We gamely followed Matt, our witty and vivacious Georgetown University tour guide, as he ascended what appeared to be a fire escape. Where were we going, and why? After our large group arrived on the rooftop, and continued along a fenced-in catwalk, the uneven, concrete tiles wobbling under our footsteps, the answer came clear. Matt perched himself precariously on a fence and with a wave of his arm proudly pointed out the many landmarks dotting our sweeping view: the Kennedy Center, the Washington Monument, Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials and the Pentagon, not to mention the notorious Watergate Hotel. The moment instantly captured Georgetown’s sense of time and place, specifically its history as a university whose founding coincided with that of America itself.
Georgetown is by no means the only university in the nation’s capital, but it is the oldest and most selective, as well as the oldest Catholic university in the nation. Matt carefully noted, however, that the school is neither inherently religious nor political. Its student body is less than 50% Catholic and a “God Squad” of campus chaplains actively serve a spectrum of faiths. In fact, the school was the nation’s first to be open to students of all beliefs. Moreover, even though Georgetown attracts a healthy dose of politicos, its students pursue business, science, theater, art and more, both in the classroom and the District beyond. He added that while DC may be thought of as a cut-throat culture, Georgetown is a kinder, gentler, collaborative place.
This echoed what we had heard earlier during a well-attended info session in a posh auditorium inside the school’s Intercultural Center. Georgetown sees itself as a trio of communities. The first is the campus itself, a compact 110-acre spread, fronted by Healy Hall, graced by large trees and a lush lawn, and bordered by a stone wall that, legend has it, figures into Georgetown’s official cheer, “Hoya Saxa.” Allegedly, when sporting events were held on the lawn, spectators would remove rocks from the wall and throw them in the direction of the visiting team. When met with objection, Georgetown students would yell, “hoya saxa,” which roughly translates into “what rocks?” Other origin stories abound, but that one, um, rocks.
Georgetown’s second community is set squarely within the upscale, 12-block, Georgetown neighborhood that surrounds it, home to shops, restaurants and a waterfront area offering lots to do just footsteps away. Community number three is the city of DC and all it has to offer. Getting there requires taking a shuttle bus to a metro station, and then a few minutes’ ride to the National Mall, Capitol Hill, and all other points of interest. (A fourth type of community, known as Living Learning Communities, or LLCs, allows students to reside with others of common background or interests, e.g., social activism, religion, sexual identity, foreign languages, and transfer students.)
As info sessions go, Georgetown’s was relatively heavy on the school’s history and prime location as compared to its academics, which was surprising given its stellar academic reputation. As we waited for the session to begin we were entertained by a steady stream of Georgetown fun facts: it accepted the first international student in 1792; its blue and gray colors were adopted to promote post-Civil War healing; its Mask & Bauble theater troupe is the nation’s oldest; and so forth. Of course, we did hear about Georgetown’s four undergraduate schools: arts & sciences; nursing; foreign services; and business. We learned that while it is not difficult to transfer between schools, it is not possible to double major across them. Pre-med is offered not as a major but as a concentration that can be combined with any other major, even something ostensibly unrelated, like, say, history.
Pursuing a major and a double minor, meanwhile, seems to be a popular way for students to weave diverse interests into an interdisciplinary program. The classical Jesuit “whole person” philosophy is emphasized, as is the commitment to connecting one’s education with public service, and a larger purpose. Banners extolling university values, such as “contemplation in action” and “community in diversity” hang from lampposts along walkways across the main campus.
We were shown exterior photos of the impressive-looking science and business buildings during the info session, but were not taken inside those or any other facilities during our tour, save an abbreviated jaunt through the beautifully ornate, neo-Medieval Healy Hall, Georgetown’s flagship. A photo of the spectacular Gaston Hall auditorium was shared, but nothing more. Some schools can’t wait to show off what’s behind their curtains, while others are strangely modest about their assets. Maybe there’s a good reason for this, but if there is, we haven’t yet heard it.
Georgetown does look pretty darn good, if only from the outside. Especially memorable is the Dahlgren Quad, named for the Dahlgren Chapel, for which there is a 5-7 year waiting list if you want it for a wedding. It is also framed by the Old North Building, the oldest structure on campus, and from the top step of which some 14 U.S. presidents have appeared or spoken, starting with George Washington, including Abraham Lincoln, and most recently, Barack Obama.
Healy Hall and its famous clock tower further define the quad. Mischievous students periodically have “stolen” the handles and sent them to famous people as an invitation to speak at the university; Bill Clinton, a Georgetown alum, reportedly autographed the handles and Pope Francis purportedly blessed them. The university actively discourages this particular tradition.
With its near-ivy level of selectivity (an approximately 14% admit rate), getting accepted into Georgetown is certainly a challenge. In addition to grades, rigor and board scores, Georgetown “strongly recommends” submitting at least three SAT subject-matter tests. This may be waived if such tests are not available to the student. It does not offer a binding “early decision” option, but does allow a restricted “early action” opportunity. However, those applying to it may not apply “early decision” to any other schools. Both “early action” and “regular decision” applicants are notified on May 1st. Georgetown has its own application and does not use either the Common or Coalition app, however it requires essentially the same essays and information as the Common app.
As our 90-minute tour wrapped up, Matt perched himself, once again precariously, atop a narrow brick wall, with the school’s Jesuit graveyard in the background (“a cute campus addition,” he quipped). As is often the case with campus tours, he concluded with his reasons for choosing Georgetown: the size (7,500 undergraduates); the location (DC & Georgetown); and the people (the alumni network which he said had been incredibly responsive to his requests for career and other guidance). “Georgetown is not just an education,” he said, “ it also forms you as a person and a global citizen.”