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The Best Small Colleges in the United States

Posted by Samantha Lindsay | Aug 23, 2015 6:30:00 PM

College Admissions



If you’re interested in attending a small college, you may be wondering which schools offer the most rigorous academic experience combined with the best quality of life.

In this article, I’ll give you a list of the best small colleges in the nation based on student reviews and academic ratings.


What Is a Small College?

For the purposes of this article, I’ll define “small” colleges as colleges with undergraduate student enrollments below 5,000. These colleges are characterized by small class sizes, close student communities, and professors who engage directly with students. Attending a small college is sort of like being a part of a big family that's brought together through shared experiences and pride in the school. You can expect to see familiar faces everywhere you go and will most likely have many opportunities to take on leadership positions and get involved in campus culture.


What Do I Mean By the “Best” Small Colleges?

To make a decision about which small colleges are the best in the nation, I used the information available in the 2015 Fiske Guide to Colleges as well as college rankings from Forbes and US News. I paid particular attention to overall ratings for academics, social scene, and quality of life. In the Fiske Guide to Colleges, all of these schools were rated at least 4.5/5 for academics. 

I considered the academic ratings the most strongly, but I also took the other ratings into account to choose the colleges with the best overall student experiences. I tried to pick colleges that were among the best in the country for academics but also had thriving social scenes and happy, engaged students. 

All of these schools have excellent programs for undergraduate teaching with small classes and hands-on professors who are dedicated to the success of their students. They also have highly intellectual students who are passionate about learning and making positive changes in the campus community and the world at large. These are schools you should attend if you want to be motivated and challenged by your professors and fellow students in a close-knit, constantly evolving community.


Lists of the Best Small Colleges in the US

First, I'll go through a list of the top ten best small colleges overall. Then I'll give you lists of the best small women's colleges and engineering colleges. I’ll provide statistics below each of the schools to get you started in finding out more about them. If you want to do further research on these schools, check out my article on the best websites for conducting your college search. I’d recommend using a college matching-making site called Cappex to start compiling a list of colleges and comparing data between different schools.


The Top Ten Best Small Colleges 

1. Williams College - Williamstown, MA

Undergraduate Enrollment: 2,011
Acceptance Rate: 17%
Location: Small Town

Students say:

  • Most people are “athletic, well-rounded, driven, friendly, and liberal.”
  • “Professors insist on having a personal connection with the students and always help if needed. The quality of teaching is excellent.”
  • “Williams students are amazing. I know people who can read Harry Potter in Latin, translate rap songs into Arabic, and sight-read ‘Rocket Man’ perfectly on the piano.”




2. Pomona College - Claremont, CA

Undergraduate Enrollment: 1,579
Acceptance Rate: 13%
Location: Suburban

Students say:

  • “Pomona professors are bright, enthusiastic, and highly respected leaders in their fields.”
  • “Pomona offers a unique and desirable juxtaposition of rigorous academics and comfortable social atmosphere.”
  • “I appreciate the diversity and depth that the five-college community brings to the social life.”

Note: Pomona is one of the Claremont Colleges, a system of five colleges in Claremont, CA that also includes two other schools on these lists: Claremont-McKenna College and Harvey Mudd College.




3. Amherst College - Amherst, MA

Undergraduate Enrollment: 1,817
Acceptance Rate: 13%
Location: Small Town

Students say:

  • “Amherst students are always doing extraordinary things: academically, athletically, artistically, and for the benefit of the world.”
  • “If your education is really your first priority, then I don’t think there’s a better school.”
  • Amherst is made up of “some of the kindest and most laid-back people I can imagine.”




4. Swarthmore College - Swarthmore, PA

Undergraduate Enrollment: 1,532
Admissions Rate: 14%
Location: City Outskirts

Students say:

  • “Swat is a truly intellectual place where people love idea with all of their hearts, but that doesn’t prevent them from having an eye for activism and a knack for partying hard.”
  • “You will often see students reminding each other of assignments, giving each other tips on how to succeed, and studying in the library together.”
  • “Each of us in our own way has found a place where our passionate, geekiest interests are validated, appreciated, and celebrated by our fellow Swatties.”




5. Wellesley College - Wellesley, MA

Undergraduate Enrollment: 2,352
Acceptance Rate: 30%
Location: Suburban

Students say:

  • “Students here are conscientious workers with a history of high achievement. They expect a lot of themselves.”
  • “It’s a wonderful place to grow as individuals, as students, and as women.”
  • “It’s hard to say which department is the best because I believe that each department has a lot to offer.”




6. Bowdoin College - Brunswick, ME

Undergraduate Enrollment: 1,830
Acceptance Rate: 16%
Location: Suburban

Students Say:

  • “If you’re passionate about anything, Bowdoin provides you with the resources to explore those passions.”
  • “Being able to make friends with my professors is something I’ll treasure forever.”




