Finding the right college for you can be a straightforward and low-stress experience if you begin by looking at a key issue: size. You’ve probably already heard lots of conflicting theories about the pros and cons of big versus small and urban versus rural. Large schools are usually the ones that get all the press and hype with their largely funded sports programs and research hospitals, but let’s look past the hype to investigate the benefits of a small-school education. For most high school students, going to college is an opportunity to be in a completely new situation with endless academic and social opportunities. The idea is to jump into a new world–a world that has no limitations. It makes sense that many of you will therefore decide that bigger is better. If your first choice school offers you 19 housing options, 10 different dining halls, 12 libraries and 62 majors to choose from, it’s understandable that you will feel compelled to apply. Isn’t that what you’ve been wanting all these years?

What Kind of Opportunity Do I Want?

Although it’s true that larger institutions, meaning research universities with graduate programs and an undergraduate student body of more than 8,000 students, might offer you Starbucks coffee 24 hours a day, the chance to live in a spacious suite with your three best friends, and televised sports events, it will also have some serious drawbacks you should carefully consider.

Larger institutions, along with all the libraries and dining halls, typically have lots of graduate students. This often means that the faculty will be heavily involved with graduate thesis projects, dissertation advising, in addition to their own research. All this can add up to your professors having less time to give their undergrad students attention. Many find that developing strong relationships with professors is what a great college experience is all about. If your professors don’t have the time to meet with you, or don’t even know your name, the school is probably too big for a quality undergraduate experience.

Additionally, large universities often have large classes. This can mean that your freshman English class might have as many as 150 students. There may also be lecture classes with as many as 200-300 students. Many students enjoy this environment, however, if you’re the kind of student who needs to be in a small class or you’d be afraid to raise your hand and say, “I don’t understand this week’s assignment” or even, “I have a question about,” or “strong feelings about,” or “a thought about this week’s assignment,” you need to think carefully about attending a large institution. Many undergraduates have a great college experience attend schools where they get to know their professors well, and this usually happens in classes that are small enough so that no student goes unnoticed.

Smaller colleges, schools with 2,500 students or fewer, are usually teaching institutions with few or no graduate students. These are colleges dedicated to providing undergraduates with a strong sense of community and a first-rate academic experience. Colleges that have classes with fewer than 15 students are typically better able to meet students’ individual academic needs. These schools often have strong advising systems where every student is matched with an advisor who can take the time to get to know you. This kind of school can protect you from being one of those students who slips through the cracks. It’s the kind of school where you can feel known, important, and excited about what you’re studying.

It’s also important to remember that it’s not just endless opportunities you’re wanting, but more importantly, opportunities that meet your specific interest and needs. A large school that has 62 majors will not necessarily allow you to co-author research papers with professors or design your own interdisciplinary major or write a play for your senior thesis. You need to spend some time thinking about the kinds of opportunities you’d most like to have, and seek out schools that can meet your needs.

If you’re interested in a school that is either bigger or smaller than you’re comfortable with, if at all possible, make a plan to visit. During your visit, there are several things you can do that will help you decide if the school is the right size for you.

  • Take a class–this will give you important information about the way teachers and students interact, the number of graduate students in undergraduate classes, and the enthusiasm or general disinterest of the students.
  • Do an overnight visit–if you’re visiting a small school, the geographic, ethnic, and academic diversity of the student body might surprise you.
  • Interview–this is a great place to find out whether or not the interviewer graduated from that school, and if so, what his or her experience was like. Ask lots of questions.

In general, most people are successful if they think small for undergrad and big for grad. This is a great formula to follow. It will give you the consistent attention and quality opportunity you need as an undergrad so that you can go onto that big research university of your choice and make your mark. However, if you are set on attending a large university, just make sure you know what you are up against, but go for it and have fun! Good luck!