Colleges are all the same, right?: How size, location, and type can impact your college experience

So . . . you’re starting to look at colleges.

Do you want big? Small?

Are you going to stay close to home? Itching to go far away?

Want that big sports tailgate school? What the heck is a liberal arts college anyway?

If you’re in high school, people might be asking you these things. If you’re like I was (admittedly, in the Dark Ages aka the ’80s), I didn’t have a clue. No one in my family had gone to college except for my mom who started when I was in fourth grade and who commuted to the nearest university just because it was close to our house. I knew I wanted to go to college, but I wasn’t really sure what that meant. It felt kind of abstract. I ended up at a college that was half the size of my high school. How did that happen and was it right for me? (Spoiler: it was!)


While there’s no specific definition for a “small” school vs. a “big school,” most people can agree that a college with a few thousand people will feel different than a university the size of a small city. So which one is right for you? In general, if you want to have close relationships with your professors and other students, small class sizes, and a tight feeling of community you’re going to want to look at small colleges — those places with under about 5,000 students. Your experience at a small college will feel personalized. Your teachers will know you by name and just might text you if you blow off class but they see you at the post office. If you like knowing someone is looking out for you, this is a good fit. If you feel like that’s people being all up in your business, you might want to look elsewhere. The opposite end of the spectrum is a big university — over 20,000 students. Maybe you think it would be cool to hear a lecture given by a Nobel Peace Prize winner or you can’t wait to get your hands on the world’s largest telescope. You can do these kind of things at a big university. The challenge is that to carve out a great experience for yourself it helps to be outgoing and not afraid to hunt down a professor during his or her office hours. Someone who’s pretty shy and easily intimidated might want to steer clear of larger universities or, at the very least, look for ways to “scale down” by finding a home-within-a-home in an academic department, a fraternity or sorority, a sports team, a club, or an honors program.


In real estate, where you’re located can make all the difference. It can be the same for your college. Say you grew up in the suburbs and you’d really like to have more space. You love nature and you want to be able to go off campus and go hiking. You might want a rural location for college. Or maybe the energy of a big city calls to you. In that case, your college experience might be less tied to the college itself and more to the city you live in. When I start working with students, I always like to ask them if they want to stay home or look at colleges all over the country. I get about a 50/50 split. When you start looking at schools, think about how you like to be supported. Some students know that they need to be able to go home for the weekend when they want a home-cooked meal. Others are excited to have an adventure in another part of the country because it has an ocean nearby or they want to challenge themselves to be more independent. As with size, there’s no right or wrong answer.

LACs, D1, R1 — WHAT?

Just as colleges come in all sizes, they come in all shapes. Liberal arts colleges (LACs) aren’t art schools and they won’t require that you have liberal political beliefs (questions I get every year from students). Instead, they’re usually under a few thousand, have close relationships between students and professors and small class sizes, and are often residential for all four years. Many of them offer writing-intensive classes across all majors and encourage students to have diverse interests. It’s rare that you’ll have to declare your major when you apply to a LAC. They want to give you a few years to get a broad education in many fields before you start to study one in depth. They are all undergraduates (no grad school) and professors mainly focus their time on teaching. D1 (it’s the highest college level for athletics) or R1 (research-centered university) are labels to category other kinds of colleges. The distinguishing characteristic with these is that they’re usually larger (20,000+), they probably have one or more graduate schools in addition to an undergraduate program, and the professors are responsible not just for teaching but also for doing research in their fields. When you apply, you might have to declare a major or apply to a college within the university (for example, the college of engineering or college of health sciences). These schools usually have the financial resources to build amazing facilities, buy the newest equipment, and offer a broader range of majors. An important question to ask if you’re interested in a D1 or R1 college is who teaches undergraduate courses (including freshman and sophomore intro classes)? Many, but not all, D1 and R1 colleges have graduate schools where graduate students work as teachers for undergraduate students.

You might not know right away if you want big or small, close to home or a plane ride away, or liberal arts vs. Big Ten. To decide some of these things, think first about who you are. What do you like to do on a typical day? What kind of people energize you? What kind of dreams do you have? Your college’s size, location, and type can help bring out your natural attributes and help you get closer to your goals.

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