Common Myths in the College Search

Rhodes College students together in Diehl Court

The Colleges That Change Lives schools are some of the most distinctive colleges and universities in the United States, yet every year students, parents, and counselors share stories about common misperceptions they initially had about these schools.

The hesitation to consider smaller, liberal arts schools is usually perpetuated by commonly held myths that are shared by well-meaning but usually uninformed sources. Students, parents and college counselors have shared with us both their initial opinions as well as the facts they discovered upon further investigation or when attending a CTCL school. We hope you find this information useful in your own college search.

MISPERCEPTION: A good college needs to have more students than your high school.

REALITY: Smaller residential schools are a great example of quality outshining quantity. It’s easier to meet people and forge meaningful — often lifelong — friendships in a small community than it is in a huge crowd. It’s easier to get involved at a smaller school because there’s less hierarchy and red tape; in fact, many students find that there’s less competition for leadership positions, theatre roles, and even student activities funding on a smaller campus.

CTCL schools offer a chance to live and learn in a diverse but intimate community where students and faculty are integrally involved in campus life, seven days a week. The smaller size and scale of a CTCL campus fosters a close-knit community, where it’s easy to make friends on the walk to class or discuss politics over coffee. And, with students from various ethnic and cultural communities, and with different socio-economic backgrounds and varied life experiences, those daily interactions and discussions have a tremendous impact on each student’s own personal and intellectual development.

At CTCL schools, you can start making a difference in classes, activities, or sports the minute you step on campus. Students at CTCL schools say they have more opportunities to take advantage of than they ever would at a big school — from making real friendships, to starting new clubs and organizations, to having more access to a wider variety of activities and events than they might when they’re competing with 5,000, 10,000, or even more students. CTCL alumni indicate that perhaps the greatest benefits come from being an engaged member of campus communities where diverse, urbane students from all over the world interact in culture-rich settings that encourage great conversations and make lasting impressions.

MISPERCEPTION: Employers and graduate schools won’t be seriously interested in a graduate from a school they haven’t heard of before. A degree from a name-brand institution means more to employers and graduate schools, and attending a well-known school puts students ahead of the curve and guarantees them successful, meaningful lives.

REALITY: Employers and graduate schools are looking for skills and experience, not evidence of an elite academic pedigree. CTCL graduates frequently outperform their peers at some of the nation’s top graduate and professional schools because they’ve done more with their time in college — they’ve become campus leaders, taken on internships or tackled life in another country, completed graduate-level work, and developed the kinds of critical thinking skills necessary for a meaningful life of learning.

Graduates of Colleges That Change Lives schools have worked closely with their professors and so received personal and insightful recommendations based on a real understanding of what that student accomplished in school, and what aspirations they have for the future. Finding the right career or graduate program is made simpler because professors and the staff in career guidance centers can focus on each student as an individual. Whether students need help writing a résumé, practicing interviewing, or discussing their career interests one-on-one, they receive the support they need from someone who knows them personally. Additionally, students have access to networks of dedicated, successful alumni who know the value of a great liberal arts education; CTCL alumni are involved, connected, and supportive. Students with CTCL degrees are perceived as being adaptable, creative, and hardworking — assets that serve them well long after graduation.

MISPERCEPTION: Large research-based and Ivy League schools have better course selection, and they can attract more talented faculty members.

REALITY: It’s no use having hundreds of courses if students can only get into a few, and huge lecture courses taught by graduate students make learning impersonal at best and impossible at worst. Many larger universities now publish 5-year graduation plans in their own course catalogs to acknowledge the difficulty students have in registering for the classes they need to graduate.

Nationwide, fewer students are graduating in four years from larger schools, and they’re lucky if they ever get to talk with a professor outside of class. The great scholars at many major universities are busy researching or publishing, not teaching — especially not undergraduates — and there’s not much chance of independent study or undergraduate research.

Many faculty members at CTCL schools, themselves graduates of some of our nation’s most prestigious universities, now say they’re envious of the opportunities their students have today at liberal arts and sciences colleges. With most classes comprised of 20 or fewer students, students are able to actively participate in class discussions, ask probing questions, and connect directly with great teacher-scholars who value teaching as highly as — sometimes even more than — research or publication.

Many of these brilliant minds choose to teach at CTCL schools because they prefer working closely with students in vibrant learning communities. Faculty members frequently involve students in their research as colleagues and act as mentors to seniors working on capstone projects. CTCL professors not only hold office hours open to all students, but are an integral part of the campus community: they attend campus swim meets, poetry readings, and jazz band concerts — and it’s not unusual to find faculty members playing the trombone, worshipping, or performing community service right alongside their students.

MISPERCEPTION: Staying close to home is a good idea because it saves money, and following high school friends makes the transition to college easier.

REALITY: The most important factor in choosing a college is its fit for a student, not its location or popularity. The ideal school may be close to home — or it could be across the country. Regardless of where the school is located, it should offer opportunities for intellectual growth, deeper understanding, and experiences that reward personal curiosity.

