If you're looking at applying to elite liberal arts colleges, you've probably come across the Seven Sisters schools. But what schools are Seven Sisters colleges, and what makes them so special?
In this article, we explain what the Seven Sisters schools are, which of them still exist, and which of them are still all-women's colleges. I'll also use my expertise as an alum of a Seven Sisters school to break down what the benefits are of applying to a Seven Sisters school and five tips for getting admitted.
Feature image credit: Nicholas Knouf/Flickr
What Are the 7 Sisters Colleges?
When people refer to the Seven Sisters colleges, they're talking about this specific group of seven historically all-women's colleges in the Northeastern United States:
- Bryn Mawr
- Mount Holyoke
- Radcliffe (now part of Harvard)
The name of the group comes from Roman mythology, where the Seven Sisters were the seven daughters of the god Titan and the nymph Pleione.
All of the Seven Sisters colleges were founded in the 19th century between 1837 (Mount Holyoke) and 1889 (Barnard), with the goal of providing post-secondary education opportunities for women that were of similar caliber to what men were getting at colleges like Harvard and Yale.
The Seven Sisters schools not only sought to give women access to a high-quality education but also actively searched for female faculty and administrators so that the schools were also led by women. These values continue through to today, with at least one of the Seven Sisters (Wellesley) never having had a male president.
In the 1970s, when top formerly all-male schools like Harvard and Amherst were going co-ed, some women's colleges began to think about the same question. Radcliffe made the decision to merge with Harvard and no longer exists as an independent undergraduate college. While Vassar was offered a similar partnership with Yale, Vassar turned it down and decided to go co-ed on its own (a story which you'll definitely hear told on the campus tour).
The rest of the Seven Sisters schools remained more or less women's colleges, but each of the five remaining non-co-ed Seven Sisters colleges has exchange programs with nearby co-ed schools that allow students to take classes outside of their own college.
How much these intercollegiate academic programs affect life on campus vary widely from school to school. For instance, because of Barnard's close partnership with (and physical closeness to) Columbia University, there's a lot of crossover between the two schools. On the other hand, while Wellesley has an exchange program with MIT, Babson, and Olin, there aren't usually a lot of non-Wellesley students in classes, probably because of having to bus or drive between schools.
There's a good bus system that allows students to take classes at Smith (pictured here), Mount Holyoke, Hampshire, Amherst, and UMass Amherst. Rusty Clark ~ 100K Photos/Flickr.
List of the 7 Sisters Schools
We've created a table for you to compare the names, locations, admission rates, sizes, and co-ed policies of the original Seven Sisters colleges.
|Name||Location||Admissions Rate||Total Undergrad Enrollment||Co-Ed?*|
|Barnard||New York, NY||13.9%||2,562||No|
|Bryn Mawr||Bryn Mawr, PA||34.1%||1,360||No|
|Mount Holyoke||South Hadley, MA||50.9%||2,208||No|
*Note: For the most part, the policy of the Seven Sisters schools is that anyone who identifies as female or who was assigned female at birth and doesn't identify as male may apply. If you're concerned you may not qualify, you should check with the individual school as to the specifics of their policy.
RIP, Radcliffe College. Boston Public Library/Flickr.
Why Apply to a 7 Sisters College?
As someone who applied to and ended up choosing between Vassar and Wellesley for college, I have thought about this question a lot. Five reasons really stand out to me for applying to and attending a Seven Sisters college.
#1: Get a Good Liberal Arts Education
By going to a Seven Sisters college, you'll get a lot of the benefits you'd get from a good small liberal arts school, including...
- small class sizes
- good student-faculty ratios
- a strong focus on academics
You'll also be encouraged to take classes outside your own school to broaden your academic horizons.
Every one of the Seven Sisters schools has partnerships with nearby schools that allow you to take classes there. Whether you just want to take some co-ed classes or you're interested in a different learning environment, the net result is that you'll get a more diverse academic experience.
Barnard's affiliation with and nearness to Columbia University means that Barnard students can easily cross-register to take classes there. Boston Public Library/Flickr.
