Virginia College Road Trip: College of William and Mary

Learn what it’s like to attend college in Williamsburg.

At the College of William and Mary, 70 percent of undergrads do research projects.

At the College of William and Mary, 70 percent of undergrads do research projects.

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With 2,100 graduate students, the College of William and Mary has actually long been a research university. 

But the nation's second-oldest institution of higher learning – after Harvard University – retains the name "College" as homage to its roots as the first school in the New World to get its royal charter, from the king and queen of England, in 1693. 

It's also descriptive of the college culture: With a low student-to-faculty ratio (12-to-1) more typical of private schools, the college prides itself on its close community and tradition. 

On the first day of classes, freshmen are welcomed by the college president in the Sir Christopher Wren Building, which school officials say is the oldest U.S. college building still used for classes, dating back to the 1690s. 

They are then led outside past "thousands of people applauding" and a campuswide picnic, says Aaron Barksdale, a recent graduate. 

[Be sure to ask these six questions at freshmen orientation.] 

The Wren building initially was the center of everything, with faculty living upstairs, students downstairs and classes and meals taken in the same building. Today, that closeness with faculty is "the sweet spot for us," says Admissions Dean Henry Broaddus. 

For one thing, it means that students can work closely with professors on projects. 

"Seventy percent of undergrads do research," says Stephen Dachert, a neuroscience major with a biochemistry minor who has delved into computer modeling of the Huntington's disease cell with his organic chemistry professor. 

Each year, the college funds the top 7 percent of students to do research on campus or elsewhere. Maryam Kanna, a senior double majoring in economics and government, got $3,000 to examine the socioeconomic differences in the Middle Eastern community of metropolitan Detroit. 

Known for its liberal arts curriculum, William and Mary boasts that it, like the University of Virginia, offers an Ivy League education minus the sticker shock, at least for Virginians. The most popular of 46 majors include business, biology and history. Students can also design their own major. 

[Check out 11 hot college majors that lead to jobs.] 

"I had a friend who majored in storytelling," notes Sofia Chabolla, a fourth-year student who is double majoring herself in art and art history and English. Meanwhile, 75 percent of students participate in community service projects and more than 40 percent study abroad. 

"Everyone here wants to do well, but everyone wants everyone else to do well, too," says Dachert. He decided to attend after visiting the historic campus near Colonial Williamsburg and seeing how friendly people were and how students continued classroom conversations after leaving class. 

Barksdale points out that students are known for being "quirky and unconventional" and, indeed, any attempt to pigeonhole the "typical William and Mary person" is sure to be met with some campus slang: No TWAMP. 

Although some 500 "Tribe" athletes compete on 23 Division I teams, sports aren't as big of a preoccupation here as they are at other Virginia publics. About 30 percent of students are "Greek," and there are about 400 student organizations. 

Popular social events include "Screen on the Green," a periodic movie night in the Sunken Garden; Wren Ten, Wednesday night performances by the school's 11 a cappella groups; and Fridays@5 concerts in September and April to end the workweek.

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This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Colleges 2014" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.