmore has close ties to the nearby colleges of Haverford and Bryn Mawr,
creating the Tri-College Consortium. Students are able to co-mingle both inside and outside
the classroom with students of these two other colleges, thus expanding the social and academic
circles to a much larger population.
Most students choose Swarthmore for its academic reputation: rigorous, high-quality,
graduate-level study takes center-stage of life at the college. Yet, unlike large, impersonal
research universities, Swarthmore is fiercely noncompetitive. Learning occurs not for
ranking or status, but rather for the fun of it; students enthusiastically grapple with their
academic work individually and communally, both inside and, importantly, outside the
classroom. There is a genuine desire on the part of the student body to help each other
learn, the collective exploration and understanding being greater than the sum of its parts.
Swarthmore is a unique place in the fullest
sense of the word. Certainly there are other small, rigorous,
liberal arts colleges with beautiful campuses
and high-quality academic programming. But to conclude,
I’ll end where I began: there is a feeling and a
sense about the school that is unlike other colleges in
its genre. Quaker meetings meditate on what is known
as a “sense of the meeting” in which receptivity to both
silence and dialogue leads to communally acceptable
consensus. In many ways, although certainly not
explicitly, Swarthmore embodies this quiet yet powerful
dicta. The sense of Swarthmore is one of purposeful
enjoyment of academics and of the pleasures, for four
brief years, the thrill and freedom of being young, energetic,
and ready to broaden horizons.
Of course, what you get out of the school
depends on what you put in. By attending Swarthmore you are not guaranteeing yourself
four years of purely positive memories and unhindered intellectual growth. Indeed, you are
merely choosing the tool with which to learn; how you use that tool is up to you. There will certainly be times when you are challenged, when you are stretched beyond what you imagine
is your breaking point, and when you desire more than anything to leave. Yet almost
every student stays because there is something in them that synchs with the sense of
Swarthmore. They carry on, knowing that when they graduate they won’t have a degree that
carries such immediate clout as one from a big Ivy League school. They know that people
will often say “where is that again?” or “you’ll never find a job if you major in Religion.”
Swarthmore students know all this yet they carry on because ultimately it is not about how
the rest of the world sees us; it is about personal and communal growth, about embarking
on a remarkable, if not widely known or recognized, odyssey. And when, in later years,
Swarthmore students find each other at reunions or on random street corners, there is an
immediate camaraderie and a sense that here stands a kindred spirit.
At Swarthmore it can often feel like one’s academic life (the title of this section) is
just that: life. Indeed, it is that quality that attracts Swatties to the school: they want to be
academically challenged, intellectually broadened, and rigorously examined. Fortunately
there are plenty of course offerings to choose from, and Swarthmore students typically
plunge into their academics with an eye toward achieving academic breadth in the first two
years, and academic depth in the last two years.
In this course, we will consider psychoanalytic, phenomenological, and
poststructuralist theories of the subject that offer varying ways of understanding
who we are, why we do what we do, and the kind of changes in collective practices
that might constitute a reworking of what some theorists we consider call
the ‘cultural imaginary’ that informs us. —Description of the course INTP 091: Reworking the Cultural
Imaginary, the Interpretation Theory capstone seminar.
From Swarthmore’s Web site.
As anyone who has gotten this far has figured out, Swarthmore can be an academic
pressure-cooker. For this reason (as well as its relatively small size), many students
choose to spend a semester or two abroad in their junior or senior years. Swarthmore covers
its students’ financial aid when they go, and has a terrific foreign study office that
assists in choosing the right program and country, and coordinating the study abroad experience.
Students return to Swarthmore from abroad rejuvenated, enthusiastic, and energized
for their last semesters.
Core Degree Requirements
Swarthmore does have some core degree requirements, but these are typically easily
filled out of sheer curiosity about the possible courses. In addition to taking at least
twenty courses outside their major, students must also take three classes in each of the
three divisions: humanities, social sciences, and the natural sciences. Three of these
classes must be writing (W) courses, and those three must include work in at least two divisions.
Additionally, students must take a lab course.
