College Tour Highlights: Washington & Oregon
Updated: Jun 7
Every May, the Independent Educational Consultant Association (IECA) hosts its spring conference, and this year’s was in Seattle, WA. We didn’t see an ounce of precipitation (meanwhile, our homes in Colorado have been flooding), and we’re starting to think that the rumors about the Pacific Northwest being rainy and gloomy most of the year are just a lie to keep the general masses from moving in and inundating the housing market even further.
Joking aside, we were particularly excited about this conference’s location because there are so many local colleges and universities to explore, and we took full advantage by participating in a two-day whirlwind tour of six Washington colleges and universities! After our IECA-sponsored tours of Washington institutions, we took a train south to spend an additional week visiting another six institutions in Oregon. We were also joined by Tonica Johnson, founder of Cardinal College Planning, as we went on our journey!
Table of Contents:
Disclaimer: The highlights of our college visits below are by no means exhaustive or all-encompassing. These are just some thoughts and notes about our experiences on the particular day of our visit and some facts we feel make each institution stand out. Information is based on admissions presentations, discussions with student tour guides, and basic research from an institution's website.
University of Washington
Our first day of college tours began at the University of Washington–Seattle (UW; pronounced you-dub). What an incredible campus! While many consider it to be urban (they’re not wrong, it’s definitely smack dab in the middle of a city), we were pleasantly surprised to find that despite its proximity to urban life, the campus itself feels stereotypically college-esque. This part of the country is stunningly green in the spring, and the campus landscaping and incredible trees made us immediately forget about the skyscrapers a few blocks away. As a bonus, students get a beautiful view of Mount Rainier from campus on clear days!
As with most colleges and universities in the US, the University of Washington’s most popular majors include Business, Computer Science, Psychology, and Engineering. However, they offer more than 180 majors and they each fall into one of three categories: open, minimum requirement, and capacity constraint.
The open majors are those that students can freely transfer into without any barriers.
Minimum requirement majors ask students to complete some reasonable prerequisite courses before declaring. For example, in order to be eligible for certain STEM majors, students need to have taken calculus prior to being able to declare the major.
Lastly, the capacity constraint majors are those that are the most difficult to get into because they have limited faculty and facilities to educate students in those fields as compared to the number of interested students. These majors include Computer Science, Business, Engineering, Neuroscience, and Construction Management. The recommended admission strategy is to identify these majors of interest as the first-choice major, but be sure to identify a second-choice major if the goal is to attend UW because if not admitted to that first-choice, they won’t re-evaluate the application without a second option selected. If not admitted to the capacity constraint major at the time of application, there are several opportunities to be admitted to those majors once enrolled on campus, but there’s no guarantee of admission. Capacity constraint majors do have a direct-admit option, which is why space is more limited for other students to join later.
While it may feel that these constraints are particularly limiting to students, it’s important to note that 80% of admitted students are admitted as a pre-major (pre-art, pre-health sciences, pre-humanities, pre-social science, or pre-environmental science). The admissions team at UW encourages applicants to demonstrate rigor by taking challenging courses and performing well in them. Especially for the more selective majors, it’s important that students exceed at least a few of the minimum requirements to be competitive in the applicant pool. Additionally, the admission team evaluates applications using the unweighted GPA, but they also pay attention to grade trends (upward or downward trajectory of grades over time).
UW is currently test optional for all applicants, but their test-informed admission practices differ greatly from other institutions. In the first round of application review, they don’t see the scores from ANY applicant. Once applications are divided into admit and deny piles, they do a second round of review where the application readers can see the scores of those who elected to apply with scores, which is where the test scores come into play for students in the deny pile (a high score can tip the scale toward the admit pile).
Unlike most schools that use the Common Application, UW does NOT read the main Common Application personal statement essay. Instead, they request their own personal statement in the UW section of the application (but students can typically use their Common App essays in this section). In the activities list, application readers are trained to identify meaningful engagement, character, values, and interests of the student. And lastly, admissions does NOT read the school report that is typically sent by the high school counselor (this is the document that explains the course offerings and limitations at the high school to provide context for each application). As a result, they expect students to utilize the Additional Information section to explain any nuances (for example, some high schools don’t allow students to take AP or IB courses until they’ve passed the general education course of the same name).