7. Claremont-McKenna College - Claremont, CA

Undergraduate Enrollment: 1,250
Acceptance Rate: 14%
Location: Suburban

Students say:

  • “CMC provides students with a pragmatic liberal arts education that will prepare them for grad school and a career; it’s a great place to spend four years.”
  • “There are very difficult courses that will push you to the brink of your comfort zone in every major.”
  • “CMC’s campus is often the center of the social life for all of the Claremont Colleges - there are always parties, club events, barbecues, movie screenings, and other events.”




8. Haverford College - Haverford, PA

Undergraduate Enrollment: 1,205
Acceptance Rate: 23%
Location: Suburban

Students say:

  • “Nearly all students who come here share common values of trust, concern, and respect for others as well as academic integrity.”
  • “Haverford offers an opportunity to work hard, be trusted, and learn about issues, while still feeling comfortable.”
  • “The professors are only here for us. They really enjoy teaching as well as involving us in research.”




9. Carleton College - Northfield, MN

Undergraduate Enrollment: 2,035
Acceptance Rate: 26%
Location: Small Town

Students say:

  • “Our profs are incredible. The instruction we receive is available not just in the classroom but during office hours, phone calls, Skype sessions, and many other modes of communication.”
  • “Students are ambitions, aware, and ready to ‘save the world’”
  • “At Carleton, everyone is a bit nerdy and everyone is free to be whomever they want.”




10. Middlebury College - Middlebury, VT

Undergraduate Enrollment: 2,516
Acceptance Rate: 17%
Location: Rural

Students say:

  • “We’re a small liberal arts college [that is] big on individuality and character.”
  • “The quality of teaching is excellent, and I would say it is the absolute best part of Middlebury. All classes are taught by professors, most are relatively small, and discussions are generally encouraged.”




Best Small Women’s Colleges

1. Wellesley College - Wellesley, MA (see #5 in top ten small colleges overall)

2. Smith College - Northampton, MA

Undergraduate Enrollment: 2, 643
Acceptance Rate: 42%
Location: Suburban

Students say:

  • “Smith has an open curriculum, a great college town, and a very strong science program.”
  • “My professors have all been accessible and supportive as well as open-minded and articulate.”
  • It’s a “community of close, intelligent, interesting, and compassionate women.”




3. Barnard College - New York, NY

Undergraduate Enrollment: 2,466
Acceptance Rate: 23%
Location: City Center

Students say:

  • “Barnard is a rigorous yet nurturing environment”
  • “The quality of teaching here is unparalleled; one of my professors arguably founded the field I’m studying.”
  • “Although the students here are really intelligent, they are also really down to earth, and are supported by each other and the academic community.”




4. Bryn Mawr College - Bryn Mawr, PA

Undergraduate Enrollment: 1,305
Acceptance Rate: 41%
Location: City Outskirts

Students Say:

  • “Bryn Mawr is a place where you will figure out who you are and what you want to do with your life.”
  • “Professors really want to get to know you and to expand your horizons.”
  • “When you are surrounded by strong, talented, driven women who respect you, it inspires you to be like them.”




Best Small Colleges for Engineering

1. California Institute of Technology - Pasadena, CA

Undergraduate Enrollment: 997
Acceptance Rate: 12%
Location: Suburban

Students say:

  • “The atmosphere promotes a love of science, learning, and discovery that is truly exhilarating.”
  • “The unique student body, how available professors are, and how much we learn make Caltech a special place.”
  • However, social life is a little grim (don’t go here if you’re looking to party): “Ask any local bartender for a Caltech Cocktail and you will get three ounces of straight water.”




2. Harvey Mudd - Claremont, CA

Undergraduate Enrollment: 782
Acceptance Rate: 19%
Location: Suburban

Students say:

  • “The professors truly care about the students’ well-being. They put in countless hours to help us get the most out of our experience.”
  • “Every student at Mudd brings something different to the table.”
  • “HMC is one of the most rigorous science schools around, but the thing that makes it special is that it develops you as an entire person.”




3. Rice University - Houston, TX

Undergraduate Enrollment: 3,848
Acceptance Rate: 17%
Location: City Outskirts

Students say:

  • “Students here are very self-motivated. Classes are hard.”
  • “Rice puts a lot of trust and responsibility on students. It’s a very maturing experience.”
  • “We have been challenged to think creatively and apply principles.”




4. Olin College of Engineering - Needham, MA

Undergraduate Enrollment: 342
Acceptance Rate: 19%
Location: Suburban

Students say:

  • “Olin professors are amazing. They take the time to get to know their students individually and never fail to provide academic or personal advice.”
  • “Students who are passionate about things and excited about engineering would do well here.”
  • Olin aims to produce students who can “come up with innovative ideas and products.”




What's Next?

Even if you've settled on attending a small college, you may still be unsure where you want to be in terms of location. Read this article for advice on deciding whether a college close to home is the right choice for you.

If you're interested in very selective colleges, you should take a look at this guide on how to get into the Ivy League and other super competitive schools.

Not sure where to begin in the college search process? Read my guide on how to choose the best college for you.


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Samantha Lindsay
About the Author

Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.

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