Please Mind the Platform Gap (Universities Edition): Swarthmore College

By Grace Lau (18S03I)

Thinking about which university to apply to, or already a J2 beginning your early admission applications? Raffles Press brings you our Please Mind the Platform Gap (Universities Edition), a series of articles dedicated to providing information on Rafflesian alumni’s experiences at their respective universities.

Founded in 1864, Swarthmore College was one of the earliest coeducational colleges in the United States. The private college is located in an idyllic suburban setting and boasts a rich culture, as can be inferred from the elaborate stone buildings on campus. It offers a wide range of courses ranging from Engineering (pretty uncommon for a liberal arts college!) to Peace and Conflict Studies, and is a well-recognised liberal arts college that has been ranked as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the nation. Academics aside, the school places great emphasis on nurturing passionate students who are intellectual and critical thinkers.

In this article, Raffles Press interviews Liu Lijia from Swarthmore College, an alumna of RI who graduated in 2015. She is currently a sophomore majoring in Economics.

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Parrish Hall, the college’s first building. It is named in honour of Edward Parrish, Swarthmore’s first president. (Image credits)

Pre-University

What motivated you to major in Economics and why did you choose overseas education (specifically, at Swarthmore) over local education?

I want to major in Economics and Mathematics because I enjoy learning about them. I used to feel ambivalent about math, but in college, math is less about arithmetic and memorization than about reasoning and proofs. It is a challenging subject, but I enjoy the thought process. I have always wanted to do Economics because I think it’s a great way of looking at the world – it offers insight into human behaviour and current events through models, theorems, and an acknowledgement that the former two may not suffice at times to describe human idiosyncrasies.

I chose to study overseas because I wanted to be in a diverse environment that offers more space for independent exploration. Since I was young, I’ve always wanted to be in the US because it’s a huge country with a lot of sights and sounds. I picked Swarthmore because it has a very open campus community with people from all over the world. People are very passionate about issues close to their hearts, from cooking to environmental justice. I also like Swarthmore’s suburban location because I wanted to get away from being in a city all the time, but also wanted to have the city (Philadelphia) within reach.

What was the admission process like?

For the US, I feel that the process focused more on your individuality, or a combination of your academic interests, extracurricular activities, hobbies, and personality. The Common App essay offers some room for you to talk about your own experiences, and while it isn’t the easiest thing to write, I thought it offered a good opportunity for self-reflection and for you to tell your own story. Most colleges would ask additional questions and some would request for your CV or resume. Apart from essay questions, sometimes colleges ask wacky short-answer questions on the Common App, like “What kind of dinosaur would you be?”. I also did an alumni interview for Swarthmore. It was a casual chat in a cafe and the interviewer was really friendly and approachable. I still keep in touch with her.

Life On Campus

Describe a typical day of your life as a student in Swarthmore.

Attend classes in either the morning or afternoon depending on which classes you pick and how your schedule turns out. I used to do lots of morning classes but next semester, as luck would have it, most of my classes start late morning and some run into the afternoon. Apart from my academic subjects, I also take dance classes in the afternoon.

I often do my readings, assignments, and papers in the library with my friends after classes. I try to go to the gym a few times per week either in the morning between classes or in the afternoon. I work on campus in the evening, but as I’m going to switch jobs next semester, I foresee signing up for shifts in the morning before classes begin.

In the evening, I may hang out with my friends or go to an interesting campus event. Funnily enough, a lot of club activities on campus are in the evening, probably because it’s so difficult to find common time to meet during the day. However, if you sign up for volunteering gigs or other activities held outside school, they tend to be during the day.

Swarthmore students, like RI kids, sleep late. I try to sleep by midnight, though sometimes I stay up to finish readings.

What is the teaching style, and how does it compare to that in RI?

Most classes at Swarthmore are small, so there is a lot of class participation. Professors are very willing to answer questions. They also have office hours outside class for you to drop by and talk to them. Some classes are bigger lectures (“big” at Swarthmore is more than 30 people) though you can talk to the profs after lectures or during their office hours. Some classes have group projects, though they don’t usually take up the entire grade. For some science classes, there are compulsory lab sessions, and usually students have to partner up in labs for the whole semester and receive the same grade for the lab component.

There is definitely a lot of independent learning. The profs do not force anyone to do the readings so self-discipline is important. They tend to hand out syllabi with crucial deadlines, along with a description of how the grade is assessed and weightage of different assignments, at the start of each semester, and it is up to you to pay attention to these things.

The pace is manageable. If you can keep up with the A levels, or the Kardashians, you can keep up with Swarthmore.

What has been your favourite class so far?

My favourite class was a freshman economics seminar on how technological change affects the economy. We read books and articles on how technology affected the everyday lives of Americans, from the phenomenal introduction of radio and television into the average household to the IT revolution in the 90s. There was also more academic material offering economic analysis like Leonard Nakamura’s “The Invisible Hand meets Creative Destruction”. Some essays were also quite philosophical, such as Keynes’ “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”, which is probably one of my favourite essays.

How heavy is your workload? How much leisure time do you have, and what do you do during your leisure time?

Although Swarthmore is one of the most academically intense colleges in the US, I find the workload manageable so far. It comes down to good time management. I focus on the most important things first and divide a big project into small chunks to be worked on gradually. Some of the people I know pull all-nighters, but that is not my working style and I prefer to start early and do a small bit every day. I actually think I have more leisure time than at JC to go for school concerts, parties, and even visit Philadelphia. When I’m free, I like walking in the woods beside campus, getting good food with my friends, or going shopping at the nearby mall.

