Aanya Chugh graduated from Barnard College in 2009. Find out what worked for her there.

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1.How important do you consider rankings and Ivy League status while evaluating schools? How have your perceptions changed about this now?

When considering colleges for my undergrad in high school, I was never concerned about an Ivy League status. In fact, I intentionally didn’t apply to any. Having grown up partially in the US and partially in India, I felt that the league’s associated prestige was often thrust upon kids by their parents and was therefore somewhat misguiding. And since I had a lot of friends in the US who went to smaller colleges, I knew that my Indian peers were somewhat unaware in their assumptions that Ivy League status and rankings were the most important criteria to consider when choosing a university. I have always felt that smaller colleges are in a league of their own, with their own associated prestige, particularly in how they prioritize individual growth. My experience at Barnard only confirmed that, especially since it is a part of the seven sisters.

In my college search, rankings were used as a very general guideline, more as a means of narrowing down my list. I don’t think they matter after a certain point. For instance, it doesn’t matter if a school is number 10 or number 11, but it might matter if it is number 10 or 100. My perception of rankings today is that one should never look at a school’s rankings for any indication of its academic strengths, as a ranking largely comprises of non-academic criteria, like endowment and campus quality, that do not really matter. After working in the Barnard admissions office, I can attest to that. The office was very aware of how the school’s ranking was misguiding, and felt that it was an inaccurate way of judging the school. Barnard’s endowment is weak and its campus lacks the facilities that a better-ranked school would have. Those factors probably affected the school’s ranking, as the more money a school has, the better chance of it having better facilities and therefore achieving a better ranking. Things like size, program, and location were far more important for me. In my search, the strength of the major was one of the most important factors.

2. Did the geographic location (NE, Mid West, West, South) and setting (urban, rural, suburban, college town) of your college impact your overall assessment of your college experience? Did you think about this when applying? How did your perception change with time?

I certainly did consider these factors when applying. In terms of the setting, I knew that I could not live in a suburb and wanted an urban experience. The geography was somewhat of an intuitive decision; I knew that I didn’t want to be in the mid west or the south, and since I had already lived on the west coast, the east seemed to be the right decision. It was a huge unknown for me, and I felt like it would be a good way to get to know a vibrant city like New York.

3. Did you consider size (student population) as important criteria while choosing schools? What do you think is a size that is ideal for you? Why?

Size was one of the most important criteria to me when considering schools. Far beyond the school’s perceived prestige. Having moved through multiple educational systems and a variety of schools my whole life, I knew from experience that I thrived in a smaller and more intimate academic environment. I went to a high school that had very small class sizes, and felt that I did very well academically in such an environment. I therefore felt that my success in college was highly based on how comfortable I felt in the classroom. Barnard was the ideal size for me because it had a small undergraduate student body but with the option of larger classes through Columbia. That flexibility was very integral and enjoyable part of my experience.

4. What was the average class size of your intro classes? Were you satisfied with this? In what way did this change your perception of your academic experience? What would you do differently?

Barnard’s curriculum focuses on giving the first year two kinds of classroom experiences: a seminar experience and an intro class experience. The seminars include an English class (from a choice of three) and a seminar, of the student’s choice. Both classes are limited to 16 first years, seated around a conference table. These classes strongly prioritize discussion, and you cannot come to them without having done the previous night’s reading! These two classes are very intense, but are fortunately balanced with the other more general intro classes that are available. The sizes of these depend on the professor, the kind of class, and its associated demand. Since there is a lot of cross registration between Barnard and Columbia, the lectures vary in size, and tend to range from 40 students to 200 students. The smaller classes that I took were usually at Barnard, while the larger lectures were at Columbia. However there were also larger lectures at Barnard, which made the whole academic experience pretty diverse. I was definitely satisfied and enjoyed the freedom to take a variety of large and small classes, some small and intense, other larger and often less intense. The freedom to choose was key.

In the sophomore year students choose their major, and make their class choices based on it. On the whole, most majors have small class sizes, as the classes are more specific, no longer introductory. They are often limited to that particular major, making the student body a more expert group of individuals on the subject. The size of these classes range from about 30 to a seminar of 3, depending on the size of the program. Since I was an architecture major, a major perceived to be one of the most intense, my whole program consisted of about 60 students with very small class sizes. The major is currently shared by Barnard and Columbia, but is housed at Barnard. This results in an even mix of Columbia and Barnard students.

If I were to do anything different, it would be taking a few popular lecture courses in other areas. The university offers so many interesting options with some really amazing professors, and there just isn’t enough time to take them all! It isn’t hard to take a few every semester, if you plan it well.

