Carleton College

Written by Abby Power, guest blogger

Carleton College is a highly se­lective liberal arts college located in the small, rural town of Northfield MN, just 40 miles south of Minneapolis-St Paul.

Central Campus
Central Campus

The campus is small and pretty with mostly red brick buildings. At the center of the campus is an open field called “the Bald Spot”, which is used for ultimate frisbee in the warmer months and for ice-skating during the winter. An 880-acre Arboretum with plenty of walking, running, biking and cross-country skiing trails sits adjacent to campus.

Winters can be long and cold, but it’s surprisingly sunny in Minnesota and the students embrace the season and amuse themselves with broomball, hockey, skiing, inter-collegiate snowball fights, and traying. The academics at Carleton are definitely serious but the place has a unique and quirky spirit and even a sense of humor.

Theater Class
Theater Class

With only 2,055 students, Carleton feels pretty intimate. Our tour guide, a sophomore from Texas, knew every student and faculty member that we passed along our way. For such a small school, the student community is surprisingly diverse. Students come from 50 states and 42 countries with more than 20% identifying as students of color. 50% of students are from the Midwest, including 20% from Minnesota, and both coasts are well represented.

Carleton’s students are difficult to categorize because they are a diverse, individualistic and quirky bunch. But they are generally intellectually curious, laid back, have a passion for new experiences, and have broad-ranging interests. As an example, our guide was a chemistry major, who also founded the Carleton Shakespeare Club, played ultimate frisbee and broomball, danced in West Coast Swing competitions, and acted in several on-campus productions.

He explained that Carleton is the kind of place where you can try new things without feeling judged. The students (“Carls”) support each other in everything — “Carls help Carls” he told us. Friendships seem to cross traditional boundaries. Our guide explained, “We’re all a bit nerdy.  Even the football players are happy to sit down and debate Lord of the Rings.” Politics here lean a bit to the left but there’s something for everyone. It’s an inclusive and accepting place with a strong LGBT community.

The academic environment at Carleton is rigorous but not competitive. Students are known to enjoy learning for the sake of learning. Our guide did mention that because of the trimester system, there’s only a small break between classes and it can feel “pretty intense” at times. The school offers 33 majors and 15 concentrations in the arts, humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences.

Because of the distribution requirements, students are exposed to a wide variety of subjects — English composition, foreign language, arts and literature, history, philosophy, religion, social sciences, math, natural sciences and global citizenship.

Professors often encourage students to dive deep into multiple areas and make connections between disciplines, requiring students to stretch their thinking.  Our guide somehow managed to analyze the connections between the study of chemistry and Stage Theater. There is also a Center for Community and Civic Engagement, which gives students the opportunity to structure projects combining traditional volunteer service with academic studies.

More than 70 percent of the student body participates in off-campus study in a wide range of places from New York to Mali. The student-faculty ratio is 9:1 and the average class size is just 18 students. This small size allows professors to develop mentoring relationships with the students and it’s common for students to help professors with their research.

Not surprisingly, the faculty received rave reviews from all of the students with whom I spoke. And the feeling was mutual — an economics Professor I met said, “Carleton is a wonderful place with terrific kids. They are interesting and interested.”  Carleton President, Steve Poskanzer (or Stevie P. as he’s known by the students), is very well liked and deeply involved in campus life.

He plays goalie on one of the 43 broomball teams and is frequently seen in classes and at events on campus. Each freshman student is invited to Stevie P.’s house for a welcome chat and some homemade apple crisp.

There are more than 130 student organizations on campus reflecting the incredibly broad interests of the students — everything from a cappella to fly-fishing. We visited the 80,000 square-foot Rec Center on campus, which our guide told us is consistently packed, especially in the winter.

Carleton sponsors 22 Division III sports teams and there are countless club and intramural teams. 90 percent of students participate in some sort of sport and again, there is something for everyone. Activities range from quidditch, dodge ball and sand volleyball, to the more traditional college sports. The Ultimate Frisbee Team is nationally ranked and competes at the highest levels.

All freshmen live in residential housing and 90% of students stay on campus for their entire four years. The dorms are comfortable but feel a bit “lived-in.” All rooms are doubles and there’s a lounge on each floor. Our guide says that the dorms compete for best food but that the food is just “pretty good”. There is some off-campus housing and there are several shared interest houses, which are organized around academic interest, ethnicity, religion, athletics, hobbies, etc.

Dorm room and Lounge
Dorm room and Lounge
carlton dorm 2

The public spaces including the library, cafes and study areas feel modern and welcoming.

Cafe and study area
Cafe and study area
Study area
Study area

Given the individualistic spirit of the students, it’s not surprising that there is no Greek system at Carleton. The social life revolves almost exclusively around what’s happening on campus. There are parties, dances, bands, concerts, theater productions, movie screenings, comedy performances and sporting events. Social events are very inclusive, our guide tells us, and there’s no shortage of fun — “I’d bet that there’s more dancing per capita on this campus than anywhere else!” The small town of Northfield, although charming, doesn’t offer much for students besides a few cafes.

Main Street Northfield
Main Street Northfield

There are a few unique traditions on campus that build community and truly personify the students here. For example, the “Silent Dance Party” begins at 11:00pm on the night before finals. Hundreds of students gather in the library, load a common playlist on their MP3 players, don their headphones, count down, press play at the exact same moment, and dance together in silence for an hour all over the library. Another beloved tradition is “Rotblatt”, a marathon softball game that begins at sunrise and lasts one inning for each year of Carleton’s existence since it was founded in 1866. Players are encouraged to both bat and field with a “beverage” in one hand. There are many more with names like “Primal Scream”, “Hunt for Schiller” and “Baking Cookies at Dacie’s” ( But, our guide’s favorite Carleton tradition is “Friday Flowers.” Every Friday, students buy flowers and leave them in friends’ mailboxes to show support or “just because.”

If I had to choose one word to describe the environment at Carleton it would be “welcoming”. Carleton has an interesting mix of students and is a great fit for intellectually curious, engaged, energetic, individualistic, non-competitive, community-minded students who are searching for new adventures and experiences and don’t mind “a little cold weather”.

2014 Admissions Information:

  • Mid 50% range ACT 29-33
  • Mid 50% range SAT math 680-770
  • Mid 50% range SAT reading 660-750
  • Mid 50% range SAT writing 660-750
  • 80% of freshman were in top 10% of class, 97% were in top 20%
  • No merit aid
  • Meet full demonstrated financial need
  • 52% of freshmen received aid with average package of $40k+
  • Freshman to sophomore retention rate 97%
  • Four-year graduation rate 93%

Carleton College

1 North College Street

Northfield, MN 55057

(507) 222-4000
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