To support the academic life of its students, Swarthmore has seven libraries/special collections
with more than 850,000 volumes, more than 26,000 CDs/DVDs, and it subscribes
to more than 10,500 periodicals and databases. Additionally, Swarthmore students have easy
and almost immediate access to the libraries of Bryn Mawr College and Haverford College, as
well as the global system of interlibrary loan. While there is not an explicit “learning resource center,” there are many resources for the curious or the struggling. The Writing Center offers
students trained advice and critiques on writing for any class, and many classes organize into
study groups and review sessions. In addition, there are Student Academic Mentors (SAMs),
and the faculty encourages communication and discussion outside of the classroom.
Swarthmore offers B.A. degrees in more than two dozen fields in the arts and sciences
and a B.S. degree in engineering, which about five percent of the student body takes.
This signifies both the great breadth of course offerings, as well as the diversity of interests
within the student body. It also demonstrates one of the greatest strengths of Swarthmore’s
academic programming: class size, and professor/student engagement. The top three most
popular majors among the 2008 graduates were biology, economics, and political science.
Class Size and Professors
Swarthmore’s class size is a point of pride for the college. Boasting a remarkable 8:1 student-
to-faculty ratio, the core of learning at Swarthmore is direct, personal, and sustained
engagement with the professors. This means that Swarthmore students are
privileged to work closely with the professors, not with teaching assistants. Students are
frequently asked to help professors with their research and lab work, and these relationships
often lead to summer internships, postgraduation jobs, and even publishing opportunities.
It is not unheard of for students to attend conferences in their own right, and be
respected contributors to journals and books.
Typical class size ranges from up to thirty in the first year to anywhere from two to
ten as a junior or senior. Classes are discussion- and question-oriented with professors
emphasizing debate and conversation as a critical aspect of education. Of course there has
to be material to talk about and Swarthmore professors never shy away from loading it on.
Along with the great freedom of learning-through-conversation comes the great responsibility
of knowing the texts and theories before class. A typical syllabus for a seminar may
be forty pages single-spaced, and students are frequently asked to read not selected articles
but entire books (plural) for class. Students must also prove their competency in writing,
and four or five papers a weekend is the norm rather than the exception. Upon leaving
Swarthmore, some students compile all their papers and put them in one document to see
how many pages they have written in their four years. Needless to say, high three-digit numbers
are to be expected.
Adistinctive feature of Swarthmore’s academic programming is its honors program.
Modeled on the Oxford tradition of small discussion-based tutorials, the honors program
exemplifies that kind of intense learning process the Swarthmore prides itself on.
Students who choose to enter the honors program take four seminars in their last two years
of college—one in their minor and three in their major. Sometimes held in intimate seminar
rooms and sometimes in professors’ living rooms, seminars meet once a week for several
hours. Seminar students know not to schedule anything directly after a seminar is
supposed to end, as they frequently extend several hours past their assigned stop-time. The
format is simple and effective: students typically have one week to read many articles,
books, critiques, reviews, and arguments, write a paper (generally five to fifteen pages
single-spaced), and then walk the rest of the class through their arguments in seminar,
defending their positions the whole time. Although grueling at times, there is also a sense
of deep satisfaction when you have successfully defended your paper against critiques from
your professor. Discussions are heated, wide-ranging, and academically personal, as the students
and professor engage in communal and collaborative learning.
Many students’ favorite semester at Swarthmore was the one in which they had only
two seminars to make up their four-credit semester workload. With five empty days and only
two class meetings per week, students have the time to completely structure their own
schedule around personal study habits. Although it may at first appear luxurious, it is
important in such a semester not to take on too many extracurricular projects, as the workload
of two seminars is like a gas—it expands to fill up the space.
Most Popular Fields of Study
It has occasionally been remarked that some top-ranked schools don’t actually have
an admissions department; they have only a PO Box where applications sit, since nobody
knows anyone who actually gets accepted, and nobody ever hears back from the admissions
departments. Swarthmore, however, is incredible in its highly personable admissions
process, priding itself on communication and assistance at every step along the application
process. Phone calls from the dean, coaches, professors, and admissions officers are common,
as Swarthmore makes every effort to ensure that the applicant is the right fit for
Swarthmore and, perhaps more importantly, that the college is the right fit for the applicant.