#2: Have a Higher Chance of Admission
The Seven Sisters colleges are much less selective than comparable co-ed schools. This is illustrated in the table below, which lists five of the top liberal arts colleges in the country and their admissions rates.
|School Name||Admission Rate|
Despite being one of the top colleges in the country, Wellesley has 1.5 times to nearly double the admissions rate of comparable colleges. This is true across most of the remaining Seven Sisters colleges.
Why are the admission rates higher for Seven Sisters schools? Well, since all of the remaining Seven Sisters colleges (except Vassar) do not accept male applicants, the pool of potential students is basically cut in half. Instead of competing against 8,000 students for 1000 spots, you might only be competing against 4,000 other students, which means you'll have a better chance of getting in.
The comparatively decreased selectivity of the Seven Sisters schools has nothing to do with the quality of the schools — Wellesley and Smith in particular are known for their academic rigor. But by simple math, you have better chances of getting into a Seven Sisters school than you do an equally academically-rigorous co-ed school.
#3: Gain a Life-Long Network
The counterpart to the "good ol' boys" network of the Ivy League schools is the network created and fostered by graduates of the Seven Sisters colleges.
If you go to a Seven Sisters school, you will gain access to a strong and supportive alumnae network that stretches beyond whatever individual school you attended to include all those who attended Seven Sisters schools.
The benefits of this network range from having an advantage when job-searching because you have that inside connection, to getting tips on housing and settling in a new location after college or grad school, to connecting socially in a place where you might not know anyone.
Become part of the interconnected network of Seven Sisters alums (ivy garland not included). Above: 1917 Smith College Graduation. Richard/Flickr.
#4: Learn in an All-Women's Environment
That most of the Seven Sisters colleges are all-women's schools is often a deciding factor for students considering whether or not to apply. For some, the idea of going to an all-women's college is unthinkable and may even seem archaic in the 21st century.
However, one of the most valuable features of all the Seven Sisters schools (including Vassar), particularly in this day and age, is that they all promote the importance of women taking leadership roles and succeeding in the world.
I personally didn't place a huge amount of importance on this factor when I was applying to colleges—in fact, Wellesley was the only all-women's college I applied to. But as a Wellesley student (and now alum), I found that being almost entirely surrounded by smart, driven, and confident women meant I felt compelled to rise to meet those standards myself.
#5: Be in an LGBTQ+ Friendly Environment
All of the Seven Sisters lean socially liberal to some extent, which includes having robust LGBTQ+ cultures on campus.
The degree to which this is the case varies from school to school, and this is not to say that there aren't socially conservative students at Seven Sisters colleges, because there are. However, the overall environment at the Seven Sisters schools is generally social progressive and LGBTQ+friendly.
If this is something you don't care about much one way or the other, you'll still be able to have a great experience at any of the Seven Sisters schools. And if being at a school where being LGBTQ+ is not just safe, but celebrated and part everyday normal life, then you should definitely consider applying to a Seven Sisters college.
On the other hand, if you do not want to attend a school where LGBTQ+ students and culture are a significant part of campus life, a Seven Sisters school is probably not going to be a great fit for you.
5 Tips to Get Into the 7 Sisters Colleges
Now that you've learned more about the Seven Sisters schools, you're probably champing at the bit to find out how to get accepted. I've gathered up five top tips for getting into a Seven Sisters school below, based on my experience as a prospective (and then admitted) student.
Tip 1: Excel in School
Just because the Seven Sisters colleges are relatively less selective doesn't mean that you can slack off academically. You'll still need a top GPA and test scores and strong letters of recommendation to have a good chance of getting in.
Letters of recommendation are particularly important for Seven Sisters schools because of the value that those schools place on how you can contribute to their community.
Because the alumnae networks are so central to the Seven Sisters colleges, the expectation is that if you are accepted and attend one of the schools, you'll be part of the community for a long time. Admissions officers at Seven Sisters schools want to be sure you're someone who exemplifies the quality of a Seven Sisters student, which means they don't just care about your grades; they also care about how you interact with teachers and other students.
The bottom line is that to get into a Seven Sisters school, along with good grades, test scores, and GPA, you want your recommender to be able to describe your leadership, your personality, or your ability to work well both individually and as part of a group. You do not want them to write something impersonal like "Laura was a good student who succeeded academically in my class."
