A Guide to Women’s Colleges

Padya Paramita

A Guide to Women’s Colleges

 

Maybe you haven’t thought about single sex education, but if you have ever considered seeking a college where you will find other empowered young women, with established female role models as your professors, look no further than a women’s college. These were integral parts of my experience at Wellesley College, with the collective goal to smash the patriarchy as an added bonus. Usually following a liberal arts curriculum, today’s women’s colleges are elite institutions which have traditionally admitted only women into their schools.

There are several factors that make women’s colleges worthwhile, from smaller class sizes that include some of the smartest students around the world, to missions that promote women empowerment in male dominated fields. But a women’s college might not be your cup of tea if you’re looking for schools with big party scenes, Greek life and strong athletic programs.

In this article, I will discuss the background and history of women’s colleges, followed by some of their key characteristics: academic life, social life, cross-registration, and application tips.

If you’re looking to grow among similar-minded peers hoping to break the glass ceiling, a women’s college might be just right for you.

Who Can Attend a Women’s College?

Women’s colleges were founded in the mid-late 19th century to provide women with higher education because most colleges at the time were limited to men. Many women’s colleges started as seminaries, such as the first all-women’s institute, Bethlehem Female Seminary, which was established in 1742. In 1837, Oberlin College, which was also the first college to admit black students, was the first previously all-men’s college to admit women. Over time, as other schools began to admit women as well as men, some historically women’s colleges, like Vassar College and Sarah Lawrence College, became co-ed themselves.

Currently, most of these colleges allow women who have checked “female” on their Common App to apply, and usually this includes non-binary and trans folks assigned female at birth as well. More recently, some women’s colleges have revised their admissions policies to admit transgender women. According to NBC News, 11 out of the 39 schools in the Women’s College Coalition have updated their policies to include trans women. These include: Mills College, Mount Holyoke College, Simmons College, Scripps College, Bryn Mawr College, Wellesley College, Smith College, Hollins University, Barnard College, Bennett College and Spelman College.

Which Colleges Are Currently Considered Women’s Colleges?

The following is a list of the 33 non-coeducational women’s colleges around the United States that exist today. The University of Denver also has a college for women. This number is extremely low compared to the 1960s when there were 281 women’s colleges around the country.

The list also includes the acceptance rate and the student body size of each school. Most women’s colleges are on the east coast, with a few concentrated in the midwest and south, and only a couple on the west coast. Since most women’s colleges are liberal arts colleges, they have a smaller and more tight-knit population and community of students.

College Location Acceptance Rate Total Undergraduate Enrollment
Agnes Scott College Decatur, GA 66% 921
Alverno College Milwaukee, WI 78% 1,312
Barnard College New York, NY 15% 2,604
Bay Path University Longmeadow, MA 63% 1,947
Bennett College Greensboro, NC 89% 493
Brenau University Gainesville, GA 69% 1,722
Bryn Mawr College Bryn Mawr, PA 38% 1,334
Cedar Crest College Allentown, PA 63% 1,443
College of Saint Mary Omaha, NE 56% 832
Columbia College Columbia, SC 87% 1,379
Converse College Spartanburg, SC 71% 918
Cottey College Nevada, MO 75% 270
Hollins University Roanoke, VA 48% 645
Judson College Marion, AL 58% 1,081
Meredith College Raleigh, NC 69% 1,682
Mills College Oakland, CA 87% 761
Moore College of Art and Design Philadelphia, PA 57% 500
Mount Holyoke College South Hadley, MA 51% 2,334
Mount Mary University Milwaukee, WI 56% 1,358
Notre Dame of Maryland University Baltimore, MD 71% 2,475
Russell Sage College under Sage College Troy, NT 56% 1,320
St. Catherine University St. Paul, MN 70% 4,724
Saint Mary’s College Moraga, CA 82% 3,913
Salem College Winston-Salem, NC 57% 940
Scripps College Claremont, CA 33% 1,077
Simmons University Boston, MA 60% 1,763
Smith College Northampton, MA 32% 2,918
Spelman College Atlanta, GA 40% 2,137
Stephens College Columbia, MO 53% 648
Sweet Briar College Sweet Briar, VA 93% 322
Trinity Washington University Washington, DC 89% 1,075
Wellesley College Wellesley, MA 22% 2,508
Wesleyan College Macon, GA 47% 603

Are All Women’s Colleges Basically The Same?

