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This week's question from John W., Portland, ME asks:

My brother keeps telling me that I should consider size as I start applying to schools but I’m not sold – what makes a school large or small, and what are some of the more subtle advantages/disadvantages of both?

“Big” does not always mean better….it's about the match

Ellen Fisher | Founder & Independent College Advisor
It is very common for high school students to think negatively about a college that is similar in size to their high school.  This is NOT a good assumption.  Firstly, in college, one’s ‘friends’ come from across all four grades.  That is a wide circle of potential friends! Secondly, at a smaller college, one will have the advantage of doing research that usually goes to graduate students.  Third, the probability of graduating in 4 years is also higher at a small college because you will get your courses.  And yes, your sports team might not be on ESPN every Saturday, but the school spirit can be just as significant at a small college as at a huge university. 

“Universe-ity” offers a world of academic and social options for independent students

Joanne Levy-Prewitt | Creator & Founder
A large university can be perfect for many students. Large universities are like a “universe” and offer a wide variety of social options, majors and academic programs for undergraduate and graduate students. For example, UC Berkeley houses the Department of Demography, eight majors with “Bio” as a prefix, and seven programs that study the environment! Large universities have well-established job recruitment and career placement services, and since most large universities are public, the tuition and fees are affordable for working students and families. Students who are interested in a large school should be mature, independent, and willing to self-advocate to get the attention, assistance and classes required to thrive and graduate.

A small college may be the perfect fit for you

Nola Lynch | Owner
Small colleges have distinct personalities. Are you quirky, free-spirited, intellectual, religious, conservative, or highly social? You will be able to express yourself in a welcoming environment where you are likely to make friends for life. Are you serious about academics? Your professors will get to know you (and challenge you), and you will not compete with graduate students for their attention. Do you have varied interests? You will be able to participate in and even lead many activities. If the school is a good fit for you academically and socially, your college years could be amazing.

Advantages to attending a small school

Wynne Curry | College Advisor
High school students often make the assumption that a certain kind of campus (large vs. small) offers a certain kind of education or community, and so often, they find their assumptions off the mark. Large campuses can appeal hugely to students from small public or independent schools; small campuses can offer a lot to students who come from huge high schools. So much depends on the student and how he or she envisions life beyond high school. And until students actually get onto a large or small campus, it’s hard for them to know what life is really like on a given campus

Ask yourself questions about what you want

Jill Greenbaum | Founder
Colleges and universities range from 55 to over 60,000 students-and the size of a school really does matter! Ask yourself these questions to discover which settings are right for you: how do I envision the environment where I want to spend my time, what does it look and feel like? In what type of setting do I do my best work, small or large classes? What social situations are most comfortable for me? Small to medium events or large crowds? The reality is, in large schools it is possible to find smaller grouping - smaller majors, departments, residence hall situations and extracurricular activities. So look carefully!

Before you decide what fits, take into account the size

Dorothy Styles | Director for College Readiness Programs & Initiatives
The size of a college is definitely a factor to consider when selecting a university. Students that chose big institutions tend to be independent, self-starters, and enjoy being in large crowds and among diverse populations. On the other hand, students who like to get to know their professors, fellow students, and like feeling that others know them by name, tend to consider the smaller universities. Larger schools offer more amenities, however smaller schools tend to provide more one-on-one services. There are benefits to attending both large and small institutions; however the benefits are usually determined by a student’s personal preference.

College equals small and University equals large populations

Susan Reznick | Independent Educational Consultant
Colleges are totally focused on the undergraduate experience, while universities also have to serve the needs of their graduate students. At a major university, of perhaps 15,000 students or more, when a professor needs a research assistant he will invariably choose a more experienced graduate student. This is not so at a college. For students who require some nurturing and a supportive environment, choosing a college would make more sense.  In order to be successful at a university, you need to be very assertive to satisfy your academic and social needs.

