Hampshire College vs. St. John's College?
October 25, 2008 8:08 PM   Subscribe

I am a senior right now, contemplating the college process. My top choices? Hampshire College and St. John's College. Essentially, I think both of them are great for me.... so which would you choose?
posted by zenja72 to Education (38 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You haven't given any of the reasons why you like both of them. Furthermore, you haven't specified where you live, nor which St. John's you're looking at.

Having looked at St. John's myself, I was thrilled with the Annapolis campus when I visited, but when I stepped onto the campus at American the next day, I thought, "How in the world could I go to St. John's?" You would be stuck in a very rigid program at St. John's. Furthermore, Hampshire would allow you access to courses, activities and programs at all five colleges in the area.

At this point in your life, can you afford to make such a limiting choice?
posted by Madamina at 8:17 PM on October 25, 2008

Response by poster: @Madamina: I really am interested in the purely educational differences. I'm interested in Annapolis. I want to write.
posted by zenja72 at 8:25 PM on October 25, 2008

It doesn't matter what we would choose. Why don't you visit both and talk to some students, attend some classes, and see which atmosphere you prefer?
posted by Solon and Thanks at 8:35 PM on October 25, 2008

To clarify: one is in Massachusetts and one is in New Mexico. One has 1,431 students and one has 436. One is 250 acres and one is 800. These are substantial differences - you're not deciding between two very similar schools. Are you okay with a tiny student body? What sort of climate do you prefer?
posted by Solon and Thanks at 8:39 PM on October 25, 2008

I've known very bright people from both schools. Obviously St. John's essentially chooses a curriculum for you, whereas you can more or less design your own curriculum at Hampshire. What kind of writer do you want to be? Are you looking for a broad introduction to the canon, or are you ready to be left to your own devices and write? FWIW, If I were doing it over again, I'd probably choose St. John's...But as it happens I went to a college much more like Hampshire (Oberlin). If you haven't already done so, I'd very much advise spending at least one night at each. Good luck--
posted by BundleOfHers at 8:48 PM on October 25, 2008

Wait, what month is this? It's still October, right?

Unless something has changed in the past 15 years (okay, a lot of things have changed, but I don't know about this particular thing), you don't have a choice, you have two blank applications. Is there some reason you won't just fill them both out, along with the standard allotment of backup schools, and wait to see where you're accepted?

In other words, you're trying to make a choice you may not have. Even with the best application, a 4.0 GPA, and perfect SAT scores, entry decisions are still made by a human, and humans are both opinionated and unpredictable.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:57 PM on October 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

You really need to visit both campuses before making a final decision. I've heard so many students say that once they got on campus, it become obvious to them where they fit. Especially at a small school like St. John's, you will want to feel comfortable with the campus social environment as much as the academic environment.
posted by metahawk at 9:15 PM on October 25, 2008

Seconding that until you're admitted to both and get financial aid offers from both, trying to choose between them is just agita you don't need.

Without wanting to step on you, it occurs to me that if your top two schools are as different as Hampshire and St. Johns, you might scatter applications widely, visit some more campuses, and do more thinking about what kind of school you want.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:18 PM on October 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Without knowing anything about your situation, I have friends from both of those colleges. One of my friends, who began at St. John's, hated it and transferred out. My friends who went to Hampshire generally loved it, with one notable exception (who transferred there after two years somewhere else). If you're going just on anecdotal experience from other people, those are my thoughts.

My REAL answer is that it completely depends on you. I went to the University of Chicago, which was the best possible choice for me, but it would have been hell for my younger brother. He's smart and works hard, but it just wouldn't have been the right fit for him. When I visited the U of C, though (particularly the bookstore), I knew I had to go there. It is all about the right fit for you, not for the friends and relations of people on Metafilter. You won't know until you try; visit both places, talk to some people, think about what you actually DO. If you like to read, bring a book and see how comfortable and happy you are sitting on campus and reading. If you love to drink coffee, see if you can find somewhere to do that. After your visit, think "Can I imagine spending four years here?". If not, keep looking.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 9:20 PM on October 25, 2008

I have a good friend attending Hampshire. If you have any specific questions, let me know and I will forward them on to her. She is also interested in writing, but I am not sure if thats what she's going to get her degree in.
posted by thebrokenmuse at 9:35 PM on October 25, 2008

Yeah, could you explain what you like about these places? If you had said "Hampshire College and Reed College" or "St. John's College and Shimer College. But while the two schools you named are both out of the mainstream of American higher education, they have totally different educational approaches.

