Monday, July 29, 2013

"So You Don't Have To": A Visit to Elmira College


As promised, I will use this space to share my experiences visiting colleges with you. Hopefully you will find these notes useful. If you like the schools I discuss you should do everything you can to visit on your own, but this should tide you over until you can.

In late July I had the opportunity to spend a night and a day at Elmira College in New York's Finger Lakes region participating in an Open House for prospective students and also getting to spend a lot of time with members of the Admissions office, who were happy to tell me everything I wanted to learn about their school.  I was extremely impressed with Elmira; out of all of the schools I have visited in my career I would say that Elmira is one of less than five colleges that I would recommend to everyone without hesitation.

Elmira College At A Glance

Size: 1,200 undergraduates (approximately 67% women/ 33% men).
Programs of Study: 34 majors, 22 minors plus the option to create an individual major. Degrees offered are Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science. They also offer Master of Science degrees in Management and Education.
Sports: NCAA Division III; 19 varsity teams, numerous intramurals
Campus Life: 55 acre campus in the city of Elmira, New York
Costs & Aid: Tuition, room and board and fees total just about $50,000 (tuition is around $37,000).  Parents need to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).   Elmira's financial aid budget of $27 million for 1,200 students is rather large.
Deadlines: Rolling Admissions.  For students committed to attending Elmira, two ED options also exist: Early Decision I (Nov. 15th) / Early Decision II (Jan. 15th)
Tests: SAT or ACT.   Subject tests are not required


Elmira College has a lovely campus lined with tall trees and handsome buildings in the city of Elmira, New York (population around 35,000). in south-central New York state. Elmira College was founded as a women's college in 1855, and was the first institution in America to give women an education equal to that of men. The college went co-educational in 1969. Currently the gender balance is 67% women to 33% men.  

The campus is a mix of older and more modern buildings in a wide range of architectural styles. The majority of academic buildings are on one side of Park Place (a city street bisecting campus), and the bulk of the dorms, the library, the student center and the gym are on the other side. 


Despite the many different looks, the campus has a cohesive feel, and the landscaping is quite lovely. Only "The Towers" (two semi-high rise upper class dorms) look out of place, but they are off at the far end of campus, which mitigates the shock they cause to the campus skyline. 

One thing that the campus lacks is athletic fields. While there is a multipurpose (soccer and lacrosse) field next to the library, and the gym and campus swimming pool are centrally located, the rest of the college's sports facilities are located in three geodesic domes a 15 minute drive from campus.  This is certainly not unheard of (Lehigh University, for instance, has a similar setup), but it definitely makes the campus feel more "academic" somehow, at least to me. 

Benches, picnic tables and statuary abound. There are multiple fountains on campus as well, one of which is filled with chlorinated water; students are encouraged to splash about inside it, and they often do so on warm days.  Elmira seems to value tradition, one of which is the planting of irises. The flowers are omnipresent on campus, and plaques commemorating annual iris planting adorn all of the dorms. The place is lovely, though if you have an antipathy to the color purple, you may want to look elsewhere for your college education.  But on the other hand, if you dig Prince, this is the place for you!


All Elmira students must live on campus all four years, which helps build school spirit and fosters friendships. The college is nestled in the heart of Elmira, which was the home of Samuel Clemens' (a/k/a Mark Twain) wife, Olivia, who graduated from Elmira College. The Clemenses spent their summers in Elmira and it is where Twain wrote many of his classics, including The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnThe Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and The Prince and the Pauper in Elmira. Today the city has multiple television stations, a minor-league hockey team, and a theatre (the Clemens Center) which hosts touring versions of Broadway productions. Despite the cultural offerings, most Elmira College students rarely venture into town.  The Student Activities Board is an energetic, well-funded organization which arranges for first-run movies, speakers, musical acts and social activities such as trivia contests (with monetary prizes!) on most nights of the week.  That, combined with numerous sports teams to cheer for and a lot of homework (2-3 hours per every hour of class time) keeps the students on campus.  For those who do want to get away, trips to Ithaca, Watkins Glen, and other areas are occasionally organized. Also, there are no restrictions on car ownership, which nips any cases of cabin fever in the bud.