Colleges sizes can be deceptive; it's more than a numbers game

Yolanda Watson Spiva | Executive Director
Don't let the number of students in attendance intimidate you from looking at a college that has lots of students, or a smaller one which you think may not have lots of majors or courses to offer. Many large colleges have smaller academic departments that provide more intimate interaction with other students as well as faculty. Likewise, most small colleges tend to have a variety of majors and courses to appeal to its diverse student body. In large and small schools, alike, you are likely to take core courses with larger numbers of students, until you begin taking your major courses. Let your goals for your major and extracurricular activities serve as your priority rather than school size.

Community and involved faculty made a small college right for me

Patti Demoff | Co-Founder
I admit to a small college bias. My college had 750 students, the same number as my high school class. It never felt too small. For one year I attended a large university and, while I enjoyed the spirit of the place, I disliked the anonymity. At the small school, I was encouraged to form my own opinion, find my voice and try it out. For me, the close community, the relationships I had with faculty who cared about me as a person, and the opportunity to have my independent research encouraged, was more important than anything the large college offered. 

For some, size matters

Marilyn Emerson | Founder
Do you raise your hand or hate to be called on?  Some students learn best in small groups; others thrive when they simply listen and take notes.  If you’re the first type, consider a small school.  If you’re the second, then maybe a large university is the place for you.  This distinction is not absolute; some smaller schools have some pretty big classes and large university introductory courses typically break into smaller sections.   Also, if you want a close knit, nurturing environment – think small.  If you’re an independent self starter who doesn't mind a little bit of anonymity – consider big.

Forget about size and focus on community

Lynette Mathews | Director
What are my interests?  Is there a type of person that brings out the best in me?  Who can best enable my success?  These are the kinds of questions you should be asking yourself.  A key component of a good college match, is finding a group where you can belong.  Once students find a community where they can become an active member, college begins to feel like home – no matter the size.   Examples include cultural clubs, athletic teams, Greek systems, or academic departments. Finding out if a school has a community for you to engage is more critical than considering the size of the school.

Go big or go home?

Vanessa Roth | Founder & Director
Benefits of a larger school include: more majors and degree programs; bigger, better stocked libraries; more campus activities; bigger, and likely better-funded, sports programs; a wide range of academic and social opportunities; better likelihood of having distinguished or famous faculty; a bigger experience than high school; an education in how to be a self-starter and how to deal with red-tape.  Some negatives of a large school include: large class sizes (at least in the first two years—even larger universities usually have smaller classes in upper division courses); courses taught by teaching assistants or graduate students rather than professors; difficulty accessing professors; professors who prioritize research over teaching; the potential to get lost in the crowd.

Goldilocks was right . . .

Mary Ann Willis | College Counselor
One size doesn’t fit all. Need close-knit community? Love a crowd? Have heart palpitations when you walk into a class of 600? Want to crawl under a desk if it is just you and twelve others in class? Knowing yourself helps determine your college-size comfort zones. Larger universities generally have more offerings—in and out of class. Smaller colleges tout close student-professor relationships. Any size college can have great class options and mentoring. Consider factors besides size: Too far? Too near? Too hot? Too cold? Too specialized? There are many college options that might be just right

How do you learn best?

Chris Hooker Haring | Dean of Admission & Financial Aid
My advice is to think hard about how you learn best.  Do you like smaller classes with lots of interaction?  Do you want close relationships with your professors?  Do you want classes that are organized seminar style or are you fine with a primarily lecture format?  All of these bear on what kind of learning environment will be best for you--larger or smaller, rural or urban, public or private, etc.  Start with your internal landscape and how you learn best, and that will help with the decision about college size, location, etc.

In finding the right college fit, size does matter

Amy Greenwald Foley | Sr Associate Director of Undergraduate Admissions
Some dream of “Big State U” with all of the spirit and trappings a large campus (and athletic program) bring. Others rhapsodize over an intimate academic experience to be found on a lovely little liberal arts campus.  My advice is to stop daydreaming and start visiting. Get out there and see if the feel of the big or the little or, gasp, something in between is right for you.  Even better, test drive a campus through a summer college program. Pros and cons abound.  What’s key is figuring out where you fit in and which campus fits you best.