You should almost certainly be applying to more than two colleges anyways. Both of the ones you've listed are very selective. You may not have to make a decision, you may only get into one.
posted by Jahaza at 9:40 PM on October 25, 2008

Are you trying to decide between just these two, and so early, because you intend to apply early decision? That's alright, but the fact that these schools are so different suggests that you may not be totally sure yet what sort of school is right for you. Do you have other top choices and back-ups?

Also, while I too would encourage you to visit the campuses (there really is nothing like it--Wesleyan felt right to me the first time I drove through, which was in about 6th grade), it would be well for all of us to remember that that isn't always an option. MA, MD, and NM are pretty far apart and visiting them all would be both expensive and time-consuming. The next-best thing is to appeal as directly as you can to the student body. Explore the websites in-depth, read the college newspaper, check out any student, faculty, or institutional blogs you can find. If you can find contact info for individual students (say through a clubs listing), try that too. Not everyone will respond, but most love to talk to prospective students.

There are a ton of college ratings-and-reviews sites out there, but a new one that's been getting some attention is Unigo--it posts everything students at each school submit, so theoretically it's more honest and representative.

Maybe if you could tell us a bit more about why those two appeal to you, we could focus our answers better.
posted by hippugeek at 10:21 PM on October 25, 2008

So, I just went through the whole apply-to-college thing last fall. Right now, you maybe just want to be looking for a spectrum of colleges you could see yourself going to. I want to emphasize the spectrum, here- all of my (5) schools were really selective, and I had some really tense moments in the spring when I was convinced I wouldn't be accepted anywhere. It ended up working out, I'm about two months into Williams right now, but you never know. Really.

As for the two schools you named, wow. They're both really different but in totally different ways. My gut instinct is to say Hampshire, because you have the whole five colleges thing going for you there. I also feel like that area is a better place to be than Annapolis, but YMMV. I feel like Hampshire gives you more of the classic liberal-arts-try-everything experience, which was pretty much my top priority when choosing schools.

So, that's my reaction... but your feelings are key here. Visit the schools over a weekend- I know Williams has pre-frosh camp out on freshmen floors, and I feel like it truly gives you a feeling of what the college is like. If at all possible, don't come with your parents.

Looking back at your question, I agree with those above who've told you to focus on applying and getting in before you start deciding where you're going to go. The decision you have come May may have nothing in common with the choice you're making now.
posted by MadamM at 10:23 PM on October 25, 2008

St. John's is famous for its conservative, highly-structured Great Books approach to learning. Hampshire is famous for its liberal, design-your-own-major-even-if-it's-interpretive-basketweaving approach. I can't even conceive how someone could honestly be torn between them - they are two extreme ends of an educational spectrum.

Have you considered taking a tour of each place? Sure, it's expensive, but you're planning on spending $120,000 and 4 of the best years of your life on this place. You ought to figure out what it's about first.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:36 PM on October 25, 2008

when i was applying to colleges, i really wanted to go to st. john's. i've often wished that i'd been able to go to st. john's, but money got in my way. so i went to the flagship campus of my local public university. like you, when i was a nineteen year-old, i wanted to be a writer. of course, i really didn't know what such aspirations actually meant, but it was what i thought i wanted. so i took creative writing classes at the university i was enrolled in. by luck, that school happened to have an excellent creative writing program. i spent five great years in school, graduated with a b.a., and applied to graduate writing programs. i was chosen by the grad school of my choice, where i met a whole mess of hampshire grads. eighty percent of them were spoiled brats, whose biggest dilemmas centered upon where they would spend their weekends, and how they would spend their trust funds.