To put it simply, they’re just not. Yes, they all have a student body of women. But that’s about it.

From the list, you can see that some women’s colleges are more selective than others. Barnard, which has an acceptance rate of 15% is a much more competitive school than Trinity Washington, which has an acceptance rate of 89%. Of course, location makes a difference too. If you attend Scripps College in California, you’re likely to get much warmer weather than if you attend Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.

Five of the colleges on the list - Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith, Wellesley, along with Radcliffe College (now a part of Harvard), and Vassar College (now co-ed) make up the Seven Sisters colleges. These northeast colleges were founded in the nineteenth century with a mission to provide women with an education of the same caliber as male counterparts such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. Today, the remaining Seven Sisters are considered among the most competitive liberal arts colleges, and are definitely the most selective women’s colleges.

Beyond what meets the eye from the above table, these colleges have a number of other ?features that make them a great fit for many young women. Each school has unique course offerings, internship opportunities, and noteworthy collections in their archives. For example, Smith College has an internship program which allows students to conduct hands-on research at the Smithsonian over a semester. Mount Mary University greatly values service learning, and requires all first year students to enroll in its Leadership for Social Justice Seminar.

Women’s colleges share the common goal of wanting their students to succeed and graduate as aspiring leaders in their fields. No women’s college is identical to another, and they all have their own appeal.

Academic Life

At co-ed universities, it can be difficult for women to pursue their studies in STEM and business due to the large number of men dominating these fields. Students at women’s colleges appreciate the opportunities in STEM and business fields, as there is no stigma against women who choose to study these at a women’s college. Smith ranks among the top undergraduate engineering programs. Wellesley, Smith, and Bryn Mawr are all among the top liberal arts colleges with the highest percentage of STEM majors. The percentage of STEM graduates from Bryn Mawr - 29.1% - is higher than all but two of the national universities with the highest proportion of female STEM majors. 23% of Wellesley’s 2018 graduates work in business and consulting. ?

In addition, Women and Gender Studies programs are highly valued at women’s colleges, and the classes are taught by some of the most renowned women’s studies scholars. In my second semester at Wellesley College, I took an introductory course for WGST, and one for Economics. The reason I wanted to study Economics was to learn more about advertising. However, I ended up learning more about advertising in my Gender Studies course than Econ 101. I appreciated both the course and my professor so much that I ended up choosing WGST as one of my majors!

Economics is the most common major at Wellesley, followed by Biology, Psychology and Computer Science. There is a joke that if a pebble is thrown across Wellesley’s campus, one out of three will hit an Econ major. Even at Smith, Economics is the second most popular major after psychology.

Just like at Ivy League schools, a lot of women’s colleges boast faculty who are highly established in their fields. Pulitzer Prize winning poet Frank Bidart is a professor at Wellesley College. Authors James Baldwin and John Irving have served as faculty at Mount Holyoke College.

Class Cross-Registration

A lot of women’s colleges are also located near bigger universities, giving students the ability to cross-register and take classes at those schools. Cross-registering is valuable as it allows students the best of both worlds. They can attend an elite women’s college with all the benefits of its supportive, empowering environment. At the same time, if their major requires more specialized equipment, they can take advantage of a neighboring university.

Barnard is an affiliate of Columbia University, and students receive diplomas from both colleges upon graduation. Scripps students can cross-register at ?Claremont McKenna College, Pomona College, Harvey Mudd College, Claremont Graduate University, and Keck Graduate Institute. Smith and Mount Holyoke students can enroll in courses at Amherst, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Hampshire College (the latter will remain open, despite deciding not to accept an incoming freshman class next fall with the exception of early admission applicants and gap year students). Wellesley College students can participate in classes at MIT, Babson College, and Olin College of Engineering.

