What Makes a School Large or Small?

US News and World Report

June 22, 2011

Staying on the topic of size (last week, we talked about standing out in large college classes), the concept of college size goes far beyond the square footage of the campus. Student/professor ratios, the social scene, student government, and student organizations are important factors when determining what makes a great fit with a student’s personality and can change significantly among colleges of different sizes. John W. from Portland, Maine, asks:

Q: 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?

A: Size does matter!

Dr. Michele Hernandez, president and founder, HernandezCollegeConsulting.com and ApplicationBootCamp.com

But not the way you might imagine. It’s a mistake to look at just the size of the school without considering the size of the department in which you are interested. A large school-such as Cornell or Michigan-might have a super small department of classics, for example, where your class size could be 10 to 15 students rather than the much larger “average” size. When you visit colleges, stop by particular departments and find out a bit more about the facilities and research available in your area of interest. Are research opportunities limited to graduate students (as is the case often at larger schools) or can undergraduates take advantage as well? Top liberal arts colleges often reserve high level research for their undergraduate students.

Also, ask yourself what kind of student are you: Do you prefer larger lecture classes? (Can you focus in a large lecture class? Will you seek out the professor on your own if you have questions?) Do you prefer seminar style classes where the professor knows your name and your voice can be heard? How large was your high school? Did it seem too big? Too small? Most important, visit each campus, and observe a class. In a large lecture class, how active are the students? How dynamic is the professor? How often are teaching assistants used? Size is relative as many large schools have smaller departments with amazing depth. Do your research!

A: What type of community do you seek: Cozy? Anonymous? In between?

Katherine Cohen, founder and CEO, IvyWise

When creating your college list, consider campus environment, as you’ll be spending a significant amount of time on campus-if not living there-for four years. There are smaller colleges with fewer than 3,000 students, larger state schools with 25,000+ students, and many options in between. If you’re looking for a campus that’s easy to navigate, where you know many students and you can form close relationships with professors, then a smaller school may work for you. If you’re looking for diversity in terms of student body, academic and research opportunities, and extracurricular offerings, then a larger school may be more of interest.

A: Will your high school size help you make a college decision

Steve Loflin, founder and CEO, National Society of Collegiate Scholars

A student once told me he was glad he chose a large school because he could find ways to make a large school seem small but he couldn’t make a small school seem large. There is some truth to that and you need to focus more on good fit and what you need to be successful. Think of your high school experience and decide if that worked for you. If you went to a small high school, was that a good experience? Or do you need more? Or, was the large high school too much? If you take an honest inventory about high school, writing down your likes and dislikes and then look for a college that best matches your likes, you may be surprised that you learned more about yourself in high school than just getting good grades.

A: Size can determine the type of opportunities offered on campus.

Stacey Kostell, director of admissions, University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign

Size is a very important characteristic when choosing a university because it dictates many aspects of academic and campus life. Large schools offer a greater variety of majors and courses, research options, extracurricular activities, and Division I athletics. Smaller schools can provide a more intimate setting, lower faculty-to-student ratio, more outlets to get to know faculty, and an easier time in creating a personalized curriculum. No matter the size, as a student, you will have to take initiative to get involved and form relationships with your professors. That doesn’t happen immediately.

You should know that it’s not necessarily easier to be admitted to large universities because admissions selectivity isn’t based on size of the school. It depends on the number of applications versus admit spaces. In order to find the size you like best, it’s important to visit campuses and see how each one feels to you.