Elmira College is home to 1,200 students, two-thirds of whom are women. The college is definitely looking to increase the number of male students, and they hope that the addition of a baseball team (which will begin play in 2014-15) will help raise the numbers.  Elmira College students come from 35 states and 31 countries, though about 50% come from New York and many more come from the Northeastern states. Elmira welcomes international students, and makes an effort to help them adjust to college life with a special orientation program.  Currently international students comprise about 9% of the student body.  Along those lines, Elmira is one of the few American colleges that offers scholarships to international students.  

Most classes are small and many have less than 10 students.  According to Psychology Professor Ben Lovett, "At Elmira, 30 is considered a huge class."  Classes are discussion based and participation is impossible to avoid; multiple students mentioned that a reason why they study so hard is to avoid feeling unprepared during class.  The academic year is divided into three sections; Term I is 12 weeks long and begins in September, Term II is 12 weeks long beginning in January, and Term III is 6 weeks long starting in April.  Students typically take four courses in Terms I and II and one intensive class in Term III.  Term III is also when most travel (domestic and abroad) takes place, nearly always as part of a class, led by an Elmira professor.  Term III trips have gone to locations such as:

  • Australia
  • the Bahamas
  • Brazil
  • the Galapagos Islands
  • the Grand Canyon
  • Ireland
  • Japan
  • Nepal
  • New York City
  • Turkey
and many others.  If students do not want to travel, there are many courses to take on campus, but approximately 40% of Elmira students study abroad at some point in their careers. 

Elmira is generous with granting Advanced Placement credit, and they allow some courses to count for multiple majors. As a result, many students graduate with more than one major, or a major and a minor. Details of the requirements for graduation are on Elmira's website, but I did want to take some time to point out three aspects that I found interesting: "the Core", the Freshman Writing Course, and "Encore".

Every new student takes "the Core", an interdisciplinary course that combines social science, natural science and the humanities into a multi-cultural exploration of major ideas in human history.  In Term I students take "When Worlds Collide", and in Term II "Order and Chaos".  I am generally opposed to "required courses", but I like it when colleges do programs like this one.  Every new student will be taking a similar class (though led by different professors, and thus reading different material), so they have something in common.  During their first two terms new students also take a course on writing. The class meets three days per week, including a 30-minute long private session between student and teacher. The writing program is designed to improve everyone's writing, and is individually tailored to each student's needs.  I like this because it guarantees that after the first year, Elmira students will have no excuse for poor writing.

Elmira also has a program that is unique in my experience.  While many colleges and universities strive to inculcate an understanding and appreciation of the arts, Elmira's Encore program takes it a step further.  During the first two years, Elmira students are required to attend 6 music, theatre and/or dance performances per term, and to write a 3-5 page paper.  Artists are brought to campus (many from New York City) and give talks and master classes along with their performances so that students will learn about the craft, as well as the art.  All performances on campus are free, and Elmira students can attend shows at the downtown Clemens Center for $5, which is a deep discount from ticket prices for the general public.

The library holds a quarter of a million volumes, and is home to a very large computing center. They have also recently acquired ten e-readers loaded with current titles that students can sign out for two weeks.  According to my tour guide, the library is a very popular place, and nearly everyone uses it regularly. In fact, the majority of freshman dorms are clustered near the library to make it easier for students to study.  The library also hosts the Center for Mark Twain Studies. The entryway to the library holds stickers noting that it is a "Safe Zone" for LBGTQ community members. A later conversation with some students revealed that they found Elmira to be a tolerant place that welcomed all manner of diversity.



As mentioned above, all students (except those whose parents live in the city of Elmira) must live on campus all four years.  Freshman dorms are typical, with smallish double rooms.  Following the first year, student housing is determined by lottery, with the exception of "the Cottages"(pictured at right). These apartment style dwellings are assigned based on points.  Students earn points for participating in the life of the college (one earns points for being on a team, joining a club, etc. More points are awarded if one is a leader of an organization).  After talking to so many people, this seems like a very "Elmira" thing; the college encourages student involvement.  As Casey Smith, a member of the class of 2015 told me, "The clubs are what keep me here" and "it's hard to not be a leader at Elmira".

