The most common advice I'll give when advising students on the college selection process is to find their “best fit," which is different for everyone. No two students are exactly alike, and no two colleges are exactly alike either. Any college can be a dream school for the right student, and any student can find a college that will give them a terrific education and college experience. A great place to start is with two simply practical matters: size and location.
When I refer to campus size, I'm talking about the student population, not the acreage. The number of students on campus and the percentage of those students who will be your cohorts will influence your day-to-day experience.
The All-Important Student:Faculty Ratio
The size of the student body is also relevant to student:faculty ratio and class size. Some won't mind sharing the attention of a faculty member with a large number of students, but some will — that preference is often dependent on your learning style. Typically schools with low student:faculty ratios see more interaction between those populations, which can allow for additional academic support during office hours and valuable mentoring or professional networking relationships.
If you're considering larger schools, be sure to ask about registration and accessibility — is it easy to get the classes you want on your schedule or is registration competitive? This is a great question for current students— you will likely meet student representatives when you visit campus, and you can ask the admission office for a list of students who have volunteered to answer questions for prospective applicants like yourself.
College Life About Town
The size of your university will also impact town-gown relations, or the overall relationship between the institution and the surrounding community, which includes your prospects for internships, part-time work and off-campus activities. There are towns that primarily revolve around the large universities therein, like Ann Arbor, Mich., or Clemson, S.C., and there are small, rural campuses that offer a more contained experience (which students often describe as a “bubble," with both positive and negative connotations), like Colby College in Maine or Oberlin College in Ohio. Going to college in a large city where the university is just one of many influences and employers, like Philadelphia or Chicago, is a very different experience that might come with more distractions as well as a wide range of off-campus professional opportunities.
Focus on Your Ultimate College Goals
You probably already have some idea about whether you'd prefer a rural or suburban campus, or how far from home you'd like to be. Campus visits can be a great opportunity to refine those preferences. Ask yourself a few questions: What does one experience offer that the other does not? Which option more closely aligns with your goals? Whether you want to go to college close to where you grew up or across the country, you will need to factor travel and/or commuting costs into your college financial planning.
When all is said and done, you want to be happy with the choice you make when seeking your ideal college experience — there's a lot that can come out of it, both professionally and personally. That's why there are so many things to consider when finding your “best fit," and rankings lists like our The Best 385 Colleges that can really dive into specifics that matter to help you find an environment that will make you feel as comfortable as possible on campus.