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Articles / Applying to College / Big Colleges vs. Small

Feb. 26, 2004

Big Colleges vs. Small

Question: What are the advantages or disadvantages of a large college vs. a small one?

I address this question in my book Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions (Petersons 2002). Below, you'll find an excerpt. Personally, I like the idea of a small but not tiny school--under 3,000 or so but not below about 1,200--for the undergrad years. You'll have a better chance of making your mark on campus when you're not one of a huge multitude. However, some students really thrive in a huge university community. As my co-author Sid Dalby likes to say, "It's easier to make a big college small than a small college big."


A large university can be excitingâ€"or impersonal. A small school can be supportiveâ€"or stifling. Among the most common reasons for transferring, size is near the top of the list, with “too big” and “too small” getting pretty even play. Small colleges commonly translate into smaller classes and more faculty contact. They can, however, be too homogeneous or lacking in specific curricular offerings. Large schools may offer opportunities such as editing a daily newspaper or studying Swahili that a smaller school can’t equal. Extroverts and self-starters may thrive on a big campus. Students who are shy or who lack the self-discipline to work when there are endless temptations to do otherwise will probably be better served by a small college where they won’t be as likely to fall through the cracks.

One "mistake" that I've seen high school students make is to opt for large urban institutions with the belief that this will translate into a great social life. While cities do provide tons of diversions, these students often head off in myriad different directions in the evenings or on weekends--on their own or in small groups--claiming that there is no campus social life at all. Some can find the experience pretty lonely ... or, at least, expensive.

While it may sound counterintuitive, smaller, more isolated colleges may provide the best social environment because--with no place nearby to go--students hang together and develop their own on-campus social networks ... and (usually free) fun.

The bottom line: personal preference will play a key role in determining what the "advantages" and "disadvantages" of each type of school will be for you.

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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