Large colleges equals options, options, options

Lisa Bain-Carlton | Educational Consultant
Some feel huge classes and uncaring administrators are par for the course on a large campus, but there are some great advantages to a bigger college.  The range of academic and social opportunities is much greater on a big campus.  Students have the chance to choose more specialized majors and programs.  This can be especially important for a student who has a specific career goal. For example, if the student wants to pursue sports marketing or biomedical engineering, he or she will need a highly specialized department. One of the keys to succeeding on a large campus is to learn about the variety of programs available and to jump in and get involved.

Larger may be better

Nancy McDuff | Associate Vice President for Admissions & Enrollment Management
Students are often limited in their experience based on what their high school is like and they narrow their college choices based on what they think they know.  A good student can find success in any environment, large, medium or small. But a student can optimize their experience when they have the most options.  Large universities provide a broader range of types of students to know and learn alongside.  Not only breadth of majors, but depth in the academic areas will be more prevalent at a large school.  Opportunities to take leadership roles will expand as the number of student run organizations increases, as will the scope of potential items to the student’s resume. 

Like clothes, there's no "right" size - just what fits you well!

Carol Morris | Regional Director of Admissions
Size is all about perspective: one person's cozy, intimate experience at a small school is someone else's claustrophobic cage. Conversely, one student revels in the unlimited choices, both socially and academically, of a large university while another feels lost and overwhelmed in the relative anonymity of large classes and a less personal environment. Sometimes a medium sized school fits the bill if you are looking for some combination of the two; you may find Division 1 sports along with small classes, and lots of research opportunities coupled with knowing your professors well enough to get substantive recommendations. Consider the size of your high school; are you looking to approximate that experience, or try the opposite?

Many small campuses have deceptively vast resources and opportunities

Ralph Becker | Owner & Director
Attributing campus size to available resources might prove deceptive. Pomona College, for example, has only 1,500 undergraduates, smaller than many high schools. Yet, as part of the Claremont College Consortium, containing 5 undergraduate and 2 graduate schools, Pomona has a 2,500-seat concert hall, numerous art studios, interscholastic athletic teams, and a 1.9 million volume library. Pomona students can cross register for over 2,500 different courses, study abroad, participate in exchange programs with Swarthmore College, or a 3-2 engineering program with Cal Tech. Consequently, it pays to investigate a college regardless of size. You might find vast resources among small dimensions.

One size college does not "fit" all students

Francine Block | President
You have to decide what you specifically want from a college and then make sure that size can offer you those requirements.  If you are going to be a science major, you need to make sure you will be guaranteed a science research slot BEFORE your senior year, that work will be important for you to have when doing grad school applications and you also need to know before senior year if you like lab work.  Thinking about med or law school? Make sure you will be in small enough classes where the professor will know you so she can write you a letter of recommendation.

S M L XL XXL--Shrink to fit?

John Carpenter | Founder
I think many people consider SIZE as a reliable factor when, in fact, it doesn't really mean that much in choosing a college.  The real factor should be how you learn best, and many people learn better from individualized attention.  It's easier to get that at a smaller college, but even at huge universities, you can find smaller learning communities that give you exactly what you need.  My advice is not to get hung up on size.  After four years, it won’t matter anyway. Look at how you learn best instead, and find a community that matches that.

Size and personality shape your experience

Moira O'Riordan | College Counselor
Don’t equate size with opportunity. Your personality determines your experience. Large schools have myriad resources and can be made smaller, if you seek out opportunities and make connections. However, the bells and whistles of a large school matter little if you choose not to access them. Anonymity then would be yours. On the other hand, small schools have less competition for resources, especially if there are no graduate students, so research with professors happens with greater ease. You may co-author papers, travel to conferences, present papers. If you like discussion and the exchange of ideas, small class size is important.

