{ What do Oberlin, University of Michigan, and Williams College all have in common? }

I started thinking about college - and which one I'd go to - starting in approximately the seventh grade, and pretty much didn't stop until freshman orientation. I agonized, fretted, over-analyzed and positively obsessed over colleges. Where can I get in? Which one will serve me best in the long run? Where will I make the most friends??! I was an idiot, had no idea what I was doing, and ended up applying to eleven schools, taking the SAT twice, the ACT twice, three SAT subject tests and writing at least fifteen essays, and all the while, trying to keep my friends from thinking I had become a totally insane person.

Words of Wisdom #1: DON'T COPY ME.

Of course, most of you readers probably did the same exact thing, or are in the process of doing so. The road to a college decision is universal, breaking down into approximately 10 simple steps:

1. Receive approximately 10,000 trees worth of college brochures in the mail
2. Begin freaking out
3. Travel across the entire Atlantic seaboard in the quest to find "The One," only to decide every school isn't good enough somehow (too expensive, too preppy, too hipster, too grassy, too perfect, etc.)
4. Continue freaking out
5. Write 20 different essays for 15 different schools, all of which describe yourself as some variation of "fun-loving" and "well-balanced" (LIES ON LIES, your sole purpose in life is to study SAT vocabulary cards and admission website statistics; meanwhile you pretend to be "fun-loving" to make yourself a more desirable and interesting person, but really, WHO NEEDS FUN)
6. Spend over $800 on College Board test fees and college application costs, just to see if you can get into a school that costs fifty grand a year
7. Check the mail with utmost anxiety for three months
8. Continue freaking out
9. Find out you actually got into your safety schools and targets (yay!) but got rejected from your reaches (womp), and lament your poor luck; meanwhile the 'rents feign surprise and your college counselor tells you it was the "hardest year yet"
10. Become entirely apathetic and choose the last school that you visit on April 22nd, because darn it, it must be good enough.

No? That didn't happen to you? Well shoot, you must be crazy.

One of my personal favorite parts of this process (other than fretting, of course, which is always the best pastime) was making college pros-and-cons lists. Unfortunately they often ended up leaning heavily toward the Con side, and included notes like "annoying tour guide" or "bad cookies in the dining hall." In the end, these lists didn't end up helping much at all (refer back to Step #10).

Anyways, if I thought these college-comparison days were over after April 2009, oh boy, was I wrong! This fall break, I had the opportunity to YET AGAIN observe collegiate pros and cons after spending 10 days at two polar opposite schools: University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and Williams College. The first, one of the best state schools in the country; the latter, one of the best liberal arts colleges. Both could not be more different than Oberlin, in some ways.


One of the oldest buildings at Williams College.


One of the oldest buildings at University of Michigan.

Okay, so both campuses have ridiculously beautiful ivy-covered buildings - what else?? Fortunately, I have stepped up my game (somewhat) since the twelfth grade and have replaced the simplistic pros-and-cons list for the new-and-improved VENN DIAGRAM. Get excited, you anxious prospective students, for the graph that will change your life:


By the way - if this Venn Diagram actually changes your life, then by all means, please write me a recommendation for grad school.


Even though I'm still a clueless nitwit when it comes to giving college advice (or any advice, for that matter), I would really like to emphasize one point:

You can get a fantastic education at all of these schools.

Although Williams is a very prestigious and highly reputable college, University of Michigan is also a really good school; the main difference is that at Williams, you are guaranteed to get a good education. You are surrounded by people who are incredibly smart and ambitious and serious about academics, and your classes are tiny - no skipping class, can't get away with it.

WHEREAS, at Michigan, you can choose to surround yourself with people who are ambitious and serious about academics, or not. You can choose to go to class - or not. There's a lot more leniency with your education, and if you make the most of it, you can make a lot; but it takes a little more self-propulsion.


The Green River runs through Wililamstown, providing a tranquil place to reflect and/or go swimming (when it's warm enough).


My friends Gabe and Ben while on a hike up Mount Greylock, about fifteen minutes away from Williams and the highest natural point in Massachusetts at 3,491 feet.


I will say, Michigan is a fun place to be, with lively people, and a lot of distractions. Williams, on the other hand, is tucked into the mountains, secluded, and intensely academic; its primary distraction on a Saturday afternoon entails a hike in the Appalachian Mountains, which inevitably inspires conversations about the environment, poetry, famous transcendentalists and/or the differences between badgers and porcupines. How's that for a distraction? At Michigan, Saturday activities can include, but are not limited to: all-campus tailgating extravaganzas in which thousands of people become intoxicated by noon; three-hour-long football games; more parties; bars and pubs; and then after-parties.

You get the picture.


Some pictures from the tailgating parties for the University of Michigan vs. Michigan State football game. I had never seen so many primary colors - red for solo cups and blue & yellow for school pride - in my entire life.

And as far as Oberlin goes? Well, it's tricky to make a generalization, but I think it lies somewhere in between Michigan and Williams, leaning a little more towards a Williams-vibe. It's a school of intense academia in a rural setting, but has a slightly more laid-back atmosphere, plus a much bigger music scene. Most people here take their work very seriously, but also make a lot of time for interests outside of academics (such as music, art, cooking in a co-op, etc.). My friend Piper once told me, "You can make Oberlin as hard as you want," and it's true: you can choose to be a stressed-out nutcase, or you can choose to chill out. OR you can be someone in between, which is probably your average Oberlin student.


An intramural frisbee game on Friday afternoon at Williams. Athletics are a major part of the school and student body.



