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  • Writer's pictureBeth & Tim Manners

Colorado College: Odyssey of Individuality

Updated: Oct 24, 2022

Somehow, high-flying Colorado College manages to stay below the radar of a good chunk of exceptional students who just might find it to be the perfect academic environment. With an admit rate of about 14 percent, it certainly should catch the interest of those seeking a school for the most inquisitive of intellects. Given the wild popularity of nearby CU Boulder, one might think CC would at least bask in some reflected energy from that Colorado cool.

Its relatively obscurity, despite its exacting standards, might have something to do with its small size: just 2,000 undergraduates in total. Yet other top schools of similar size and selectivity -- Williams, Vassar, Middlebury, for instance -- seem to enjoy a relatively higher profile. It could be intentional on CC’s part; there’s a certain appeal to be in-the-know. Or, maybe it has something to do with CC’s purposefully original and distinctive academic framework.

If you’ve never heard of Colorado College then you almost certainly are unfamiliar with the “Block System.” The idea is that you study just one subject at a time, intensively, for three-and-a-half weeks. Classes run from nine until noon, with the rest of the day left open for anything else you need or would like to do. You take your final or submit your paper, get four-and-a-half days off, and then it’s onto a new subject. The pattern repeats four times per semester, over two semesters per year. Thirty-two classes are required to graduate, half from outside one’s major.

It’s definitely not for blockheads.

The idea is both to immerse yourself in a sole focus for a defined period of time while also enjoying the flexibility to pursue other interests during the course and the approximately four days of free time that follow it. The Block Plan may or may not align with your learning style, but clearly Colorado College is onto something meaningful and very different for those who dare to be different. It is one of about a half-dozen North American colleges playing with blocks (Cornell College in Iowa, not to be confused with the ivy-league university, is one of the others).

One of the most common complaints we hear from students after touring multiple schools is that one seems pretty much like all the rest. It’s true: Many schools tend to say many of the same things. Sometimes their campuses look alike. Not to be outdone, CC’s campus is among the most beautiful we’ve seen; as green as the eye can see with that amazing mountain range on the horizon. It’s in Colorado Springs -- what’s not to love about that? Yet its physical attributes, the thing that we tend to notice first, is a small matter in CC’s scheme of things.

When visiting schools, we always urge our students to listen for the quirks. There’s almost always something, although many, if not most schools, do not do a great job of highlighting what sets them apart. Whatever you conclude about Colorado College’s iconoclastic theory of excellence in education, you must admit that it and its students cut a path less traveled.

Another major refrain we hear from students is that they won’t consider a small school because “it’s not much bigger than my high school.” This is a deeply flawed premise that most small colleges, and especially Colorado College, blow to smithereens.

The student population at any small college is the only thing that might be similar to your high school and especially an innovative school like CC. Your college experience will be nothing like high school, regardless of its size. Whether it’s CC’s Block Plan or something more conventional your personal growth will know few boundaries, if any. In other words, you’re on your own and that is life-changing.

The thing about smaller schools, and Colorado College especially, is that you can’t hide. Classes are small and camaraderie is big. Come prepared for a CC seminar style that demands your full engagement with professors and 16-18 fellow students. That’s certainly challenging for introverts especially, but it’s hard to imagine a higher-quality setting if you are going to college not just to earn a degree but to stretch, challenge and explore the world outside your safe space. No question but that it is an intense, but high potential, environment.

Colorado College extends its Block philosophy to its study-abroad program to spectacular effect. If you elect to study in Greece, for instance, you might board a sailboat and follow the path of Odysseus while analyzing Homer’s epic poem. Can you imagine? An odyssey within The Odyssey. Field study is also a major feature at CC, with 100% of students participating, and 70% within their first year.

Our tour guide, Will, who identified with gender-neutral “they/them” pronouns and asked each student to state identities similarly, may personify or be a metaphor for CC’s odyssey of individuality. Will began the tour by pointing out that part of the campus was built on Native-American land, made a brief pitch for reparations, and did not shy away from mentioning the political tensions between the largely progressive student body and its rightward-leaning neighborhood.

A sociology and theater major, Will immediately underscored the strong arts presence on campus. Our very first stop, albeit from a distance, was Packard Hall, which houses the music and arts department, and features classrooms tricked out with the latest audio/visual equipment, lesson and practice rooms as well as recording studios, a music library and performance hall.

Will also highlighted a thematic minor called The Book, which explores printed volumes as text, art, history and media. Other thematic minors are a "thing" at CC. Will cited CC’s biennial Dance Workshop as a favorite event because nearly everyone on campus gets involved in producing it, regardless of dancing ability. The creative streak ran through other aspects of our tour in ways big and small, even including a grand piano in dormitory common space. Other unusual CC assets are a fully-working cadaver lab (!) and a rock-climbing room.

It’s become standard fare for guides to explain why they chose the school at tour’s end. Will didn’t do this and seemed stumped when someone in our group asked the question. Perhaps it’s because the reasons to choose CC (or not) are so plainly self-evident and internalized in the campus philosophy and culture that it doesn’t require further explanation.

After the tour we met for about an hour with CC’s newly arrived dean of admissions, Karen Kristof, who spent the previous three decades in admissions at the venerable Smith College. While munching on Jimmy John subs she so thoughtfully provided, we rolled through a wide range of admissions-related topics.

Karen happens to be the admissions counselor for Connecticut, is very familiar with our high schools and is nothing but eager to hear from students intrigued by CC’s nearly unique format. While acknowledging that it is not for everyone, she was emphatic that those who connect with it, drop-dead love it.

Beyond academic fit, also consider the financial aspects (100% of calculated need is met but merit aid is limited; the school is not “need blind”) and the social, given CC’s intimate ecosystem. Culturally, the school sees itself as open-hearted, non status-quo, committed both to questioning authority and making the world a better place.

As with most smaller and highly-selective schools, CC’s process is holistic and places a premium on grades and rigor, since obviously you’ve got to be able to hack it academically. Test optional since 2019, the prevailing sentiment is that test scores are not a great predictor of CC success. Rather than putting time into taking the boards multiple times, Karen advises investing in personal growth activities instead, something you enjoy, even if it seems unimportant, like, say, mushroom hunting.

CC prizes “something different” in your background, perhaps best expressed in your personal statement. Just as important, Karen expects something meaningful in the “Why CC” essay; not just that you are intrigued by the Block Plan, but rather why you think it’s right for you and how you plan to apply it. As with most highly-selective schools, your best chance is to apply Early Decision because the admit rate drops into low single-digits by the time Regular Decision applications are on the table.

As we left the admissions office, we noticed something we don’t see at many, if any, schools. A vertical video monitor, with a beauty shot of the campus in the background, listed the first names and hometowns of each prospective student visiting campus that day. A small thing at a small school, that says something big, if you’re open to hearing about it.

(Editor’s Note: Compared to our average post about a college tour, it took about twice as many words to describe this “small” school adequately).

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