Size does matter

Jolyn Brand | Founder & Director
Students should consider the size of the colleges or universities that they would like to attend. Smaller schools tend to have fewer degree choices, fewer courses, fewer professors and fewer student activities. Smaller schools also tend to have better (lower) student to faculty ratios and it’s generally easier to connect with classmates. Larger colleges have broader choices in regards to classes, scheduling and professors and more student activities to choose from. However, some students may feel lost in large schools they don’t recognize anyone in their classes. Students should carefully weigh the size of their selected colleges carefully to determine the right “fit” for them.

Size does matter (in both directions), and you should discover what's best for you

Ken Huus | Dean of Admissions
The important piece of the college search is to discover what environment best suits your learning style and provides you the best opportunity for academic success.  Large schools can offer lots of student activities, lots of choices for academic major, and an environment where you can blend into the pack (i.e. you can avoid being called on in many classes because of the large size).  Small college will offer fewer student activities, fewer choices for major, and an environment where you cannot hide in a classroom.  You need to explore how you learn and what sort of college student you wish to be, and then pursue college options that fit you.

Size is one important factor to consider of many

Jeff Haig | Co-Founder
The size of a school is an important factor when applying to colleges. Some universities have large enrollments with 30,000+ students and lecture hall-style classrooms while other colleges are intimate in size with small classrooms. It is important to understand what campus environment is right for you. Also, realize that large universities can still be “small” in the sense that they provide many opportunities to bond and grow with fellow students and faculty. So, consider size when applying to colleges, but also consider many other factors when making your ultimate decision of where to spend your next few years.

Size of the college is one variable to consider in your college search

Jeannie Borin | Founder & President
Larger universities (over 6,000 undergraduates) offer some advantages over smaller colleges, and are good for students who can advocate for themselves. If a student wants personal relationships with professors and smaller classes then a smaller college would be a better match. Larger public universities can be state funded and therefore charge less tuition. However, smaller colleges may have large endowments with more money to distribute in grants and aid. More students and more alumni can mean more money. That gives large universities a multitude of resources, the ability to hire top faculty and sustain state of the art academic programs and recreational/athletic facilities. Smaller colleges may have more of a “community feel” and great resources as well.

Super-Size Me! The BIG advantages of attending a large university

Laura Miller | Director of College Guidance
Big things come in big packages too! Attending a large-size university has many perks, including more college classes in a wide variety of academic disciplines. Expect campus libraries to have the resources you need. Plus, there’s a strong bet your professors have conducted plenty of research. Want to get out of your high school fishbowl and enjoy a much-needed dose of anonymity? A large school attracts students from all over the map, including international students. Socially, think: diverse clubs and activities, Division I sports teams, and even cool speakers and rock bands to hit your campus. So think BIG!

The size of the school can determine whether you thrive or merely survive!

Deborah Shames | Independent College Search Consultant & Transfer Admissions Advisor
Smaller schools are often more willing evaluate you holistically, evaluating more than your GPA and test scores.  And the vast majority of test-optional colleges are smaller schools.  You need to know yourself as a learner.  If you want to know your professors, that’s much easier to do at a smaller school.  If you want discussion-based classes, they’re easy to find at smaller schools, but at larger schools (over 10,000) you might not have them until junior year.  You can find Greek life, sports and rah-rah, and friends anywhere, but the academic experience, for which your parents are paying big bucks, will largely be determined by the size of the school. 

These ones  are just right: designing your college list

Rebecca Joseph | Executive Director & Founder
Goldilocks found the perfect porridge, chair, and bed. And you can find the perfect colleges to put on your list. A good place to start is Steven Antonoff’s book, College Finder. It lists colleges under every conceivable category. Look at the categories and then go explore the colleges. You can start in your own area to see whether you like city, suburban, or rural locations. Think about size and cost. Think about closeness to home and weather. Think about the match to your academic and extracurricular strengths. You can develop a great list and go from there.

To be noticed or anonymous!

Estelle Meskin | Certified Educational Planner
Among the benefits of a small liberal arts college is the ease with which faculty gets to know the students. An Occidental professor says that by the second day of class, he knows each student by first name. At Cornell College the faculty pays close attention to each student and can identify whether a student needs help. Students can't sit in the back of a lecture room and go unnoticed. Also, research opportunities in small schools can be as good as those in major universities. If it's Big Ten sports you're seeking or a chance to be anonymous, a large university might suit you.

