Is a Large or Small College Right for You?

By — National Association for College Admission Counseling
Updated on Feb 18, 2011

When you think about college, do you picture a compact campus where you run into friends between classes? Or do you envision big Saturday-afternoon football games, with thousands of fans cheering on your college's team? Are you participating in small-group discussions or listening carefully to your professor lecture?

There are no right answers to these questions—only what feels right to you. A college's size affects many aspects of the college experience, from your classes to your extracurricular activities to your social life.

Learning and Size

A college's size often affects the size of its classes. In general, larger schools tend to have larger classes, especially at the freshman level. You may find yourself taking notes along with a hundred other students in your Introduction to Psychology class. If you prefer being somewhat anonymous in class, large lecture courses are the way to go.

At smaller colleges, you may find fewer lecture courses and more courses that emphasize class participation. These types of classes facilitate closer contact with faculty and other students, which is attractive to some students but not all.

Of course, smaller colleges may still have some large classes, and large universities may offer a variety of small classes (especially in upper-level courses). But if you have a definite preference for a particular style of learning, look more closely at the colleges that offer more classes in that style.

Who teaches your classes can also depend on the college's size. Large universities often have many professors who are tops in their field of research. But undergraduates may not have much contact with these professors. Instead, teaching assistants (graduate students) may do the bulk of the teaching and grading, while the professors only lecture.

"This is not necessarily a negative," notes Marsha Gardner, college counselor at The College Preparatory School (CA). "There are some very good T.A.s [teaching assistants] who are often better teachers than the faculty members." However, she adds, this practice is something to consider if "big-name" professors are one of the reasons a particular college interests you.

At smaller colleges, particularly those with no graduate programs, you may not run into as many "big-name" research professors, but you will likely have far more interaction with the faculty. Many small colleges pride themselves on fostering mentoring-type relationships between professors and students.

Extracurricular Activities and Size

Size can have a big impact on extracurricular activities. In general, the larger the college, the more types of activities are offered. If you're interested in a relatively obscure activity, you're more likely to find it offered at larger colleges. On the other hand, it can be more difficult to "break in" to popular activities on a larger campus. After all, the more students there are, the greater your competition.

"If you come from a small [high] school and always get the starring role in the drama or music productions, at a big school, you might find that you are chosen only to stand in the background or carry a spear for your first three or four productions," notes Gardner.

At smaller colleges, students may find it easier to get involved and stand out in extracurricular activities. But small colleges usually can't offer the variety of activities that a large college can.

"It's the old question—do you want to be a big fish in a small pond or a little fish in a big pond?" says Gardner.

Social Life and Size

The effect of college size on student social life is similar to those on extracurricular activities. Larger schools have a greater variety of social options, and small colleges may have fewer options but a wider student participation in any one event.

You may find that smaller colleges seem friendlier, if only because you're likely to run into the same people more often. On the other hand, once you make a few friends, even the largest campus begins to feel like home.

General vs. Specific

Although size does have a significant impact on many aspects of college life, general statements can never capture the unique environment and community of an individual college. And no matter what college you choose, your particular personality, interests and choices will make your college experience different from anyone else's.

"You can make a large college smaller, and you can make a small college larger," says John Yaegel from Tenafly High School (NJ). "At a large school, you can become very involved with your major, your dorm, your extracurricular activities, and not have to deal the rest of the campus unless and when you want to. Some small schools are in or near cities, other colleges, businesses, or cultural and government institutions that can expand the resources of the small school."

The best way to figure out what size(s) of college appeals to you is to visit a variety of colleges.

"I always suggest that students visit a large, medium and small college, a private and a public college, and an urban, suburban and rural college to get a feel for what is more comfortable," adds Yaegel. 

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