What is a "Liberal Arts" education and what are the benefits?
Updated: May 6
This week’s blog is all about a liberal arts education and why it's a great option for international students. A liberal arts education is one of the biggest draws for students from around the world to study in the USA.
There are top educational opportunities for students wanting to get an undergraduate degree, and I’m going to break it down and then share the amazing benefits of liberal arts. Yes, even the humanities. Humanities are classes that study society and culture.
If you're short on time:
A liberal arts education focuses on general studies in a variety of subject areas
A liberal arts education provides students with the opportunity to discover unknown passions or career paths that they may not have been aware of
A liberal arts education also allows students to gain useful skills like communication and critical thinking
There has been more debate in recent years about whether humanities are still useful today, but remember that a liberal arts education can include STEM or business or medicine too. As an English major in undergraduate, I still argue that my degree is useful to me - you can't overstate the importance of communication, writing, articulating thoughts, and being able to analyze information. That's useful no matter what field you work in! The liberal arts system is followed by many Western countries around the world, but the “college experience” is still very unique to the USA. Let’s check it out…
So what does “liberal arts” mean?
You’ll often hear liberal arts education described as “interdisciplinary”. Liberal arts involves college or university studies (such as language, philosophy, literature, abstract science) intended to provide primarily general knowledge and to develop general intellectual capacities (such as reason and judgment) as opposed to professional or vocational skills.
Liberal arts courses typically refer to humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Most universities in the USA will offer degrees in both the arts and the sciences.
--> I always tell students that a liberal arts education just means you have the opportunity to take a variety of classes throughout the time of your degree rather than starting right away with courses in your specific area of study.
This is drastically different than many countries around the world where you have to pick your degree type or major before you get into school and then most of your degree courses will focus in this subject area. In many other countries, you even take exams out of secondary school or high school that will determine which type or which specific university you can even apply to. Not the case here in the USA.
I’m not here to say which type of system is better, rather to explain what you can expect from a liberal arts education. First off, let’s look at a couple of examples of what the four years will look like studying at a university in the USA. A bachelor’s degree traditionally takes four or five years to complete, whether you are taking quarters or semesters.
If you are studying to earn a Bachelor of Arts in History, you will still be required to take courses in math, science, and English. The first two years you might take one or two history courses each term/semester, but the majority of your classes will be introduction to the liberal arts, or a variety of subjects.
If you are studying to earn a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry, you will still be required to take courses in social sciences, math, and English. Similarly, the first two years you might take one or two chemistry courses per term/semester, but the majority of your classes will be in a variety of subjects.
In general, four-year degrees in the USA have similar requirements to how many “liberal arts” courses you need to take plus how many major specific courses you need to take to complete the degree.
There are upsides and downsides to the liberal arts degree, but in my opinion, there are many benefits to getting a liberal arts education. Check out some of the biggest benefits of earning a liberal arts education.
Benefits of Liberal Arts Education:
Well-rounded education – this just means you have taken a variety of courses in different subject areas and have general knowledge about more than just the subject your degree is in
Employers know you have skills outside of your degree – employers care that you can write a decent email or communicate in a team environment, and these are skills gained in a liberal arts degree
Critical thinking development
Preparation for advanced degrees – liberal arts can help you prepare for a master’s or doctoral program
Analytical thinking skills
Helps students find their passion
The last point is my absolute favorite. I have talked to hundreds, if not thousands of students, who say they want to study in the USA and become a doctor. While medicine is an admirable field, there is not way around it – it’s not for everyone.
A liberal arts education gives students the ability to find their true passions and pursue studies in an area that they truly excel within. Use your experience of studying in the USA to find something that combines your unique talents with a profitable outcome – that’s called the sweet spot.
I’ll talk about his more later when we dive into choosing a major.
Personal story - I was an education major for a whole semester during undergraduate study before I realized that I have absolutely no patience for teaching. Yes, I love writing, and yes, I love helping students, but my desire to stand in front of a classroom every day teaching one subject area was very low. Don’t even get me started on the time I substituted a kindergarten class full of five year olds once…”Ms. Doddly, my head hurts…Ms. Doodle my belly hurts…Ms. Daddle, I have to pee…Ms. Doddle he threw something at me…”. It went on and on. Kudos to all the elementary educators out there - that is no easy job!
Point being, it was because of my liberal arts coursework that I knew teaching in front of a classroom wasn’t my passion. A liberal arts education gives you the opportunity to truly find and pursue your passions.
Check out next week’s blog to see how you can tackle the admissions process to study in the USA!