4 Ways to Make a Big School Feel Small

In last week’s blog, we talked about how to narrow down your list of top universities. One of the aspects we discussed is whether a big school or a small school is right for you or your student. Many people lean on their family and friends for support and motivation, which is why campus community is such a big factor for people determining which schools they may want to attend.

Big schools often cost less and provide more options in terms of majors, which is why they can be a great choice for you or your student. However, people sometimes fear getting lost in the crowd at a school like that. That’s why today’s blog post will be going over how to make a big school feel small!

1. Get Involved Early

Before you even arrive on campus there are steps you can take to join the community. If you live nearby, it’s definitely worth it to check out the campus and surrounding neighborhood. Bring some friends along too if you can! It will feel less intimidating when you have a team backing you up.

Sign up for a campus tour to get an overview of the school. It will help orient you in what can be a maze depending on how big the university is! Afterwards, go check out some buildings you wanted to see more of, or didn’t get the chance to look at. You should also chat to some other people in the group – you can learn new information, and can even make a new friend.  

If you’re already signing up for a campus tour, it’s a good idea to contact any departments you might be interested in. Sometimes they will give you a tour of the department, or at least provide some information and answer any questions you have. If you’re applying directly to a specific program at a university, this is especially important! It will confirm whether or not this department is one you want to directly apply to, and it can get your name recognized when they are looking at applications later on. You can also find out the kind of support the department has for new students, such as a department-specific freshmen orientation. Those kinds of events will help connect you to your peers early on.

If you have any friends who already attend that university, even if you haven’t seen them in a while, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask to meet up! They will be able to give you a personal, inside view of the college that a tour may not be able to provide. It’s also a good way to reconnect with old friends, who could offer support your first year at university. Another way to get an in-depth look at campus life is by picking up a copy of the campus newspaper. Most universities have one, so keep your eyes open! They will discuss on-campus events and organizations that you can check out when the school year starts, and sometimes even before.

When you get home, you might decide that this is this university for you. You study hard, work with a Transcend Academy tutor to improve your SAT and ACT scores, and apply yourself to your extracurricular activities. You apply… and congratulations! You got in!

The next step would be to join a Facebook group set up for your incoming class. It will probably be titled something like, “[University Name] Class of 20XX.” Sometimes the university sets one up and will email you an invitation to join the group. Other times, individual students create one. It’s a great way to start connecting with your future classmates. If there are a number of people from your hometown, you could create a meetup and discuss topics such as housing, courses, and events. Otherwise, you can just chat online and look forward to meeting people during the first week of class. Most people will be just as nervous, even if they try to show a confident face, so don’t feel afraid to reach out.

2. Choose Your Living Situation Carefully

Unless you’re commuting from home, you will probably end up living on or near campus your first year of university. If you want to live in the dorms, you will have two options for roommates. Universities will often let you pick a specific roommate if you choose to live in the dorms. You can live with someone you already know or someone you met through the Facebook group we talked about above. The other choice is to accept a randomly assigned roommate. Your roommate will be the person you explore the dorms, cafeterias, and rest of the campus with. They may not necessarily become your best friend, but they can be a friendly face that first year of college.

Dorm life in general is a great way to connect to your campus community; that’s why many schools require freshmen to live on campus. There are dorm-specific events to help you meet others, though that first week or two you will probably just knock on doors and introduce yourself. I am still good friends with people who lived on my floor, and it started with me saying hello!

Greek Life may also interest a lot of you. It can help ease the transition into a new place, especially if you’re moving far from home, and can provide an instant support group. If you have relatives who were in a particular sorority or fraternity, you should talk to them. They can provide stories and descriptions of Greek life, and may even offer to recommend you to your university’s chapter.

Rush Week, which is when incoming students view sororities and fraternities and are hopefully given an offer by one, happens before school starts. However, most schools do a second Rush Week in the second half of the year, so if you don’t get an offer or are unsure, you can always decide later! But, if you do want to join at the beginning of your freshman year, you need to start your research about the different fraternities and sororities during early summer. Most schools only have applications open for Rush Week until the end of summer.

