A Student Perspective on Cornell University

gray clock icon
7 min read

The tutors behind Varsity Tutors are not just here to teach – they’re sharing their college experiences as well. Kelly received her Bachelor’s degree in Biological Engineering and her PhD from Cornell University. She is currently a tutor in New York City specializing in GRE Quantitative tutoring, Life Sciences tutoring, SAT Math tutoring, and several other subjects. See what she had to say about her experience at Cornell University:

VT: Describe the campus setting and transportation options. How urban or safe is the campus? Are there buses or do you need a car/bike?

Kelly: I went to college at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Ithaca is a small city in upstate New York, right on the Finger Lakes. The campus is beautiful, with lots of (big) hills overlooking Cayuga Lake. There are also many architecturally diverse buildings. You can get around campus on foot (I did!), but the buildings are pretty spread out. If you are in a rush, or the weather is bad (it gets cold there in the winter), I would definitely recommend taking a bus. Cars are good to have if you want to get away from campus for the weekend or you want to take a day trip to the local gorges, but having a car is not necessary. (To get home for breaks and holidays, I took a Greyhound bus to the New York City area). Bikes are a great alternative, but be prepared to get a great leg workout – it is hilly here! Even though the campus is pretty large, it has a small town feel to it, so I always felt extremely safe walking around.

VT: How available are the professors, academic advisers, and teaching assistants?

Kelly: I was an Engineering major, and during my first two years, I took a lot of large, lower-level science and math courses. We had recitation sections that met once per week that were led by graduate students whose job it was to review the material covered in class. Both the professors and graduate students held their own office hours and practically begged us to come, even if it was just to say hello – they wanted company while sitting in their offices for two hours. The professors were all incredibly intelligent (and therefore, a bit intimidating), but they all encouraged us to get help if we were confused. My academic adviser was great – he hired me as a teaching assistant for an upper-level Engineering class and encouraged me to pursue independent study.

VT: How would you describe the dorm life – rooms, dining options, location, socialization opportunities with other students?

Kelly: You always hear horror stories about the food at dining halls, but I can tell you that the food on campus was always very good. There was such a wide variety – Mongolian grill, pizza, pasta, salads, soups, etc. And, of course, I always helped myself to some ice cream made right at the Cornell Dairy Bar. There are dining halls near the dormitories, as well as a few on campus for you to grab some food in-between classes. Dorms are both hall-style and suite-style, so there are plenty of opportunities to socialize and meet new people.

VT: Which majors/programs are best represented and supported? What did you study and why? Did the university do a good job supporting your particular area of study?

Kelly: I was a Biological Engineering major, which meant that I took both basic Biology courses (such as Genetics and Biochemistry) and Engineering courses (such as Thermodynamics and Fluid Mechanics). The Engineering programs at Cornell University are all very strong, so when signing up for an Engineering course, you know it is going to be challenging. The general attitude with the students was, “We are all in this together, so if we work together, it will be much easier.” Unlike in other majors (such as Biology), there was almost no competition between students, which helped my grades and helped me make new friends.

VT: How easy or difficult was it for you to meet people and make friends as a freshman? Does Greek life play a significant role in the campus social life?

Kelly: As a freshman, your first friends are generally those who live near you in the dorm and in your major. Greek life is pretty popular, but you have to wait until second semester of your freshman year to rush. I was not part of Greek life, and I did not feel like I was missing out on anything.

VT: How helpful is the Career Center and other student support services? Do many reputable companies recruit on campus? 

Kelly: To be honest, I did not use the Career Center or go to job fairs because I knew I was going to go to graduate school. I did have friends who went to job fairs and met some great contacts.

VT: How are the various study areas such as libraries, the student union, and dorm lounges? Are they over-crowded, easily available, spacious?

Kelly: During finals time, the running joke is that the library is more to socialize than to study. I did a lot of my work in computer labs, in my room, and in the library (during non-finals weeks). During finals week, I went to the Ithaca city library, which is huge and recently remodeled. It also gave me a good change of scenery to break up the monotony of studying on campus.

VT: Describe the surrounding town. What kinds of outside establishments / things to do are there that make it fun, boring, or somewhere in between? To what extent do students go to the downtown area of the city versus staying near campus? 

Kelly: The area immediately surrounding campus is called Collegetown (not terribly creative, I know). It is filled with cafes, coffee shops, and restaurants. A 10-minute drive “down the hill” takes you to downtown Ithaca, which is a moderately-sized city with some great outdoor activities (hiking, mountain biking, trail running, skiing, etc.), as well as some decent shopping (used book stores, local art, small boutiques). There are a number of malls and strip malls with big stores such as Barnes & Noble, Home Depot, Target, Wegmans, etc. Also, the Finger Lakes region is known for its wineries, so if you are of age, you can do wine tasting tours along the lakes. Ithaca is pretty isolated in upstate New York, but there are a lot of activities to do within a 15-minute drive.

VT: How big or small is the student body? Were you generally pleased or displeased with the typical class sizes?

Kelly: Cornell University is a fairly large institution, with over 20,000 students. It has over 12,000 students at the Ithaca campus, as well as campuses in New York City and Qatar. Even though it is pretty big, it does not feel that big. I found that you see the same people when you are walking to your classes, you sit next to the same people in class, you see the same faces in the dining halls, etc. Introductory class sizes were admittedly large, with anywhere from 100-300 people in a large lecture hall. However, there are recitation sections that meet at least once per week, and these have about 20 students in them. Also, once you got past the introductory courses, class size shrunk dramatically. It was not uncommon for upper-level classes to have less than 20 students.

VT: Describe one memorable experience with a professor and/or class. Perhaps one you loved the most or one you regret the most.

Kelly: During my junior year, I took an elective, mostly because I heard it would be an easy A. However, what I did not bargain for was that I would really enjoy the class! It was a class about Native American culture, and it was fascinating. The professor was passionate and an honorary member of a local tribe from upstate New York. To this day, I remember sitting in that auditorium being blown away by the professor’s lecture.

Check out Kelly’s tutoring profile.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.