What is it Like to Attend American University?

The tutors behind Varsity Tutors are not just here to teach – they’re sharing their college experiences, as well. Kelsey is a Philadelphia tutor and 2013 graduate of American University. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Studies and specializes in several subjects such as ACT prep tutoring, History tutoring, and Reading tutoring. See what Kelsey had to say about her time at American 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?

Kelsey: American University is in a great area of Washington, D.C. It is within the city limits, but it still has that “small campus” feel. The university provides a shuttle that runs continuously throughout the day directly to the nearest Metro stop, Tenleytown-AU. Many students ride bikes, but most walk or take the shuttle on a daily basis.

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

Kelsey: Professors at American University are required to hold office hours regularly, and most are happy to meet by appointment. However, as many professors teaching at American University are also working throughout Washington, D.C. in their respective fields, they are not as accessible as professors from more rural colleges. Their expertise is a bonus, but you have to work hard to form close relationships with the faculty.

Every student at American University is assigned an academic adviser based on the school of their admission (mine, for example, was the School of International Service) who will be their guide throughout college. I personally had a wonderful experience with my adviser, and I can truly say she was my biggest supporter during my years at American University. However, other students I have talked with have said their advisers were not as involved or supportive. It may depend on your assigned adviser, and you can ask to switch if you feel someone else would be more helpful. You can receive additional advisers for special programs, such as a dual major or, in my case, the honors program.

American University does not utilize teaching assistants except in very large courses (usually introductory level). As I was in the honors program, my classes were always under 30 students, and I never worked with teaching assistants.

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

Kelsey: All students are required to live on campus and to have a meal plan during their freshman year. The dorms are clean and have many new facilities (and, I presume, even more additions since I left a year ago). The dorms are broken up into general assignment, honors program, and special programs (such as major-specific housing). There are many dining options on campus, and the food in the main dining hall (the Tavern) is usually very good. The campus makes a concerted effort to accommodate all dietary needs.

The one drawback of housing at American University is overcrowding. When I was attending, even students in honors dorms were put in mandatory three-bunk rooms (with three students living in a space originally intended for two students). That being said, the resident assistants are friendly, and the university staff was always accessible.

Most students decided to live off-campus by their junior year. Local housing is fairly accessible but, given the school’s location in Washington, D.C., can be expensive. Most students share an apartment with several roommates or rent houses with a large group of other American University students.

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?

Kelsey: American University is almost completely geared toward the Political Science and International Studies majors. The School of Public Affairs, School of Communication, and School of International Service are the biggest draws for the university, and the most attention is paid to them on campus. These programs are well funded by the university, and speakers, symposiums, and other events are held for students majoring in these subjects every day. However, if you are interested in other fields, or if you are not sure what subject you are interested in, American University may be a challenging place. The school is full of very driven students who have clear career objectives, and it can be difficult to be an undecided major in that environment.

I majored in International Studies with concentrations in Peace and Conflict Resolution and Europe. I knew before applying to schools that I wanted to focus on international relations, and I was very satisfied with my choice of major in college. American University is one of the best international studies schools, and I feel that I got a very thorough education that has helped me be successful post-graduation. I am currently a law student focusing on international law, and I have always found myself to be one of the most prepared students in my current classes.

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?

Kelsey: While it has many strong points, American University is not a very sociable campus, at least in my experience. As I mentioned above, the students drawn to American University (and Washington, D.C. in general) tend to be very motivated, ambitious people. This can make for great professional connections after graduation, but it creates a competitive atmosphere on campus. I am sure that many people had better experiences, but having moved to Washington, D.C. from a small town, I personally had trouble finding a group of friends my freshman year. I did, however, make friends later in college through groups like the American University Chamber Singers.

American University has a very large, active Greek life community. While I did not personally participate, I have many friends who rushed and had very positive experiences. It is not, however, a requirement to being social at American University by any means!

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

Kelsey: One of the many advantages of American University is the massive amount of internship opportunities available in the city. The Career Center is a big part of the campus support system for these internships. They offer services like resume reviews and mock interviews throughout the year, as well as private appointments. For undergraduates, there is generally one large career fair per year, where tons of organizations come to campus looking for future interns.

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

Kelsey: There is generally plenty of room on campus for studying. The library has tons of study cubbies, as well as a spacious lounge area with a café. There are also other great student spaces, such as the Davenport Café (located in the School of International Service) or the Mary Graydon Center. I never had a problem finding places to hang out with friends.

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? 

Kelsey: There are lots of shops and restaurants within walking distance of the school, most located in Tenleytown. Some students prefer to stay close to campus, while others (like myself) really embrace living in Washington, D.C. I usually went downtown or into different neighborhoods every Friday and Saturday. These excursions were some of my best times at American University.

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

Kelsey: As I mentioned above, I was in the honors program, so even in my general education classes, there were never more than 30 people. I have heard from friends not in honors that some first-year classes can be quite large, some going over 60 students.

All of my upper-level courses were very small (10-15 students). As my major became more and more specific, I knew the people in my classes quite well. I was very happy with the class size and individual attention I was given by professors in class.

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

Kelsey: While this may be a humiliating story, I hope it helps incoming freshmen! When I was in my last year at American University (my third year, as I graduated early), I was taking an overbooked courseload and simultaneously trying to finish my senior honors thesis. I thought I was handling the stress fine, until one day in my favorite class (an International Peace and Conflict Resolution intensive course), I answered a question and got it completely wrong. My professor did not make a big deal out of it, and just moved on to another student to answer. Ordinarily, this would not have bothered me, but stressed out as I was, I had a complete panic attack in the middle of class. I had to rush out of the room to the bathroom, telling everyone I was having an allergic reaction. I was so embarrassed!

When I emailed my professor later to explain what had happened, she was very understanding and everything went back to normal. However, I regret putting so much pressure on myself and not asking for help sooner. It is great to be a self-motivated, ambitious student, but sometimes we can confuse independence with stubbornness. If I had been more willing to talk about the pressure I was feeling, maybe my professor could have helped me before I had a mini-meltdown! I urge any student, whether you decide to go to American University or another school, to find a good support network at college and reach out when you need help. I think it would have made my college experience much more positive.

Check out Kelsey’s tutoring profile. 

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