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How to Find That "Small College Experience" at a Big U

V. Peter Pitts, M.A.

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In my work as a college admissions consultant with My College Planning Team, I advise students and their families to not focus only on the big universities but also to consider the advantages of small colleges. Many small colleges are just too cool to be completely overlooked in the search process.

But in the end, your student has to make a choice that's right for them. If they do choose a large university, there are some easy ways for them to get a very personal and robust “small college experience.”

These suggestions also pertain to small colleges. Larger universities just take a little more time, effort and planning.

Here are my top 20 tips to share with your student.

20 Tips for the Best College Experience

1. If you have your choice of large universities, consider one with a smaller “college” in your area of study. For example, the College of Engineering at the University of Iowa has only about 2,200 students, whereas the same school at the University of Michigan is over 7,000.

2. Attend freshman orientation.

3. Go to class – every class. Don’t ever just buy or borrow notes from classmates.

4. Sit in the front of the classroom or lecture hall and answer questions.

5. Also, be sure to ask questions, in and out of class, of the professor or teaching assistant (TA). Talk, from time to time, with your professor or TA before and after class.

6. Make it a goal to identify faculty who are willing to become your mentors.

7. Talk with your advisor early in your four years about internships and study abroad, and continue to pursue these kinds of opportunities as you enter your second and third years.

8. Join at least three clubs or organizations and work hard to attain leadership positions in those organizations.

9. Stay informed. Read the emails that come from deans and faculty. Read the campus newspaper (most of which are online), and if there are radio and TV stations, tune in.

10. Don’t eat by yourself (at least not all the time)…

11. …and don’t sit in your room by yourself (especially on weekends). Get out, meet people and do stuff.

12. It’s a big world and higher education is your chance to expand your boundaries. (It’s called a university for a reason.) If there are 90 other kids from your high school, do NOT room with (or near) any of them. Intentionally room with, and make friends with, students who are not from your high school, not from your state, not of your ethnicity, and not from your country.

13. Get tutoring or join a study group, even if it is to boost your grade from B+ to an A.

14. Get to know the folks in the career center/job placement office early in your college years — don’t wait until senior year.

15. Take lots of classes that involve research and writing papers. Submit articles for publication. Offer to give presentations about your research. All of this looks great on your resume.

16. Even if not required for your major, take speech and writing classes and make sure that some of your other classes involve lots of writing and speaking in class.

17. Get a campus job. Giving admission tours of campus and working in food service are two areas, especially, that help you get more involved with campus and interact with a lot of people. A few extra bucks won’t hurt either.

18. Hang out in common areas to meet people. Explore campus on your own to find some of students’ favorite hangouts.

19. Get to know the RA (resident assistant or resident advisor) on your floor of the dorm. Later on, become one yourself — being an RA is a great way to build leadership and management experience.

20. Attend campus events. Speakers, concerts, plays and athletic competitions will build your college spirit and broaden your interests.

If your student does all these things, they will be happier, they'll have a better chance of getting a job immediately upon graduation, and their loyalty to the institution, and to their diverse group of friends, will extend well into their alumni years.

And whenever they look back, they'll revel in the fact that, whether at a big school or a small one, they made the most of their college years.

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V. Peter Pitts, M.A., is an advisor with My College Planning Team based in the Chicago area. He retired after 42 years in the college admission business, most recently spending 27 years at Monmouth College. Peter holds a master’s degree in sociology from the University of Iowa and a bachelor’s from Wartburg College.
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