Engineering majors at Wellesley can spend time in the MIT media lab. Music students at Barnard can finesse their skills with musicians at Juilliard. Students usually cross-register at the same time as the students of the bigger university, and they can generally start from their second semester of freshman year. In doing so, they are not only granted access to more equipment, but to a bigger network of peers and professors who can help them excel in their field.

Below is a list of schools that allow women’s college students to cross-register:

Women’s College School You Can Cross-Register At
Agnes Scott Brenau University, Clark Atlanta University, Clayton State University, Columbia Theological Seminary, Emory University, Georgia Gwinnett College, Georgia Institute of Technology, Georgia State University, Interdenominational Theological Center, Kennesaw State University, Mercer University-Atlanta, Morehouse College, Morehouse School of Medicine, Oglethorpe University, Savannah College of Art and Design-Atlanta, Spelman College, University of Georgia, University of West Georgia
Barnard Columbia University, Juilliard School
Bry Mawr Haverford College, Swarthmore College, University of Pennsylvania
Mount Holyoke Amherst College, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Hampshire Colleg, Smith College
Scripps Claremont McKenna College, Pomona College, Harvey Mudd College, Claremont Graduate University, and Keck Graduate Institute.
Simmons Emmanuel College, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, Wentworth Institute of Technology
Smith Amherst, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College
Spelman Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College
Sweet Briar Lynchburg College, Randolph College
Wellesley Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Babson College, Olin College of Engineering, Brandeis University

Social and Campus Life

Like its co-ed counterparts, women’s colleges have plenty of extracurriculars that keep students occupied. One of Smith College’s unique organizations is Bike Kitchen, where students are taught bike maintenance and rent out bikes to the college community. At Wellesley College, some of the most popular organizations are the student run co-operative cafes, such as El Table - a daytime cafe that serves sandwich and coffee, and Cafe Hoop - a late night cafe famous for its nachos.

You might be curious about the party scene at women’s colleges. Don’t worry, the students aren’t nuns -- they do party! From my experience at Wellesley, the biggest party is Remix, the back-to-school bash. There are also societies, which are similar to sororities, to provide students with more socializing and opportunities to mix with fraternities, as well as throw on-campus parties such as TZE’s annual Toga Party. All of these parties occur during the weekend and are well-advertised to surrounding colleges, therefore attracting a large proportion of men. Other women’s college parties are similar, as they are all located near co-ed counterparts.

For the most part, women’s colleges’ social scenes are more beneficial for students who prefer quieter environments. Parties on weekdays are extremely rare. According to Niche, majority of students at Wellesley, Smith, and Bryn Mawr voted that they “can have a great social life without alcohol,” though students at all three of these schools and Barnard noted that significant portions of the student body do drink, but without peer pressure.

Why Apply To A Women’s College?

 

Build Greater Self-Esteem and Guarantee a Supportive Network

As I mentioned earlier, women are prioritized and supported in all fields of study at women’s colleges. Learning in an all-women’s environment often helps students gain confidence in their field as everyone roots for them to succeed, despite being women. A strong example of this lies in the fact that more women of color enroll in women’s colleges than in co-ed colleges. Women’s colleges also have some of the highest 4-year graduation rates in the country, with Barnard at 87%, above the likes of Yale, UPenn, Brown, and Tufts. Other women’s colleges follow suit with Smith at 82%, Mount Holyoke at 81%, and Wellesley at 78%.

The environment is designed to help encourage women gain more voices in their classrooms and clubs. Students appreciate this environment, and it shows - Barnard and Smith are third and fifth on Niche’s list of Liberal Arts Colleges with the Best Student Life as voted by students, with Spelman and Scripps following at sixth and eighth respectively.

Higher Acceptance Rate

With a quick look at the table you can tell that the acceptance rates at women’s colleges seem higher than what you might be used to seeing at selective schools. The reason is simple: since the colleges do not accept male applicants, the entire applicant pool is half of what a co-ed liberal arts college receives. Instead of competing against 6,000 applicants for 600 spots, you’re competing with about 3,000.

You can notice this pattern in the table below, where I have compared the acceptance rates and Undergraduate Education Rankings for the Class of 2022 among five of US News’ Top Ranked Liberal Arts Colleges.

