At Oxy, community, opportunity, and the chance to chart your own path

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Last year, I wrote about Oxy and some of the features that set it apart from other liberal arts colleges.  This week, I had the chance to visit for the school’s annual “Discover Occidental – Spring Preview Day for Juniors.”  I found a welcoming community, abounding possibilities for students to personalize their college experience, and helpful information on what Oxy is seeking in successful applicants.

“Relationships,” my daughter easily responded when I asked her for one word to describe Oxy after our half day there.  Our tour guide had called Oxy a “collaborative rather than competitive” campus and recounted funny stories about her professors, including one about a science instructor who created a dance move to help her understand a chemical reaction.  We saw those dynamics play out in real time as Oxy students interacted warmly all over campus, including across any demographic category that you could imagine (race, gender, age, etc.).  Walking around at Oxy, we felt like we were visiting the “really tight community” that our tour guide had described.

For a relatively small liberal arts college (2000 students), Oxy offers incredible opportunities, many tied to the City of Los Angeles.  The school curates 40 internships around LA and offers free transport for students who want to leave campus to take advantage of what the city offers.  Sometimes LA comes to Oxy, such as NCISGlee, Samsung, and Toyota that have all filmed there.  These film productions, when they come to campus, must take on at least two interns so that students can benefit from their presence.  The office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, a former Oxy faculty member himself, collaborates closely with the college to create opportunities for students.  Even the Oxy curriculum incorporates community-based opportunities, such as a class project for which students translated a local hospital’s patient guide into Spanish.

Students at Oxy get the latitude to chart their own path both inside and outside the classroom, in line with the school’s liberal arts values.  “Anyone can start a club,” our tour guide told us.  “All you need is three people, an idea, and an advisor.”  Students passionate about politics can take part in Campaign Semester, through which they embed themselves in a political campaign for a semester, while still earning full academic credit.  Oxy at the UN offers the only undergraduate internship available at the United Nations.  Students at Occidental who take the initiative can incorporate their passions into both their daily lives and their studies in unique and interesting ways.

Parents sometimes express concerns about their children’s employment prospects after college, fearing that a liberal arts education will not provide enough of a pre-professional foundation.  But Oxy attracts top employers, including Google, Bank of America, Microsoft, Morgan Stanley, and the U.S. Department of State.  A whopping 90% of students benefit from an internship experience prior to graduating.  Whether through the soft skills that they develop in Oxy’s highly interactive community or through the applied experiences they have in Oxy’s unique interest-based programs, Oxy students succeed at straddling the line between a liberal arts education and success after college.

Creating this unique learning environment falls to the admissions team, one that clearly dedicates thought and energy to putting together each entering freshman class.  Oxy, as a “writing intensive institution,” cares “quite a bit about your performance in your English classes.”  The admissions team describes the typical Oxy student as one who earned B+/A- in AP classes and who fell in the top 10-20% of their graduating class.  Because high schools calculate grade point average (GPA) so differently, Oxy recomputes an unweighted GPA for every applicant based on the five core subjects (English, History, Mathematics, Science, World Language).  The median GPA for admitted students falls at 3.7, meaning that 50% earned a high school GPA above 3.7 and 50% earned a GPA below.  Most Oxy students took 3-6 AP courses in high school, depending on what their school offered.  Academic performance in grades 10 and 11 matters most of all and an upward trajectory can compensate for inconsistent performance early in high school.  Oxy superscores both the ACT and SAT and does not require either subject tests or AP exams.

With extracurricular activities, Oxy privileges depth over breadth:  “We want students who are really passionate about a few things.”  In considering applicants, the admissions team spends time “thinking about what kind of community member you will be here.”  With that in mind, they want to see how kids spend their time outside of the classroom.  Every application gets multiple reads, with the team spending sometimes a cumulative total of 60 minutes on an individual file before going to committee.

Oxy reserves a third of its seats for Early Decision (ED) and unabashedly states that students who apply ED get preference in the admissions process.  In fact, at Oxy, the academic markers for students who apply ED fall slightly lower than those who apply Regular Decision (RD).  The ED and RD admit rates come in at 50% and 35% respectively.

President Barack Obama, who spent his first two years of college at Oxy, credits the school with awakening his interest in politics.  After spending the better part of a day on campus, I could understand why.  I left Oxy feeling energized and inspired to recommend it to students who want to take the initiative in shaping their education as part of a close-knit, intellectually rich community.