A Visit to Carleton College

How do you kill time between flights when you’re scheduled to look at sales horses in Minnesota and have an extra eight or so hours between when your farm visit finishes and your flight home departs?

When you’re me, you visit the campus of Carleton College in Northfield. (Obviously.)

Even though the college has long-severed its ties with any church, the campus chapel is not only a beloved landmark, but also a popular meeting place for the whole campus.
Even though the college has long-severed its ties with any church denomination, the campus chapel is not only a beloved landmark, but also a popular meeting place for the whole campus.

Though the forecast called for scattered thunderstorms all day, the morning dawned sunny and mild and I made my way across a landscape dotted with farms and crops as I left the Twin Cities and made the short, easy drive south to Northfield, a town that’s home to both Carleton and its “across the river” neighbor, St. Olaf College. I’m a sucker for an easy-to-find campus and likewise for easily-accessed visitor parking and Carleton had both in spades, making for a great start to the morning.

An old school that was founded in 1866, Carleton is home to just over 2,000 undergraduate students and is a residential college where the majority (90 percent) of students live on campus for all four years. A true liberal arts school, students are encouraged (and required) to take courses in all areas of study, not just their majors. To make the prospect less daunting, however, students can take up to six courses outside of their majors as pass/fail with no penalty and this system, coupled with Carleton’s trimester calendar and the fact that students only take three courses at a time (as opposed to the four of a traditional calendar) means that they are challenged but never overwhelmed. As a result, Carleton students push themselves very hard academically but also have ample opportunities to study or intern off campus and participate in the wealth of extracurricular activities available to them as well. (Athletics and the fine arts are popular here in equal measure.)

The historic campus is filled with an array of beautiful red brick buildings.
The historic campus is filled with an array of beautiful red brick buildings and even a re-purposed middle school building from the local school system.

One other unique facet of Carleton is the incredible diversity within its student body. A very selective school (they accept, on average, around 20 percent of their applicants annually), the admission office builds a freshman class that comes primarily from the Midwest (Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan) and its home state of Minnesota, but also includes large populations of students from the West Coast (including multiple students from Hawaii each year), the East Coast, and from the rest of the world. (For a school of it size to have an international student population of twelve percent is substantial and sets their student body apart from others with a similar head count!) What’s more, students at Carleton tend to do big things before they ever arrive on campus – one freshman in this year’s class started her own ice cream company in high school and other freshmen include a champion sea kayaker, the published author of a children’s adventure novel, and a student who has already climbed Mt. Everest.

(Author’s Note: By those standards, I was horribly behind the eight ball when I graduated high school. My hat goes off to those amazing students!)

My tour guide perhaps described the diverse campus culture best when he told our group, “I never thought when I came to Carleton that I would room with people who speak three other languages and who have seen and done as many things as my friends have. I’ve met the most interesting people here!”

Each Carleton student’s academic career comes to a close with the completion of “comps,” the Senior Comprehensive Exercise, wherein students engage in a substantial research project either as an individual or as a member of a small group and explore a topic in depth with guidance from a faculty mentor. A senior’s comps project can be undertaken in any department and focus on any area of study as long as it requires some degree of quantitative research – which provides tremendous preparation for those students who plan to pursue graduate education after graduation.

Equestrians, never fear! If the challenging but supportive academic environment of Carleton appeals to you, there’s no need to leave your sport behind. The Carleton College equestrian club competes in IHSA hunt seat shows and rides a short way off campus. There are also social outlets for less competitive students who want to pursue their interest in horses but want to focus more on academic or other pursuits as opposed to showing.

Could Carleton be the right school for you to call home for the next four years? Contact me or pick up a copy of my book and we’ll find out!


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