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In this article, CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Expert Chloe provides an overview on women’s colleges. For more guidance on the college applications process in general, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.
In this day and age, the idea of a single-sex institution may seem antiquated. However, women’s colleges have an important place in the history of higher education in the United States. In fact, many of the country’s most prestigious institutions are women’s colleges.
With application numbers on the rise every year, women’s colleges are more popular than ever. Though every applicant has different needs, women’s colleges boast many potential advantages for high-achieving students from all backgrounds.
The History of Women’s Colleges
After years of controversy, first women’s colleges began operating in the mid-nineteenth century. Because higher education was limited to men, many believed that educating women would disturb traditional gender roles. Others, however, argued that in order to effectively contribute to society as mothers and teachers, women needed an education. Wesleyan College, Mount Holyoke College, and Hollins University were the first women’s colleges to be established.
These days, women’s colleges are as respected and rigorous as any co-ed institution. Some have also updated their policies to allow transgender and non-binary students to attend. In many cases, any student who identifies as female (and denotes this on their application) may apply.
Women’s colleges prepare their students to pursue any path that they desire. They are known for empowering their graduates and priming them to succeed in a male-dominated workforce.
Most women’s colleges are smaller liberal arts schools. The intimate environment of these institutions tends to foster a tight-knit community bound by common goals, traditions, and values. Students often describe the atmosphere of these schools as friendly and supportive. Women’s colleges also tend to boast some of the strongest alumni networks.
Although women’s colleges share some general characteristics, every school is unique. Components such as selectivity, location, campus culture, and specific academic programs differentiate each college. For instance, Barnard College is located in busy New York City, while Mount Holyoke College lies in rural Massachusetts. Scripps College stands out for its programs in the humanities, while Spelman College provides strong STEM offerings. No matter what kind of college experience you’re looking for, there may be a women’s college out there that suits you.
While some may view women’s colleges as an academic monolith, this is not the case. Women’s colleges provide a wide variety of academic offerings for undergraduate students.
Gender Studies is a popular focus at many women’s colleges. Many of these schools have expressed their commitment to social justice and equality. Students who are passionate about these subjects may be drawn to the environment of a women’s college.
These colleges are not only strong in the humanities. Women’s colleges house some of the strongest programs in natural sciences and engineering among liberal arts institutions. They offer their students copious opportunities to perform undergraduate research. This can be particularly beneficial to women in STEM who might face discrimination or unequal opportunities in other institutions.
Another unique facet of the women’s college experience is the opportunity for cross-registration. Students at Barnard College, for example, have access to most classes offered at Columbia University, and Wellesley College students can choose from classes at MIT, Olin College of Engineering, and Babson College.
Overall, women’s colleges offer a rigorous education with ample opportunity for research, internships, and other forms of academic engagement. Research suggests that their graduates are significantly more likely to attend graduate school than graduates of co-ed liberal arts institutions (regardless of gender). They are also more likely to feel satisfied with the overall quality of their undergraduate education.
Women’s Colleges in the United States
Barnard College, Smith College, and Wellesley College consistently rank highest among women’s colleges. As one of the most selective women’s colleges, Barnard has an acceptance rate of about 12%. Barnard’s status as a college under the umbrella of Columbia University gives its students access to many resources. On campus, students may hone their skills at the Athena Center for Leadership or study at the Barnard Center for Research on Women.
Located in Northhampton, MA, Smith College is known for its overall academic excellence. In particular, Smith offers a nationally-recognized engineering program. Even in a liberal arts setting, Smith’s engineering students can access many exciting opportunities. For instance, in their senior year, engineers can participate in a “Design Clinic,” a course where they collaborate on projects for real clients. Smith also has an open curriculum, so no matter your major of choice, you can explore multiple passions during your undergraduate years.
Wellesley boasts one of the most powerful alumni networks in America, including figures like Hillary Clinton and Nora Ephron. One of the most unique fixtures at Wellesley is the Albright Institute for Global Affairs. At the Albright Institute, juniors and seniors study various global issues, presenting their work to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright ‘59. The college has also demonstrated its commitment to innovation: a significant portion of Wellesley’s majors are interdepartmental, and students can even design their own major.
Applying to a Women’s College
The process of applying to women’s colleges is similar to that of a typical co-ed school. Most women’s colleges accept the Common or Coalition Applications, and some require their applicants to submit additional supplemental essays.
A common question that arises during the application process is, “Why do you want to attend a women’s college?” Applicants should reflect on their reasons ahead of time. Perhaps your mother attended a women’s college, and you’ve always admired the wisdom and confidence that she attributes to her educational path. Or maybe you’re passionate about closing the wage gap, and you hope to surround yourself with a community that will devotedly support you in your quest. Admissions Officers want to see that you will be truly happy on an all-female campus and that you’ll ultimately be a caring, committed member of their respective college community.
A Quality Education
If you choose to attend a women’s college, you will receive a high-quality education. Although several unique characteristics set these schools apart, their prestige is comparable to that of any co-ed college or university. Women’s colleges produce strong, capable graduates who will face any challenges they may encounter in their path.
This article on women’s colleges was written by Chloe Webster, Princeton University ‘25. If you want to get help with your college applications from Chloe or other CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Experts, register with CollegeAdvisor.com today.