Fun Fact: The most popular class on campus, which enrolls over 700 students in each section, is a class about dinosaurs!
Seattle Pacific University
If Seattle is where the student wants to be, but the prospect of a large public institution is daunting, students might find a home at Seattle Pacific University (SPU). We had heard rumors of some tension between the faculty and board of the institution for opposing schools of thought, so we weren’t quite sure what to expect on campus. While the school maintains strong roots in its Christian foundation, we were greeted by a warm and welcoming community of students who were genuinely supportive of all members. SPU is certainly a Christian-affiliated school in a progressive environment, which we saw reflected in the student body. The current incoming class includes many first-generation college students (43%) and 54% identify as coming from under-represented populations.
SPU is nestled in suburban Seattle (Queen Anne’s neighborhood, to be specific), but maintains easy urban access (a 10-minute bus ride to downtown Seattle), which provides students ample opportunities for internships and pre-professional experiences. The campus is relatively small and very manageable, and the school boasts a student population of about 2,400. Due to its small size, we were particularly surprised to learn they offer more than 300 study abroad opportunities, 12 NCAA DII sports teams, and over 25 intramural teams.
The University Honors program is particularly unique in that it is actually a major, so most honors students either double or triple major. They admit about 40 students per class, and the program consists of smaller, more intensive discussion-based courses. SPU has bucked other traditions as well, including the typical tuition hike we see at most colleges and universities in the US. In 2020, they actually dropped their tuition by 25%, making private school education particularly affordable amongst a sea of other expensive small private institutions. They have increased tuition annually, but the total cost has remained lower than most, and likely will for the foreseeable future.
While all of this information is important, students and counselors alike seemed particularly excited about the fact that laundry is included in their tuition (so most students actually wash their sheets consistently!). SPU is also home to such a creative and musically-talented student body that they actually have three separate music buildings on campus to accommodate! They are the only institution in the state of Washington that offers a music therapy major to undergraduate students, and their interior design and fashion design majors have strong connections to the respective industries in large cities like Los Angeles and New York. Their nutrition program even has a food lab on campus, which often hosts well-attended student-run taste-testing events.
Pacific Lutheran University
After our visit to SPU, we found our way over to Tacoma, which we heard described as the “grittier underdog of Seattle”. Pacific Lutheran University (PLU) was founded by Norwegian Lutheran immigrants in 1890, so the campus is steeped in rich history, including frequent visits by Norwegian royalty. If you’re looking for a student-centered institution, PLU may be a fabulous fit. As a result of the COVID pandemic, PLU offered an entire year of free tuition to all students to make up for the year they spent online, a clear indication of the emphasis they put on the student community, values, and experience. They also allow and encourage Emotional Support Animals on campus, and have heated bathroom floors in some of the dorms to ensure the students feel cozy and at home on campus.
PLU’s top majors include nursing, music, and kinesiology. Their nursing program boasts impressive exam pass rates (85-94% in any given year, about twice the national average), and the school also has an over 80% placement rate for medical school, which significantly exceeds the national average.
Additionally, their music program doesn’t require an audition to be admitted (but auditions can increase scholarship opportunities). As a result, over a quarter of the student population is involved in the music program in some capacity. PLU is also home to the largest organ on a college campus west of the Mississippi.
Over 51% of PLU students study abroad during their undergraduate experience, and they were the first university to have a student on all seven continents in any given year. That’s right, they have a study-abroad opportunity in Antarctica! And while their music program is robust, their STEM programs also stand out and the vast majority of STEM students engage in research on campus that leads to publications prior to graduation.
The Center for Diversity, Justice, and Sustainability helps to plan several retreats for students prior to the start of school, to help students find community (including a BIPOC retreat and a Queer Student Retreat). The school also ensures opportunities for employment for all students, regardless of if they were offered a work-study position through the office of financial aid, a true testament to PLU’s commitment to providing experiential learning opportunities. And similar to SPU, PLU has made significant efforts to build a diverse class of students (this year, about a third of the incoming student body is first-generation college, and over half identify as students of color). The emphasis they put on developing global citizens is also apparent in their unique International Honors Program.
