So, what is a women's college?
Here’s the honest truth: in 2021, women’s colleges don’t have as much in common with each other as they used to. So, writing a guide that attempts to unify them is, well, tricky. They share a moniker, but even that moniker is up for dispute. Not everyone who attends a women’s college is a woman. Some colleges are addressing gender openly in their admissions policies; some are actively anti-trans students in their admissions policies. Some campuses have a more conservative bent; others are hot beds of social justice activism. Some are standalone women’s colleges; others live within broader co-ed institutions. They contain multitudes.
That said, there are a few things that still unite women’s colleges to this day. I’ll address those below as a starting point because their shared histories – being places for women to pursue higher education – do dictate a lot of their present-day realities. But liking one women’s college doesn’t mean you’re going to like all of them. Just because you like University of Michigan doesn’t mean you’ll like all the other schools in the Big 10 (…and I’m pretty sure you’re not allowed to like both Michigan and Ohio State anyway).
So, what unifies them? Well, one of the first, most important factors to note about women’s colleges in the United States is that they are all, pretty much universally, small liberal arts colleges (otherwise known as SLACs). So, if you know that you’re looking for the type of education offered by a SLAC, then you can rest assured that you’ll find the same benefits at a women’s college.
But, what if you’re not there yet? Let’s start by going over what SLACs (generally) offer:
- Small to medium size student populations (some have fewer than 1,000 students, some have 1,000-3,000)
- Small class sizes, with the occasional large lecture course
- Lots of personalized attention from professors and campus administrators
- A range of academic majors, from physics to medieval studies and pretty much everything else in between
- A focus on sharpening your reading, writing, and critical thinking skills
And you’ll typically find all of these things at women’s colleges.
In addition to the core elements of a liberal arts college, women’s colleges share a few differentiating factors from your standard SLAC. Though many women’s colleges first admitted only white women, they’ve evolved since the 19th century to be far more inclusive. Now, women’s colleges tend to be more diverse than their liberal arts college counterparts, especially for students of color and non-traditional aged students. Women’s colleges have nearly three times as many students ages 25-65 as co-ed liberal arts colleges (16.6% compared to 6% of the student population), they enroll a higher percentage of students of color (43% compared to 30%), and they educate a higher percentage of low-income students (43% compared to 32%), source here.
But, women’s colleges are not one-size-fits-all. In addition to their identities as SLACs, women’s colleges also have created their own unique identities around a variety of factors, including:
- Gender identity: each has its own policies around who is admitted (and supported) on campus
- Demographics: as noted above, women’s colleges are quite diverse relative to their co-ed counterparts, but each varies in their student breakdown. There are also a number of women’s colleges housed within co-ed universities, so the demographics of the surrounding institution are also important to understand
- Geography: there are women’s colleges located throughout the country but they also vary in terms of where their students hail from
- Politics and social justice: women’s colleges have long been defined by their activism, but what each campus community engages in (and to what extent) will vary
- Academic programs: they each have their own most popular majors and specialized offerings
- Cross-registration options and even dual-degree programs at other (often co-ed) campuses
- Master’s programs: some have them, some don’t, but post-graduate programs at women’s colleges are generally co-ed
- History: each campus has its own story and how they tell and celebrate their histories varies
- Religious affiliation: some women’s colleges used to be religiously affiliated, and some still are (as some examples, Stern College of Yeshiva University is Jewish-affiliated; Judson College in Alabama is a Christian college; and Alverno College is a Catholic, Franciscan college)
- Traditions: from high teas to class tree days, women’s colleges often have an appreciation for the legacy of women who have come before them
Common Qualities of a Women's College
While many of these traits are just downright great qualities for any colleges, I’ve narrowed it down to a few that stand out in this pool in particular. These are qualities that will serve you well not only in applying to women’s colleges, but also (just as importantly) once you’re there.
Just like at any admissions office, women’s college admissions officers are looking for a wide variety of students. Some will be leaders, some will be followers, and some will just do their own thing altogether. But these three qualities tend to rise to the surface amongst even the most diverse of applicant pools. And if you can express these qualities throughout your application process (or feel like these characteristics describe you completely), women’s colleges will be knocking at your door.
This is a word that often gets confused with leadership, but leadership can more often than not get flattened into a title. Initiative has a lot more to do with action, regardless of what someone’s official role might be.
Behind every women’s college is a long history of trailblazers. Women who saw a place for those left out of higher education. Women who founded colleges, long before women even had the right to vote. And women who, through the years, forged their way in industries and professions that had long been dominated by men – especially politics, business, math, and science.
So, it comes as no surprise that women’s colleges today still relish the same forward-thinking spirit in their applicants. Maybe you started the first video game club at your school, created your own op-ed column in the school newspaper, or founded a Feminist Bird Club chapter. Whatever it is, women’s colleges celebrate students who felt bold enough to start something new, question a norm, or strive to make something better than it was before. In their supplemental essay question in 2020, Bryn Mawr asked students to reflect on their high school experience, considering “What legacy do you hope to leave behind?” Women’s colleges celebrate students who will bring that same spirit to college – and continue to blaze trails in whatever field they choose.
Though this one overlaps with many liberal arts colleges, women’s colleges in particular look for students who are curious. They are the front-seat learners and the hand-raisers. They ask questions. They are open to new ideas. And they perpetually ask, “why?”
These are the students who stay after class to ask that extra question. They want to dig deeper into a topic, and they want to approach it from all angles. They love learning about the Defenestration of Prague or the woman behind DNA sequencing, even if it’s not on the next test. Students who are curious just can’t turn off that lingering feeling of wanting to know more about the world around them. As Barnard asks in their supplemental question, “What are some of the bold questions you have pondered that get you excited, and why do they interest you?” Women’s colleges tend to celebrate those students with big, bold questions.
An important quality to bring to any small classroom experience is the ability to express oneself — be that in writing, or through a thoughtful comment. And students who get into women’s colleges (and succeed once they’re there) demonstrate this skill early on. This doesn’t mean you have to write 20-page essays on Thoreau with ease, but it does mean that you can articulate your thoughts clearly, whether that’s in organic chemistry or British literature. This is probably one of the many reasons women’s college graduates tend to excel as leaders and activists; the experience prepares them to stand up for themselves and articulate their opinions. But, just as importantly, they pair that expressiveness with curiosity, and listen just as much as they share. Women’s colleges are aware that you likely won’t arrive fully confident and ready to express yourself fully, but they get excited about students who exhibit a spark of curiosity paired with an ability to speak up and out.
In our Guide to Women’s Colleges, you can read more about some of the biggest differentiators between women’s colleges today: admissions policies, politics and social justice, and academic programs.
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