What college is home to the 30th U.S. President, a European prince, and the author who won a MacArthur “Genius Grant” and wrote the novel Infinite Jest? President Calvin Coolidge, Prince Albert II of Monaco, and author David Foster Wallace all graduated from Amherst College. Located in Amherst, Massachusetts, and bordered by the Holyoke Mountain Range of Western Massachusetts, Amherst College is a private, liberal arts undergraduate college with 1,849 students. Its rural 1,000 acre campus is committed to environmental sustainability and has protected five hundred acres as a wildlife sanctuary.
Founded in 1821, Amherst is part of the Five College Consortium that partners with: Smith, Mount Holyoke, Hampshire, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Students at these colleges may take classes at any of these five schools, allowing for these students to have a diverse choice of experiences. The U.S. News & World Report ranks Amherst #2 in National Liberal Arts Colleges. It is a highly selective college, accepting only 11% of its applicants, including Yasmin Hamilton (’20), who shares how the pandemic has impacted college life, gives advice for the college admissions process, and describes what life at Amherst College is like.
What has it been like for you to begin college in the midst of a pandemic?
Yasmin: Covid has influenced every aspect of college—even my decision. After I received my decisions, I had planned to visit some other schools I’d been accepted to. When March came, I realized that would no longer be possible. I had to utilize virtual tours, pictures, and even Youtube dorm tours (they’re really helpful!) to make my decision. I also got in contact with current students to ask them questions I would not have asked the Dean of Admissions.
In order to avoid the spread of Covid, students who studied on campus agreed to a few things: to quarantine on arrival, wear masks except when in a room alone or eating, avoid leaving campus, receive a Covid test three times a week, and avoid gathering in groups larger than ten. We all moved in on different days to avoid exposure, so that move-in day excitement that you see in movies just didn’t happen. We also weren’t allowed to have roommates, so the mandatory days of quarantine felt extra lonely. Most of the school’s energy was directed toward avoiding an outbreak, so a lot of things [that] were set up for freshmen to feel more connected to the school couldn’t happen virtually because of Covid guidelines. Freshmen orientation, which usually includes camping and games on the quad, was replaced with Zoom icebreakers and virtual movie nights with a group of strangers.
Freshmen ended up actually meeting each other on the quad by sitting in big, socially-distanced groups during meal times. For the first few weeks, people didn’t really spend time together outside of mealtimes because of the restrictions. We couldn’t go into each other’s residence halls or leave the campus, so there wasn’t much to do. Although it was pretty lonely for the first few weeks, people ended up making the best of the situation. They would pick flowers at the farm, watch the sunrise and sunset, play frisbee or board games on the quad, or take walks on the trails. Later on, the school relaxed some of the restrictions, and my friends and I were able to spend time indoors together. Ultimately, I’m really grateful that Amherst put effort into creating a somewhat-normal freshmen experience. A lot of people have had to deal with entirely-remote learning or Covid outbreaks on campus. I’m really grateful to not have to deal with either of those things. Unfortunately, a lot of people were not allowed to come to campus this year because the school decided that it wasn’t necessary for them to be on campus and that it would keep density low. This semester, only international [students,] and transfer juniors and seniors are allowed on campus. I can deal with a lot of strict rules that are meant to keep me safe, but it also makes me sad that not everyone can be on campus at the same time.
Are your classes all in person or online, and has Covid created any other significant changes to your freshman experience?
Yasmin: I only took three courses this semester. Usually, people take four courses. This year, new students were urged to take less because the semester is shorter and to avoid “Zoom-fatigue.” I originally had two classes in-person. My first-year seminar was originally in-person (in a tent), but my professor’s children eventually forced him to transition to fully-online classes for his health. Even though it was in person, we also had a person Zooming in from California. We still all individually had to join the Zoom and unmute ourselves to speak, so that was a little strange sometimes. My other class remained in person for the entire semester. My third class (on writing about Film) was online, but my professor was so accessible and I got to know my peers so well that it ended up feeling like an in-person class.
As a recent graduate, what advice do you have for juniors and seniors taking the SAT and ACT and writing their personal essay?
Yasmin: The ACT and SAT were designed to test how much you’ve learned throughout high school. It’s important to get scores within the range of the schools you want to apply to, but don’t stress too much about scoring in the highest quartile. It’s so much more important to focus on making the rest of your application stand out. I think there’s no better advice than to just be genuine! As cliché as it sounds, take the opportunity to present the best parts of yourself and why you would be a good asset to the school. Do some research and get a sense for the school’s goals and mission! In Amherst’s case, I really tried to emphasize that I was excited to learn and to grow intellectually and creatively.
As far as the workload, is college a big adjustment after Casady?
