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  • Bentham Admissions Team

What does Liberal Arts mean?

The concept of the liberal arts descends from Plato, who believed that any wise, compassionate, and trustworthy citizen would have mastered what he called the “seven arts” (logic, grammar, rhetoric, arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music). Although a great many more subjects are now covered in the liberal arts, the assumption is the same - a young adult should study a variety of disciplines to become a good and able person. The liberal arts are not merely about ensuring a paycheck. The study of history, political science, sociology, biology, and the rest will make you a good voter, a good parent, a good neighbor, and a lively and curious lifelong learner.


In this sense, the liberal arts are about learning for the sake of learning. They are not transitive. You do not learn about literature as part of your training to become something.


Here is a little poem to illustrate the difference between the transitive and the intransitive:

The carpenter planes the wood.

The rose blooms.


“Blooms” is an intransitive verb because it is not in the act of acting upon or achieving an object. When you study the liberal arts, you are the rose, opening out and expanding in a variety of directions. The word “liberal” in this case comes from the Latin word which means “free”.


Career benefits

But many liberal arts colleges today would flinch at this rather old-fashioned description (you can’t get much more old-fashioned than Plato). Colleges like Wellesley and Princeton want you to know that the liberal arts do train you well for many professions, including law, medicine, and the tech industry, where creativity and disciplined thinking are often required. As Princeton maintains, “These skills will elevate your conversations.. and strengthen your social and cultural analysis; they will cultivate the tools necessary to allow you to navigate the world’s most complex issues.” A doctor who has a liberal arts education in addition to medical training might be better able to communicate with and understand patients, more articulate in explaining a problem, and better able to understand the social or cultural context of the patient. Many professions call for one to be able to spontaneously articulate or evaluate an idea. A liberal arts education trains you for that.


Of course, we’re not talking here about a rare exotic beast that only dwells on small campuses behind ivied walls. Unless you are going directly into a business, engineering, or computer science program, you will be getting a liberal arts education, even at a large university.


What is a Liberal Arts College?

Liberal arts colleges are four-year undergraduate institutions offering degrees in the liberal arts fields of study, including humanities, sciences, and social sciences.

Most liberal arts colleges do not offer separate professional education programs, such as business and engineering schools, which are designed to give students specialized training for specific professional practice. Because they are not usually major research and pre-professional institutions, they are smaller and focused on undergraduate education and undergraduate student life. Students are often afraid that these schools will be “too small”, but 2500 to 10,000 students are still more than you can meet in four years. It would be difficult to get tired of everyone.


What is a Liberal Arts College Looking For in an Applicant?

Because a liberal arts college educates students in learning for its own sake, learning for those that enjoy the process of learning - reading, discussion, experimenting, exploring difficult problems - it should be obvious what they are looking for in applicants: evidence of a passion for learning, even outside of the classroom and over the summer. Those colleges who are only admitting stellar applicants look for what is most desirable of all: students who have been passionate about one subject or skill throughout their high school career, to the extent that they have become involved in college-level research, or created a well-publicized nonprofit serving their community, or blogged their way through reading everything Phip K. Dick ever wrote… that sort of person. Of course, having strong grades, strong test scores, and leadership positions in strong academic extracurriculars (mock trial, French club, robotics, etc.) is also important. Ultimately, though, liberal arts colleges are trying to avoid students who are only focused on getting A’s and padding their resumes. If an applicant doesn’t have a passion, the applicant needs to at least create the appearance that they do. Bentham Admissions can help.

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