University of Puget Sound
Of all the college visits we had planned in Washington, the University of Puget Sound (UPS) was the one I was most looking forward to. Nestled in a neighborhood in Tacoma, WA, UPS’s campus was perfectly manicured and incredibly warm and welcoming, despite the fact that finals had just ended and most students had already left for the summer. We started the tour in their new welcome center (which was originally slated to open the week the Covid 19 pandemic shuttered campuses across the USA), which felt like a cozy cabin. That building alone could probably sway many families to apply to UPS!
We were lucky enough to be paired with a student tour guide from Colorado who had just finished her first year at UPS. Her enthusiasm was contagious, and it was abundantly clear that she had absolutely loved her first-year experience. UPS is the kind of school where community is easily built and the student body of almost 2000 students truly feels like a big, supportive family.
The core values sought after in prospective students include self-expression, collegiality, passion, courage, diversity, leadership, stewardship, and environment. They have a robust and engaging maker’s space available for students to utilize (which includes 3D printers and craft supplies) to encourage creativity. In fact, the largest club on campus is the Repertoire Dance Group (RDG), which frequently sells out shows. Any student is welcome to join, and the audition process is simply to place students into dance routines. 30% of the student body is part of Greek Life, but the Greek housing is owned by the university so the experience is pretty tame compared to some other institutions. Additionally, about 30% of the student body participates in the NCAA DIII athletics program on campus.
UPS is one of the Colleges That Change Lives and two programs in particular stood out:
The first is the Seminar for Scholarly Inquiry, which is a two-semester course (students can select from a list of many topics) of about a dozen students. The first semester is writing-based, to ensure that all students are prepared for the rigors of college writing and the academic expectations in the classroom. The second semester is research-based, where students learn about the resources available on campus and how to most effectively utilize them.
The second program is the peer academic advisors, where first-year students are paired with a peer mentor who is a third or fourth-year student. The mentor meets with the first-year student once a month to check in, make sure they are adjusting well, help with scheduling or course registration, etc.
Both of these programs truly support the mission of the university, that the school is a community of learning, and maintains a strong commitment to teaching excellence and scholarly engagement.
Saint Martin’s University
One of the best parts about participating in extensive college tours is learning about new schools that were not on our radar yet, like Saint Martin’s. Originally founded by Benedictine monks as an all-boys boarding school, Saint Martin’s now boasts a co-ed student body of about 1400 students.
The institution emphasizes its Benedictine values throughout its small community. 100% of admitted students receive some form of merit scholarship, 59% of the student body identify as students of color, while 35% identify as first-general college students. It’s an incredibly diverse school with a beautiful 380-acre campus that includes an entire disc golf course for students to utilize. There are also many other free amenities including free mental health counseling (24/7 access, even on school breaks), free visits to the campus health center, free printing, free parking, and free Microsoft products.
The school just graduated its first PhD class but has offered several master’s level degrees for a while (typically taken as a 4+1 program). There is a significant focus on experiential learning, as evidenced by their robust research opportunities, community involvement (including a community kitchen), and excellent connections for internships. They even have a program called the Saint’s Promise, where students are guaranteed to be employed or in graduate school within six months of graduation, or they can receive a free semester of tuition for a graduate program or a paid three-month internship that is found by the school administrators.
The application process doesn’t require an essay or test scores, but the nursing program does require a separate application with an essay requirement. Their top majors are mechanical and civil engineering, nursing, psychology, business, and education, like many liberal arts institutions. And while the school maintains a religious foundation, students of all faiths are welcome.
The Evergreen State College
The Evergreen State College is known for its out-of-the-box approach to higher education. The school doesn’t provide grades (instead, they provide a narrative transcript), and students never declare a major because the school doesn’t offer majors. Instead, students register for “programs” which are a series of courses taken over a quarter (10-week term). The academic programs, team-taught by multiple faculty members, generally encompass multiple subjects and are a full-time immersive experience. This means that students are essentially taking one course at a time, but that course will cover many subtopics.
Instead of letter grades, students have conversations with their faculty members from their program about their progress and development in the course. They also incorporate a self-evaluation component, and all of this combined eventually leads to a narrative transcript that provides more qualitative content than quantitative.