now, it's possible that yo may learn something about writing by going to hampshire. my grad program was quite competitive, and like i suggested above, there were more than a handful of their grads in my program. by contrast, my public university sent one of their graduates to this prestigious writing grad school, and while we sent one student to this school regularly, we never sent more than two students in any given year. hampshire, well, they can't sustain this claim, 'cos, you know, that's such a famous art school.

my point? if you want to learn how to write, you'll live through situations you could never have imagined living through when you're in your late teens and early twenties.. if you have a ton of money, then go to hampshire, like so many others, and live through that.

but if you, like so many others, have to pay for what you live for, and for what you live through, then go to the university with the best possible undergraduate writing program that is closest to YOU.

the deep, dark secret of university education is this: NOBODY cares where you got your B.A., as long as you get your gradate degree from the best possible program. If you're interested in creative writing, for example, you can still succeed by taking a terminal degree from U. Houston (a very fine school), or the like (w/r/t being 'remote' or out of the hipster stream), as long as you PUBLISH, PUBLISH, PUBLISH. If you get a terminal degree from a more highly ranked program, well, you still have to make that fundamental bar of publication, but you'll meet plenty of folks who MAY make reaching that bar a bit easier. but just a bit.
posted by deejay jaydee at 10:47 PM on October 25, 2008

Best answer: Most liberal arts colleges allow considerable freedom in what courses you take. Don't think that you will need to go to a place with as much freedom as Hampshire in order to have choices about what you'll take.

Hampshire is a good fit for a very specific sort of person (IMO). If you are very self-motivated, good at getting things done without being reminded, follow through on projects until they're done, etc. then Hampshire could be great for you. But - if you are thinking of Hampshire just because you have a huge broad range of interests and are a nonconformist type, pause. Be honest with yourself about whether you are really self-disciplined enough to get the most out of the wide open, anything goes education.

Most liberal arts colleges are terrific for someone who has broad interests and is a nonconformist type. You will (probably) be happy and get a great education at any of the usual suspects, and have odd interesting friends with varied interests etc. You don't need to go to one of the "oddball" schools (ie, the ones with trademark nonstandard curricula) to get a good education for a nonconformist.

(Either Hampshire or St John offer a terrific education to a student who is ready for those, quite different, programs. You need to think honestly about whether either of those programs would be good for you -- or whether you are getting seduced by the "branding" aspect of the college selection process and thinking that you need to choose a college that's somehow a reflection of your interestingness/nonstandardness as a person. You don't. Only choose one of these schools if you really think their programs would be a good fit with your interests and temperament/selfdiscipline.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:14 AM on October 26, 2008

I'm assuming that you are asking this question for ED.

My wife chose between St Johns @ Annapolis and Reed College.

I'm not sure Reed has all that much in common with Hampshire if Hampshire lets you design your own curriculum. Reed's curriculum is pretty structured and has a lot of requirements for graduation, which is not to say that you don't have some flexibility to do interdisciplinary majors.

That's not the point though. The point, is that my wife was planning to go to St Johns when she came for a campus visit at Reed, and that experience swayed her. So, if you can, make campus visits.
posted by Good Brain at 12:53 AM on October 26, 2008

There are a lot of us Johnnies hanging out on Metafilter. We still like good conversation. There have been a couple of AskMeFi posts previously about SJC: here and here. Both addressing situations different from your own, but both giving a pretty frank assessment of the pros and cons. I'm sure that anybody who replied in either of those posts would be glad to answer more specific questions as well.

However, I do think, especially with SJC, there is simply no substitute for visiting campus. I know financially that can be difficult, but no book or blogpost can describe what it's actually like to be at a place.

Don't be discouraged by people criticizing you for having top picks that seem so different. My second choice college was Warren Wilson. I knew I wanted something different from the traditional approach to college, but it took me awhile to decide which approach was the one to try. St. John's was where I ended up and it was an amazing experience and the right one for me. But there are other amazing experiences to be had in the world.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:32 AM on October 26, 2008

Best answer: Yes, I would definitely recommend a full weekend campus visit to St. John's. You generally get to sit in on two classes and a seminar, as well as talk to the students and get a feel for the campus. I think seminar is usually the biggest dealmaker or breaker. People either get incredibly bored/fall asleep or they are on the edge of their seats and thinking 'I want to do that!' Without knowing you it is hard to make a judgement call in advance. I tend to be an asshole and try to discourage people from St. John's, just because if its not the school for you, you will be miserable. And I think that is a school, that many people have misconceptions about.

