You’ve made your list, started touring schools, and soon it will be time to decide where to apply. We know it’s not easy to narrow down your choices, to listen to your gut about what you really want out of your college experience. So who better to ask than current college upperclassmen and recent graduates for insight on why they choose the school they ultimately attended. We hope their thought process and reflections on whether to apply to a big school, a city school or a school close to home, for example, may help you in your own decision-making process.
Why I Chose a Big School:
I think I always knew I wanted a big school for the "rah-rah" aspect of it. I remember in high school; I always wished my school was more spirited and envied my friends at other high schools with well-attended sporting events throughout the year. I knew Michigan was that type of school and that there would always be a constant sense of camaraderie and spirit year round. I think I associated that pride and spirit with all big schools, but Michigan just seemed like the best of them all, to me. I also always knew that though it was a huge school, I'd still find my circle and it wouldn't feel like I was physically at this large school. It never felt overwhelming for a second and Ann Arbor felt like home to me from the start.
Reflections: Now that I am an alumnus (sadly) looking back I couldn't be happier with my four years at Michigan. Living there I experienced the incredible sense of school pride and spirit on an everyday basis, but surprisingly I feel it even more so now that I have graduated. Recently traveling to San Antonio for the Final Four with seven of my friends, I felt that same sense of camaraderie and fellowship that I now know will never go away, even though I’m not at school anymore. When I was in the airport boarding my flight, the gate was filled with Michigan t-shirts and everyone chanting "Go Blue!" to one another. We ran into a man who said he's been following Michigan sports for 40 years. That's how you know. Michigan alumni are recognized to be a cult that will always bleed blue. I couldn't be happier that I am a part of that. As we all say, it's great to be a Michigan Wolverine!
-Tessa (University of Michigan)
Why I Chose a City School:
I always knew I wanted a city school because I felt ready to begin my career. The opportunity to live in a city with a vibrant culture and arts scene allowed me to kick-start my profession in a way that I couldn't have at a traditional campus. Most of my fellow students were also equally engaged; every weekend was an opportunity to join another student’s productions or garner a crew for my own projects. My professors, still active in the industry encouraged a hand on approach to learning. There were always incredible guest lectures, film festivals and screenings and photography exhibits on any given night.
Reflections: In hindsight, I'm very happy with my choice. I still live in the city where I went to college, and it feels like home to me. Going to school in a big city gives you the freedom to explore outside your bubble. You can partake in the “college scene” when you want, or go out and be a part of any community or subculture the city has to offer.
-Ben (New York University)
Why I Chose a Small vs. a Big School:
In my opinion, the choice between a small vs. large school is one of the most challenging decisions in the college process. There is no right or wrong answer, but the experiences at each can vary quite drastically. For me, I based my decision on four factors: Region, Community, Class Size, and Tradition.
- Region: In my college selection, the first thing I needed to figure out was where I wanted to be in the country. While everyone is different, I knew I wanted to be far enough away from home to be independent but close enough to my family that I could be home in a days time. Additionally, having lived in the Northeast my whole life, I couldn’t imagine a year without all four seasons. So as quickly as my search had begun, I was able to narrow it down to one region that fit these criteria: the Northeast. Inevitably this left me with more smaller schools to choose from and very few larger institutions.
- Community – My next consideration was where I felt I could “fit in” most. As prospective college students know all too well, each campus has its own vibe. There are some campuses you step on and immediately feel you could call that place home; there are others where you’re more or less just wondering when you can leave the tour respectfully. For me, I value the relationships built in a community and the camaraderie that comes along with it. I was looking for the support network and fellowship I had found growing up in a small town and knew I would find it more available on a smaller campus.
- Class Size –I knew that smaller classrooms and the ability to meet and form relationships with my professors were a high priority. Also, admittedly, not having the longest attention span, I knew a large lecture hall class would set me up for failure.
- Tradition - Growing up the youngest of three, being on various teams, and attending a sleep away camp that had been around forever, I much appreciate and respect the value of tradition. While every school has traditions ingrained in students' day-to-day life, I felt I could fully participate and have more impact on a smaller school’s traditions.