To dispense with the tedium of scores early on, here are the quick facts on the current
first-year class’s SAT scores: sixty-five percent scored a 700 or higher on the critical
reading sections, fifty-eight percent scored a 700 or higher on the math sections, and fiftytwo
percent scored a 700 or higher on the writing section. It would be foolish, however, to
base one’s admissions likelihood or “fit” to the school on these scores alone. The author of
this piece, for example, would not have made the cut if the above scores were the sole factor
in the application. Swarthmore accepts either the SAT with two subject tests, or the
ACT with writing. Interviews are highly recommended.
To some, Swarthmore is well known, but many people will still ask when it went coed
(clearly confusing Swarthmore with Skidmore; Swarthmore has been coed since its founding).
Given some of its national rankings in the popular press that may seem surprising, it
is important to remember that Swarthmore has no football team, is extraordinarily rigorous
academically, has limited Greek life, and is small at only 1,500 students. These facts,
while appealing to many, also make for a self-selective applicant pool—folks tend not to
apply to Swarthmore simply to add another name to their school list.
Most readers of this chapter will probably want to know what Swarthmore wants in
an applicant. The answer is short: it depends. Swarthmore admissions staffers read each
application as a whole; there is no “magic bullet” to acceptance. That said there are certain
attributes that are desirable. The Admissions staff wants to see that the applicant is a hard
worker, a dedicated student, a creative and broad thinker, and open to new ideas and challenges.
Primarily, however, they want to see if the applicant is the right “fit” for the school.
There isn’t much sense in trying to strategize through the application; if you are excited by
the thought of a small, rigorous, resource-rich four-year-long academic thrill-ride then you
belong at Swarthmore. Use the application to highlight those abilities and interests.
If you’re serious about Swarthmore, it is certainly worth visiting the campus for a couple of
days first as a “spec” (short for “Prospective Student”). These frequent visitors are warmly
included in the social fabric of the school when they visit. They shadow their hosts from class
to the dining hall to social events, and are always jovially included in whatever their host may
be doing. By staying for a day or two (and particularly a night or two) in a Swarthmore dormitory,
an applicant can get a real flavor of the school and its citizens. Swarthmore’s dorms
are, with one exception, coed and have a mix of all different class years, so getting a sense of
life on the halls is very important if you’re really interested in the school.
Compared to many other colleges, Swarthmore’s financial aid program is generous.
Beginning with the 2008-09 academic year, Swarthmore’s financial aid awards no longer
include a loan component. Instead, additional scholarship is granted in future loan-free
awards. With forty-nine percent of the student body receiving some form of financial aid in
the 2008–2009 academic year, the loan-free initiative will greatly ease the indebtedness of
Swarthmore’s upcoming graduates. This helps students choose a major and career path that they want regardless of the salary potential. Thus, Swarthmore deliberately fosters
academic and intellectual curiosity by allowing students to pursue degrees in arts and
humanities that are incorrectly perceived to be less useful in repaying college loans.
The admissions process is need-blind for U.S. citizens and permanent residents. The
Admissions Office is dedicated to recruiting smart students from all ranges of financial
backgrounds as a part of its commitment to diversity. The average financial aid award is
$33,193 with the vast majority of that ($31,715) being awarded in scholarships or needbased
grants. Additionally, there are ample jobs on campus that students can take to make
money, with eighty-two percent of the student body working in the libraries, laboratories,
academic offices, or other college positions. In 2008-2009, the tuition, fees, and room and
board expenses were $47,804.
Finally, Swarthmore offers two named scholarships: the Evans Scholarships and the
McCabe Awards. These are given every year to incoming students with leadership qualities
Student Financial Aid Details
As noted above, Swarthmore is a small school, at roughly 1,500 students. Although
this can lead to a lack of privacy, it also lends itself to an incredibly close-knit and supportive
community. Social interactions are likely to occur in the lone dining hall and in the
library, in the campus newspaper offices, and in the gym; unlike larger schools, if you want
to see someone you don’t have to make elaborate plans—you’ll probably see them in the
next couple of hours.
