The Seven Sisters Colleges: A Legacy of Women’s Empowerment

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

Two students talking to each other.

The Seven Sisters Colleges: A Legacy of Women’s Empowerment

The Seven Sisters Colleges are a group of prestigious liberal arts colleges primarily located in the northeastern United States. The group includes Barnard College, Bryn Mawr College, Mount Holyoke College, Radcliffe College (now integrated with Harvard University), Smith College, Vassar College, and Wellesley College. These colleges were founded between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries as institutions for women’s higher education, at a time when few educational opportunities were available to women.

These colleges played a vital role in shaping women’s rights and the feminist movement in the United States. They offered women an education equivalent in quality to that of other elite institutions of their time. Their alumnae have succeeded greatly in various fields, including politics, academia, and the arts.

Three happy students smiling

Today, these institutions continue to attract students who value the unique educational opportunities they provide, such as small class sizes, close relationships with faculty, and a commitment to women’s leadership and empowerment.

As we celebrate International Women’s Month every March, we must recognize the pivotal role these institutions played in advancing women’s education and empowerment. These institutions continue to inspire and prepare future generations of women leaders, and their legacy serves as a reminder of the progress we have made and the work that still needs to be done toward achieving gender equality.

Why are They Called “Seven Sisters”?

The name “Seven Sisters” for these prominent all-women’s colleges in the United States has mythological origins. The term refers to the Pleiades, a group of seven sisters in Greek mythology who were the daughters of the Titan Atlas and the sea-nymph Pleione. In mythology, the sisters were pursued by Orion before being transformed into doves and then into stars to form the star cluster that we recognize in the sky today as the Pleiades.

In the context of American higher education, the name “Seven Sisters” symbolized the strength, unity, and importance of women’s education. The name was intended to parallel the Ivy League, a group of prestigious, historically male-dominated universities in the northeastern United States. The Seven Sisters were all women’s colleges, each founded in the 19th or early 20th century, and they shared a commitment to providing the highest level of education for women at a time when educational opportunities for women were limited.

Using the term “Seven Sisters” emphasized their collective strength and unity in the mission of women’s education. It was a powerful symbol at a time when these institutions were advocating for the importance and validity of women’s academic pursuits in the face of societal norms that often devalued or restricted such opportunities for women.

What are the “Seven Sisters” Known for?

Each of the colleges boasts unique strengths and academic programs. Here’s a brief overview:

Barnard College

Affiliated with Columbia University, Barnard is renowned for its rigorous arts and sciences programs. Its dedication to women’s leadership, gender equality, and social justice initiatives stands out.

Bryn Mawr College

Located near Philadelphia, Bryn Mawr is noted for its emphasis on sciences and mathematics. Its students often delve into interdisciplinary research and independent projects.

Mount Holyoke College

Based in South Hadley, Massachusetts, Mount Holyoke is committed to liberal arts and social justice. With a diverse student body, it offers a broad spectrum of programs spanning the arts and the sciences.

Radcliffe College

Before merging with Harvard in 1999, Radcliffe was lauded for its humanities and social sciences programs and emphasis on women’s education and leadership.

Smith College

Nestled in Northampton, Massachusetts, Smith shines in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. The college accentuates experiential learning, allowing students myriad opportunities for internships and research.

Vassar College

Now coeducational and based in Poughkeepsie, New York, Vassar is recognized for its arts and humanities programs. Its rigorous curriculum promotes critical thinking and intellectual exploration.

Wellesley College

Near Boston, Wellesley is celebrated for its intensive arts and sciences programs. Its dedication to women’s leadership is evident in the numerous research and internship opportunities provided to students.

Each of the Seven Sisters colleges offers distinct academic opportunities. Prospective students can explore each institution to determine the best fit for their academic and career goals.

What Advantages Do the “Seven Sister” Colleges Offer to Prospective Students?

There are several benefits to applying to a Seven Sisters college:

Strong Academic Programs

Each college is renowned for its rigorous academic programs in the arts, humanities, and sciences. With small class sizes and personalized attention from faculty, students can develop close relationships with both professors and peers and engage in interdisciplinary research and independent projects.

Commitment to Women’s Education and Leadership

Originally founded as women’s colleges, the Seven Sisters continue to prioritize the education and empowerment of women. They offer numerous opportunities for women to engage in leadership initiatives, and advocacy work, and prepare them for successful careers across various fields.