Elmira College is a "selective" institution, admitting about 75% of every year's applicants.  That said, the Admissions staff works very hard to make sure that they create a class of 300 students who will make the most of the chances the college offers.  In addition to the SAT or ACT (scores average in the mid 500's in all three SAT categories and 25 in the ACT) and the Common Application, Elmira strongly encourages interviews.  The day I was there about 75 families attended the Open House and tour, and at least half of the students took advantage of the chance to be interviewed.  The Admissions staff makes a concerted effort to get to know the applicants, and if they believe that the "fit" is right, they will go to bat to help students get accepted.  Zack Ciaramitaro, a member of the class of 2014 and a leader of the Student Activities Board told me that the "very personal approach" of the Admissions Office made him feel like he mattered, which is what led him to choose Elmira over other colleges. The regular admissions process is handled on a rolling basis, with decisions being issued beginning in early October.  Students who are interested in Elmira are encouraged to apply as early as possible. Those students who are convinced that Elmira is their first choice can apply to one of two binding Early Decision programs.  ED I has a deadline of November 15th (with notification by December 15th) and ED II has a January 15th deadline (with notification by January 31st).


Elmira offers substantial merit scholarships and a very interesting incentive scholarship.  The Honor Scholarships are designed to attract high achieving students.  Class valedictorians and salutatorians can receive full-tuition awards, renewable for three years.  Other scholarships are available for students who combine good GPA's with above average test scores. The program must work, because the college claims that 13% of the student body were ranked number one or two in their high school graduating classes.  Also of note, out of state students who visit Elmira before January of their senior year will receive a $3000 annual scholarship upon admission.  This is a pretty hefty return on the investment it takes to travel to Elmira.  My school is only a two hour drive from Elmira, so you better believe I will be encouraging my students to make the trip to this fall's Open House!

I was knocked out by Elmira College.  This is a place that has been well-managed and everything seems to have been done for a reason.  The newest dormitory (Meier Hall, pictured above) is impeccably built, and features details (like a fitness room in the basement, soundproofed music rehearsal rooms, and a study area next to the laundry room) that could only have come from students.  Even the picnic tables dotting the campus come from student input requesting more seating areas. I also loved Elmira's commitment to long-standing traditions--their new non-denominational chapel is covered with stained-glass windows depicting each one.  For instance, students are given a beanie hat on their first day of orientation bearing their year of graduation.  They wear the beanies throughout orientation (culminating in a tug of war versus the seniors) and then wear them again the night before they graduate.  Having attended a college with nearly no traditions, I find customs like this to be quite charming.

Elmira College is a good place for people who seek challenge and the opportunity to become better students and to be exposed to a wide array of educational and cultural opportunities.  For students seeking a small college where they can have close, mentoring relationships with their professors, Elmira should be high on the list.  Students interested in sports (several teams are highly competitive, and the women's ice hockey team just won the national championship), community service (there is a 60-hour service requirement) and leadership (opportunities abound long before one's senior year) would do well to consider Elmira.   Seek out Elmira's representative if they visit your school or local college fair, or schedule a visit to see the campus if you think you are interested.  I think you will be impressed. Please share your thoughts about Elmira in the comments below, and good luck on your college search!



1 comment:

  1. As a graduate of Elmira College one of the things I looked for was a place with deep traditions and one without sororities and fraternities (there always seems to be too many problems with them and they are very degrading to the individual). I returned to school as an adult. Let's face it being 35 and a sophomore in college (especially in the year 1997) it was not something everyone did. At least not at a college where they have a strict living on campus policy. However, if you're looking for a place that will make sure your student has a roof over their head and food in their stomachs then this is the place for you. Couple that with getting an education from a professor and not a graduate assistant! Now there is a plus. The small class sizes always make you feel like a human being and not a number filling a seat. You have the chance to really discuss things with your classmates and your professor. The dorms are amazing, the campus beautiful and there are many things to do and take part in. I will always cherish my time at Elmira College. I hold my degree from there in high regards. I would recommend Elmria College to everyone looking to learn and grow as an individual in a place where being an individual is valued.

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