In addition to the non-traditional grading and learning approach at The Evergreen State College, the school is home to many non-traditional students (about a third of the incoming first years). The average age of students on campus is 26, and over half of the incoming student body is comprised of transfer students. There isn’t Greek life, nor is there a strong athletic scene, but at Evergreen, student life stems from academic life.
There are also some notable fun facts to share about Evergreen:
You know the long-standing improv joke about majoring in underwater basket weaving? Legend has it that the joke originated at Evergreen, where they have an incredible weaving station for students to engage in the craft as both an artistic outlet and an opportunity to learn about indigenous cultures.
Their mascot may be the most unique mascot in the entire USA: the geoduck (pronounced goo-ee-duck). It’s a type of clam, and it has an absurd reputation (feel free to dive into the internet research rabbit hole when you’re done reading this blog, but please note that some images may be NSFW!).
Portland State University
Portland State University (PSU) is housed in downtown Portland, OR, a quick 90 minutes to both the beach and the mountains. While PSU is certainly an urban campus, there are sections of the school that feel much more like a traditional college campus. The 1300+ trees make PSU feel very much in nature (and it’s rated as one of the top 15 most green institutions, in terms of the landscape and sustainability efforts), but it’s only steps away from busy city streets lined with food carts. In fact, we were told there are over 50 food carts on PSU’s campus at any given time! Portland State is the most diverse campus in the state of Oregon, where 37% of students identify as first-generation college students and 48% are from diverse backgrounds. In order to promote socio-economic diversity, Oregon residents who are eligible for the Pell Grant are offered free tuition. The school also participates in the Western Undergraduate Exchange and offers a slew of other merit scholarships that are stackable.
While affordability is a huge driving factor in most students’ college decisions, a multitude of other factors should also be considered, including flexibility in the curriculum. The University Studies Program at PSU, which is essentially their general education program, encourages students to explore new fields of study and step out of their comfort zone. The courses in this program are discussion-based, and a student’s pathway program influences their first-year housing because students will take the courses as a cohort with the rest of their dorm floor. There is also a required capstone project and opportunities for students to engage with partner institutions for pre-professional experiences.
PSU offers over 200 majors and minors, yet they continually are adding new opportunities for students. Sonic Arts and Music Production is one of their newer majors, and a new Interior Design major begins in the Fall of 2023. The most popular majors are similar to other institutions, with a few outliers. Along with the usual psychology, computer science, biology, and business, some of their most popular majors include social work, criminology and criminal justice, and graphic design. The school intends to remain accessible to all students (even their architecture program doesn’t require a portfolio), so there is ample opportunity for students to explore majors and minors.
As with many large public institutions, PSU’s student population is close to 20,000. However, their average class size is 32, providing a small-school educational experience. The honors college also provides students with access to smaller, more interdisciplinary courses, and one of the nicer dorm options on campus.
PSU showcases its student-centered approach by offering unlimited nursing and counseling services to students 24/7 all year round, including light therapy and acupuncture. They even offer apartment-style living to first-year students! And with 15 NCAA DI sports teams, there are many ways for students to engage in school spirit and focus on their physical health.
Lewis and Clark College
Students who are looking for a small liberal arts college (about 2000 undergraduate students) in the Pacific Northwest, and who love outdoor adventures and being surrounded by trees are likely to fall in love with Lewis and Clark College. During our visit, the most-mentioned campus tradition was Moss Week (in February), if that’s any indication of how much the students thoroughly enjoy the natural beauty of their campus.
When we asked our tour guide how she would describe students at Lewis and Clark, she said, “supportive, engaged, and definitely creative”. The most sought-after course every term is a ceramics class, and one of the dorms has an art hub on the bottom floor that includes a screen printing studio, music practice rooms, and a mini ceramic studio. The chapel on campus is home to a gorgeous circular organ (that students are welcome to play!), and music majors can take free lessons in any and all instruments of interest, which is a pretty unique offering.
We hear students talk about their interest in studying abroad so frequently, that it’s easy to forget that the national percentage for students studying abroad is only 15%. However, Lewis and Clark sends about 60% of their students abroad during their undergraduate experience. There are three types of study abroad offerings through the school, including language immersion, department-specific, or regional. The former is self-explanatory. The department-specific option is typically led by a faculty member (45% of their faculty have participated/taught in a study abroad program) or is directly related to the area of study the student is pursuing. Lastly, the regional option allows students to select a location to explore, and the study abroad advisors can help students select courses that will transfer.
