If you are interested in a small liberal arts college with top notch academics and resources, it would be a mistake not to consider Carleton. Yes I know there are a lot of great liberal arts schools, especially on the coasts. It would be easy to dismiss Carleton as being in the “Midwest” or “the middle of nowhere” and “too cold.” I’ve seen it nixed off of many college lists for just these reasons. Now that I’ve been to Carleton, I realize that this school is something special, and I think all of the fantastic things about it can make it stand above almost any other small liberal arts college in this country for the right student. The students I met were quirky but brilliant, the campus and surrounding town charming and naturally stunning, and the sense of community among students, faculty, and townspeople clearly apparent.
Living in Northfield, MN
It took me about 40 minutes to get to Northfield, MN from Minneapolis where I was staying. Minneapolis-St Paul is one of the biggest metro areas in the United States so it goes without saying that there’s a lot to do there – great restaurants, great art, and plenty of museums. But once I got on the highway, within a few minutes I was looking out at cornfields. When I saw a sign for Carleton, I got off the highway and still all I could see were farms. But I drove down the road for a few minutes, and suddenly, I was in the center of a quaint and bustling little town. Northfield, home to both Carleton and St Olaf Colleges, is a town of 20,000 residents. Its city motto pretty much sums it up, “Cows, Colleges, and Contentment.” It is certainly not a big town, but the Carleton students gushed about it. As one of my two tour guides said, “This is what I imagined the ideal college town to be. Quiet, peaceful, but a real community.” The center of campus is only about a block and a half from the small town center so at any time of day, you will find college students or professors grocery shopping, hanging
out at either the coffee shops, bakeries, or at one of the handful of wine bars and pubs along the two blocks of commercial activity.
The Campus & Carleton Culture
My tour guides were hilarious. Our small group was led by two sophomores, both of whom happened to be roommates. They were clearly close friends but bantered between each other about their favorite buildings, food items, professors, classes, dorms, etc. throughout the whole tour (all while walking backwards). Tour Guide #1 liked one dining hall, Tour Guide #2 preferred another. #1 liked one place to study, and #2 another. Last year they went to a debate between the president of the college and the dean dressed as a chicken and an egg for Halloween which was staged in order to “see who came first,” and they both had a different opinion on who won. #1 thought one dorm was the best, and #2 another. There was nothing really they agreed upon other that they both said that coming to Carleton was the best decision they ever made. They both said they loved the Carleton community and everyone they met there. They both said this place had become home.
I don’t always believe what tour guides say. I was a tour guide myself, and I know some degree of exaggeration can be a part of the job. But I could tell these girls were genuinely in love with the place. Their presentation was not polished – the bickering between them was clearly natural, not rehearsed, and thematically things jumped from one thing to the next. It sometimes felt like we were witnessing them talking to each other rather than us being on a tour. But I liked it. Their love for Carleton shone through in everything they said.
Walking around, it was clear that people knew each other. Throughout the tour, lots of students stopped to say hello to guides as we walked in and out of buildings around the center quad of campus, affectionately referred to as “The Bald Spot”. This massive quad is filled with picnic tables and trees, and although it was raining, there were still plenty of students outside enjoying the space. The tour guides told us that in winter, Carleton sets up a skating rink right in the middle of the Bald Spot complete with its own warming hut. While casual skating is common, a favorite activity at Carleton is broomball, a bizarre Canadian sport involving pushing tiny balls around with brooms all while on ice. The Carleton students seemed pretty serious about the importance of this sport to their campus culture.
Tour guide #1 said that although she loves the close community, she sometimes likes to get away. Lucky for her, on the other side of campus, Carleton has one of the coolest things ever, an 800-acre arboretum complete with a forest, a prairie, and 15 miles of trails for walking, biking, and cross-country skiing. The entrance to this arboretum is right on the campus, on the side opposite of the town. So within a five-minute walk you can be in either a bustling town or in a forest. If that isn’t awesome enough, did I mention that Carleton has a lake with two islands where students can hang out (both are equipped with picnic tables and grills)?