5. What is your current major interest? Did this change over time? Explain if it did? Do you think that the courses you took to fulfill general education requirements were good? What would you change about the choices you made?

I majored in architecture, and initially applied to Barnard with this in mind. I had researched a variety of 5-year architecture schools, but found their admissions criteria to be too much for me, especially considering how I didn’t have a substantial portfolio of design work. And since I had a lot of other interests, I decided to choose a program that would let me try other things while also letting me major in architecture. This was a great experience. The courses that I took to fulfill general education requirements were great because they served as a balance to my somewhat intensive major requirements. They also let me explore the multitude of courses that many schools at Columbia offered. As an undergrad at Barnard, you are allowed to cross register at a lot of departments and schools outside of Columbia College. This includes courses at the business school, the architecture school (amazing to take classes with famed architects!) and their school of international affairs. If I could, I would have taken more courses outside my major, especially during my senior year. Since I was working part time, this was really difficult to do.

6. Was the ratio of international students/total population an important criterion in your selection of schools? Did you feel trapped in any sort of bubble or clique? Did your perceptions about diversity change while you were in college?

The ratio of international students to the total population was not an important criterion in my selection of schools, as I am an American. Diversity, however, was a very important factor in my decision. I chose an urban campus that prioritized diversity as one of its commitments and made sure to compare its diversity rates to other schools. I was very satisfied with Barnard’s diversity. As a first year student who did not grow up entirely in the US, I did find it difficult in the beginning to find a group of friends with a similar background. On one hand I was American, and therefore not an international student, but on the other hand, I didn’t share the same hometown or high school experiences that the other kids did. Even the Indian kids from the US were foreign to me.

It’s true that a lot of first years tended to stick to others who came from similar geographical backgrounds, as they felt the most comfortable that way. In the beginning I found myself vacillating between all kinds of groups, trying to fit in. This including Indians from India, Indians from the US, and non-Indians. I don’t think I found a sense of comfort too easily. Luckily, I was a part of a very diverse community. And since I was in New York City, I realized the benefits of not participating in just one insular social scene. Eventually, most of my friends became people from student groups and my people from my major.

7. Can you comment on the overall personality of the student body? What aspects of this did you like/dislike?

The overall student body is extremely ambitious and driven. Being in New York City, there is a constant pressure to get a coveted internship or job in the city. Most students by the end of their sophomore year have had some kind of work experience, even if it’s just research for a professor. I think that this pressure was a good thing, despite me often feeling like I couldn’t just relax and enjoy any time off. Compared to a lot of my friends who went to other schools, I have a lot more professional experience. The other characteristic of the student body is that they have a certain urban edge; students at Barnard come to the school expecting to immerse themselves in New York City. They are very involved off campus. They don’t choose the school based on its campus life, and if you do, you might be a little disappointed. But these same students who have vital lives in the city are also exceptionally studious. People study a lot. Although there isn’t too much partying, people manage to have their fun. In the little free time they have, Barnard students tend to prefer off campus bars and other urban attractions to Columbia parties. They’re sophisticated like that! Luckily this suited me as I found myself, along with a lot of other like-minded people, choosing to explore the city’s many attractions over spending my weekends on campus.

8. What were the two or three things that you discovered about your school that really worked for you?

The first thing that really worked for me was the like-minded nature of other students when it came to finding the balance between work and play. I work hard, but also like to have a little fun every now and then. Barnard/Columbia was a great environment for that since most students want to excel. But being in New York City, people cannot ignore the excitement around them, and make sure to take advantage of that. Another thing that really worked for me, as I’m sure you already know by now, was the school’s cross-registration freedom, as that allowed me to take a really diverse and interesting mixture of classes, of varying sizes and perceived rigor. And finally, the third thing that really worked for me was the school’s Architecture program. The program’s structure lets students cross register with the Graduate School of Preservation and Planning at Columbia, home to many famous architects and historians. It was amazing to take graduate level classes with really accomplished architects. Since my program was housed at Barnard, its classes were pretty small and the relationship between students and faculty was extremely intimate. It was through my advisors and professors that I got to know the architecture scene in New York, as they all held interesting practices in the city. My first architectural internship and my first job were both somewhat facilitated by a professor of mine. Although people say connections shouldn’t matter, in this kind of economy, they do. That’s not to say that I didn’t work hard! I did, but was fortunate to have the guidance of experts in the field. The kind of relationships that I fostered with my professors applies to the experience of most students. It’s inevitable that you will get to know your professors and advisors well, and that they will get to know you too. These connections, combined with the school’s amazing career development resources make it very difficult for one to not find an interesting internship or job.