Understanding Small vs. Medium vs. Large Colleges

Thursday, September 22, 2016

college_campus_fall.jpgUnderstanding Small vs. Medium vs. Large Colleges

When searching for best-fit colleges, size is often one of the first things that students consider. Many college-bound students already have an idea of what they’re looking for in a school before they start researching specific institutions – maybe it’s a large student body with endless possibilities or a small campus with an intimate atmosphere. Going with your gut is a good place to start, but there are many pros, and cons, to certain college sizes that students might overlook when building their balanced college list.

Why does campus size matter?

When choosing best-fit colleges, the size of the campus can do a lot to directly impact everything from the school’s academic offerings to the campus’ social climate. A college with 2,000 undergraduates is not going to offer hundreds of majors, but you might get more advisory support once you get on campus. On the flip side, a larger university can offer almost endless academic opportunities, but you’ll need to be more independent as a higher volume of students can leave faculty and staff with little time to get to know every student extremely well.

Because admissions officers are working to build a well-rounded class of freshmen every application season, how students’ goals and ambitions fit onto that campus is taken very seriously. If a student is looking for a highly specific major and a campus experience with unlimited clubs, a smaller campus with more limited academic offerings and a freshman class size of about 600 isn’t going to meet that student’s goals. That’s why it’s important to consider social fit, along with academic and financial fit when selecting colleges to which to apply.

What size college is right for you?

First, picture yourself at your “dream” college. Is it a sprawling campus with thousands of students milling about every day? Or is it a more cozy atmosphere, with a quieter campus and familiar face everywhere? Or is it somewhere in between? How you picture the campus around you can tell you a lot about what you’re looking for in terms of size.

Next, think about what you want to study. Are you interested in a liberal arts education? Or do you have a more specific major in mind, like business, engineering, foreign language, etc.? Do you want to study a specific major, but also want the freedom to pursue other academic interests? Your academic goals can also play a part in size – larger universities tend to have more academic offerings, while smaller colleges might be limited in what majors and courses you can take.

This chart below, comparing small, medium, and large college campuses sizes can help you get a better idea of what you’re looking for in the size of your best-fit colleges.

Small College Medium College Large College
Student Body Size <5,000 Undergrads 5-15,000 Undergrads >15,000 Undergrads
Academic Offerings Smaller colleges might have limited academic offerings, with more focus on liberal arts or a specialty, like STEM More academic options than at a smaller college, but not as many as at a large university. Can sometimes have a strong liberal arts focus Wide range of academic majors and research opportunities
Class Size There might be some large classes, but on the whole class sizes tend to be smaller A mix of large and small classes, with smaller classes as students get into higher-level, major-specific courses More large, auditorium-style classes in general education classes, with small classes in higher-level, major-specific courses
Activities With fewer students, there might be fewer clubs and activities, but a smaller student body can give students more influence to start their own clubs or activities. Medium-size colleges tend to have a wide range of clubs and activities that meet students’ interests. There’s room to grow, but also plenty of established options to choose from. Large colleges tend to have hundreds of clubs and activities to meet any student’s interests. Plenty to choose from but too many options can be overwhelming for some.
Social Climate Students on smaller campuses can usually get to know each other better and a smaller student body can help you stand out. Students can feel like a big fish in a small pond. A good option for students who want a more intimate college experience with a smaller group of students. A medium-size student body can be small enough to create an intimate experience, but also big enough to keep meeting new people. This is a good option for students who want the experience of a smaller campus but more opportunities to branch out like in a larger university. Large student bodies are sometimes not as intimate. Students can feel like a little fish in a big pond. But on a large campus, you’re always meeting someone new. A good option for students who want an experience that’s different every day. Students on large campuses who want a more intimate experience tend to find it within their major, or a club, group, or activity they’re passionate about.


While campus size isn’t the most important factor to consider when building your balanced college list, it is one of many details that can influence your decision about whether or not to apply to certain colleges. When building your balanced college list, be sure to look up the student body size and consider how that fits into your needs, goals, and what you want out of your college experience.

Want some more advice on building your college list? IvyWise counselor Meg offers some advice in this free webinar!

Related Topics

Choosing a College, College Prep
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