Unsurprisingly, psychology is their most popular major, but the biology, environmental science, and international affairs majors are close behind. The school always has a Diplomat in Residence to provide real-world experience and meaningful engagement for international affairs students. In addition to their many majors, Lewis and Clark also offers several dual programs, including a 3+3 law, 3+2 engineering, 4+1 education/teaching licensure program, and a business partnership with Babson in entrepreneurial innovation. And if a student is interested in a subject that isn’t offered at Lewis and Clark, they can enroll in relevant courses at Reed or Portland State University.
University of Oregon
We couldn’t spend a week in Oregon without heading south to Eugene for a visit to the University of Oregon. The school offers more than 300 undergraduate academic programs (and over 150 graduate programs), so there are opportunities for all students. As with many other large public institutions, there are some more selective majors that offer a direct-entry process, where first-year students are admitted straight into the major. If not admitted to one of those impacted majors, there are a couple of opportunities to transfer in once a few pre-requisite courses are completed.
As a result of their extensive academic offerings, U of O is consistently ranked as one of the top research universities in the USA. Students in any field can engage in research on campus, and they have many unique experiential learning opportunities in each school (some standouts are marine biology and special education). They even have an undergraduate cadaver lab for their human physiology students, and the school supposedly houses more zebrafish than students (rumor has it, it’s a 5:1 ratio!). While there are opportunities for research experience in all areas of study, the extensive psychology department is considered a natural science instead of a social science due to its focus on brain science and experimental techniques.
The school is vibrant, both in spirit and in physical features. Somehow, almost every building on campus looks and feels brand new! Greek life is available for those who are interested, but only about 17% of the student population participates. Outside of the Greek system, there are many engaging community traditions on campus so every student can find their people and place. Most notable is the street fair that happens every spring and fall term, where vendors and food trucks line the main road that cuts through campus. The student body also showcases community support and school pride by attending D1 sporting events.
The size of the University of Oregon is likely daunting to some, but there are many ways in which students make their experience feel like a smaller community. One way is by joining the honors college, where class sizes are fewer than 20 students and focused on interdisciplinary learning. Another is by participating in the optional First-Year Interest Group, where students are placed in a cohort with whom they take two courses. The cohorts are capped at 20 students and the program includes a weekly seminar discussion with the professor to ensure students are maintaining strong relationships and feel supported as they navigate their first quarter on campus.
Oregon State University
While Eugene felt more like a large town or small city, Corvallis definitely has the college town vibe. Surprisingly, the student body is larger at Oregon State University (OSU) than at the University of Oregon. OSU also has a campus in Bend and extensive online programming. Most students do wind up taking at least one course online, and since students pay by the credit hour, it’s often less expensive to add an online course or two. OSU offers over 200 different majors, and there are no impacted or capped majors which means students can freely explore a variety of subject areas until they find their fit. The institution promotes exploration so much that it developed the University Exploratory Program, which provides students with access to academic advisors and exposes them to many areas of study depending on their interests. **Note: OSU has a robust “Find your Major” tool, which can help first-years or any college student narrow down what they might want to study.**
Similar to each large institution we’ve discussed, participation in OSU’s honors college can help make the large school feel smaller and more manageable. The program requires a separate application essay but admitted students can anticipate many benefits of joining the college, including priority registration, better housing options, smaller class sizes, and special honors programming. Outside of honors, the average class size is only 27 students, but about 15% of courses do enroll over 100 students in each section.
There are many notable aspects of OSU that stand out, including their Textbook Lending Program (where students can rent out required textbooks for up to three months) and Beaver Bags (a school-run Hello Fresh-type meal preparation program). Academic opportunities that set the school apart include its two engineering co-op programs that provide admitted students with two paid 6-month internships (one at a large company, one at a smaller one). It does extend a student’s enrollment a full year, but they more than make up for the funding with the competitive intern salary that is equivalent to most starting salaries in the field.