Tip 2: Interview With an Alum
Depending on where you're located, it might be tricky to set up an alumnae interview, and so it's not a required part of the application process. If at all possible, though, you should make sure to interview with a representative of the college, ideally with someone who attended the college themselves.
Not only will interviewing with an alum give you a better idea of what the environment is like at that particular school, but it will also provide another data point for the admissions office about what you're like beyond a set of numbers.
As I stated in the previous tip, the Seven Sisters colleges place a lot of value on choosing students who will flourish in their particular environments. Because of the strength of the alumnae network and the connection many alums feel to their alma maters, alumnae interviewers are as invested as you are in making sure not just that you're the right choice for the school, but that their school is the right fit for you.
I honestly believe that my interview with an alum is what clinched my acceptance at Wellesley. Yes, I had a strong transcript and good SAT scores, but without the alumnae interview I did (that ended with the interviewer saying "You're the most Wellesley applicant I've seen in a while"), I don't know how things would have turned out. And just as importantly, that interview made me realize "Oh. Yeah. This school seems like a really good fit for me."
Bryn Mawr. Mark Goebel/Flickr.
Tip 3: Research the School
All the Seven Sisters schools have a "Why [school name]?" component to their application.
The question of why you want to attend the school isn't there just to boost the schools' egos; it's there because the admissions officers genuinely care about your reasons for applying and wanting to be part of those schools' communities.
Because of this requirement, you need to thoroughly research whichever of the Seven Sisters colleges that you apply to. Don't just write an essay for Barnard and expect it to work for every Seven Sisters school. Instead, look into what makes each school unique and highlight the aspects that you value in your "Why [school name]?" essays.
As with setting up an alumnae interview, the benefits of researching the school are not just that you'll increase your chances of getting in because you'll demonstrate your interest to the college, but that you'll also learn more about whether or not the specific school is the right fit for you.
For instance, if you research Vassar, you'll learn that the campus is a designated arboretum and also gorgeous. Adam Jones/Flickr.
Tip 4: Embrace That You're Applying to a 7 Sisters School
It might feel like you're being too enthusiastic or overselling it if you emphasize the fact that you're applying to one of the Seven Sisters and that that's important to you. While you don't want to overemphasize it ("I truly believe that Smith, one of the Seven Sisters, is a great fit for me. From the first time I visited the women's college Smith, I knew I wanted to attend it"), you should not shy away from directly stating that attending a historically women's college is something that appeals to you.
It's not some big secret that the Seven Sisters colleges were traditionally women's colleges that promoted women's education and women's success in the world; the schools are well aware of their own history and what they stand for. Even for Vassar, stating that you value the history of the school and the long tradition of valuing women's education will only help you (assuming you don't come off as insincere).
You can be honest about doubts you have about applying to a non-co-ed school, but you still need to show that you appreciate the value of attending a college with a tradition of high-quality education for women. For instance, I'm pretty sure that in my "Why Wellesley?" essay, I wrote that I hadn't considered applying to a women's college until I visited Wellesley, but that after I visited campus and learned more about it I knew I wanted to apply (which was all true).
If you can't come up with a way that you value that the school you're applying to is a Seven Sisters school, then you shouldn't be applying to a Seven Sisters school.
Mount Holyoke. Barry Stock/Flickr
Tip 5: Don't Call It an All-Girls School
When you write your personal statements or your "Why [school name]?" essays for one of the all-women's Seven Sisters, do not call the school an "all-girls school;" call it a women's college.
This might seem like a relatively minor point compared to the other things I've mentioned, but it's actually a really useful tip to keep in mind if you're applying to any of the all-women's Seven Sisters schools.
The term "all-girls school" is not one that the schools ever use to refer to themselves, so using that term demonstrates that you have done pretty much no research into the school. It also implies (even if you don't mean it to) a certain disdain for the school, as if attending a non-co-ed school is for children.
So make sure to check all of your application materials and change any instances of "all-girls school" to "women's college." It's a simple change that will create a positive, or at least neutral impression if you do it, but will leave an extremely negative impression if you don't.
Boston Public Library/Flickr.
What do I mean when I say that the Seven Sisters schools are top liberal arts colleges? Find out what a liberal arts college is with this article.
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Laura graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a BA in Music and Psychology, and earned a Master's degree in Composition from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and GRE and loves advising students on how to excel in high school.