Two school-spirited Ann Arbor students on Saturday afternoon.

In the end, all schools are great, all provide a good education - it really just depends on you, the prospective student, and your specific desires for a school. Are competitive sports really important to you? Then you should probably consider Williams or Michigan. Do you want to be guaranteed small classes? Then consider Williams or Oberlin. Is music a huge part of your life? Then definitely come to Oberlin. But no matter where you wind up - especially if you wind up at a school similar to these colleges - you will get a great education, and meet wonderful, interesting, and intelligent people.


A student studying at the University of Michigan Law School library, which was packed (and silent) with students on Sunday morning.

Disclaimer: I would just like to briefly shout at the end of this post that, despite my earlier statements and attempts to be fair and non-biased, clearly OBERLIN IS THE BEST of the bunch, the cream of the crop, the maple of the syrup, etc, and you should definitely choose to go here over anywhere else, always and forever. Phew, had to get that off my chest. Now I really am done.


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{ Responses To This Entry }

Damn, Paris, the combination of the words, the images, and the Venn Diagram leave me wordless, except to say . . . utter brilliance.

Posted by: John Menditto on October 31, 2012 10:45 AM


It was the flat, glaciated terrain, wasn't it? That's what attracted me to Temple University in 1965. Plus the tuition was $295 a semester. No, that's not a typo.

Posted by: Bill Swanson on October 31, 2012 10:49 AM


I love this post! The use of a venn diagram alone would've hooked me (what program did you use to make that up? whatever it is, I need it in my life), but comparing other colleges to Oberlin is fascinating to me and the photos are gorgeous. I've visited Williams twice now, once during the academic year and once during the summer and I totally second everything you said about it. Williams is a lot like Oberlin, if Oberlin were sportier, preppier, in the Berkshires, and less musical.

An illustrative example: when I visited Williams, my friend and I went hiking, swam in the Green River, and went to a house party. When the same friend visited me at Oberlin, we hung out in Wilder bowl, went to see the Ginko kitties, and saw the opera.

Posted by: Emily on October 31, 2012 11:37 AM


Thank you so much everyone! Honestly, I had a lot of difficulty writing this post (for numerous reasons), the main one being that I wanted to be fair to the other schools, which I only saw briefly and superficially. I didn't want to throw out grand generalizations and conclusions about these places, because I wasn't there for very long, and I still don't know a lot about how they work.

As a result, though, of my attempt to give equal weight to the other schools, I'm not sure I emphasized enough just how happy I am at Oberlin, and how great of a fit it is for me. I never felt a pang of jealousy while at Williams or Michigan, or remorse that I didn't wind up there. If anything, my trip made me even more happy that I wound up at Oberlin through the grueling college process, and so thankful for the amazing environment and education I've gotten here for the past few years.

But thanks again for all the feedback, I really appreciate your comments!

Posted by: Paris on October 31, 2012 12:00 PM


you go glen coco

Posted by: Izadora on October 31, 2012 12:10 PM


You r a beautiful n talented individual. Brad is impressed

Posted by: Brad on October 31, 2012 11:08 PM


This is terrific, Paris! A great outlook, with very welcome humor. There are indeed lots of great schools out there and the idea that there's 'one' school that will be the right fit causes all kinds of unnecessary angst. (That said, Pete and I are very very happy to be Obie parents!) Fabulous piece, very fun to read. Thanks for putting this out there, and I hope lots of kids and parents going through the college app process get to see it.

Posted by: Barb Power on November 1, 2012 7:15 AM


OK, I can see my daughter at Oberlin and I understand her excitement. You did a great job of painting the picture.
We are visiting this weekend.
But how can I stand to let her leave so far away?
Her name is Maria and she is an amazing song writer/singer and I will miss her sweet notes.
On my monthly visits, I wonder if I'll be able to set my tent up on campus?

Posted by: Christine on November 7, 2012 12:54 PM


Paris, wonderful commentary. Great shout out for Oberlin! But as a fellow alum of your high school, you neglected to credit that wonderful school for exposing you to and "preparing" you to be able to get into Oberlin or either of the other two. In the end, it's not where you go, but what you make of it. I guess that is what you've said! Well done.

Posted by: Jack Koczela on November 9, 2012 3:42 PM


Dear Ms. Achenbach:

I enjoyed your blog post, and it was helpful to me. Our daughter Mary is an Admitted Prospie for the Class of 2017. She left early this morning for Oberlin to attend this weekend's MVP and All Roads Lead to Oberlin admitted applicant programs. I read your post because I was thinking about (OK-missing) her and decided to read some of the Oberlin student stories to get a feel for what she's experiencing there.

Mary, like you, applied to and was admitted to several very good colleges. She's narrowed her list to two: Oberlin and Middlebury. She'll visit Middlebury next week. Your post, comparing Williams to Oberlin, helped me better understand the decision she'll have to make this month.

I also enjoyed your post because I am a proud graduate of The University of Michigan (LSA Class of 1983.) I had a wonderful experience there, and I appreciate what you said about the quality of the education that Michigan offers.

I will politely recommend your post to Mary when she gets home on Saturday. I hope she will choose to read it, and that she won't scroll down to the Comments and see this Comment from me(she'd be mortified!)

Congratulations on your upcoming college graduation. I wish you success as you move on to life after college.

Sincerely,

Vince Thomas
Admitted Prospie Parent '17
Minneapolis, Minnesota

Posted by: Vincent Thomas on April 11, 2013 8:07 PM



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