Diverse and Supportive Community

With a diverse student body, the colleges emphasize creating an inclusive and supportive campus community. The rich tapestry of backgrounds and cultures among students allows for a vibrant exchange of ideas and perspectives. Furthermore, these colleges provide numerous resources and support services to bolster both academic and personal success.

two female students talking inside a dorm room

Strong Alumnae Network

The alumnae of the Seven Sisters colleges have made significant contributions in fields ranging from politics and business to education and the arts. This robust network provides current students with access to vast career opportunities, mentorship, and the chance to establish valuable future connections.

Opportunities for Interdisciplinary Study

A hallmark of each of the colleges is the emphasis on interdisciplinary study. This approach not only allows students to explore a broad spectrum of academic disciplines but also ensures a comprehensive and well-rounded education. Paired with numerous research and internship opportunities, students can actively collaborate with faculty and peers across various fields.

Applying to a “Seven Sisters” college can offer unparalleled academic rigor, an emphasis on women’s empowerment, a nurturing and diverse community, an influential alumnae network, and a plethora of interdisciplinary opportunities. These institutions aim to provide a holistic education, fostering both professional success and personal growth.

How Do These Colleges Select Students?

While each of the Seven Sisters colleges has its own unique admissions process, there are many common elements in their selection criteria, reflecting their shared commitment to academic excellence, leadership, and the empowerment of women. Here’s an overview of how these colleges typically select their students:

Academic Achievement

This is a significant factor. Grades, course rigor, and standardized test scores (if required or submitted) provide evidence of a student’s academic potential and preparedness for the challenging coursework at these institutions.

Recommendation Letters

Teachers, guidance counselors, and sometimes peers or community members can provide insight into a student’s character, academic prowess, and extracurricular contributions. These letters can give the admissions committee a sense of how the student might fit into and contribute to the college community.

Extracurricular Activities

Involvement in clubs, organizations, sports, arts, or community service can demonstrate a student’s leadership abilities, dedication, and passion outside of the classroom.

Essays and Personal Statements

Through these, students can share their unique voices, experiences, aspirations, and how they align with the college’s values and programs. It offers a glimpse into the student’s character, thought processes, and writing ability.


Some colleges offer or require interviews. These interactions, whether in-person or virtual, allow the admissions team to get a deeper understanding of the student’s personality, aspirations, and fit for the college.

Group of students talking.

Demonstrated Interest

Colleges may consider how engaged a prospective student is with the college – campus visits, interactions at college fairs, communication with the admissions office, etc. Demonstrated interest can sometimes indicate how likely a student is to enroll if admitted.

Diversity and Inclusivity

Many of these colleges value a diverse student body and might consider factors like geographical location, socioeconomic status, cultural background, and more to ensure a well-rounded and inclusive campus community.

Special Talents or Achievements

Unique talents, whether in arts, sports, or any other field, can be a deciding factor, especially if the college has strong programs or teams in that area.

Legacy and Affiliation

Some colleges might consider if an applicant has family members who attended the college, although this is usually one of the less significant factors.

Fit with the College’s Mission and Values

Given the historical and ongoing emphasis on women’s empowerment and leadership at these institutions, a demonstrated commitment to these values can be a positive factor in admissions decisions.

While these factors provide a broad overview, each college might have its unique priorities or processes. It’s always recommended that prospective students review the specific admissions guidelines of each college they are interested in and consider contacting the admissions office for more detailed information.


The Seven Sisters Colleges, historically, represent a commitment to women’s education at a time when higher education was predominantly a male privilege. As a consortium of prestigious liberal arts colleges in the United States, they have been instrumental in championing the rights and capabilities of women in academia and the professional world.

Even as the landscape of education has evolved with many of these institutions becoming coeducational, the legacy of the Seven Sisters persists. They stand as beacons of excellence, fostering environments that prioritize critical thinking, leadership, and empowerment. The graduates they produce often emerge as leaders, innovators, and trailblazers in their respective fields, a testament to the enduring value and vision of these iconic institutions.

Need Help with Admissions?

Interested in attending one of the Seven Sisters Colleges? You’re in the right place. With over 10 years of experience, AdmissionSight has been guiding students through the competitive admissions process.

Let AdmissionSight assist you in putting your best foot forward for your college applications this fall. Reach out to us today to learn more about our services.



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