Historically, Reed has been known as a small liberal arts college for eclectic quirky students, because quirkiness is often related to intellectual curiosity. While they may be trying to move away from the idea that prospective students must be quirky to assimilate into their community, they certainly are still looking for inquisitive and engaged individuals who aren’t afraid to contribute in class. In fact, it’s impossible for students to hide in the background at Reed, as their average class size is 16 students (with one major exception we’ll discuss later) and the seminar-style learning requires discourse amongst peers and faculty.
Every first-year student is required to take a general humanities course called HUM110, which is taught by 20 professors from all areas of study. The idea is that they are creating global individuals who can approach problems from multiple perspectives in order to develop solutions. As you can probably imagine, this course is the epitome of interdisciplinary.
If you’ve heard of Reed, you might be under the impression that students don’t receive grades, but that’s not actually the case. While students won’t see grades on their assignments, they can always ask the professor what grade they’re earning and they do have letter-grade transcripts. That being said, the Reed approach is to provide detailed feedback on assignments such that students learn to grow and develop beyond the notion of earning a particular letter grade.
The Reed experience is also rich in tradition, including a campus carnival and thesis-draft burning bonfire once the paper has been defended. On a related note, all seniors are required to write a thesis that demonstrates that they are producers of knowledge and not just consumers of knowledge. All theses are published and housed in their thesis tower in the library on campus. Students tend to hide cash in their theses for others to find, so be on the lookout when you visit! Since the school doesn’t have NCAA sports or Greek Life, students find other ways to cultivate community on campus, including through their five language houses, impressive club and organization offerings (the outdoor program is very popular), and study abroad programs. Students are encouraged to participate in internships and other practical experiences, like summer research (for which there is funding).
We would be remiss if we didn’t also mention a few incredibly notable fun facts about Reed! The first is that Reed is the only institution with an undergraduate-run nuclear reactor in the world. They are also the largest producer of PhDs per capita and meet full demonstrated need for admitted students. Lastly, the campus encompasses federally-protected wetlands, and it’s an incredibly peaceful study environment!
It’s probably pretty obvious at this point that we are often partial to the smaller liberal arts institutions for many reasons, and as another one of the Colleges That Change Lives, Willamette falls into that category. The campus actually feels a bit more urban than expected, with the largest state hospital on one end of campus and the state capitol building (quite literally) across the street on the opposite end. This is important to note because there are many myths floating around the higher education sphere about small liberal arts colleges (SLAC) not providing students with enough real-world applicable experience to be successful long term. Truthfully, that’s not the case at most SLACs, but definitely not at Willamette, which offers a robust list of internship and experiential learning opportunities.
Over 30% of students double-major, an indication that the student body deeply values interdisciplinary learning, and the school is supported by three professional schools (a fine arts institution and school of management in Portland, and the school of law next to the undergraduate campus). These partnerships afford students many dual degree opportunities, such as the 3+3 law program, the 4+1 data science program, and the 3+2 business program (all leading to graduate degrees in a shorter amount of time than typical). We were most surprised to learn that Willamette has a 57-year-old partnership with Tokyo International University, and their Japanese and Asian studies programs are some of the most popular on campus.
With 54 academic programs available, students can freely explore all of their academic interests during their time at Willamette. Students describe the educational experience there as rigorous, but not competitive, and the school boasts the most awards for Oregon Professor of the Year (of the 29 years that the Carnegie Foundation awarded this honor, 13 of them were for Willamette professors). Our tour guide and the admissions representative who led our information session both raved about how the professors were their favorite part of the Willamette experience because they genuinely care about learning and student success.
Only 30% of the student body are athletes (NCAA DIII), and every student is required to participate in either a research project, study abroad, or an internship as an experiential learning requirement (but most students engage in more than one). There are a handful of sororities and fraternities at Willamette, but fewer than 10% of the student body participate and they don’t have Greek housing. However, as with most institutions, there are many other ways for students to find community, including through their 80+ clubs and organizations, the 20 music ensembles and performing arts initiatives, and the outdoor program. Collectively, the student body engages in more than 70,000 community service hours annually! Students may be pleased to know that Willamette also holds a world record for the largest game of Red Light, Green Light. The NFL actually broke their record a few years ago, so they in turn broke the NFL record to steal back the title.
Good luck (but I know you won't need it),
Jessica Chermak, LPC, CEP
Independent College Counselor
Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors