When it comes to selecting a college, size does matter.
Colleges in the US range from the very, very small (such as Shimer College in Chicago with 77 undergrads) to the very, very large (like Arizona State University with nearly 40,000 undergrads), with most falling somewhere in between. When building a college list, I recommend thinking deeply about whether you’d be best at a large college or a small college.
So what sets a large college apart from a small one? Some differences are obvious – large colleges typically have MORE – majors, classes, food choices, clubs, events and potential friends to choose from. Smaller colleges will generally have fewer options, but will also have smaller classes, more accessible professors and less competition for dorms, parking and in-demand course sections.
The most important difference though is how the size of the college will shape your learning experience, because college size usually correlates with class size. While there are exceptions, at smaller colleges you can generally expect to have 15-30 students per class, while at larger colleges you’ll often have anywhere from 50-300 students, especially in the general lower division classes.
How do you know which is better for you? I recommend starting by asking, “How do I learn best?” To shed light on which college and class size best match your learning style, think about how you operate in your high school classes:
- Do you learn better when you can participate in a discussion with classmates? (small college)
- Or do you prefer listening and taking notes? (large college)
- Are you the one asking and answering questions throughout class?
- Or are you the one sitting quietly, taking notes and absorbing it all? (large college)
- Do you easily get lost if the teacher goes too fast? (small college)
- Or can you keep up with a quick pace of information and sort it out on your own later? (large college)
- Are you likely to zone out or not show up to a large lecture where nobody notices your absence? (small college)
- Do you feel like group work or classmate presentations slow down your learning? (large college)
Of course, many students learn equally well in both types of classroom settings. But if you have a clear preference for one over the other, you should be targeting colleges in this size category.