As a student interviewer for the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, I have heard several different questions from curious prospective students. A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail with the following question: How/Why is the academic rigor at W&M so difficult? I thought to myself, WOW, what a great question!! So, the following is my response to this student’s question:
In my honest opinion, the emphasis on academics is all relative. People say that we are a difficult school, but if you talk to most W&M students, they will say that it’s a welcomed challenge. The idea of an institution of higher education was established as an outlet for further education in a highly intellectual manner. Here at the College, students are asked to read, write, debate, research, question, and discuss issues. Yes, it might be “hard,” but I think you will find that most students wouldn’t want it any other way.
How have we taken on the reputation that we are a rigorous school? In my opinion, I think a big part of it is because 99% of our classes are taught by professors. All of the professors I have had at the College set the bar high, but at the same time they make it so that their demands foster growth, not hinder it. For example, I remember that during my freshman year, I took a freshman seminar that had me reading eight government based books, two of which were very statistically heavy. I had to write several response papers, participate in class discussion twice a week (which meant that I HAD to keep up with the reading), write a final research paper, and also, because it was a Sharpe seminar, participate in volunteer work approximately three to five hours a week. I will not lie: It was HARD!! However, in just one semester, my writing and reading skills improved ten-fold! I began to consider issues from other perspectives than just my own, and I never felt more accomplished than I did after I turned in my several page essay-final exam.
The other main factor I think is important to mention, and one in which I kind of touched on in my anecdote, is the small class size. Because classes are small, there is really no place to hide when you haven’t completed your work. In high school, there were definitely times when I didn’t do the reading or the assignment the night before. In most of those situations, I was either able to hide behind another student and not get called on, or I would just stumble/ramble my way to an acceptable answer. However, in a classroom for about 20 people, all of whom most likely did the reading, and with an expert in the topic standing at the front of the room, calling you out by name, one has to be on top of their game. This might seem intimidating, but I think it’s this type of setting that helps to encourage one to actually get their work done, and therefore be a better, more knowledgeable student in the end.
The “why” is something I ask myself every day. But then again, “why” is just an open-ended term that I think one can never find a satisfactory answer. I think what is more important is if YOU feel that this could be the place for you. It is just a fact that W&M is a tough school. What you, and all prospective students for that matter, need to try and discover over the next year is if you feel that the College would be the perfect fit for you. If you are looking for a small to medium sized school where you will be challenged both academically, emotionally, and physically (YAY for walking everywhere), I think that W&M could potentially be your second home: the place where you will make mistakes, learn new things, and create memories with people who will be with you for the rest of your life.