My visit to Washington University in St. Louis provided an excellent illustration of how visiting a campus can offer so much more information than attending an information session, or researching a college online. Most information sessions entail an admissions officer, who may or may not be an alumnus of the college, walking you through a power point. My info session at Wash U was presented by a faculty member, a student and an admissions officer, with no power point in sight.
James, the student, is a sophomore business major who had studied abroad and already had plans for his next study abroad opportunity this summer. The professor of his course called The Luxury Retail Apparel Industry will be leading a trip for his classmates to Europe to visit executives from Hermes, Gucci and other top brands. (Cool, huh?!)
Professor Bill Darby is an engineering professor and Associate Vice Chancellor for Students. He’s been teaching at Wash U since 1974, and is as dynamic and engaging as you would want a professor to be. He spoke about the intense advising process at Wash U – students have faculty advisors, pre-professional advisors, dorm advisors, study abroad advisors and a career advisor assigned to each student. [Most colleges require students to visit the career center on their own initiative.] These multiple advisors are one way that Wash U ensures its 6,500 undergraduates are connected to faculty. Prof. Darby was clearly passionate about his work with students.
The average class size is 17 and over 80% of the classes have fewer than 20 students. The largest lecture hall, pictured here, seats about 300. TAs do teach small section meetings of classes this large.
Wash U is in a nice part of St. Louis and immediately adjacent to Forest Park, the largest urban park in the United States. (Yes, that means it’s larger than Central Park!) Students get free metro passes, so they can take St. Louis buses and light rail into downtown and to cultural activities, including the zoo, botanical gardens and science center, which are all free (for everyone!).
The campus is very attractive, although most of the buildings look very, very much alike. The campus is very linear, with one quad bordered by the engineering and art schools, and the other a huge green space bordered by the library, history department, business school and an on-campus hotel. The layout reminded me of the National Mall in Washington, DC, with Smithsonian buildings surrounding it. All of the dorms, where mostly first and second year students live, are in an adjacent area with some student-owned retail shops (generally student-serving stores owned and managed by entrepreneurship majors). The residential area reminded me of The Grove in its planning and layout.
My tour guide was a freshman from Los Angeles. To be completely honest, I did not think she presented herself as a stunning intellectual. To be fair, she spent much of the time talking about her extra-curricular activities and not her coursework, and she was only in her first year. Students at Wash U are known to be very smart and very competitive, and while Wash U may have been a safety school for super-smart students decades ago, it is not today. The 17% acceptance rate is supported by middle 50th percentile SAT scores ranging from 710-780 in Math, and from 690-760 in Critical Reading.
I asked a high school junior from New Jersey on my tour how she was feeling about Wash U, and the tour convinced her that it was her top choice. The campus is very attractive, feels very safe and she was drawn to the freedom of distribution requirements instead of an inflexible core curriculum. The only course required for all students is a freshman writing class.
With over 65% of the students coming from over 500 miles away, Wash U has a sense of community – most everyone is far from home and going through the same experience. The admissions officer made it clear that grades and course rigor in high school are the most important factors of your application, as they try to find students with a “collaborative, friendly spirit.”
Smart, independent and adventurous students will do well and enjoy life at Washington University in St. Louis.