Swarthmore also has a terrific dorm life, presided over by fun, well-meaning, and
energetic Residential Advisors (RAs)—seniors and juniors who each have a “hall” that they
live on and “lead.” While at some schools RAs are merely punitive actors cloaked in the guise of a resource, at Swarthmore they are more typically your friend. At some schools RAs
will spend their time patrolling the hallways for signs of drinking and general collegiate
foolishness; the Swarthmore RAs take a humane and friendly approach toward their roles:
their doors are typically open, they organize hall social events, and they keep an eye out for
the student who may be overly stressed or too tired. They also act as an invaluable resource
for students to approach and talk to about whatever happens to be on their minds.
Activities and Groups
Swarthmore students are rarely at a loss for what to do with their time. In addition to a
full academic load, there are over 138 campus groups, clubs, and organizations ranging
from literary arts magazines (a couple) to a hockey club, from the respected War News
Radio Station to a fencing team, from dance groups to a debate team, and everything in
between. In addition to these clubs, there are a number of cultural support groups and
identity clubs that have a robust presence on campus.
In addition to these groups, Swarthmore’s student body is very active politically, with
groups ranging from organizing international pressure for social justice to advocating for
organic food in the salad bar. The political leaning is famously (or infamously) liberal, and
some students complain about a lack of a large conservative student base. Occasionally
called the Kremlin on the Crum, Swarthmore’s student body is politically aware and determined
to do something about it. Throughout the lifeblood of the college is an insistence
that it is not sufficient to simply sit idly by and witness the world’s difficulties; Swarthmore
students must proactively take charge and get involved in issues. In a recent example, a
wide-ranging campus debate centered on whether Swarthmore should end its contract with
Coca-Cola due to alleged abuses of employees in their bottling plants in developing countries.
For better or for worse, the administration ultimately agreed with the student group
and ended its contract. Volunteerism and social activism play important roles in the life of
the college and students are frequently and purposefully exposed to new campaigns, new
ideas, new debates, and arguments that underscore the classroom learning.
The social life at Swarthmore is a cozy one. In other words, if you are looking for a roundthe-
clock all-campus party scene complete with Animal House-esque fraternity parties
and keggers, Swarthmore is not the place for you.
Students generally enjoy a lower-key level of
partying, and during the week, social life is mainly
contained in the dorms or, tellingly enough, in the
first floor of the main library, McCabe, which acts as
a mixing bowl for the student population. During the
week most students work on their homework, lab
assignments, papers, reading, studying, etc., and are
not likely to head out for riotous partying on a
Wednesday evening. That said, if you happen to have
a schedule without any class on a Thursday or have
some free time on Wednesday, there are always
places and people to find who are taking a break or
cutting loose for a bit. This may involve going to the
student-run late-night café, grabbing a movie from
the library’s DVD stacks, joining one of the ongoing
poker groups, or—more often than not—sitting in a dormitory lounge or on the main lawn
with some friends, a few beers, and good conversation.
The weekend party scene centers on a few communal party spaces as well as gatherings
in students’ dorm lounges or rooms. Unlike many other schools, and as mentioned
above, the dormitories are monitored by a laid-back social code and a “live and let live” attitude.
Of course, sleep and work trump partying in the dorms and the RAs keep the peace
by dissolving rambunctious parties when members of the hall are asleep or working, but by and large the gatherings in dorms are mutually acceptable and low-key. They range from
watching a football game to playing cards or, again the staple of social interaction at
Swarthmore, discussing ideas raised in that day’s classes or in the news.
There are two fraternities at Swarthmore that host parties on weekends and throughout
the week, and there are a number of parties every weekend hosted by different student
groups. As part of the student government, there is a committee that dispenses money for
parties and social gatherings. In a relatively easy and painless process, if a student or a student
group would like to host a party, they fill out an application and submit it to the committee
for review. The committee then assigns a given amount of funding to the group and
the party can go forward. The amount of money for any given party ranges from $20 to $500
and goes toward decorations, music, food, and (non-alcoholic) drinks. The only caveat:
every student must be admitted to the party.
