Picking the Right College: Small vs. Big

For college-bound high school seniors, few decisions are more important than choosing the right college. After all, this could be where you spend the next four or more years of your life - and what formative years they will be! With any decision of this magnitude, it's impossible to distill the choice down into a few simple bromides or some sort of facile top-10 list. Making the right decision will be hard work, full of soul searching and information gathering. It will require honesty, patience, and perseverance. It will require you to empty your head of all the specious stereotypes and prejudices about name-brand colleges as opposed to smaller colleges or ones you've never heard of. The truth is, you have never been to college and most of what you think you know about college and about choosing the right college is wrong. That is why you are reading this article.

First, the soul searching. Ask yourself the tough question: why, really, are you going to college? Are you going because your boy/girlfriend is going? Are you going so that you can have fun or escape living at home with Mom and Dad? Or perhaps you are going because you want to expand your mind and challenge yourself, or because you have a particular career path and this is how you get there. Or maybe you have decided to go to college because everyone else is and you don't want to get left behind. Probably your decision is a combination of the above, a little of one reason and some more of another (although I sincerely hope that where your boy/girlfriend is attending has nothing to do with it as a stupider reason would be hard to imagine).

Once you have honestly answered the question of why you are going to college you also need to take a good look at yourself and your abilities. What kind of person are you and what type of student are you? Are you an extrovert or an introvert? Do you crave more alone time or do you enjoy an active social life? Are you stubborn and intractable or laid back and easy going? As a student, are you outspoken in class or shy? Do you enjoy spending time reading, and if so is it likely to be graphic novels or canonical literature? When it comes to learning, do you like few guidelines or do you prefer and need structure?

Now that you've assembled all your answers about who you are and what your motivation is, it is time to begin the next phase of choosing a college: information gathering. Most of the things you need to find out about the prospective college are covered in another article on this site that deals with preparing for the college interview. Suffice it to say, you need to act as if you are the sharp consumer you know you are. Remember, you are choosing them just as much, if not more, as they are choosing you. Ask the tough questions and don't be shy. Your future may depend on it. And if the answers you get reveal that this might not be the perfect match for you, do not try to force it. This is very important. Always remember that there are plenty of other colleges or universities out there that are just as good and quite possibly better. This last statement is not an opinion to be debated, it is fact.

Somewhere after the soul searching and preferably before or along with the information gathering, you need to decide what type of school will best suit you as well as what type of school your particular gifts would best compliment. Do you want to concentrate your search efforts on bigger research universities or would you be better served by a small liberal arts college? You should be well prepared to make this choice, armed with all the information from your introspective gazing. Remember that each person is different and there is no one right answer to this question. What works for your friends may not be right for you.

In addition, there are several resources which can help you decide whether you want to go big or small. One is the College Board, which can be found online at They have an informative and helpful pro and con comparison between the big and the small. And since they are a non-profit you don't have to worry about their bottom-line influencing their opinions. Another great resource for the big vs. small debate are the books of Lauren Pope. Pope, whose death in 2008 was a great loss for students everywhere, was an author and independent college placement counselor. His book Colleges That Change Lives is a brilliantly researched, well written exploration of what smaller colleges have to offer. His writing tends to exhibit a bias against some of the tier-one schools but is no less informative because of it. This book should be mandatory reading for all college applicants and their parents. If you can't find it at your local bookstore or library, you can certainly order it online.

While no short article can make the difficult and complicated process of choosing the right college an easy thing for you, we here at hope the preceding tips might ease the burden, if only a bit. The most important thing to remember is to be honest with yourself about who you are, why you are going to college, and what you hope to get out of it. Armed with this information, you will be well on your way to making the right choice. Best of luck!