I often repeat that there are thousands of colleges to choose from across the world. And there is a ‘right’ place for every student. Furthermore, there are multiple modes of discovering which college is right for you. Thankfully the internet now offers incredibly helpful information at our fingertips. But the rich and replete information offered online also sometimes has the effect of flattening out the differences between various colleges, especially for a student who has never visited a college campus.
Let’s take the example of my own alma matter, UCSB and that of my partner, Wake Forest University. These two colleges are located on opposites sides of the United States and they are very different in size, history, culture, etc. If you were interested in both colleges and checked on their websites, here is what you will find:
“Wake Forest blends the personal experience of a liberal arts college with the resources of top research universities.”
“In the humanities and the arts, as well as in engineering and the sciences, UC Santa Barbara introduces students to novel ways of thinking, learning and conducting research.”
These two statements are so generic that they practically have the same meaning – both colleges offer science and research opportunities as well as an exposure to arts and humanities for every student. This is essentially the American liberal ideal of education. And note that neither of these institutions fall into the category of what is, these days, called a Liberal Arts College. But with this kind of information you might assume these colleges are similar and apply to both. But this would be a mistake. It is hard to imagine a scenario where these two colleges would be on the same list – they are so different.
How can a prospective applicant get beyond the internet’s flat and sanitized presentation of different colleges and truly understand unique distinctions? One major factor to keep in mind is geography. In India the best colleges tend to be in and around major metro cities. But in the US this is not always the case. Some of the best colleges are set away from large urban environments on their own distinct campuses. Often when a student hears about a college being in a smaller town, they immediately cross it off their list because in their mind a small town means living in a village somewhere without access to the usual comforts. But in the US this is never the case. If you are at The University of Richmond, there is still a vibrant local community and a medium-sized American city. Though it is not New York, LA or Chicago, everything is available in Richmond.
At the same time large cities like NY, LA or Chicago are all homes to some very small colleges. College size is another important variable in college choice. Many of applicants say they want to attend a large college, but they actually have no reference point for an organization as large as, say, UCLA, with over 42,000 students enrolled. Even if applicants imagine an institution that is five times larger than their high school they are still only thinking of a small college size by American standards. Often students say they want to attend a large college because of research opportunities, but lots of small colleges also have undergraduate research opportunities which are very hands on and involve working closely with faculty, rather than assisting graduate students in research. Students who want forge personal relationships with a lot of their classmates should look at a small college, those who can navigate large systems, giant physical spaces, and anonymous evaluations, will do well at a large college.
Whatever suits you, make sure that you are comparing apples to apples. A college list, from dream to safety, should include colleges of similar size and characteristics. Once a student idenitifies what he/she wants from the college experience, chosing a consistent list of colleges should be any easy task.