You will have to weigh the realities of it being a very small school. Like having a good chance of looking around the seminar table at people (a) you awkwardly slept with Freshman year (b) your s.o. has recently cheated on you with, and all other possible relational difficulties, and you have to be there and discuss philosophy with them. Most classes have only about a hundred or so people, and I know my senior year only 65 of us made it through 4 years.

But ultimately its a great education. You don't just get lectures on what your professor thinks Plato means. You sit there and hash it out as a community. You are with a bunch of weirdos who want to talk about next weeks seminar on Saturday night, as you all are getting wasted in the quad. And you will write. Some of my best memories of SJC were sitting with laptops with my best friend, and stopping each other to discuss various points from each of our seminar papers. It is great, because you are all reading and have read the same things. I get frustrated because in the real world, I finish a book and I want to talk about it, and there is no one I know who has read it.

Anyway the moral of the story is to do the campus visit, sitting in on a seminar and see if what the students are doing is something that excited you. I think that is the only way to know. All our opinion are ultimately just our opinions. And this is something you will have to decide for yourself.

As I recall the application process is rather lengthy. Three essays right? That is something you will want to start working on now. But as I recall they are good, soul-searching prompts, and if you want to be a writer, its probably not bad practice. Also St. John's acceptance rate is quite high, because they view their students as 'self-selecting'. So if you are interested, go through the application process and see where you are at next spring. I only applied to St. John's because it was the only place I wanted to go, but quite a few of my friends did the whole apply-to-six-schools-thing, and ultimately chose St. John's, so you can go either way. Good Luck!
posted by amileighs at 6:01 AM on October 26, 2008

Also, feel free to e-mail me if you have specific questions.
posted by amileighs at 6:02 AM on October 26, 2008

Best answer: It doesn't seem at all strange to me that someone should be interested in both of these schools. (SJC annapolis alum here.)

This little blurb from the hampshire website:
You are interested in several seemingly unrelated subjects (maybe physics, philosophy, and music?) You see connections between them. You don’t think you should have to narrow them down to one major in college.
sounds a lot like what I wrote in one of my application essays to SJC. If it's interconnectedness you're looking for, they seem not too disparate. Though St. John's at least can be kind of a burden in that respect—I think a lot of people got on board for the seminar program without really considering how much math and science they were going to have to do.

As to the whole "stuck in a rigid program" thing, it never felt that way to me. It really mattered that your classmates were taking the same classes with you, that your other classes were aligned with the one you were in right this moment and that you could assume a common intellectual history when participating in class. Stuck in a program like a poem is stuck in a form, I guess.

A friend of mine is finishing up at Hampshire this year; while we never talked about it in depth, we both commented from time to time on the sympathy we'd found between them.

But yeah, it would help if you could say a little more about why you feel drawn to each one of them, aside from wanting to write. I know that people at St. John's, myself included, sometimes felt they couldn't make enough time for extra-curricular pursuits, and my non-academic writing really fell by the wayside while I was there. Perhaps Hampshire is more friendly to creative endeavor. (I'm assuming that when you say you want to write you don't mean "I want to write academic essays.") But not everyone had the same problems; friends had bands, painted, wrote stories. I feel like writing might have suffered the most, in terms of things people didn't seem to have time for anymore, but I don't have a wide survey sample for that. And two of my close friends went on to MFA programs in fiction, and one to an MFA in poetry, so it's not the end of writing even if it may be a pause in it.
posted by felix grundy at 8:32 AM on October 26, 2008

