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Vinay Bhaskara
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George Mason: Here’s why you should attend

In its current format, George Mason is actually one of the youngest universities in the United States. Founded in 1956 as the Northern Virginia branch of the University of Virginia, it only became an independent university in 1972, and has since grown into the largest public university in the entire state.


Today George Mason (GMU) serves more than 36,000 students (~25,000 of whom are undergrads) across five campuses. Four of those campuses, Arlington, Fairfax, Front Royal, and Prince William, are in Virginia and the fifth is located in Songdo, South Korea (about 20 miles southwest of Seoul). The primary campus sits on 677-acre suburban location 15 miles from Washington D.C.


Is George Mason right for you?


On most college websites, you’ll find a list of statistics that are meant to help you answer this question, but we want to dig a bit deeper and provide qualitative information to help you make that decision. Your college experience isn’t just a set of stats, and we want to make sure that you have a better understanding of the experience and holistic payoff of attending George Mason. 


To put this profile together, we spoke with the George Mason admissions office and conducted our own independent research. This profile is a blend of both of those sources.


In the post, we’ll discuss:


  • The things that make George Mason unique from many of its peer institutions
  • The steps that George Mason takes to drive career success for its graduates
  • The key elements of the academic experience. 
  • How George Mason approaches freshman orientation 
  • What students do for fun when they’re on campus. 
  • Our point of view on the types of students that should strongly consider applying to George Mason and the types of students for whom it may not be a good fit.


What makes George Mason unique?


Proximity to Washington DC


One of the main things that distinguishes George Mason is its location on the doorstep of Washington D.C., which many students may find counterintuitive. After all, there are 10 colleges in the city of DC itself, and more than 50 colleges across DC, Northern Virginia, and Southern Maryland (including Baltimore). But along with the University of Maryland at College Park, it is one of only two public colleges in the region that hits the sweet spot of accessibility and affordability for both in-state and out-of-state students in the DC region.


Johns Hopkins and Georgetown are both excellent colleges, but they are highly selective and extremely difficult for students to get into. George Washington, American University, and Catholic University of America are all expensive private colleges. Howard is another great school in the city, but it is a smaller and selective private that is more expensive than public colleges (~$48,000 cost of attendance). That’s where George Mason and the University of Maryland step in – they are both reasonable options for a large number of students with good financial aid and scholarships. And George Mason is more generous with financial aid for out of state students.


The proximity to the DC metro area is incredibly valuable. After New York City and Los Angeles, Washington DC is probably the strongest metro area in the country in terms of job prospects and the broader economy. The federal government is obviously a huge part of that, but there is also a much larger ecosystem of private government contractors, non profits, and even other private companies that have a massive presence. The great thing about the DC-area economic story is that it also isn’t dominated by a few industries in the same way that cities like San Francisco or Boston are, and there are ample jobs for students pursuing nearly every major.


The reason this matters in the context of George Mason is that despite the rise of globalization, the vast majority of hiring is still done in a company or organization’s local market. The vast majority of employees are hired within a 50-75 mile radius of the office. There are a few schools with truly nationwide brands like Yale, Stanford, or Northwestern that place graduates all over the country. But once you get out of that small cadre of highly selective colleges, a graduate’s job prospects are actually driven as much by where their college is located as they are by which college it is.


If a student wants to work in DC after college, in law, politics, or in any other field, George Mason is maybe the best option amongst comparable schools, because: 


  • 70% of George Mason graduates end up working in Washington DC, a number that is substantially higher than peer colleges and even higher than the percentage of graduates at Maryland (~50%) or the University of Virginia (~30%). 
  • George Mason is ranked #153 in the US News rankings, but if a student’s goal is to end up working in DC, George Mason is going to be a better fit than schools like Clemson or Texas A&M that are ranked more than 80 spots higher.
  •  In fact, George Mason grads actually have a higher starting salary than graduates of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville (UVA). 
  • UVA is a much more prestigious college (it’s ranked as the 28th best school in the country by US News) but it’s 120 miles away from Washington DC instead of 20. Proximity to job markets really matters!


There are also lifestyle benefits with the proximity to a diverse major metropolitan area like Washington DC. The area has a ton of cultural amenities (operas, museums, etc), amazing food from all over the world, and even world class professional sports (at least in baseball, women’s basketball, soccer, and hockey). George Mason is less than 30 minutes away from downtown DC by car and perhaps more importantly for college students, is 30 minutes away by public transit.




Beyond its location, George Mason is also unique for a college of its size with its focus on undergraduate research, particularly in non-technical fields. Research at GMU is coordinated by OSCAR (the Office of Student Creative Activities and Research) which connects students from a variety of disciplines (including in the arts) to research and research-like opportunities with the campus faculty. Overall x percent of George Mason undergrads participate in some form of research through OSCAR, which is very high for a public college like GMU.



How does George Mason prepare you for your post-college career?


Core Curriculum


The academic approach at George Mason is unique in that the college has a true, liberal arts inspired core curriculum instead of the prototypical general education program at most big public colleges. This may not be a good fit for everyone, particularly if a student is singularly focused on building technical skills in a specific domain as fast as possible. But the pairing of that liberal arts core with the practical, technical education provided in specific majors strikes a good balance in preparing students for a career.