Top 10 advantages of smaller colleges over larger ones

Marjorie Shaevitz | Author & Founder
Using David Letterman’s “Top Ten List” concept, here are the “Top 10 advantages of smaller colleges over larger ones:” #10) smaller classes, #9) closer relationships with professors, #8) more personal attention, #7) greater mentoring, #6) a finer sense of family and community, #5) a collaborative rather than competitive atmosphere, #4) larger emphasis on student research projects, internships and job connections, #3) better advising, #2) more seminar and discussion classes, and #1) a much higher record for getting into graduate school. By comparison, larger colleges offer more students, majors, courses, access to graduate programs, activities, sports and bureaucracy, rules and regulations (aka, red tape).

What works for you?

Danny Reynolds | Director of College Counseling
Colleges are considered ‘small’ when they are less than 5,000 students, ‘mid-sized’ between 5,000 and 15,000 students, and so on. When considering size, contemplate what kind of learning environment and social setting you’re seeking. If you like being surrounded by familiar faces and want intimate, discussion-based classes from the start, go with a smaller school. At larger schools you’ll have an abundance of social opportunities which is great for the student who will take it upon his/herself to find his/her niche. In addition, intro level courses are large and often taught by TA’s, but become smaller as students begin to specialize.

When developing your college list, size is an important factor to consider

Leigh Anne Spraetz | President
A large university has much to offer, including many clubs, internships, course offerings, majors, and of course, people to meet. For the independent extrovert, a large school may be just what is needed. However, if it is important to a student to have smaller class sizes, to know their professors well or to have a smaller environment in order to feel confident getting involved, a smaller school can be a good fit. Getting involved is how you make a larger environment feel smaller. Attend the clubs/organizations Open House, and find 1-2 activities that interest you. Be careful not to get overly involved while learning to balance the social and academic life of college.

When it comes to college, size and access does matter

Anne Richardson | Director of College Counseling, International & ESL Programs
Are you a student who likes contact with professors? Are you a student who likes lectures or discussions? Is access to research and internships an important part of your college experience? Students who like small classes, access to professors and discussion classes may fare better at a smaller (2,000-5,000) institution. Students who want to do research, who like lecture classes and who thrive in large classes may do better at a larger school (5,000+), although you will need to check whether undergraduates have access to research and professors. The bottom line? Visit both and see what fits.

While size matters to some, your priorities are most important

Craig Meister | President
A student population of 10,000 at one college could feel much more manageable than a student population of 10,000 at another college because of other variables such as a college’s advising system, average class size, or campus environment and location. With this in mind, the sooner you start visiting college campuses, the sooner you will be able to determine the ideal combination of characteristics that your college campus should possess. While size is important to some applicants, others don’t prefer big, medium, or small because to them other factors are far more important.

Who are you? What makes you comfortable?

Gwyeth Smith | President & CEO
I often hear people telling the young, somewhat shy student that he needs to attend a small college with yes, small class sizes. It might be appropriate but I believe the decision requires self-reflection by the individual that focuses on and examines learning style. Are you an individual who assimilates information in a classroom by absorbing instruction, preparing independently, and by listening intently? Or are you an individual who learns more effectively by being an active contributor in classroom discussion, who enjoys vibrant and challenging debate? The answer to these questions will help determine the learning environment that will better meet your needs.

Your learning style is key when it comes to size

Gail Grand | President
Understanding your learning style will help you to determine the college size that best fits you. What type of learner are you? Are you the one who learns best when actively engaged in class discussions or do you like to sit at the back of the room and just take notes? Do you find your mind wandering if you can’t ask questions or when listening to a lecture? Do you prepare better for class when you know you’ll be challenged to participate and question? Test out your learning style by sitting in on classes in a similar subject, but try one taught seminar-style and one presented in a large lecture hall format. This should help you to “right-size” your college experience.



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