St. John's, a women's college in MA, and Univ of Iowa were colleges I applied to and got accepted. Also at the time was interested in writing. I ended up at women's college in MA, largely because their financial aid was much more realistic for my family. It may not be an issue, but later I realized it was also important to look if a college is need-blind or how much grants, etc they tend to give in their statistics. Also, each school will have places graduates tend to move (NYC, DC, etc), so if you know where you want to end up, and want to know people from college there, it's something to consider.
posted by ejaned8 at 9:11 AM on October 26, 2008

didn't feel like reading all the responses, but here are some very important things to consider when choosing a college:

1. how far away from home? how often do you plan on going home?
2. do you need a car to get around campus? to get around town? do you have to pay to have your car on campus?
3. how many people are involved in greek life and in athletics? are you going to be involved?
4. is there a curfew? do you have to sign in and out to visit people in their dorms?
5. are there dry/wet dorms?
6. any bizzare policies that just plain suck?

And make sure you visit both schools, preferable for over a day (most colleges have a host-a-prefrosh program) to see how you like the general day-to-day life there.

Sure, education is important, but ultimately, I think it's these things that make your college experience, all the outside-of-class day to day stuff.
posted by KateHasQuestions at 9:28 AM on October 26, 2008

As a former 18 year old who just wanted to write, eventually got an MFA and had Hampshire as one of her top three BA choices? I have to nth those who say visiting the campuses, if at all possible, is necessary. It was abundantly clear where I belonged after I'd been to each school.

I would also suggest ignoring axegrindiness in responses you get here. All schools have hardworking middle class kids and trust fund douchebags. If you're willing and motivated, college can be what you make of it.
posted by gnomeloaf at 10:06 AM on October 26, 2008

Best answer: the deep, dark secret of university education is this: NOBODY cares where you got your B.A., as long as you get your gradate degree from the best possible program. If you're interested in creative writing, for example, you can still succeed by taking a terminal degree from U. Houston (a very fine school), or the like (w/r/t being 'remote' or out of the hipster stream), as long as you PUBLISH, PUBLISH, PUBLISH. If you get a terminal degree from a more highly ranked program, well, you still have to make that fundamental bar of publication, but you'll meet plenty of folks who MAY make reaching that bar a bit easier. but just a bit.

Yes, this. But also, I would consider the fact that, in order to be a writer, you don't need a graduate degree from the best possible program, either. In terms of your BA, I'd pick a school that's going to let you get the broadest and least-creative writing oriented education. A great books program sounds interesting, because you're going to be really well-read, and that can inform your writing really well. If you go to a make-your-own-degree program like Hampshire, I'd suggest that you be sure to balance your interest in creative writing with an education in other subjects. It will make your writing more interesting, deeper, and more nuanced than what you'd get with a sole focus on writing.

I'm at a fairly competitive, good, graduate school for writing, but I got my BA at a state university where I was forced to take tons of "general ed" credits. I hated the idea of it going in, but I (and my writing) got more out of those biology, anthropology, philosophy, and psychology classes than I would have guessed at 17. A good number of my peers at graduate school acme from different majors or backgrounds. I'd keep in mind that a degree in writing, any degree in writing, has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not you're a writer. Nada. Zip.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:17 AM on October 26, 2008

Best answer: i have to agree with the people that said hampshire is a great place if you're really self-motivated and by that i mean REALLY self-motivated and self-directed. I went to Smith, in the same 5-college consortium as Hampshire and took several classes at Hampshire, as well as having multiple Hampshire students in my classes. My recollections/opinions: 1) Hampshire is a freakin awesome place to have a good time if you're a bit eccentric. One of my favorite memories of all my four years of socializing was a campus wide game of war/scavenger hunt for tiny little army men. i can't really describe it any better. it was just a riotously fun time. 1b) best Halloween campus-wide party ever. I've only been to Hampshire's and Smith's Halloweens. But I can't imagine it being much more fun. I got to make out with "Naked Guy" and with the guy dressed up in an old 50'swashing machine. Like a real washing machine. 2) i don't know ANYONE at Hampshire that graduated in 4 years. I am sure there must have been some that did. But I didn't encounter any of those. And that wasn't for lack of great intelligence and focus. It's just practically impossible to graduate in 4 years from there, is what I've been told. 3) The students from Hampshire were typically among the most out-of-the-box intelligent in any of my Smith-campus classes. 4) One of my good friends' senior thesis involved japanese knot-tying bondage and hanging willing freshman volunteers from trees (in japanese knots/bondage) as her art project. She also would arrange similar displays for your private parties for a small fee. 5) DRUGS. There is a tree. Out in the middle of a corn field. If you can find it (and many students are willing to draw you maps -- I still have one) you can almost always get a free smoke-up,like 24-7). Under a big tree. In a cornfield.