Following friends to school doesn’t guarantee an instantly rewarding social life in college — most friends who attend school together have found other interests by the end of the first few weeks. Making new friends at small colleges is easy, and the high school friendships that really matter will stand the tests of time and distance.

Personalities develop significantly in college, and the right school will foster, not hinder, growth. Choosing a school because it is familiar or following the same crowd to a school might even prevent students from developing as independent, capable people with their own interests and passions.

MISPERCEPTION: The only schools worth seriously considering are in the Northeast.

REALITY: There are indeed some terrific schools in the Northeast, but intellectualism is alive and well throughout the nation. To be sure, many schools with national reputations primarily attract students from their own regions, meaning less geographic diversity and fewer perspectives to share in class discussions or casual conversation on campus. The CTCL schools were selected specifically because of their distinctive teaching and learning environments that turn out graduates who are more productive and better prepared for the future than many of their peers from across the nation.

Students at CTCL schools are more globally aware and see the world in ways other students do not. They intern in major cities, connect with students from diverse backgrounds, and experience the world through study abroad. Rich with cultural, intellectual, and entertainment opportunities, the CTCL campus experience rivals even the best-known college towns.

MISPERCEPTION: Strong students in the top ranks of their high school class with high test scores will waste their potential at any school outside the Ivy League. They deserve to learn with other motivated achievers.

REALITY: CTCL schools are full of accomplished and motivated achievers — these colleges don’t admit anyone who doesn’t have a passionate interest in their type of education. These students are often brighter, more curious, and even more interesting than students with perfect test scores or grades; they bring a diversity of interests, experiences, and accomplishments to their work in college. And, measuring a college’s success based on an admitted student profile is somewhat like rating a hospital’s performance based on the status of its patients. Instead, it should be the quality of the care received (or education experienced) and the incremental improvement (intellectually and personally) each individual makes that is viewed as the real measure of success.

Students at CTCL schools cite the lack of pretension on campus as a very positive quality. They are comfortable asking questions in class and in learning from one another. Students who grasp concepts quickly are encouraged to test their understanding by explaining ideas to other students. Everyone benefits from discussion and collaborative learning, and their understanding of material is often better because they aren’t working toward just a grade as much as they seek to engage themselves in close study. CTCL professors encourage students to challenge themselves in academic areas outside of their comfort zone, and they help students learn how to ask the right questions in order to discover ideas for themselves, thereby developing the resources students need to find answers throughout their lives.

CTCL schools develop talents and shape lives, and the results support this type of education. Students attend graduate schools in record numbers and report success in their careers because they made the most of their potential in collaborative, not competitive, environments.

MISPERCEPTION: It’s impossible to get into a good college without great test scores, top grades, perfect recommendations, and a whole list of activities. Being homeschooled or having a different learning style can be a major obstacle.

REALITY: If this were true, there wouldn’t be a lot of people in college, and college would be pretty dull. While it is true that some colleges admit students by formula, the best ones are looking for well-rounded students who are excited about learning and participating in the life of their campuses. While grades and scores matter, so do factors like challenging courses, class rank, personal statements, and evidence of a life outside of the classroom. Just as students are hoping to find a school that best meets their unique needs, schools are looking for students who will thrive on their campuses.

In the admission process CTCL schools consider the whole student, and many welcome home-schoolers or students with learning challenges. They’ll be glad to talk to you about resources on campus or answer any questions about admission policies.

Most importantly, these schools produce graduates with profiles as remarkable as those from any other school because they focus on magnifying abilities and engaging interests. Students have the opportunity to learn with students who share their enthusiasm for college and can share lessons from a variety of perspectives.

MISPERCEPTION: If you’re serious about your future career, it’s pointless to take classes in other disciplines. It’s better to focus on one field and become an expert than to know a little about a lot of useless subjects.

REALITY: The decisions you make at eighteen could affect the rest of your life. Few people know exactly what they want to do at the beginning of college, and none of them can predict the future. The people who succeed today have a range of skills and can see connections between disciplines; they’re flexible and can adapt intelligently to change. Even people who are devoted to one field appreciate the perspectives other disciplines can bring to understanding a problem or an issue. It’s more important to have a versatile, multifaceted background and an ability to apply knowledge to many situations than a narrowly focused education in one subject that lacks breadth.

Each of the schools profiled on — and many others that share the same attributes — feature a liberal arts curriculum that offers students lessons from literature, mathematics, the natural and social sciences, and the arts, though no two colleges do it the same way. Students draw unexpected and fascinating connections between disciplines — everything from the mathematics of poetry to the politics of genetic science — and often combine such interests in double majors or interdisciplinary study. Employers and graduate schools frequently prefer graduates of liberal arts and sciences colleges because they know these individuals have what it takes to master a range of responsibilities.