School US News Overall Ranking US News Undergraduate Education Ranking Acceptance Rate
Williams College 1 8 12.1%
Amherst College 2 16 12.8%
Swarthmore College 3 9 9%
Wellesley College 3 22 19%
Bowdoin College 5 6 10.3%
Smith College 11 18 32%

Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore and Bowdoin all have similar acceptance rates, between 9-12%, whereas Wellesley’s acceptance rate is higher, at 19%. This isn’t because Wellesley is any less competitive than its counterparts. It simply receives fewer applications due to its restricted applicant pool. In fact, Wellesley places higher than both Bowdoin and Swarthmore on Forbes’ ranking of colleges with the most successful alumni.

The Undergraduate Teaching Ranking demonstrates the institutions’ commitments to teaching undergraduates as opposed to conducting research. Smith College, which has an acceptance rate of 32%, ranks closely to Amherst College, which has an acceptance rate of 12.8%. If you choose to apply to a women’s college, your chance of admission to a school with a strong emphasis on undergraduate education increases significantly.

Less competition increases your chance of admission and puts you one step closer to receiving a strong liberal arts education, which is a useful fact to keep in mind when creating your school list.

Women’s College Traditions

Women’s colleges are well-known for traditions unique to each school, from Lantern Day at Bryn Mawr to symbolize passing of knowledge to freshmen to Founders’ Day at Sweet Briar to honor their founder Indiana Fletcher Williams. Incoming students at Mills college write what they hope to gain from their college experience on pieces of paper and hang them from trees. Rumor has it, when the paper falls, that is when the wishes come true! Students at women’s colleges are highly encouraged to participate in these traditions, as they help foster that sense of school spirit and female  empowerment.

Strong Alumni Network

Going to a historically women’s college grants you access to an alumni network that will welcome you as part of the family. Wellesley College is the number one ranked alumni network according to a study by Best Colleges.  

Many women’s college alums go on to become leaders in their field. Notable women’s college alums include Hillary Clinton, Benazir Bhutto, Diane Sawyer, Zora Neale Hurston and more. Students find impressive female role models in almost every sector.

This is not only helpful when applying to jobs, but also for alums being willing to help each other in finding housing, workplace advice, and even discussion on fashion and pets through various Facebook groups once you’ve graduated. If you’re a graduate from one of the Seven Sisters colleges, not only are you provided with support from alums of your own school, but you become part of a greater Seven Sister alum network.

Other Benefits That Come With Attending Liberal Arts Colleges

The smaller class size at liberal arts colleges allows a higher number of students to have greater access to more professors. Women’s colleges are no exception. Although “smaller class size” is a term thrown around as a buzzword, it is invaluable. This can help deepen your connection to the greater college community, which is highly valued at women’s colleges, where you will often hear the words “sisterhood” and “siblinghood.”

Due to the distribution requirements at liberal arts colleges, students at women’s colleges have the option to explore departments and subjects they normally wouldn't. For example, an English major could be in an astronomy class, and a math major could be enrolled in a pottery course. Top liberal arts colleges are more likely to provide need-based financial aid to admitted students than most top national universities, allowing more women to enroll in institutions designed for them to succeed.

Abundance of Post Graduation Opportunities

After college, women’s college graduates receive job opportunities and salaries similar to their  co-ed liberal arts counterparts. The average starting salary for Barnard graduates is $58,000, Wellesley graduates is $56,000, for Smith graduates is $52,000. 96% of Wellesley College’s Class of 2018 were employed or enrolled in graduate school by six months after graduation, with an average salary of $58,893.

Alums believe that the unique opportunities at women’s colleges helped them with grad school admission. The PLUMS mentoring program at Mount Holyoke, for example, gives students early hands-on exposure to STEM subject, and has helped 2012 alum Kelsey Schramma get into Princeton University.

According to Schramma, “The skill of teaching  is very important when I TA a class or when I'm explaining my project to my lab mates.”

Students from Wellesley’s Class of 2018 are enrolled in graduate programs at Harvard, Columbia, UPenn, MIT, NYU, and more.  

