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Applying to Small Colleges vs Large Universities

By Tiffany, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor

As we finished crafting her final college list and were poised to begin working on her applications, a student sat across the table from me and asked, “how will I stand out?” What might have been a simple question was made more complex by the schools on her list. While many students will apply to a wide range of schools, it’s important to remember that when applying to both smaller and larger schools all the same information is considered, just in different ways. Going into the process with this knowledge can help you craft the best applications possible.

There are over 3,000 colleges and universities in the US. Students hoping to complete just one Common Application still have a choice of over 800 schools with varying sizes, locations, and campus cultures, such as the University of Central Florida, California College of the Arts, the University of Notre Dame, and Cornell University. As a counselor, I’ve worked with students to ensure their college lists are not only built considering the qualities of a college community but also considering the unique attributes the student can contribute to their future environment. For some students, they’ll manage to keep a similar size, scope, or mission across all of the schools on their application list, while others will carefully craft a balanced college list with a large variety.

Before applying to a wide variety of school types and sizes with a generic essay and application, it’s important to take a moment to pause and consider the differences in each institution in order to customize your application for each school to which you apply.

Applying to Smaller Liberal Arts Schools

Admissions officers for smaller universities are charged with the mission to carefully curate an incoming class with enough variety to support every aspect of the University’s ethos. Since smaller colleges have smaller class sizes, spots are limited and it’s imperative that each applicant be able to demonstrate how they will contribute both inside and outside of the classroom in order to have the best chance of admission.

Academically speaking, it’s common for smaller, liberal arts schools to place emphasis on exploration of the curriculum across many fields. It’s the “liberal” part of their Liberal Arts classification. In addition, they’ll often use classic texts as a foundation. At Colgate University, each student must take core courses ranging from Legacies of the Ancient World to Challenges of Modernity, to Scientific Perspectives on the World. Knowing that these requirements were looming, I often scoured applications from my geographic territory looking for ways that students had engaged with interdisciplinary concepts or put their academic interests to use when connecting to the world around them. It can also be common for a smaller school to have a specialized curriculum, for example, the Colorado School of Mines has a variety of undergraduate degree programs all focused on STEM fields. Standing out in their pool means specifically addressing your aptitude in math, science, and the environment.

Outside of the classroom, these admissions officers need to be able to see clearer ideas of how you will contribute to their community since each avenue of their vibrant campus life depends on a smaller student body. How will you be a big fish in a small pond at their institution? Are you a follower? A self-starter? Reliable and committed to your activities? Your essays and activity list give you the opportunity to highlight the ways in which you have dynamically engaged with the various communities within your school and the local community.

It also counts to just be genuine in your applications. Consider the human qualities you’ll bring to campus as a neighbor, teammate, research partner, and overall community member because smaller campuses can put a particular emphasis on these qualities in admissions. Schools like Dartmouth College and Davidson College have used peer recommendations as a part of their admissions process while the University of Richmond has also utilized letters of recommendation from the parents of applicants!

Applying to Mid-Size to Larger Research Universities

I have some good news for applicants who have a list with some small liberal arts schools as well as mid-size to larger research universities: Many of the same concepts I mentioned above apply when applying to larger colleges and universities – just in different ways.

Larger schools tend to offer a wider variety and therefore, there is a broader range of aspects within the collegiate community in which you may find your fit. In other words, it may be easier for an admissions officer to imagine you on campus because there’s more “campus” to consider – so be yourself! Highlight your unique attributes, but when doing so, draw attention to specific programs, clubs, or opportunities at the larger school where you will hope to build your niche. By demonstrating your fit with the specific elements on campus, you will show your fit with the institution on a larger scale.

This is especially helpful when applying to a specific program within a large university. You want to demonstrate your specialties as they relate to the program to which you are applying. Just because you’re applying to a large university doesn’t mean your application has to be broad in order to be the best “fit.” Remember: colleges are looking to build a class of specialists. Just because a university is large doesn’t mean they don’t want to craft a class of compelling “pointy” students. That said, remember to use your personal statement to reveal something about yourself that can’t be found anywhere else in the application. This helps admissions officers get to know you and can add color to an already compelling application – helping you stand out among the thousands of applications your admissions officer is likely reading at a larger institution.

No matter the type of universities you’re considering, admissions officers will base their decision on your academic performance and your potential to contribute to their community as a whole. When applying to college, whether it’s to a smaller, liberal arts school or a large research university, look for opportunities to demonstrate your fit and that you’ve done your research when building your balanced college list.

Not sure how to show how you stand out? Contact us today for more information on our college counseling services, that can help students start building a compelling applicant profile now and guide them through the admissions process senior year, including building a balanced college list!


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