Academics & Social Life
Okay. So this place has a great sense of community and an awesome campus. And I thought my tour guides were hilarious. But more importantly, I also got the feeling that this was a great place to get an education. The students seemed really smart. And I don’t just mean they got good scores on their SAT. They seemed really excited about their classes, their professors, and the projects they all seemed to be working on. Students are required to take freshmen seminars on “Argument and Inquiry.” There are 30 or so sections to choose from, all with different themes. “My seminar was the best,” #2 said. “No seriously, mine was,” #1 said. “Well whatever, our advisor is the most awesome, amazing person. He changed my life,” said #2. “Yeah, oh my God, he helped me pick out the most incredible classes in things I never would have thought of on my own,” said #1. At least that was one other point they agreed on.
At Carleton, you will spend about a third of your time taking classes for your major, a third of your time taking courses in whatever you want, and a third fulfilling distribution requirements. Carleton wants you to gain a broad education so in addition to taking a first year seminar, students must demonstrate proficiency in a foreign language, and fulfill a global citizenship, writing, and physical education requirement. In addition, students must earn a certain number of credits in each of six areas that cover the breadth of the course catalogue (e.g. humanistic inquiry, science with lab, arts practice, etc.). Study abroad is highly encouraged (75% students study abroad at least once), and Carleton offers approximately 20 of its own programs in addition allowing students to study abroad via other approved programs through other institutions.
When asked how much time they devoted to studying and their classes, my tour guides settled on a consensus of about 40-60 hours per week. “But students do lots of other things too…The arts are amazing!” and the “School really wants us to have fun, and they are always putting on great events!”
The tour guides’ favorite activities include attending movies at the brand new campus movie theater (which looked like a full commercial movie theater), campus dances, and going to The Cave, the oldest student-run pub in the nation which hosts 2-3 free live music shows per week. Plus, of course, skating, cross-country skiing, and sledding (or actually “traying” on lunch trays) were also mentioned. 95% of students participate in Division III athletics or in club or intramural sports and 25% of students volunteer.
And eating is popular too. Although tour guide #1 & #2 did not agree on the best of the two campus dining halls, they agreed they were both good as the school makes an effort to bring in local produce from nearby farms. Plus, Carleton students are also allowed to eat at St. Olaf’s dining hall, which the guides said was on another level in terms of quality.
Carleton is highly residential with over 94% of students living on campus, and the school offers students a lot of choice when it comes to living arrangements. Some of the dorms are right in town while others are on the edge of the arboretum so whether you want to live near hustle or quiet solitude, there are options. The dorm buildings range in style from boring midcentury boxes to gorgeous collegiate gothic castles. But in addition to dorms, Carleton has 16 campus houses with themed housing.
The best theme out (in my opinion) is the Dacie Moses House, also known as the “Cookie House,” which is fully stocked with cookie-making supplies for all sorts of cookies at all times of day so that students from around campus can stop by to make (and eat) cookies.
Finally, a section of the campus known as “townhouse village” allows students to live in spacious modern townhouses as alternative option.
My overall impression of Carleton was that is a tight community in a quaint little town filled with endearingly quirky and incredibly smart students. They are quirky because they do things like name the staplers in their library (to prevent stapler theft), relish in events like a chicken & egg debate, and have an undying love for a bizarre sport like broomball. They also are incredibly into whatever they are studying or working on. Although the students I knew at Harvard (and from what I know of other medium-sized top universities) are often passionate about their work too, I felt the students at Carleton were more overt in their pure love for learning, their deep interest in finding their own academic passions, and their enthusiasm for their professors. They chose Carleton because this little school, set between a quaint little town in Minnesota and a beautiful lake and forest, is a true community of scholars. For many students, this is an ideal environment in which to learn.