3. Utilize Your Free Time

Clubs are another great way to get involved in campus life. Big schools can have hundreds of clubs or organizations, so it may seem daunting at first. My advice is to look for clubs similar to those you did in high school, as well as a few new ones that catch your eye, then attend their meetings at the beginning of the year. Clubs don’t expect everybody to become members after just one meeting, so feel free to shop around! Take your roommate, a dormmate, or a classmate to check out these organizations too. It will be a bonding activity, and maybe they’ll introduce you to a club your normally wouldn’t consider.

Societies function in a similar way to clubs. They are often for a specific group of students, like women in business or those on the honor roll, and can offer resources to help you in college. Sometimes societies are linked to a specific department, so look into which ones are available.

Some of you may be working while attending college, and might not have the time available for these activities. You can still be part of your community through your job! Look for on-campus jobs when possible – they’ll be considerate of your class schedule, and you’ll be working alongside your peers and college faculty members. There are hundreds of jobs in the libraries and different departments. There are also paid positions with your university student government, which is a fantastic way to get paid for being involved in your campus community. Win-win! Even working near campus, at a restaurant or office, will keep you connected to the community since it’s likely that some of the other employees will also be students or recent graduates.

4. Get to Know Your Professor

When you’re not exploring the campus or making new friends, you are hopefully attending your classes. People often fear that with big schools, classes will all be 300-person lectures where you never get personalized help or even meet the professor. But that’s not true! There will be some larger lectures for a few introductory courses, but they will usually be paired with smaller class sessions led by a Teaching Assistants (TA) multiple times a week. As you move past those introductory courses, your classes will get smaller and smaller. My average class size my last two years at a big state school was about 15 people. I had multiple classes with fewer than 10 people, while only two classes had more than 20, mainly due to the professor’s popularity.  I had lots of one-on-one instruction, either with a TA or a professor, and never felt like my academics suffered (which my GPA can also attest to).

While Teaching Assistants are great and have taught me so much, getting to know your professor is critical for recommendation letters, job references, or even just some guidance in your field. It is possible to get to know your professors at a big school, but you might have to work at it a little harder than those at a smaller private school.

If you want a professor to potentially mentor your or write you a recommendation later, it is absolutely necessary to put forth an effort in the class. If you’re always late or texting during lecture, the professor almost definitely notices, and it will not make them eager to help you. Some people worry that if they have bad grades the professor won’t be happy with them. That’s not true! As long as you’re demonstrating that you care, your professor will almost always offer you some guidance. They want you to do well and succeed.

It can be scary, but you need to go to office hours. It is the best way to get some one-on-one time with your professor. Take your partially-completed homework assignments with you to ask for help. Go before the first exam to ask clarifying questions. This way, you always have something to talk about, even if you’re nervous. It also provides an opportunity to do some reconnaissance. Maybe they have a poster in their office from a conference they attended or a cartoon character on their desk. Ask them about it! That’s how you get to know them, and get them to remember you. It’s just like a more complicated version of making a friend.

You should also go the extra mile when possible. Look for related articles or podcasts online to your class, then ask your professor about it. You can do this before or after class, since it won’t necessarily be a long conversation, but it will give them another positive interaction with you that shows how dedicated you are.

After you get to know your professor more, you can ask them for advice about a specific opportunity you are interested in, and if the timing feels right, ask if they could write a recommendation letter, or whatever else you might need from them. However, it is important to read the room. Not every professor has the capacity to mentor a new student or write them a recommendation letter. If their interactions with you have been short and brusque, then they may not be the best resource for you to pursue. Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In and COO of Facebook, talks about how you shouldn’t have to ask someone to be a mentor. Mentorship relationships start with a mutual connection – and mentors often select protégés based on their performances and potential.”

With Some Effort, Any School Can Feel Like Home

These are just some of the ways you make a big school feel small. University, no matter where you attend, will likely be daunting at first. Suddenly though, partway through your first year, you will realize that you can give directions to a lost transfer student, you know which coffee shop has the best latte, and you have a week full of homework, office hours with your professors, club meetings, and events with your friends. You can do it!

If you or your student falls in love with a school but doesn’t quite have the standardized test scores they need, consider Transcend Academy. Our advisors are all top-notch educators committed to help you or your student get into their best university. Send us a message to learn more!

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