-Zack (Amherst College)
Why I Chose a Rural School:
The outdoors!! While I didn’t grow up in rural America, I did grow up in the "woods" of Northern Westchester in a small town. I couldn’t imagine being somewhere I couldn’t be active. Skiing, hiking, swimming and other hobbies would be very difficult if not impossible in a city environment. While not always the case, the more rural schools I looked at offered much more than a college campus but a lifestyle as well. I wound up at Dartmouth, and it provided a full playground beyond the borders of campus. There was Hanover, NH, with the AT a 5-minute drive away, the Connecticut River a short walk, and access to nearly all the mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire for skiing in the winters and hiking in the summers.
-Jake W. (Dartmouth College)
Why I Chose a Liberal Arts School:
I went to a progressive high school with small discussion-based classes. When evaluating colleges, I looked exclusively at liberal arts schools because I knew that that kind of classroom environment and a low student-faculty ratio was most conducive to how I learn. I was particularly drawn to the interdisciplinary nature of a liberal arts education and the way in which courses from different disciplines complement each other. I am grateful that I attend a school with distribution requirements that place the responsibility on students to take classes that they think will enrich their education, rather than core requirements.
--Ali (Oberlin University)
Why I Chose the "Academic" School:
Before I began applying to colleges, I had no clue whether I wanted a small school or a large school or something in between. For this reason, I visited a wide range of schools. Still, I was left clueless. The pressure I had put on my college decision was overwhelming, and I was at a loss. Ultimately, I ended up going with the option that seemed like the “best” academically, and choose the University of Michigan, which is about as big as it gets. While at first terrified and nervous about finding the right friends, I soon could not imagine college in any other way or size. In hindsight, if I had gone to a small school, I fear I would have never been forced to jump out of my comfort zone and instead would have stuck to what felt safe and comfortable. Being in such a large school meant I had no choice but to figure out what I liked and disliked – I had to forge my path among many. I was forced to do things that weren’t always easy for me, which I now know was what helped me to grow and mature over my four years there.
-Aubry (University of Michigan)
Why I Chose a Small School:
I had no clue when I first started touring what I wanted out of the college experience, so I looked at colleges of all different sizes. I ultimately chose Sewanee, though I wasn’t convinced it was the right decision until I started my freshman year. While a small school in the middle of nowhere might seem unappealing to a lot of people, it was an unbelievable experience for me. You may be nervous about “knowing everyone on campus” when you go to a school with 1500 people, but, as an extremely social person, I can confirm that this was never the case. Yes, you do know a lot of people – but that is a positive. I loved walking around campus and always seeing familiar faces or meeting an awesome person once and knowing that I would 100% rerun into them and that the relationship would have time to blossom. Since Sewanee is not in a big city, you have to figure out how to enjoy the people around you (and get creative about it!), and, as a result, the friendships I made at Sewanee are unlike any I’ve ever had.
Reflections: From an alumni standpoint, there are a ton of benefits that come with going to a small school. Since it is so small, you feel extremely connected to every single person that graduated from that school. When you meet them, you immediately have something incredibly special in common. I would not trade my small school experience for the world. I developed an incredible connection to not only the school but also to the people. I am so glad I decided to spend four years of my life on a mountain in the middle of nowhere in Tennessee.
--Laura (Sewanee University)
Why I Chose a City School:
I grew up in Tennessee, but two of my Great Grandmothers were from Connecticut, and we would visit them on the holidays every year. On each trip, we would spend a few days in NYC before taking the train to CT, and I fell in love with New York as a young child and am still smitten and probably will always be. I was not set on going to a city school, and it ultimately came down to NYU and a small town liberal arts school with 2500 students, but I decided why not try living in New York City as an 18-year-old. It was a big decision that I do not regret in the slightest. Going to college in a big city, specifically, a college that is situated directly on the city streets, gave me opportunities that I never would've had elsewhere.
Reflections: Opportunities at NYU were endless; I did internships at dream organizations, traveled to Ghana and South Africa with my professors, studied abroad in Europe--all while also meeting people outside of the university. I worked throughout my time in school at all kinds of jobs. It never really felt entirely outside of the "real world" which I think college often can, and that's what I loved the most. I was so prepared, so ready for post-graduation because I had just spent four years in a beautiful, exciting in-between world of college and adulthood. Some use that as a critique of a big city school; stating it is a little too "real world" lacking an insular college experience, something that many people cherish. It is a valid critique, yet for me, I would not be who or where I am today had I not attended a city school such as NYU.
