Johns Hopkins University

Ask most people what they associate with the Johns Hopkins University, and they'll respond "health care." But the nearly 4,000 undergraduates enrolled at this elite university know better. Hopkins has some of the nation's top programs in international studies, writing and art history. And yes, its biomedical engineering major is still one of the most popular.

Roughly 30 percent of entering freshmen are classified as premed. That number dwindles, however, after they encounter courses like "Physiological Foundations," which was rated one of the hardest classes in the nation in 2001. But even when Hopkins students fly the premed coop, they still get a top-notch education from a university that is perennially ranked among the top 20 in the nation.

Hopkins was founded in 1876 as the first research university in the United States, and it still maintains that commitment to scholarly exploration. In fact, approximately 70 percent of undergraduate students have some opportunity to conduct research before graduation. Each year, a number of students receive Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards of up to $2,500 each to conduct intensive research on a topic of interest to them.

The academic intensity breeds what many students call "throats," students who resort to cutthroat methods, such as stealing required reading materials from The Milton S. Eisenhower Library to gain an advantage over their classmates. For an indication of just how seriously Hopkins students take their studies, watch how they veer around the university seal on the floor of Gilman Hall (the oldest academic building on the Homewood campus): According to legend, anyone who steps on the seal will never graduate.

Despite its academic rigor, Hopkins has a somewhat relaxed policy when it comes to required courses. There is no core curriculum or set of required courses that all students must take. Instead, students must fulfill "distribution requirements" in certain departments such as social sciences and humanities. Students simply pick courses that interest them from within these departments. To ease freshmen into the demands of college, first-year grades are given on a pass or fail basis.

Just because Hopkins is populated by overachievers who are serious about their studies doesn't mean students don't know how to have a good time. Spring Fair, the most popular campus event, is a student-run festival held in late April that attracts thousands of students, alumni and local residents for food, music, games and general revelry. The ethnically diverse student body is well-represented at this event. Hopkins attracts a significant minority and international population, and students thrive on the opportunity to learn about different cultures and make friends with people from around the world.

Fraternity parties are one popular form of nighttime entertainment. Students over 21 tend to venture off campus, often to Fells Point. There are plenty of businesses in the surrounding Charles Village neighborhood to keep students entertained, as well. Clustered around the intersection of Saint Paul and 31st streets are Sam's Bagels, Rocky Run Tap & Grill, the Charles Village Pub (or CVP for short) and Donna's Coffee Bar. Other popular hangouts include Cosi, a coffee bar during the day and a full-service bar at night, and PJ's Pub, a traditional college dive with cheap food and beer.

Known more for its brains than its brawn, most of Hopkins' sports excitement is generated by its lacrosse team. Of the 26 varsity teams, only men's and women's lacrosse compete in NCAA Division I. All others compete in Division III. The lacrosse teams are consistently ranked among the best in the nation, and students often put away the books for a chance to cheer for the Blue Jays.

There are more than 200 clubs and organizations for students to join on campus, including performance groups like the Buttered Niblets improvisational comedy troupe, the Mental Notes a cappella singing group, WHSR student radio and the News-Letter student newspaper. In 2001, the university opened a 60,000-square-foot recreation center with basketball and volleyball courts, a running track, cardiovascular exercise machines and a climbing wall. The Mattin Center features a black box theater, practice rooms, fine arts and dance studios, student organization offices, a filmmaking studio and lounges.

Hopkins' 140-acre Homewood campus is a typical college setting: It has tree-lined "quads," Georgian red brick architecture, and rolling lawns, gardens and trees. Students enjoy this bucolic setting just steps away from Baltimore's urban pace. Campus security is monitored by the ubiquitous "Hop Cops," who patrol around the clock and provide 24-hour walking escorts and van service. Freshmen and sophomores are required to live on campus (unless they commute from home), but other students disperse to apartments in the surrounding Charles Village neighborhood, or in other parts of the city.

The university is the namesake of investor and philanthropist Johns Hopkins, who, in 1867, left $7 million for the incorporation of a university and a hospital. At the time, it was the largest philanthropic bequest in U.S. history. Though it often causes confusion, the founder's name was indeed Johns Hopkins. His first name came from his maternal great-grandmother, Margaret Johns.

Hopkins is truly one of America's elite universities. It has one of the top 20 endowments in the nation, at $1.4 billion; with alumni such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg donating $100 million, it's easy to see how. Hopkins' illustrious alumni network also includes President Woodrow Wilson; novelist John Barth; Pulitzer Prize-winning author Russell Baker; film director Wes Craven and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.