Uni in the USA review
Take every stereotype you can imagine about New England colleges. The Puritan ethic, the white wooden buildings, the preppy students, the snow…
Compile them all and you will have a fairly accurate vision of Amherst. This small college has long been hailed as one of the best of its kind in America, consistently coming at the top of the liberal arts rankings. Small in size and intimate in feel, it offers those addicted to the boarding school experience new avenues of enjoyment and independence with all those old, secure home comforts.
Amherst proudly labels itself the ‘Fairest College’ and it certainly has the charming New England feel that many Brits envision when they imagine an American university. The campus extends over 1,000 acres and is located on a hill. Old brick buildings jostle with newer and less successful architectural attempts, but the whole is successful and easy to find your way around.
The Amherst student body congregate around a few main buildings. The sporty head for the new and extensive Wolff Fitness Center while the Keefe Campus Center offers dramatic and social service groups a place to go. And everyone meets in the dining hall for meals.
Students live in former fraternity houses or new buildings and living groups can range from the peace-loving loner to the party-favouring ten-man suites. However, wherever you end up, the small size of the student body makes it impossible to leave a room without running into someone you know. All freshmen are assigned housing and the bonds forged in this initial year often define the rest of your college living experience.
Preppy is not really a word that has an equivalent in the English educational system. Our nearest counterpart is a combination of rugger buggers, Sloane rangers and Tim-nice-but-dim. Yet even this does not come close to the good old WASPs of New England. Amherst has never quite escaped its reputation as being one of the most preppy of the small American colleges and a large percentage of its undergrad body have been turned out of the country-club attending, Abercrombie and Fitch wearing, jeep driving mould.
This is not to say that Amherst is totally without diversity. In fact it prides itself on its open admission policies and estimates that around 40% of its undergraduate body are minority students. And while its international intake is not as large as at some other schools, it is still substantial (currently around 10%). After all, where Prince Albert of Monaco goes, others are sure to follow…
One of the great advantages of the Amherst experience comes from the small size of each undergraduate class. With only around 450 students in each year it is difficult for social divisions or exclusive cliques to survive. Everyone knows everyone else. When such a limited number are eating, living and working together it is difficult to remain just a face in a crowd.
This small-town environment is great for those who feel comfortable having their every move known. Yet it can be difficult for people who prefer the social whirl and comfortable anonymity of being one among thousands. And once you’re established, it becomes ever harder to reinvent yourself.
While it is difficult to generalize, Amherst types tend to be outdoorsy, social and sporty. It is estimated that around 80% of students take part in some form of sport with 30% playing at varsity level. Despite its small size Amherst enjoys a great sporting reputation. The annual football game with Williams is the small college equivalent of the Harvard-Yale game (or the Oxbridge boat race). Crew is also popular – in keeping with the school’s clean-cut image.
The fantastic sporting facilities also make this a great place to attend if you are an ardent outdoorsman (or woman). Come winter, the mountains are near enough to make skiing a weekend possibility, and hiking and camping are regular leisure pursuits.
Hitting The Books
Amherst devotees believe that no college can rival their own in the realm of liberal arts. They take pride in the fact that this is a college where complete freedom of choice is encouraged.
Students have only one requirement – the interdisciplinary First-Year Seminar. After that, they are free to design their own curriculum, constrained only by the guidelines of their major or, in the case of many, a double major. This flexibility is great for those individuals who are scared off by the prospect of mandatory core curriculum classes in subjects that they joyfully abandoned after GCSEs.
Students should bear in mind that one of the great things about a liberal arts environment such as Amherst is that it allows you room to experiment – something that most British universities regard with great disapproval. The majority of students at Amherst have a reputation for taking full advantage of this. And despite its easygoing atmosphere, there are a high proportion of ambitious honours students.
Students who aim to get through their university career without ever interacting with a professor should not even contemplate Amherst. This is a college that prides itself on student-faculty relationships and the small size of the campus makes this intimacy almost impossible to avoid. With an average class size of just nineteen, parents will certainly feel that their precious children are getting the attention they deserve.
The children, meanwhile, may wish that they were getting a little less. Professors expect you to talk to them about your aims, problems and queries and they are always available. In fact it is difficult not to run into them on a daily basis. If you are the type of person who needs a certain amount of care and intimacy with those around you (whether this involves knowing your professor’s cat’s name or hanging out with your dining hall server), Amherst is an ideal college.
This is not to say that Amherst undergraduates can expect a pampered existence. This is a challenging and highly competitive school and the renowned Puritan work ethic is an integral part of campus life. The faint-hearted or easily embarrassed should beware. Professors expect a great deal of verbal interaction from their students and the intimate class sizes mean that a reluctance to participate is swiftly noticed.
The idea of a ‘mutual education’ is much touted at Amherst. The general idea is that everyone learns from each other, bringing together the future hopes of America in informative and improving debate. While this may be an academic’s pipe-dream, this is certainly not a campus where you should expect your views to go unheard or unchallenged.