Well. This probably wasn't helpful. But it was fun for me to remember. Hampshire rocks. But I'm glad I went to smith (which requires you to graduate in 4 yrs or transfer).
posted by Soulbee at 12:48 PM on October 26, 2008

Oh, one more thing: If you plan on being a writer, the best choice for you is probably a school that leaves you with a minimum of debt.
posted by Good Brain at 3:41 PM on October 26, 2008

Best answer: All schools have hardworking middle class kids and trust fund douchebags.

Would also like to add that all schools have middle class douchebags and hardworking trust fund kids. This revelation is in and of itself an educational experience.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:58 PM on October 26, 2008 [6 favorites]

Best answer: As someone suggested above, pretty much any good liberal arts school will provide a fertile ground for your nonconformist impulses... so don't make the purported creativity and freedom of the campus your topmost criterion.

Okay, there's plenty of room for caveats and asides about one's own motivation level, the possibility of genius emerging soonest and wildest in a space of maximum play, etc., but...

bluntly, if you're a) a writer, and therefore are b) already really good at rotating and connecting disparate given ideas in your head and thereby coming up with new ideas...

go for the place that'll get you reading and thinking about ideas you don't already have ideas about.

And not just "new ideas" about "new fields"-- instead, seek out the broadest variety of ideas, from the broadest variety of fields.

Is this as fun as reading about only the stuff you want to read about?

Certainly not.

But it will add to your writings' depth and reach.

On the other hand, going to someplace unstructured can make it easy to set aside time for writing... in fact, you'd probably produce a higher volume of creative work at a Flake school like Hampshire than a Monk school like SJC. [I write this as an intimate of Flake schools.]

And, as noted, this all must be refracted through your particular work habits-- if you already go through Penguin Classics like others go through, uh, AskMeFi postings, then the Great Books approach might be redundant for you... and Hampshire's laissez-faire shtick might set you free to start cranking out monumental stuff all the faster.

Again, though... the more chances you get to bounce your ideas off of, or smash your ideas against, others' elaborate systems and Culture's traditional tropes-- the Best that has been Thought and Said, etc.-- the richer and sharper and better your ideas will likely be.
posted by darth_tedious at 12:40 AM on October 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

St. John's is SO expensive.. I don't think they offer much financial aid at all, you would have to borrow quite a lot of money as in $25K+ per year. If you found you didn't like it, would be more of a challenge to transfer because of the particular nature of the program, although I expect that might be equally difficult from Hampshire. But really think about the student loans, it can limit your future options big time to be finishing up with a liberal arts degree and $60-$70K in debt. Unless your family has a lot of money saved and can pay for it. Otherwise, your loan payments are going to be massive and go on for many years. I would say please also think about public colleges with good writing programs - at least apply more places to have options, don't just limit yourself to only two choices. I myself really had wanted to attend St. John's but couldn't afford it, and now I'm grateful because I would owe so much money, and I ended up getting a liberal arts degree at a public college where I could graduate with no debt.

What also strikes me is, how closely tied to the traditional Western canon do you want to be, creatively? I think the New Mexico campus might vary more than Annapolis in what they cover..