--Taylor (New York University)
Why I Chose a Small School:
I chose a small school in part because I wanted the academic benefits of small class sizes, and the ability to form meaningful relationships with your professors, even as early as your first month of freshman year. I had this at my small high school and knew that it was the best learning environment for me. Socially, I wanted to be at a school where I was able to see my friends in passing, where parties were not limited to what fraternity or sorority you belong to, where there is not a huge divide between those who play sports and those who don’t. Wesleyan is the best of both worlds in that I am still continually meeting new people and forming new friendships even in my third year, and I also feel that I have made all different kinds of friends in all different areas on campus. I walk around campus and know that I’ll see at least one or two familiar faces, which makes the university feel like a home.
--Charlotte (Wesleyan University)
Why I Chose a School Out West:
I was a huge rock climber before attending a boarding school for high school and felt lost without it during my three years away. So, being able to rock climb was a top priority for my future college limiting the possibilities. Colorado College was perfect for me. Not only does it have a gym, but also there are three fun gyms in Colorado Springs and tons of local outdoor climbing options. I've led single and multi-day trips in climbing, rafting, and backpacking; empowered by all of the leadership skills and training I have acquired through CC. I'm now CPR certified, a Wilderness First Responder, and have taken Swiftwater Rescue. Beyond rock climbing, however, I was just struck by how laid-back, and friendly everyone in Colorado was when I visited. It's nothing like being in the tri-state area, where people always have somewhere to be and often don't give you the time of day. People here are ACTIVE. They're out hiking, running, biking, climbing, kayaking, doing yoga...it's endless. People are passionate and love sharing their passions with others and want to get to know you. And I'm not just talking about CC, but Colorado as a whole.
Reflections: Though I choose CC for the outdoor activities, the biggest surprise is how much I LOVE the block plan. You take one course at a time for three and a half weeks - be it Social Psychology, European Pop and Rock Music, or Human Kinesiology. During that time you are fully invested. I was spread so thin in high school and hated it, never devoting sufficient time to a single class and thus all of it seemed insubstantial. The beauty of the block plan is you also get four and a half days off in between every course. We all book it off campus to go climbing, backpacking, kayaking, etc. or stay on campus, and just rest/recuperate, enjoying little day trips. It's awesome. And you have no work to do because you've already taken the exam, presented your project, or turned in the paper for your class!
--Sarah (Colorado College)
Why I Chose a School in My Home State:
I went to University of Tennessee, Knoxville. I chose that school because it was a few hours drive from home, far enough away to be independent, yet close enough to drive. I loved being able to see my family whenever I wanted. I also enjoyed the atmosphere, fraternity, and spirit of a southern SEC school. On the other hand, a negative of not leaving my home state was my experience wasn’t that different from high school. I didn’t meet many people from diverse backgrounds like my friends who went to northern schools.
--Annie B. (University of Tennessee)
Why I Chose a Small School:
I have always gone to a small school. From age 4 to 15, I attended a school with only 225 students; my middle school freshman class was only 13 kids. I then moved on to a relatively small high school of 600 students. I function better in smaller environments where I can meet more people and form meaningful relationships. At a small school, once you meet someone, you see them EVERYWHERE. It's reassuring to me that I know lots of people and have some connection to them.
Reflections: Some may say you outgrow a small school, but for me, the school hasn't "gotten smaller" over the years. I continue to meet new people all the time--older students, transfer students, those back from a semester abroad, and those in the incoming class each year.
--Nicki (Pomona College)
Why I Transferred From a Small School to a Big School:
Being in an intimate school setting can seem idyllic for a multitude of reasons- easy access to one on one time with your teachers, shorter lines for food, getting to know the student body, and less rush for preferred courses. However, ambitious students may feel that they lack diversity- either in the student body, available classes, or off-campus activities present in small town schools. That was why I transferred after freshmen year
Experiencing a large school in a big city is a rare pleasure that offers the curious student a bevy of choices in social, academic, and cultural enrichment. Some will feel lost with the myriad possibilities, but some will view these choices as the only way to a truly enlightened perspective. That is, they have the actual agency of choosing where, when, and about what they are educated- with awe-inspiring implications. Nothing compares to seeing tens of thousands of humans gathered together for a common goal. At a big school, in a large metropolitan area like NYC or LA, this is not only a possibility but a common occurrence.
