Our drive through the tree lined residential streets of Swarthmore ended as we pulled into the arboretum that is Swarthmore College. Located 20 minutes from the airport and just 11 miles outside of Philadelphia (25-minute train ride and the train station is right at the edge of campus!), Swarthmore offers its 1,600 undergraduates more than 40 majors from which to choose, and more than 600 courses each year. Students can also take courses through the Tri-College Consortium with nearby Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges, as well as at the University of Pennsylvania through cross-registration. Students may also attend lectures and social events at these nearby schools.
Swarthmore freshmen are encouraged to explore majors rather than “just falling into what you’re good at,” students say. To support this philosophy and enable students to transition to their new college life, first semester is pass/fail with no recorded GPA. Nathan, a senior Peace and Conflict Studies major, reinforced that students are encouraged to explore the breadth of academic options here. Students declare their major at the end of their sophomore year.
GPA and class rank are never part of the discourse among students. It’s more about what motivates you to learn. They really want students to take courses they are curious about. I took 8 different courses out of 8 different departments my freshman year. Out of that, I found my major.
Swatties can major in two different ways here: majoring ‘in course’ means you’ll take 8 upper level courses related to your major in your final two years. Majoring ‘in honors’ means you’ll take four double credit seminars, modeled on Oxford and Cambridge tutorials with very small classes in your junior and senior year, and at the end of each of these classes, Swarthmore brings in experts in the field to discuss what you’ve learned with you – this final part is reminiscent of a dissertation defense, but not quite as stressful. The distinction is about how you want to learn; honors are for depth, courses are for breadth.
Students emphasize the non-competitive environment and culture at Swarthmore. Peer support is extensive with seniors helping freshman, math whizzes tutoring their peers, and writing seminars to help students with everything from essay structure to how to write a lab report.
The average class size at Swarthmore College is 16 students, although some of the more popular lectures can be 30-50 students and the largest lecture hall holds 200. Breakout sessions led by the lecturing professor allow for more intimate exploration of material. Both students said professors have an open-door policy and genuinely want to spend time with the students whether it’s for coffee, lunch, rock climbing or in this scenario Hannah, our tour guide, relayed to us: Hannah “When can I use the telescope?” Professor “Right now, let’s go.”
Endowments, grants and various research funding across all divisions support external work experiences as well as opportunities for students to work in-depth with professors starting in their freshman year. In addition to support with resume prep, mock interviews and a career closet, the Career Center facilitates national and international “externships” for students. Students are set up with home stays in the externship city and spend one week shadowing a Swarthmore alumnus in his/her professional role. Offered as early as freshman year, these externships often turn into longer-term internships.
Older fieldstone structures and sleeker new concrete buildings stand side by side on this tree-filled campus. The new Science Center is both eco-friendly and student-learning friendly with floor to ceiling white boards inside all science floor rooms and exterior walls that serve as black boards facilitating outdoor class time. Students are directly involved in the College’s decision-making process – they were part of the search for a new President as well as the design of the new Science Center.
Swarthmore is one of few liberal arts colleges to have an engineering department; however, just as you don’t apply to any other major at Swarthmore, you don’t apply to engineering, and no surprise, you don’t learn just one type of engineering—you learn all fields and graduate with a general engineering degree. About 50% of Swarthmore’s engineers double major.
Swarthmore traditions abound! Students refer to the forest as the Crum Woods. There is a in the creek when and they race. At the annual “Crum Regatta,” students come with paddles, “boats” and other floating apparatus, competing for first to finish, last to finish, and best costume.
Ninja grams draw everyone’s attention in February, especially when professors engage in the fun, fighting off ninjas with foam noodles in order to continue teaching. The Pterodactyl Hunt is every October – students dress up in all kinds of get-ups to either fight monsters or pretend they are monsters. And there are a lot more for the quirky kids who call Swarthmore home!
On campus housing is guaranteed for all 4 yrs and 60% of students live four years on campus. Dorms are a mix of freshmen through seniors, making it easy to get to know your fellow Swatties.
Fun at Swarthmore ranges from fraternity parties and sporting events to hiking to game nights and pterodactyl fright nights. There’s something for everyone with over 100 clubs. About a quarter of students take part in 22 different Division III sports; others have great fun with the music ensemble open to anyone, not just music majors. For those who want Greek life, there are 2 fraternities and one sorority. Houses are more social gathering spots than living spaces.
No one group dominates social life on campus. My closest friends aren’t involved in clubs I’m involved in.
Our tour ended at the Scott Outdoor Amphitheater backing up to Crum Woods and the Crum Creek. In this tranquil setting, a candle lighting ceremony welcomes newly arrived freshmen reflecting on what’s to come. Four years later chairs are filled with proud friends and family as they witness graduation.
Swarthmore appeals to both nature and city lovers. Half of Swarthmore’s beautiful campus is a forest, with a 425-acre arboretum of rolling lawns, stunning gardens, and wooded hiking trails. Swatties have easy access to the city (and internships) – the train station is right next to the bookstore.
Why Swarthmore? To sum it up from the lively tour guide:
I’m challenged in a place where I love learning. The campus is a beautiful arboretum near a big city. Professors care and really know you as a whole person. They ask about your softball game or your studies in other classes. They are encouraging and want you to succeed. You get to continue to do what you love doing, while spreading your wings and discovering new things to love.
Admission to Swarthmore College
At need-blind Swarthmore, every application and every part of the application are thoughtfully reviewed. Swarthmore College fills 100% of need-based financial aid without loans, through scholarships, grants and work-study. Now test-optional, Swarthmore applicants who submit test scores range from 690-760 (SAT) and 31-34 (ACT). Students certain they want to attend Swarthmore should apply ED I or ED II. Though still quite competitive, there is a higher acceptance rate for ED.
Fay visited Swarthmore College in fall, 2017, and Michelle, Chris and Evelyn visited in fall, 2022. You can scroll through all of their photos below.