Oberlin Blogs

What do Oberlin, University of Michigan, and Williams College all have in common?

October 30, 2012

Paris Achenbach ’13

I started thinking about college - and which one I'd go to - starting in approximately the seventh grade, and pretty much didn't stop until freshman orientation. I agonized, fretted, over-analyzed and positively obsessed over colleges. Where can I get in? Which one will serve me best in the long run? Where will I make the most friends??! I was an idiot, had no idea what I was doing, and ended up applying to eleven schools, taking the SAT twice, the ACT twice, three SAT subject tests and writing at least fifteen essays, and all the while, trying to keep my friends from thinking I had become a totally insane person.

Words of Wisdom #1: DON'T COPY ME.

Of course, most of you readers probably did the same exact thing, or are in the process of doing so. The road to a college decision is universal, breaking down into approximately 10 simple steps:

  1. Receive approximately 10,000 trees worth of college brochures in the mail
  2. Begin freaking out
  3. Travel across the entire Atlantic seaboard in the quest to find "The One," only to decide every school isn't good enough somehow (too expensive, too preppy, too hipster, too grassy, too perfect, etc.)
  4. Continue freaking out
  5. Write 20 different essays for 15 different schools, all of which describe yourself as some variation of "fun-loving" and "well-balanced" (LIES ON LIES, your sole purpose in life is to study SAT vocabulary cards and admission website statistics; meanwhile you pretend to be "fun-loving" to make yourself a more desirable and interesting person, but really, WHO NEEDS FUN)
  6. Spend over $800 on College Board test fees and college application costs, just to see if you can get into a school that costs fifty grand a year
  7. Check the mail with utmost anxiety for three months
  8. Continue freaking out
  9. Find out you actually got into your safety schools and targets (yay!) but got rejected from your reaches (womp), and lament your poor luck; meanwhile the 'rents feign surprise and your college counselor tells you it was the "hardest year yet"
  10. Become entirely apathetic and choose the last school that you visit on April 22nd, because darn it, it must be good enough.

No? That didn't happen to you? Well shoot, you must be crazy.

One of my personal favorite parts of this process (other than fretting, of course, which is always the best pastime) was making college pros-and-cons lists. Unfortunately they often ended up leaning heavily toward the Con side, and included notes like "annoying tour guide" or "bad cookies in the dining hall." In the end, these lists didn't end up helping much at all (refer back to Step #10).

Anyways, if I thought these college-comparison days were over after April 2009, oh boy, was I wrong! This fall break, I had the opportunity to YET AGAIN observe collegiate pros and cons after spending 10 days at two polar opposite schools: University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and Williams College. The first, one of the best state schools in the country; the latter, one of the best liberal arts colleges. Both could not be more different than Oberlin, in some ways.

Colonial style brick building with long rows of windows.
One of the oldest buildings at Williams College.


Colorful ivy covers a Gothic-style stone building.
One of the oldest buildings at University of Michigan.

Okay, so both campuses have ridiculously beautiful ivy-covered buildings - what else?? Fortunately, I have stepped up my game (somewhat) since the twelfth grade and have replaced the simplistic pros-and-cons list for the new-and-improved VENN DIAGRAM. Get excited, you anxious prospective students, for the graph that will change your life:

description follows

By the way - if this Venn Diagram actually changes your life, then by all means, please write me a recommendation for grad school.

[start of image transcription]
A Venn diagram shows 3 intersecting circles representing Oberlin, Williams, and Michigan. There are regions with no overlap, regions where 2 circles overlap, and a region at the center where all 3 overlap. Each of these regions includes a short list.

The Oberlin-only region lists:

  • free store
  • art rental
  • cheap living costs
  • conservatory of music & popular music major
  • student-run science magazine; The Grape centerfold
  • experimental college ("ex-cos")
  • flat, glaciated terrain

The Williams-only region lists:

  • famous art museums
  • mountains
  • highly selective admissions
  • emphasis on outdoor recreation
  • wood-fired pizza oven open until 1 a.m.
  • purple cows

The Michigan-only region lists:

  • wolverines
  • biggest college football stadium in the country
  • fraternities and sororities
  • flexibility for housing
  • lots of food & shopping options

At the intersection of Williams and Michigan:

  • emphasis on athletics
  • polo shirts
  • Indian food
  • ivy-covered buildings
  • school spirit
  • hills