Reasons a women’s college might not be for you

The On-Campus Social Scene Might Not Be For Everyone

Women’s colleges are generally not big party schools. As mentioned earlier, Wellesley hosts some big parties with off-campus guests. Pub Nites every Thursday are a weekly themed dance party at Punch’s Alley, the college bar.  But if you cannot imagine your campus without a strong Greek life, sports culture, or a co-ed environment, a women’s college might not be for you.

A lot of women’s colleges, such as Smith, Wellesley, and Mount Holyoke are in more remote locations. Students have to travel for frat parties, and this isn’t always easy with harsh Northeastern winters or paying for transport while on a college student budget. If you’re the type to depend on off-campus events for socializing, your social plans might not always work out.

Less Specialized Equipment Facilities

If the women’s college of your choice is a small liberal arts school, a large drawback is the lack of funding for state of the art technology and equipment that larger universities are able to purchase. For example, if you are an engineering major, the lab may not have the same top of the line technology that a specialized engineering school would. A lot of liberal arts colleges cannot always invest in the most expensive equipment.

But, a lot of women’s colleges offer 3+2 programs for students who want to pursue a more specialized engineering degree. For example, Barnard students can earn a 3 year B.A. at Barnard and then continue their studies at the School for Engineering and Applied Sciences at Columbia. Wellesley offers students similar fourth and fifth year programs at MIT and Olin. Scripps offers students a 3+2 program at Harvey Mudd college. Mount Holyoke allows students to participate in 3+2 programs in UMass Amherst, Dartmouth College, and CalTech.

The School Might Not Be The Most Conservative

The extent to which women’s colleges are liberal depends on the school. However, if you come from a conservative background, women’s colleges might be less conservative than what you are used to. Mount Holyoke, Bryn Mawr and Smith College are all in the top 20 of Niche’s list of most liberal colleges in the country. In fact, since the 2016 US Presidential Elections, women’s colleges have seen an overall rise in the number of applications and officials believe it could be due to the the Me Too campaign and a resistance to Republican politics. There is a large LGBTQ presence, students tend to lean liberal in politics, and the environment is generally more socially progressive. There are conservative student organizations, but, if you prefer to be in an overall conservative campus, women’s colleges might not be for you.

Unraveling Stereotypes of Women’s Colleges

Absence Of Men Will Not Prepare You For The Real World - A lot of people believe that women’s colleges provide students with a false bubble that leaves them unqualified to work with men in the workplace. The data indicates that this couldn’t be farther from the truth, as women’s colleges have had a greater percentage of  female graduates who become successful entrepreneurs and in leadership positions than co-ed school graduates. 65% of women’s college graduates also noted that the reputation of their school helped them get into graduate school or find a job, as opposed to the 55% of co-ed graduates who reported the same.  Not only will you be prepared for the men in the workforce, but you will probably outshine them too!

There Are Never Any Men Around

As I mentioned, women’s colleges aren’t convents. There are male professors, male staff members, trans students who identify as male. Most women’s colleges are also part of consortiums which allow them to cross-register at co-ed colleges and vice-versa. So don’t be surprised if you see an MIT male student in your Wellesley class. He just probably wanted to take what he thought was an easy humanities class but will end up needing your help anyway.

You Will “Turn” Gay

This stereotype is the reason everyone should take at least one Gender Studies course in college. Sexuality isn’t something that’s contagious. The reason there is seemingly more of an LGBTQ presence in women’s colleges than other campuses is because students might find the environment more comfortable to be themselves and come out while in college. If you’re straight, no one will hate you for your sexuality. Or try to convert you. Just like every other college in the country, women’s colleges have gay people, and bisexual people, straight people, and all kinds of people.

You Will Not Get The “Traditional” College Experience

Sure, your friends have boys across their dorms and hallways. No two college experiences are the same. One co-ed school will not provide you the exact same experience as another. So why should attending a women’s college be any different? Just like any college, a women’s college education is rigorous, fun, and requires hard work and passion for your choice of major.

