Whether you’re just starting the college process or you’ve been in it for a while, you have probably heard the question: What kind of school do you want to go to? I’ll be honest, when I first heard this question I had no idea how to answer. Sure, I’d heard terms like “big vs. small school,” “liberal arts college” and “university,” and “public” and “private” schools. But I had no idea what these terms meant—I mean, what even is a liberal arts college? These are all called fit factors or preference points. In this article, I will explain what these different terms are, and how you can use them to build a college list that reflects the kinds of colleges you want to attend!

Liberal Arts Colleges and Universities

You may have heard the terms “liberal arts college” and “university” before to describe what your college preferences are. I’ll be honest, trying to figure out what a liberal arts college is took me a long time, so if you had no idea what these mean, that’s ok! 

A liberal arts college is one that has a broad range of classes in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. The idea of these schools is to have a well-rounded education, so that means your general requirements will have classes in many disciplines. These schools are usually small, private, and exclusively colleges (meaning there are no graduate students). They put a lot more focus on their undergraduates and traditionally, although not always, these schools are in rural or suburban areas. Example: Williams College

Universities also have a broad range of classes but aim for students to focus more on their particular field. An important distinction is that universities have graduate students, meaning in some cases these students, also known as TAs, may be teaching your classes or discussion sections. These schools are usually big or medium-sized, can be private or public, and also vary in location. They also tend to have a lot of different opportunities, especially if they are located in urban areas. Example: University of California, Santa Barbara

Fit Factor Two: Big or Small School?

This is probably the most common fit factor that is considered for colleges, and that is because it can have a huge impact on your college experience! 

Big schools are universities with 15,000 to 30,000 students. Since they have to serve such a large student body, they will have a lot of opportunities. For example, bigger schools have a wider range of majors, a larger variety of course options, and more research opportunities and extracurricular activities. However, since there are more students, you will have to be more proactive in getting these opportunities. Usually people tend to make their own small communities on campus, so the social scene is pretty stratified. Students that do best on large campuses are go-getters and fairly independent. Example: Boston University

On the other hand, small schools are ones with 3,000 students or fewer. These schools give a lot of personal attention to students because of small class sizes. In these schools, it is much easier to form relationships with professors, and many even allow you to create your own opportunities. There is also a stronger sense of community since it is easier for the student body to get to know each other. However, these smaller schools usually do not have as wide a range of opportunities in terms of academic programs, extracurricular activities, and research opportunities. Students that do best on small campuses are those who prefer hands-on learning and individualized attention. Example: Pomona College

Lastly, there are medium-sized campuses which are 5,000 to 15,000 students. These aren’t really talked about but actually a fair amount of schools are medium-sized, and you can get the best of both worlds. These schools will have a mix of small and large classes and a fair amount of opportunities. The social scene at these schools tends to vary, so it is worth doing some extra research on specific schools. Example: Wake Forest University

Fit Factor Three: Rural, Suburban, and Urban Schools

Another important factor to your fit preference is the location of a campus. This does not only mean whether your school is on the West Coast, Northeast, or South, although these are also important. This is the type of environment you will be in. 

Rural schools are colleges located in the countryside, in small towns or near the wilderness. These colleges often have beautiful scenery and are self-contained with a tight-knit community, and a majority of students live on campus. They will often bring entertainment to their students and provide transportation to local cities. Example: Oberlin College

Suburban schools are nearby cities, in small cities, or in large towns. These campuses are also usually self-contained with a close community, but their proximity to cities allows for more off-campus opportunities. Example: Wellesley College

Urban schools are located in big cities. Their structures can be different depending on the school. For example, a school like Boston University has its campus spread out around the city, whereas a school like Columbia University has an enclosed campus. These schools have a lot of off-campus opportunities and students are pretty independent. Example: New York University

Fit Factor Four: Public and Private Schools

Like in high school, public schools are ones that get most of their funding from the local, state, or national government. They usually offer lower tuition but have less financial aid. There are two types of public schools: in-state and out-of-state. In-state colleges are ones located in your home state. Usually, tuition is lower for in-state residents at their public schools. Out-of-state public schools are ones located outside your home state and will often have higher tuition. Example: Ohio State University

On the other hand, private schools are ones funded on their own with no control from the government. Tuition at private schools is higher, but they usually have more financial aid. Remember that the cost of private schools does not change whether it is in-state or out-of-state. Example: Dartmouth College

HWCs, HBCUs, and Faith-Based Colleges

There are a couple of other different types of schools that you may come across in your search, which can be super helpful if you are looking for a specific college experience. For example, HWCs are schools that have traditionally accepted women, though many nowadays are open to students of all genders. These schools are usually small liberal arts colleges. HBCUs are colleges founded with the mission of educating Black students. These schools range from small liberal arts colleges to large universities. Faith-Based colleges are ones related to the faith tradition. In many cases, you do not have to be a part of the faith community that the school is attached to but will most likely need to take a couple of theology courses. Examples: Barnard College (HWC), Howard University (HBCU), Boston College (Faith-Based)

Keep Researching!

These are not all the ways you can categorize schools, which is why research into specific schools is important. Other factors can play a large role in building your college lists like financial aid options, academic rigor, and school culture. These will change from school to school. But these categories can be a good way to start your search, so keep them in mind when making your list. Good luck searching!

If you would like to delve more deeply into discovering which fit factor or factors are most important for you, you can contact a tutor at Dewey Smart!