Also.. Annapolis is beautiful, it's a weird contrast between this small liberal arts school & the rest of the town being quite preppy, fairly wealthy & having the naval academy right there. You could get by fine without a car because the campus is right in town, the historic parts, heck if I know how far it is from grocery stores, but you wouldn't have any trouble walking to restaurants, bars, the boardwalk. It is really a gorgeous town, historic, not terribly exciting I'd say, but nice being by the water. I don't know that there's a big arts or counterculture type of scene there because again, St John's seems rather out of place compared to the rest of Annapolis. You'd have very nice temperate weather. It's about a 45 minute drive to Baltimore where all sorts of cool arts scene stuff is going on, maybe an hour and 15 min to Washington DC.
posted by citron at 11:08 AM on October 27, 2008

When I was looking at colleges, one of my major criteria was freedom in picking my classes. Looking back, it was a mistake. I'm satisfied with my choice and with the education I received but now I think that's a poor way to sort for colleges. In my opinion, there is little reason to get a liberal arts degree that does not focus on the Western canon. The St. John's students I have met were all pretty cool and down to earth. More importantly, they all seemed interested in what they were studying.

I have a close friend who went to Hampshire, I've visited the campus and I went to an atypical liberal arts college myself. It seems like a great place. Although Darling Bri's comment about middle class douchebags and hard working trust fund kids is right on the money, I do want to point out that these colleges, where you can study whatever you like, have a shocking proportion of lethargic, unprepared students. The cafeteria approach to class selection doesn't just appeal to the passionate who know what they want to study, it draws in those who just want a bunch of easy classes as well.

Even though these two schools seem very different I think I've got a good guess at what you're looking for. You want professors who are committed to undergraduate education and an engaged classroom. Almost all of the small liberal arts colleges have great professors who welcome if not encourage faculty - undergraduate contact; it's the best reason to choose one of them instead of the public U. I think you have a better chance of being surrounded by dedicated students at St. Johns. Definitely consider the Santa Fe campus; it's a beautiful city and a great place to spend the college years. It's not however, a college town, the main drawback is that it's pretty expensive.

By the way, don't think that you need to study writing. You don't. One of my friends, who never took a writing course, got a book deal and was published in a rather prestigious literary journal within a few years of graduation. She learned by writing, rewriting and reading. If you're into it, and it's what you do, you'll improve.

"Teaching writing is a hustle." - Cormac McCarthy
posted by BigSky at 12:05 PM on October 27, 2008

I went to Hampshire. I loved it. But why do you want to go there?

See comments by LobsterMitten and Soulbee for a few statements that I mostly agree with in terms of their take on the school (other than the stereotypical "they're druggies/they're weirdos/they can't graduate" thing, which is has some truth to it but is, in the end, a superficial read on the real Hampshire college). For the record, I graduated in four years. I studied music performance (er...in a nutshell). I've now been a self-taught (didn't touch a computer, mostly, until after college) professional programmer for almost a decade, and I just got hired at MIT. I don't have any advanced degree (yet) but supposedly Hampshire grads are well-prepared for them. I just don't care that much yet...haven't needed one so far to do what I want--I think Hampshire prepares you to function in society in a way other schools can't (although obviously certain jobs require an advanced degree, no ifs ands or buts, and being competently self-taught is not the sole domain of Hampshire grads).

The main thing about Hampshire is that it gives back what you put into it. You cannot get much out of the school, in my opinion, if you don't sincerely give a shit about learning something just because you really want to learn. I watched hipsters/ies burn out left and right and transfer/drop out because they thought Hampshire would be laid-back or something stupid like that...it is not laid-back, it is the opposite of laid-back. The motto "non satis non scire" (to know is not enough) really rings true, I believe, and the system is set up there for self-starters. Go there if you know that you are the sort of person that can figure out how to learn things yourself and don't need hand-holding or, like, a curriculum. Good luck, keep your chin up, don't smoke too much pot or take too much acid on Halloween.

It can be a lonely place. But that worked for me, and I think being able to be alone was useful for a lot of the people who thrived there.

The other big feature that goes hand-in-hand with the whole self-teaching thing is that you can take classes at Amherst, UMass, Mount Holyoke and Smith. The basic idea (that I think works quite well) is that you put together a solid curriculum using the best stuff at those schools, and that gives you a solid context to the odd (in both senses) class at Hampshire like "The Importance of Foucault's Analysis of Power in the Music of John Coltrane" or "Beer Brewing Practices in the 15th Century Viewed Through the Lens of Eco-Feminism" (both classes completely, absolutely fictional). You get the (ridiculously exaggerated) drift, I hope.