Adjunct Faculty


The other element that George Mason uses to elevate career preparation in a more practical sense is its approach to adjunct faculty. At many colleges, adjunct faculty tend to be future professors; academics who haven’t made tenure. At George Mason meanwhile, the vast majority of adjunct lecturers are working professionals from the DC area that teach on the side. This provides a more practical lens to the work students are doing in the classroom and also helps students build a professional network from day one on campus.


Strong Career Outcomes, Particularly for Minority Students


And once again, it’s worth reiterating that the strength of the DC job market really works hand in hand with the educational approach at George Mason to produce really strong outcomes for graduates. About 80% of graduates have either a job or enter graduate school within six months after leaving campus, and the starting salaries for those that enter the workforce (as mentioned before) are excellent.


For a large public college with a demographically and socioeconomically diverse student body like George Mason, these are really strong figures. And the other fascinating career outcome at George Mason is that nonwhite students graduate at roughly the same rate as Caucasian students and Black students actually graduate at a higher rate. Nationwide, Caucasian students graduate at 1.5x the rate of Black students so the fact that the two rates are equal at George Mason is remarkable and indicative of the strong support that minority students receive at the college.


What is the classroom experience like at George Mason?


Beyond the liberal arts curriculum and diverse set of lecturers, George Mason also has smaller classes than a typical public college of its size. 30% of its classes have fewer than 20 students and more than 85% have fewer than 50 students. And almost no classes outside of a few intro-level courses are over 100 students. There aren’t too many tiny seminars with 5-6 students, but the classes are small enough that a modestly motivated student won’t struggle to build a relationship with their professor.


Classrooms are also updated with lots of technology embedded into the learning experience. There are also very few classes that are conducted in the older model of a static lecture followed by questions; most majors incorporate experiential learning and include course time in what Boyce refers to as mixed spaces, where students break out into smaller groups for project-based learning as part of the scheduled course time.


Boyce also reiterated that the research experience is a huge part of the GMU experience. The students that do the best tend to go above and beyond their coursework through research, and at GMU there are a lot of opportunities to do so in ways that can also build out a resume.


How does George Mason approach freshman orientation and student support?


Freshman Orientation


George Mason has recently redesigned its freshman orientation experience in line with the growing practice of extending orientation throughout a student’s first year. The college offers a standard summer orientation program plus three days at the beginning of a student’s semester, and then sets aside the first two weeks of every freshman class to focus on getting students up to speed. Once students settle in on campus, the focus shifts to a holistic academic coaching model.


Student Support


This holistic academic coaching model takes a 360 degree view of student success and goes beyond the traditional academic advising model that has a more narrow tactical focus on things like registering for classes and understanding major requirements. The academic coach is a member of a dedicated team who is meant to serve as more of a coordinator to serve student needs and make sure that they get access to other resources like financial aid advising or even counseling.


One worry that parents have is that students will slip through the cracks at a large school like George Mason. But according to Boyce, the college has focused on putting in automated systems that can help catch problems earlier, perhaps even before a student becomes aware of them and raises their hand for help. It’s not a perfect system that will catch every single case. But no system can, even at a small college, and relative to other big public universities, GMU takes a more active approach.


You should apply to George Mason if…


You want to study political science or work in the government or nonprofits


As we’ve discussed numerous times throughout this profile, proximity to job markets really matters and DC is far and away the most important job market for political science grads and people that want to work for the government or nonprofits.


You want to work in DC after graduation


Even if you’re not specifically interested in working for a politician or government office, you may still want to work in DC after you graduate. George Mason is a great launchpad for doing so.


You want to study economics


Despite its ranking and relative anonymity outside of the DC area, George Mason actually has one of the most underrated economics programs in the country. Two George Mason professors have won the Nobel Prize in economics (James M. Buchanan and Vernon L. Smith), and George Mason is also incredibly influential in modern economics. It’s economics professors include Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, who run the most influential modern economics blog, Russ Roberts who is the host of the most popular economics podcast, and many other influential thinkers. Moreover, the Mercatus Center (the on-campus economics think tank) is one of the 4 or 5 most influential think tanks on economic issues in the country.


You are looking for a really diverse student population


While most public colleges have pretty strong racial diversity, one key differentiator in the DC area is the nature of that diversity, which flows through to a school like George Mason. Because it is the home of the US government, DC attracts a ton of immigrants and residents from literally every country on earth. And many of their children end up at George Mason, whether they are Ethiopian, Russian, or Cambodian.


You shouldn’t apply to George Mason if…


You are looking for a more homogenous experience


If you are looking to mostly go to school with students from your home state or even a small region of your home state, George Mason isn’t going to be a great fit. The same is true if you’re looking to attend an HBCU, a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI), or all-male or all-female college.


You are looking for ultra-small classes or deeply personalized attention


While GMU does have many characteristics that are similar to those of smaller liberal arts colleges, at the end of the day it is a large public college. If you want a lot of personalized attention or aren’t comfortable with having to navigate life at a big college, George Mason probably isn’t going to be a good fit.


Next Steps in Applying to George Mason


If you are interested in learning more, you can schedule a campus visit at George Mason. If you are interested in applying to George Mason, you can find more information at the admissions page. George Mason uses the Common App but it also has a separate application system. It has three main application deadlines.


Early Action, Honors College, Scholarships November 1, 2019
Regular Decision (and Financial Aid) January 15, 2020
Spring Semester October 1, 2020


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Vinay Bhaskara