Frequently Asked Questions: Conversations and Learning Communities

At this point in your college search as an admitted Ole, you’ve likely heard of the Conversations and Learning Communities. We’ve talked about them with you in interviews, during visit days, and we mailed out information. Some of you may have already been admitted to one or more of the programs!

However, as you consider applying for the second deadline (May 10) or decide between different programs, we want to be sure you got your burning questions answered to best inform you as you consider your four years at St. Olaf.

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What are the Conversation programs? Which programs can I take during my first year?

Interdisciplinary and unique, the Conversation programs are sequences of courses that take place over more than one semester. There are six Conversations overall: The Great ConversationAmerican Conversations, Environmental ConversationsAsian Conversations, The Science Conversation, and The Public Affairs Conversation. The first two — AmCon and Great Con, as they’re known on campus — are two year programs that students begin during their first year at St. Olaf; Environmental Conversations takes place during the first year only. So, those are what we’ll talk about here. Keep in mind: Asian Conversations and Science Conversation are sophomore year-only courses. Asian Conversations requires the students take Japanese and/or Chinese during their first year at St. Olaf (as there is a study abroad component over Interim of the sophomore year). As always, it’s good to visit the web pages for the Conversation programs to get the basic information about course offerings and general focus.

What is CH/BI?

CH/BI – or Integrated Chemistry and Biology – or “Chubbi,” as it’s pronounced, is a sequence of three courses taken during your first year, including your interim during the month of January. Students work together to explore the fundamentals of chemistry and cellular biology. As a learning community, students and faculty explore ideas in the lab, through group-based problem solving and discussions. In addition to basic texts, readings from a variety of sources enrich discussions and illustrate the interdisciplinary nature of science. There isn’t a residential component to CH/BI.

What’s this about a “residential component”?

Students who are involved with Great Con, AmCon, or EnCon live among each other in specific residence halls during their first year only (though non-Conners live there too, so you won’t have a Con roommate). Hoyme Hall is typically where AmCon students live; Kildahl and Ellingson are where Great Conners reside; and you can find EnCon students in Kittlesby, which is designated the “green” dorm on campus. There is a lot of writing, reading, thinking, discussing, and debating in the Conversation programs — and much of it happens in the residence hall lounges where the students reside. It creates a fun and dynamic intentional learning community that can also aid in the transition to college life during your first year.

How do I apply for one of these programs?

To apply, you need to log in to your Admissions account (which is different from your St. Olaf account; the Admissions account is what you’ve been using to monitor your application status, and where you’re also able to make your enrollment deposit). Once you log in, you’ll be able to locate the applications for the four programs for first years on the right-hand side. Each application requires a short original essay component with prompts specific to the program. Need help logging into your Admissions account? Contact your admissions officer.

Can I apply for all Conversations and Learning Communities if I’m not sure of which one I want to do?

Yes. If you are accepted to them all, you’ll be able to do a little more research before choosing the one you want. Generally, one of the questions on the application requires students to rank their Conversation preference.

Since the first deadline passed, can I still apply?

Yes! While many students are admitted from the first application round in April, there is still room for students who decide by the later deadline of May 10.

I love the concept of the Conversation programs and CH/BI, and I want to do THEM ALL! Can I?

Wow, we admire your gumption! However, even if you are an incredibly motivated genius, it’s impossible to do CH/BI, The Great Conversation, American Conversations, and Environmental Conversations alongside each other. However, it is possible to do either CH/BI or Great Con or AmCon or EnCon AND Asian Conversations or The Science Conversation. Generally, there only are a handful of students who double-up on a two year and one year Conversation program.

How many students are accepted who apply to the Conversation programs?

Not all students who apply are accepted, but there are wait lists that exist throughout the summer as students change their minds or decide to opt out of the program. There are two cohorts of 60 students for Great Con, one cohort of 40 students for AmCon, and roughly 30 students in EnCon. Generally, both programs are able to accept half to a third of students who apply.

How are applications reviewed?

The professors who teach in the programs review all applicant essays completely separate from any other consideration. They don’t look at your high school GPA, your test score, or essays you submitted in the fall. Their reasoning: you were admitted to St. Olaf, so you’re smart enough. It’s just about who puts together a compelling essay and how well it’s written.

Are these programs considered “honors” programs?

While there is a considerable amount of reading and preparation for each class (for Great Conversation, you read upwards of 80 extra pages of reading per night); no, St. Olaf doesn’t have any honors program. As a selective, academically rigorous college, every course sequence provides the rigor and opportunities you’d find at a typical “honors” level program.

What if I don’t do a Conversation program?

All in all, only 25% or so of Oles are involved with a Conversation program when all is said and done. While they are awesome for the students who are involved, they are not the only way you’ll get a rigorous, interesting, compelling education at St. Olaf. Evaluate if it fits what you want and how you learn best; if it doesn’t, you won’t be looked down upon or judged for not being a Conner.

Is there a cool visual aid to help me get a better sense for the Great Conversation program in particular?

Why, yes! Enjoy.

Hopefully this is helpful! Enjoy crafting your clever essays… I know our professors are excited to read them and welcome the next group of Conners and CH/BI students to campus.