I also really loved living in the Pioneer Valley. It's beautiful there. And from Hampshire you can walk to Atkins and get cider donuts.

I can't say anything about St. John's but maybe this will help you get to know Hampshire better.
posted by dubitable at 7:54 PM on October 27, 2008

Oh, and a few addendums:

I have a good friend who I met at Hampshire, he studied writing and followed up his Hampshire education with a fully paid fellowship at NYU's writing program. YMMV.

Also, to follow up on another narrative running through this thread: there are indeed plenty of rich trust-fund douchebags at Hampshire, and rich trust-fund nice folks, and poor assholes and poor nice people and everyone in between. I was one of the poor(er) folks. There are also some truly poor city folks imported from Springfield, but nobody is quite sure if it is any good for them or just some sort of patronizing thing that the Hampshire administration does so the relatively wealthy folks can see how the other half lives. And I'll leave it at that trollish comment...
posted by dubitable at 8:02 PM on October 27, 2008

Almost all of the small liberal arts colleges have great professors who welcome if not encourage faculty - undergraduate contact; it's the best reason to choose one of them instead of the public U.

Minorly tangential, but I think this is worth correcting because I think it's a common misconception among students at small liberal arts colleges. At the state university (mostly a commuter college) where I attended undergrad, the professors were beyond thrilled to have intelligent, driven students in their classes, and have done everything they could to help me succeed. Mr. WanKenobi is in a different department at the same school right now and has had the same experience. The original poster's mileage may vary of course, but I'd keep in mind that many faculty at public colleges still encourage faculty-undergraduate contact, assuming the undergraduates are bright and driven.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:52 AM on October 28, 2008

Just to correct a few inaccuracies:
St. John's is SO expensive..
It is no more expensive than most other private liberal arts colleges.

I don't think they offer much financial aid at all, you would have to borrow quite a lot of money as in $25K+ per year.
They actually offer really good financial aid and have need blind admissions. In addition, they do not offer merit scholarships, so there are no "trust fund kids" with high SATs getting money that could go to a needy student.

What also strikes me is, how closely tied to the traditional Western canon do you want to be, creatively?
By virtue of being from the US, the poster is already completely tied to the traditional Western Canon. SJC would allow them to actually know it well, rather than just sort of know it.

I think the New Mexico campus might vary more than Annapolis in what they cover..
No. One curriculum, two campuses.

Seriously, there are plenty of alumni from both St. John's and Hampshire on Metafilter. It is probably not necessary for anybody who isn't really familiar with either school to post their own misconceptions.
posted by hydropsyche at 9:47 AM on October 28, 2008

Seriously, there are plenty of alumni from both St. John's and Hampshire on Metafilter. It is probably not necessary for anybody who isn't really familiar with either school to post their own misconceptions.

posted by dubitable at 1:13 PM on October 28, 2008

I went to a school that is similar to Hampshire, except public (Evergreen State College), and I am now planning to take an MA at St. Johns. I went to a highly structured engineering program for a few years before Evergreen, which made me really appreciate the freedom when I got there. But now, a few years after graduating, I want to go back and get the fundamentals of the western canon that I mostly saw reflections of at Evergreen only through the eyes of more modern writers. Both are very worthwhile.

Anyone considering those two schools should look at Evergreen too. I had a wonderful time there and I applied really late so I know they have flexible deadlines.

FYI all three are in the book Colleges that Change Lives (http://www.ctcl.org).
posted by sw1ng at 3:03 PM on March 8, 2009

Slightly off-topic, perhaps: reading back on this thread months later, I realized I had the latin motto for Hampshire wrong (yeah, that's embarassing...). It is in fact "non satis scire" ("to know is not enough"). The student handbook, however, is called "non satis non scire" ("not to know is not enough").

I've never studied latin my life though...(excuses, excuses...)
posted by dubitable at 9:50 AM on March 13, 2009

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