Yasmin: I wouldn’t say that I get more work than high school, but my assignments are longer and require more brainpower to get through. This means I have had to get used to not being able to complete each assignment in one day. Spreading assignments out requires some time management skills that I’m glad Casady has taught me.
What led you to choose Amherst and has it lived up to your expectations?
Yasmin: I had my list narrowed down to three liberal arts schools. It was a really tough call because liberal arts schools can be really similar. I eventually chose Amherst because of its English department, open curriculum, and its location. I’ve been blown away by how much room there is to thrive. There are so many opportunities to learn and succeed that it is almost overwhelming sometimes. Professors are really approachable and helpful. I’ve already established some bonds with professors that I think will be paramount to my future work.
Since high school students are not allowed to physically tour campuses due to Covid, where would you take us on campus if we could visit Amherst?
Yasmin: My first stop would be Memorial Hill! It’s understandably the most photographed spot on campus. It has a great view of the Holyoke Range, and when the trees start to turn colors it is absolutely stunning. Some other great spots are the Beneski Building, which houses the geology department and the museum. There’s a giant wooly mammoth in there (Go Mammoths!). I’d also show students my favorite study spots on campus, which include the new science center, the library, and the middle of the quad.
What have you found to be the most enjoyable aspect of college life and what has been the biggest challenge?
Yasmin: The best part of college has been how many great conversations I’ve had with people who I might not have met otherwise, including professors and students from vastly different backgrounds. A big challenge that comes with this is that everyone can seem very intimidating at first because of what they’ve already accomplished. Even though Amherst isn’t really a competitive place, it can be hard to not feel “imposter syndrome” occasionally. However, it is really helpful to know that most people feel the same way.
What is your typical school week like, and what do you do for fun on weekends?
Yasmin: My typical school week (during the pandemic) usually started with either a Covid test or breakfast. I usually tried to get some work done before classes started, and have lunch with some friends. After classes, I’d take an hour-long break and try to get most or all of my work done before dinner. If I didn’t have anything else to do or no club meetings, I’d try to watch a movie with friends or read a book. On Fridays, I usually tried to get as much work as possible done before dinner. There wasn’t much to do, so if we were tired of doing stuff outside, my friends and I would watch a movie. During a normal weekend, we might have gone to town, gone to events on campus, or even gone on a trip to NYC or Boston.
What clubs have you joined, and what has been your favorite experience so far?
Yasmin: I am a part of the Amherst Student (the newspaper), Multicultural Student Union, La Causa (Latinx affinity group), and the Amherst Film Society. A lot of clubs I wanted to join aren’t having meetings this year because of everything that is going on. My favorite club-related experience has been talking about having a mixed cultural background with others from the Multicultural Student Union. I’ve never talked about this subject with people who have gone through the same thing, so it was really great to be reaffirmed by others’ experiences.
Since 1971, Amherst has had an open curriculum where students choose their courses instead of taking distribution or general education requirements. Students work with faculty advisers to create an individualized path. Amherst offers degrees in 40 majors and has over 100 student clubs. They use a semester-based academic calendar. Housing is guaranteed all four years, and most students live on campus. All freshmen live in the first-year quad, and their following years students may choose their own residence hall. Fraternities were banned in 1984.
Amherst is known as “the singing college” due to its numerous a cappella groups, and the school loves its traditions. At their annual Homecoming there is a bonfire at the bottom of Memorial Hill where the Choral Society performs, and students enjoy food and drinks. During Fall Fest, students enjoy free fall themed-snacks like apple cider donuts and candy apples brought in from nearby restaurants and enjoy games and activities. The annual Spring Concert headlines a big-name musical act. The Pindar Field Dinner invites Amherst students from different majors to small, elegant four-course dinners with special guest speakers.
Amherst claims to have the oldest athletics program in the country, dating back to 1860 when all students had to participate in a physical fitness regimen. The National Collegiate Baseball Hall of Fame lists the world’s first intercollegiate baseball game as played between Amherst and their rival, Williams College. The game occurred July 1, 1859 and lasted for 26 innings that took three and a half hours and resulted in a win for Amherst. The school colors are purple and white, and their mascot changed in 2017 from “the Jeffs” to “the Mammoths.” The Mammoths participate in NCAA Division III sports in the New England Small College Athletic Conference, and for over a century Amherst has also played Wesleyan and Williams.
Fun Facts: President John F. Kennedy spoke at Amherst’s groundbreaking ceremony for their new library building on Oct. 26, 1963. It was one of his last public appearances before he was assassinated. The poet Robert Frost taught at Amherst college, off and on, for over 40 years, and the college has a collection of his first edition works. Tusks Up!