College is not a one size fits all experience. Some students will thrive at a large school, while others will find their way in a smaller setting. Knowing yourself as a student and a learner is going to play a huge role in picking the right academic setting for you.

Before you starting trying schools on for size. Get to know the basics:

The Basics

Universities are large institutions with a large student body and campus location. Universities will have a wide variety of coursework and degree programs available for students. The class size will vary at universities. An intro level course may be very large but more specific graduate courses may be held with a smaller cohort of students. Some universities are split into colleges or schools based on academic focus.


  • Public Universities or Colleges are funded by local or state governments. The tuition is often lower than privates schools especially for those who are residents in the same state as the school.


  • Private Universities and Colleges are independent schools that set their own goals and programming. They are funded through tuition, donations, and other sources. These schools generally have a smaller population, smaller classes, but higher tuition than public schools.


Colleges are smaller post secondary schools. They may have less course offerings and degree programs than a university. The student body at a college may be smaller than a university. The classes are not enormous in size, thus can offer the opportunity to get to know the professors.


  • Liberal Arts College are smaller schools focused on general curriculum in the arts and sciences. The professors tend to be more focused on teaching, rather than on research. Due to the small nature of liberal arts schools classes are small and allow for unique approaches to curriculum and teaching.


Next, take into account your learning style and ideal success conditions. Everyone has a preference in how they receive, process, comprehend, and retain information. This is super important to take into account when you think about the right size school for you. You don’t want to find yourself lost in a 200 person lecture style BIO 101 course, when you know you learn best in a small group setting.  Along with learning style, consider what conditions are ideal for you to be successful.


Your Learning Style + Success Conditions

  • What classes have you excelled in at school?
  • What size were those classes?
  • How did the teacher deliver the information to the class?
  • How did you study for that class? (Maybe you took notes and reviewed them, the teacher gave you the Power Points to review, or you studied with a small group of friends.)
  • Did you have a tutor help you review the course material?
  • Did you interact with the teacher often? Did you ask a lot of questions? Did you ask the teacher to meet after class or at lunch for review?
  • How did you interact with other students in the class while you learned the material? Was there group work or projects that helped you apply the material?
  • Is there a class you have struggled with? If so, how was the information delivered? What was the class size?


Next, you are going to think about who you are outside of the classroom. You want to make sure you enjoy your time on campus when you are not deep in the books. Colleges and universities offer so much in the way of community involvement, athletics, and extracurricular programming you will want to make the most of it.


Your “Outside-the-Classroom” Style

  • Are you interested in sports?
  • Are you a potential college athlete? Could you try out for a club team?
  • Do you like going to watch games, competitions, or other sporting events?
  • Do you care about Greek Life?
  • Do you have the desire to belong to a Sorority or Fraternity?
  • Are you currently a member of club that you really enjoy? Is there a similar chapter or club available at the postsecondary level?
  • Do you enjoy performing arts?
  • Do you play an instrument?
  • Do you like going to the theater, art shows, or concerts?

Think about the questions you just answered in regards to your success conditions and what you like to do outside of class.  If athletics, greek life, and a prestigious medical school are what you are looking for a big school might be the right fit for you. If you are really successful in small group settings and love getting to know your peers and teachers a small college or liberal arts school might be your best bet.


If you are still not sure what fits you best, visit a variety of schools. Check out some small schools, some larger campuses, and take inventory of what the school can offer you as a student. Check out our post about making the most of your campus visit.
Choosing the best schools to apply to is a REALLY BIG DECISION! So take your time, and remember to look inward if you want to go upward.