Finally, Swarthmore’s administration takes a pragmatic approach to underage drinking
on campus. The school realizes that undergraduate students will drink alcohol anyway
even if it is prohibited. Thus, the administration has wisely determined that the priority is
to prevent students from drinking and driving and from abusing alcohol in unsafe settings.
To this end, the school does not drive alcohol out of the dorms or off of the campus, and
instead, offers counseling and support services for at-risk students. While it in no way condones,
supports, or otherwise encourages drinking by any of its students, and certainly not
the underage ones, the school is very open about its pragmatic and health-oriented view of
alcohol. As a result, there are comparatively few alcohol-related incidents, and drunkdriving
is an almost unheard-of rarity.
Student Enrollment Demographics
Student Graduation Demographics
More than twenty percent of students participate on a sports team. There are twelve outdoor
and six indoor tennis courts, six full-length basketball courts, ten outdoor playing
fields, a lighted stadium, squash courts, gym, an indoor pool, and a fully staffed sports medicine
facility, among other amenities. While Swarthmore’s athletics are not the core of the student
socialization, and the bleachers are rarely packed, they are also never empty and the school spirit that does exist grows more from supporting one’s friends than from following a
team. All students who don’t participate in interscholastic sports are required to spend several
semesters doing phys ed classes that include dance, squash, weight training, or swimming.
Additionally, every student must pass a short swimming test in order to graduate.
Every June about 350 students join the ranks of the Swarthmore alumni. They go into
the world in widely varying fields with vastly different paths and ambitions. Some become
dancers while others become neuroscientists, some become community activists, while others
become playwrights. There is no one-track path for the Swarthmore graduate and that
is exactly what Swarthmore wants: Swarthmore is not a vocational school and does not
train its students to perform in a particular field. Instead it provides a much more profound
and, ultimately, useful skill: critical thinking and the ability to write complex arguments in
a convincing way.
Many alums go immediately or almost immediately into graduate programs at the top
universities in the world—within five years more than half of the graduates are back in
school—knowing that even if they were pre-med they have the skills to succeed at an art
history doctoral program. Although Swarthmore may not be very well known in high-school
applicant circles it does command name recognition at graduate schools, and Swarthmore
students know that they also have a very active and very committed alumni base upon
which to draw advice and support for the next stage of their careers.
Swarthmore’s alumni are terrific. They are engaged, involved, and committed to the
recent Swarthmore graduates. Active in every imaginable field and at all levels, the alums recognize that their fellow alumni have been forged
in a crucible; painful, joyous, challenging, ecstatic,
and ultimately deeply rewarding way. The
Swarthmore experience creates bonds and friendships
that endure lifetimes. The alumni ranks boast
five Nobel laureates, dozens (maybe hundreds) of
Fulbright grantees, many Rhodes Scholars, Marshall
Scholars, and leaders in business, law, science, and
politics. It’s an impressive list for a group of just
- Christian B. Anfinsen, Nobel laureate
- Edward C. Prescott, Nobel laureate
- John C. Mather, Nobel Laureate
- Peter Bart, Vice President and
Editor-in-Chief of Variety
- David Gelber, Executive Producer,
60 Minutes on CBS
- Kenneth Turan, Movie reviewer,
Los Angeles Times
- Neil R. Austrian, Former President
of NFL, Interim Chairman and CEO,
- Roger Holstein, CEO, WebMD
- Richard Wall Lyman, Former
President, Stanford University
- Detlev W. Bronk, Former President,
Johns Hopkins University
- Alexander Mitchell Palmer, United
States Attorney General (1919–1921)
- Mary M. Schroeder, Chief Judge,
United States Court of Appeals for
the Ninth Circuit
- Carl Levin, Member, the United States
- Robert Zoellick, President, World
- Antoinette Sayeh, Minister of Finance,
m Cynthia Leive, Editor in Chief,
- Norman Rush, Novelist, winner of the
1991 National Book Award for Mating