Pros and Cons of Top Schools: College Social Life

Michael Gao
December 28, 2023
Live Blogs

This blog post is part of a series where our writers discuss their experiences attending top colleges. In this installment, they answer the question below.

What is the social life like at a top school? What are one upside and one downside of social life at a top school?

Mahad Adam: Social life at a top college is dependent on what you make of it. Despite the stereotypes about what students at top colleges may be like, there is a lot of diversity in the kinds of people you will meet. Naturally, students tend to be fairly academically minded, but that doesn’t mean that they are single-minded. For example, I went to school in New York City and much of the social life revolved around the bar scene or exploring the city. 

A downside to the social life at a top college is the prevalence of stress culture and competitiveness. This is made up for by the fact that you will be around some of the smartest students in the country, leading to some of the best conversations you will have in your life. Not to mention, top colleges tend to have a diverse international student population, allowing you to make friends with people who have experiences and perspectives vastly different from your own. 

Michael Gao: This might be a pretty singular conversation because I know we all attend(ed) Columbia. I think there are huge ways in which the location of a school– not the selectiveness– can affect the social life. I have friends at Dartmouth who go hiking on the weekends and whose nightlife consists of Greek Life in massive fraternity and sorority houses. That just isn’t the case at Columbia because of the difference in location.

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Maria Little: I agree that the location of the school really affects the social life, and I would add that size makes a huge difference. I have friends that go to smaller liberal arts colleges and there is a lot more social cohesion at those schools, and an entire class will be closer. I’ve found that even at Barnard, which is supposed to also have a small liberal arts experience, this hasn’t been the case. The environment is definitely more stratified, which can sometimes make it difficult to meet people. At the same time this can be a good thing, because you will eventually find your people.

Mahad: I also agree with the above points. I’ve noticed from talking with friends who went to other top colleges, there tends to be more of a sense of camaraderie and unity within the student body that comes from the culture of the university. Students at Columbia tended to go into the city more often, leading to a lot of social life revolving around life off-campus. This is why it is very important to look into the environment around your prospective university beforehand, in order to get an idea of what the social life there looks like.

Michael: Maria, what’s your experience been going to Barnard, which is a historically women's college attached to Columbia? How has that affected your social life versus going to another HWC or co-ed school?

Maria: I honestly didn’t look into other historically women’s colleges and I really like the connection with Columbia. Most of all, I like how the social scenes are super mixed: 50% of my friends are from Barnard and 50% are from Columbia. It’s also great because there’s such a large selection of classes. I would re-emphasize though that the experience is not that of a small liberal arts college, as I was led to believe, and is definitely more of a large university. It’s unique in that way and I really enjoy it, but it may not be for people who want more of a Wellesley or Smith experience.

Michael: I think that’s quite similar to a lot of top colleges that are often really big schools, with at least a dozen additional graduate programs, branding themselves as liberal arts schools. While they may have elements of a liberal arts curriculum, I think the experience is definitely different than a liberal arts college, which is often small and doesn’t have graduate programs. That’s an important distinction to understand.

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