At the intersection of Williams and Oberlin:

  • small classes
  • lots of school funding for entrepreneurial projects
  • tight-knit campus
  • majority of students live on campus

At the intersection of Oberlin and Michigan:

  • merit-based scholarships
  • mid-western feel
  • co-ops
  • hipsters
  • circus club

At the intersection of Oberlin, William, and Michigan in the center of the diagram:

  • cold weather
  • smart students
  • historic campus
  • endless resources
  • Profs who will drink beer with you
  • science libraries
  • farmers markets, lots of local foods

[end of image transcription]

Even though I'm still a clueless nitwit when it comes to giving college advice (or any advice, for that matter), I would really like to emphasize one point:

You can get a fantastic education at all of these schools.

Although Williams is a very prestigious and highly reputable college, University of Michigan is also a really good school; the main difference is that at Williams, you are guaranteed to get a good education. You are surrounded by people who are incredibly smart and ambitious and serious about academics, and your classes are tiny - no skipping class, can't get away with it.

WHEREAS, at Michigan, you can choose to surround yourself with people who are ambitious and serious about academics, or not. You can choose to go to class - or not. There's a lot more leniency with your education, and if you make the most of it, you can make a lot; but it takes a little more self-propulsion.

Cast-iron benches overlook a scenic river in the woods.
The Green River runs through Wililamstown, providing a tranquil place to reflect and/or go swimming (when it's warm enough).


Two guys pause while climbing a wooded hillside.
My friends Gabe and Ben while on a hike up Mount Greylock, about fifteen minutes away from Williams and the highest natural point in Massachusetts at 3,491 feet.

I will say, Michigan is a fun place to be, with lively people, and a lot of distractions. Williams, on the other hand, is tucked into the mountains, secluded, and intensely academic; its primary distraction on a Saturday afternoon entails a hike in the Appalachian Mountains, which inevitably inspires conversations about the environment, poetry, famous transcendentalists and/or the differences between badgers and porcupines. How's that for a distraction? At Michigan, Saturday activities can include, but are not limited to: all-campus tailgating extravaganzas in which thousands of people become intoxicated by noon; three-hour-long football games; more parties; bars and pubs; and then after-parties.

You get the picture.

Front yard littered with plastic beer cups

Woman in Michigan colors

Feet standing on a garden wall surrounded by partygoers

Young men wearing Michigan colors

Some pictures from the tailgating parties for the University of Michigan vs. Michigan State football game. I had never seen so many primary colors - red for solo cups and blue & yellow for school pride - in my entire life.

And as far as Oberlin goes? Well, it's tricky to make a generalization, but I think it lies somewhere in between Michigan and Williams, leaning a little more towards a Williams-vibe. It's a school of intense academia in a rural setting, but has a slightly more laid-back atmosphere, plus a much bigger music scene. Most people here take their work very seriously, but also make a lot of time for interests outside of academics (such as music, art, cooking in a co-op, etc.). My friend Piper once told me, "You can make Oberlin as hard as you want," and it's true: you can choose to be a stressed-out nutcase, or you can choose to chill out. OR you can be someone in between, which is probably your average Oberlin student.

Two teams in matching jerseys line up on the field.
An intramural frisbee game on Friday afternoon at Williams. Athletics are a major part of the school and student body.


described in caption
Two school-spirited Ann Arbor students on Saturday afternoon.

In the end, all schools are great, all provide a good education - it really just depends on you, the prospective student, and your specific desires for a school. Are competitive sports really important to you? Then you should probably consider Williams or Michigan. Do you want to be guaranteed small classes? Then consider Williams or Oberlin. Is music a huge part of your life? Then definitely come to Oberlin. But no matter where you wind up - especially if you wind up at a school similar to these colleges - you will get a great education, and meet wonderful, interesting, and intelligent people.

described in caption
A student studying at the University of Michigan Law School library, which was packed (and silent) with students on Sunday morning.

Disclaimer: I would just like to briefly shout at the end of this post that, despite my earlier statements and attempts to be fair and non-biased, clearly OBERLIN IS THE BEST of the bunch, the cream of the crop, the maple of the syrup, etc, and you should definitely choose to go here over anywhere else, always and forever. Phew, had to get that off my chest. Now I really am done.

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