“So, where are you thinking of applying for college?”
The dreaded question every high school senior is asked around this time of year. As deadlines for early and regular decision applications loom in the not-so-distant future, most students are looking at co-ed colleges and universities, especially if they are thinking about going into a STEM field. But women interested in pursuing a STEM major should also consider women’s colleges* as an incredible alternative to the typical college experience. Women’s colleges are undergraduate institutions where the population of students is exclusively or almost exclusively women. Though opportunities for women in higher education are always growing, women’s colleges allow women to be the primary focus, which is extremely beneficial.
1. The science is just as good as co-ed schools. One common misconception about attending a women’s college is that they mostly cater to students interested in the arts and humanities. However, going to a women’s college does not mean that you have to sacrifice working in a scientific research lab during undergrad. Grant-funded scientific research is thriving at women’s colleges. Students are encouraged to ask questions, learn new methods, and even publish papers and attend conferences. Students are 1.5 times more likely to graduate with a degree in a STEM field if they go to a women’s college compared to women who attend co-ed institutions, and they are also almost twice as likely to go to graduate school. Some women’s colleges are building curriculums around research and allowing students to develop their own questions within the scope of a course in order to gain research experience.
2. Women’s colleges tend to be small.
With some of the country’s largest universities topping out at over 60,000 people, it can be challenging to stand out from your peers. Women’s colleges are much smaller, generally ranging from 1,000 to 3,000 students (though if you want to go really small, Sweet Briar College in Virginia reported 351 students enrolled as of September 2020). This means fewer students in classes, even in introductory-level courses. When moving into junior and senior-level courses, it is not uncommon to have fewer than ten students. My largest class at Agnes Scott College was an introductory biology class with 40 students in it, and my smallest class was my senior seminar with five. These small class sizes allowed me to build strong relationships with faculty members who were then able to write strong letters of recommendation for my graduate school applications.
3. You’ll find and grow your confidence.Women’s colleges pride themselves on being supportive environments. Part of that comes organically from the absence of male students on campus, as students may feel more comfortable on a mostly single-sex campus. But part of that is also fostered by the staff, faculty, and students. Alumni describe that encouragement from faculty to engage, even if they fail, had an immeasurable impact on their confidence and abilities. In the words of a Bryn Mawr College graduate and faculty member at Cedar Crest College: “Being taken seriously for four years will do amazing things for a woman’s confidence.” Additionally, students and alumni report that a distinct lack of sexism, particularly in traditionally male-dominated majors, gave students space to learn freely and grow their self-worth. This confidence building goes beyond the classroom and the lab, though. Women hold all of the leadership positions in school clubs and organizations, so you are always surrounded by women who are doing great things.
4. You’ll become a well-rounded student.While many women’s colleges started out as seminaries, they have adopted a wide variety of majors across the arts, humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences. This breadth of knowledge works to your advantage as a budding scientist. Not only does taking courses outside of your comfort zone challenge you, but it also teaches you “soft skills” which are helpful in any career. These can include public speaking, writing, creativity, and interpersonal skills. Alumni of women’s colleges recount that having experiences in different fields of study provided them with more opportunities professionally. One Sweet Briar College graduate noted, “In graduate school interviews, I could talk about my research and science, but also about music and traveling. [The interviewers] liked that I had a diverse background.”
5. You may even be more prepared for graduate or professional school than your co-ed peers.When I asked about the experiences of women’s college graduates who went on to graduate or professional programs, almost all of them said that their undergraduate education at a women’s college more than prepared them for graduate school. In fact, several of them said that their undergrad was more rigorous than their graduate program. Faculty at women’s colleges hold their students to incredibly high standards and push them regularly to be the best students and scientists that they can be. Students are asked to think critically while engaging in the course material, which is often what is asked of students during graduate and professional school.
I graduated from Agnes Scott College with a B.S in Neuroscience in 2018, and I loved my experience. Though the choice to attend a women’s college seemed unconventional when I first applied, I now, as a graduate student, attribute my successes in science to my experience at a women’s college. The faculty supported me in my research and academics throughout my time at school, and they pushed me to apply for a PhD program directly out of undergrad. I believe attending a women’s college was one of the best decisions I ever made as a nascent scientist, and I would encourage other women to explore these institutions when applying to colleges this fall.
*An important note: as the culture and language around gender identity shifts, many traditional women’s colleges are adopting policies to be more accepting of current and prospective trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming students. Generally speaking, women’s colleges foster a culture of openness and acceptance with regard to sexual and gender identity. For more information regarding the shift in the definition of women in women’s colleges, see https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/9/21/16315072/spelman-college-transgender-students-womens-colleges