--Roy (Columbia University)
Why I Chose a Medium School:
I chose Emory because I loved the size and the access to a big city within campus life. Emory was the perfect fit; it wasn’t too big or too small. When I visited, I immediately saw myself going to school there; I knew it as soon as the tour began. Also, the weather in Atlanta is amazing, and I love to be able to spend time outside at all times of the year. Some may say weather doesn't matter, but when you're stuck inside for the long winter months trust me it matters.
Reflections: Looking back at my time at Emory I’m so happy with my decision. I felt that Emory was a healthy mix of people with similar interests, yet I was also able to branch out and meet new people with different interests and different backgrounds. The size played a significant role because I don’t feel like a stranger walking around campus, yet there is still room to see new faces and meet new people.
--Chloe (Emory University)
Why I Choose a Liberal Arts School:
Many liberal arts universities offer you the opportunity to pursue an open curriculum, which allows you to take classes that you are passionate about, instead of those that fulfill a “core curriculum” designated by the university. When I heard that this meant no more math class, I was intrigued! I was drawn in even further by the idea that no class would, theoretically, be a drag. Instead, I could select courses that align with my strengths and passions, offering opportunities to pursue my interests.
Reflections: The open curriculum has proven to be one of my favorite things about my university, primarily because I am surrounded by students who are, like me, enthused about the subject matter. To me, this is the most significant difference from high school, where my advanced English class was a mix of passionate readers and disinterested people only taking the course to satisfy a requirement.
--Mary (Brown University)
Choosing A School Far from Home:
My decision to attend a school on the east coast was closely related to my preference for liberal arts schools. I also wanted to experience living on the opposite coast to home in case I decide to pursue a job in NY after graduation. Prior to looking at specific schools in New England, I had no conception of how weather patterns and degrees of isolation varied from school to school. Definitely, keep these factors in mind! Winter in Maine and winter in Connecticut are very different!
Reflections: Flying home for short breaks is frustrating and quickly becomes expensive. Although I encourage you to be honest with yourself (and your parents) about how important these different factors are to you (weather, travel expenses, proximity to home), I believe that they should not take precedence over whether a prospective school feels like the right “fit.” Sometimes I envy my friends who stayed close to home, but you learn to adapt. I feel very fortunate, for example, to have great friends with great families who host me for various holidays.
--Isabel (Wesleyan University)
Why I Chose a Big School:
I am the youngest of four. Two of my siblings went to the University of Pennsylvania and another to the University of Michigan. As I approached my junior year of high school and had to decide where I’d apply to school, I had already spent a fair amount of time at both those schools. Choosing whether or not to go to a big school wasn’t quite at the top of the funnel for me. I loved everything about Michigan from the moment I stepped on campus when I was a sophomore in high school. The campus is so big, but the truth is you can make a school as small as you want it to be. The benefit though is that you will undoubtedly feel like you are a part of something huge, something a lot bigger than yourself. I also think the larger schools tend to have more camaraderie and a greater sense of community. Envisioning myself saying “I go to Michigan,” it just felt right.
Reflections: The other day I was walking in Manhattan, now an alumnus, and wearing a Michigan shirt. Someone on the other side of the block screamed GO! And I yelled back BLUE! (It’s a Michigan thing). That’s the point, and I think that’s the case not only with Michigan but with most big schools. I’d even bet that there is a definite correlation between pride for one's school and the size of the school. I couldn’t be happier I chose Michigan. There’s no better place to live for four years than Ann Arbor, and with our alumni network, you never feel like you left.
--Brad (University of MIchigan)
Why I Chose a School in the Mid West:
I fell in love with Northwestern the second I walked through the gates, funny enough I always dreamed of going to a school with gates. But, more importantly, I felt a strong sense of community almost immediately and respect for good old fashion values that somehow seems stronger in the mid-west. Northwestern, to me, struck the perfect balance between challenging academics and fun activities like tailgating and sorority and fraternity parties. After touring, we spent the weekend in Chicago, and that sealed the deal. To have all the resources of one of America’s best cities less than an hour away is one of the biggest pluses of attending Northwestern.
--Brooke (Northwestern University)