Tips To Achieve Successful Women’s College Applications

Research The School

Wanting to go to a women’s college is a great reason to apply to one, but make sure you don’t stop there. In your supplemental essays, make sure to pinpoint exactly why you’re interested in the particular school you’re applying to. By choosing a women’s college, you actively make the decision to take a different path than a lot of your high school classmates. Make sure to emphasize just how the environment, values, and education that come with a historically women’s college appeal to you or is ideal for your future aspirations.  

Imagine you are a student interested in economics applying to Smith College with career goals of working at the United Nations some day. Mention how studying under renowned economist and Smith professor, Andrew Zimbalist, can help you further your goals. Discuss how taking in the wide array of international economy courses such as The Economics of Migration or The Chinese Economy align with your goals. Be as specific as possible in your essay to show admission officers that you are certain in your decision about wishing to attend their institution.

Do Not Make Rookie Mistakes

One of the most common errors applicants make is refer to women’s colleges as “all-girls schools.” While it may not seem like a big deal, it would show that you have not researched the school because no women’s college refers to themselves with that term. Calling an institution providing women with elite higher education an “all-girls school” trivializes its achievement and infantilizes the experience, as if attending a women’s college is for little girls. If your application mentions “all-girls school” anywhere, make sure to change it immediately!

While you shouldn’t be dishonest if you’re unsure about applying to a single sex school, make sure your application reflects an appreciation for an institute that has valued higher education for women. Do not overemphasize the fact that you’re applying to a women’s college, but neither should you completely ignore the fact.

Excel In School And Let Your Extracurriculars Bring Out The Leader In You

This is true regardless of the college you’re applying to, but especially in this case since women’s colleges are known for producing so many notable world leaders. Even though the acceptance rates are higher than some other top schools, women’s colleges are among the most prestigious schools in the country. Below I’ve outlined the average GPA, and SAT and ACT score ranges at five of the most selective women’s colleges to give you an example of the kind of numbers to aim for in order to get into a top women’s college:

School Name Avg. GPA Avg. SAT Scores Avg. ACT Scores
Barnard 3.90 1394-1500 30-33
Bryn Mawr 3.91 1310-1500 28-33
Mount Holyoke 3.84 1273-1470 29-32
Smith 3.94 1290-1490 30-33
Wellesley 3.99 1330-1520 30-34

Do not let high acceptance rates on paper make you complacent and take your admission for granted. Showing your academic prowess is key to gaining admission at women’s colleges.

Show that you’ve had an impact and women’s colleges will take notice. If you’ve founded a club or have been editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, make sure to highlight it in detail in your application.

Women’s colleges want your application to reflect your passion and show what unique flair you can bring to their institution. There isn’t one specific area where women’s colleges look for students to succeed. If you examine this list of some famous women’s college alums, there are playwrights, activists, chefs, and even an astronaut. Admission officers want balanced classes with students who are passionate about social justice, art, politics, medicine, you name it.

One great way to ensure your personality shines in your application is through the supplemental essays. The Smith prompt for the 2018-19 cycle asked, “If you could star in any movie, what movie would you pick and why?” and encouraged applicants to have fun with their answer. This prompt is a wonderful way to share your values as well as your sense of humor. The Wellesley supplement asks students to pick one or two features of from the Wellesley 100, a list of 100 things that makes Wellesley special, that stand out to them and talk about why. In my essay, I had picked “24-hour-Shakespeare” and the “Pamela Daniels Fellowship” to emphasize my love for writing, and the possibility of being awarded a fellowship for my work someday. I chose to include a quote from Wellesley’s writing website, “At Wellesley, you can’t not write - all of the time” to further make a case why Wellesley and its writing courses made it my top choice school.

Through these essays, the applicant has a chance to show admission officers who they are and how they would fit in with the college. Bring a balance of serious and humor in these responses and you’ll be setting yourself up for success.

If you think a women’s college might be a good fit for you, put one or two on your list. Research the campus and classes, talk to your friends, arrange for alum interviews - all of which can help improve your application. Women’s colleges like to see young women who are ambitious and hope to stand out in their fields, whom they can provide with support and a unique education. Don’t be shy to embrace the fact that you’re applying to a women’s college. Who knows, a women’s college could help you become the next great world leader!

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