What is your accommodation like? Do you live on-campus or off-campus, and what is the experience like?

I live on campus in a double with a roommate. I met most of my good friends because we live in the same dorm – funnily enough, in the one furthest away from the main campus. I like living on campus because your friends are always within reach, making it very easy to hang out with them just to chill or have an impromptu pizza party. I also like returning to my room at the end of the day and having my own space. It’s definitely different from being at home because you feel more independent.

What is the school culture/atmosphere like?

The students are generally friendly and helpful. Since Swarthmore is known for academic rigour, a lot of people are self-proclaimed geeks, though there are also plenty of party animals around. People are very outspoken about causes they are passionate about, be it lacrosse (I still don’t quite know what that is), fitness, orchestra, or costume design. Swarthmore is a lively campus because there are always lots of events, such as dance performances, mental health awareness week, holi celebrations, career networking forums, and presentations by faculty and other famous speakers. It is a liberal arts college with very few students (around 1500) so people tend to know one another quite well. The environment is more collaborative than competitive, and a lot of the pressure comes from your individual desire to succeed than your classmate secretly sabotaging your notes.

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The Alice Paul & David Kemp Residence Halls at Swarthmore. (Image source)

Adjustments

What were some difficulties you faced in terms of adapting to the new environment and majoring in Economics? How did you overcome these obstacles?

The first few days at school during orientation was tough, but I am biased because my phone glitched and I had neither wifi nor a phone plan to make communication easier. I got to Swarthmore by myself without knowing anyone, though I met a few people during orientation that turned out to be my very good friends. I was quite bummed out at first because I felt like I had barely any friends, and was questioning my social abilities. But then I realized that friendship needs time to develop, and if other people are talking about something you’ve never experienced before, it’s okay to just listen for the time being.

Academically, it was quite easy to adapt. Because we have so much homework, drilling, and practically impossible-to-get-As tests at RI, it wasn’t very challenging for me to get a hang of my classes. However, I took honors linear algebra, which was very different from the math in JC, and that was a difficult but fulfilling class.

Was it hard to socially integrate into such a different environment? Was it difficult to find friends with common interests?

Being the only Singaporean in my cohort forced me to be with people different from me all the time, but in the end, I feel that my peers are just normal people like me and it was not very difficult to socially integrate. Of course, you would naturally gravitate towards particular groups and people and it isn’t possible to be close with the entire school.

In fact, being away from other Singaporeans made it easier for me to get to know other people. I met most of my close friends by chance through orientation and dorm activities. I also know plenty of other people from my classes and extracurriculars. As long as you are interested in other people and willing to connect with them, there will be at least a few people you can stick with.

Advice

Should students be interested in taking Economics at tertiary level? What should they take into consideration (e.g. what skills are required) and how can they prepare for this new stage in life?

I think that most students who graduate from RI have no problem adjusting to the Economics syllabus in any college. However, I do think that genuine interest is very important because plenty of people are taking Economics, some for pragmatic considerations, and the only way for you to differentiate yourself and keep going when things get tough is your passion for the subject. Some students may think that Economics is all about math, and I don’t think that’s true because it is ultimately a way of analyzing societies and human interactions, so don’t let the technical details deter you from doing Economics.

Any advice for juniors who are trying to figure out what university course to take?

Give yourself some time because in the US, you don’t need to declare a major until the middle of your second year. Granted, you have to take into account graduation requirements, but for now just come up with a few fields you are interested in (e.g. Physics/Computer Science/Engineering; Art/Biology/Political Science) and figure it out as you continue taking more courses. The US offers a lot of flexibility in choosing classes and if you end up disliking something you’ve wanted to do, that’s completely fine and you can just choose something else. If you want to go one step further, talk to people in careers you are interested in and find out what they did in college, but make sure you make the final decision.

Any advice for juniors who are planning to apply to Swarthmore in the future?

Sign up for an alumni interview if you can. It probably gives you an advantage over the people who just wrote essays, and you can also talk to an actual person to see if you like the kind of people who go to Swarthmore.

Start your Common App essay early (preferably by June-July). Even if you write a bad first draft, just keep editing and don’t be afraid to start from scratch. I wrote at least three full drafts before I came up with an essay I liked.

Always email the admissions or financial aid office if you have any questions or ran into any problems with the application. They always reply to my emails and when the financial aid portal glitched, they were really understanding and extended the submission deadline for me.

There’s no need to get straight “A”s for Prelims for colleges to like you.

Look at Swarthmore on Google maps and images. If you like what you see (that includes the surrounding area), consider applying.

Financial aid is very generous, though Swarthmore practices a need-aware policy towards international students. If you want to get financial aid (like me), you must apply for aid when you submit your Common App and other materials. It’s better to apply through early decision if you want aid and are keen on Swarthmore because the odds are in your favour. Financial aid comes in the form of grants (no loans to be repaid) and is based on your family’s income, background, etc. You have to work on campus, but that is a small sacrifice for affordable tuition. Unlike government scholarships, you also don’t need to serve a bond when you graduate. (I’m not sure how many potential PSC scholars I just denied the Singapore government from having.)

Don’t let the lack of Singaporeans deter you if you are keen on studying overseas.

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