Is a large public university for you?

Article in the 4 Aug 2010 edition of HT Horizon

Here's a snapshot of life in America's large public universities to help you find out what fits you while you make your choice of college

This week we focus on large public universities in the United States and shed light on issues related to college setting, size, academic experience and diversity of student population in some of its highly-selective, nationally ranked universities. This is to help students understand the importance of the right fit while making their college list.

The setting

: Many top-ranked public schools are located in a college town setting.

Describing the University of Illinois's ( setting, Karmanya Agarwal (enrolling in a computer engineering major) says, “The U of I is in itself a small town. We like to call it Cham-bana Champaign plus Urbana. It is a sweet little town in itself. I do feel I'll miss out on city life at times but, at the same time, I feel UIUC's collegiate setting will add to my overall academic and social experience. I had thought a lot about this kind of life and the pros and cons before applying here. I guess this kind of setting grows on you.“

Abeer Saha, a sophomore at the University of Virginia (, says “When applying, I didn't give much thought to geographic location or setting. But once you actually get there, these things start to matter. So it's important to consider things like, whether you like rainy, cold, or hot weather. And whether you can survive in rural/college town areas where there isn't a tall building in sight and little night life or just one shopping mall.“

On the other hand, Raghav Chandra, an electrical engineering and computer science major, loved everything about the location of the University of California Berkeley ( He says, “UCB is in a college town setting, close to San Francisco/Bay Area. The geographic location is perfect for the field I am in, that is, software engineering and Silicon Valley. The weather is also good; sometimes windy, sometimes sunny. While deciding the school, it did not play an important role, but as time passes, it gains significance as ultimately you have to live here for a long time, and the experience of the school (interacting with friends, commuting, etc.,) depends directly on this.
These factors affect me more now. For example, because of the pleasant weather, I tend to socialise more outdoors, and be involved in sports.
Being in an urban environment close to a big city allows me to enjoy more resources, better connectivity and transportation options.“

The academic experience

:  It is true that in a big public university, there is generally a stronger focus on research, publication and a larger number of graduate and PhD students. The undergraduates are largely left to their own devices to survive. The strong and prudent undergraduate student in a public school will be very proactive and seek out the attention of the professor. You must remember that because many of your classes will be very large (more than 300 students in an auditorium style lecture hall), it is not enough to just get good grades. There will be too many students getting good grades. You need to take the extra step and approach the professor. The upside of this is that not many students do this. So, a professor is pleasantly surprised by this initiative and will often reward that enthusiasm with opportunities.

Writing about his experience at UVA, Saha says, “Some intro classes are huge, with more than 300 students.
It's not ideal, especially if you're serious about your studies. But as you start specialising, the class size is bound to drop significantly.
Even though it's still possible to get the professor's attention, if you're scared of speaking up in front of hundreds of people, then you might want to consider a smaller college.“

Amay Kataria, a computer engineering major at Virginia Institute of Technology (, says, “The class size at VTech was generally about 200-250 students. I was complaining the first time but I realised the choice is either to sink or swim. The whole academic perspective counts down to adjustment and the willingness to learn in any environment. The quality of your communications with the professors in the classes is an important way to make the most of your academic experience. They remember you if you raise important questions without wasting the time of the class and that motivates you to do well in their class.“

Says Chandra, “I had a class with 700 students as well (intro classes). I did not face a problem. At Berkeley, people are comfortable asking a question while the lecture goes on and after, though it's not that personal with the professor as smaller classes. You have to make an effort to go in office hours to interact with the professor.
For both the above points, the criticism of a large university like Berkley is heavily based on lack of attention from the professors. On the bright side, it teaches you to do your work efficiently, relying more on your resources, because at the end of the day, you will have to put in effort to understand the material.
The core courses at UCB are hard and competitive. I advise students to give their APs (Advanced Placement exams, conducted by the College Board), even if they are in an Indian system, as it might help them skip a lot of courses which they might have done in high school.
This will save a lot of time, effort and money. A lot of other interesting classes could be taken instead of these mandatory classes which could be waived via APs."

Size, diversity and life

:  Those seeking true diversity and an ocean of interests in and out of class will love the big campus environment.
 Some students feel claustrophobic in some of the smaller schools where it can feel a little like high school with the cliques and gossip. Though at least 80 per cent of the students in a public school will be residents of that state, they will come from different backgrounds and have a wide variety of interests. These will be represented in a myriad of different clubs and organisations offering a student the chance to really branch out into different things. There is also a very good chance that the public school will have a great and well-funded sports programme that fuels that “RaRa“ spirit of the Big Game.

Says Chandra, “Berkeley being a big public university, the size was a concern initially. There was always the question of being lost in the crowd. It is true that in smaller places, one tends to have stronger ties with friends. It is mainly because of the fact that you are in the same classes as the others, unlike in bigger universities, where due to the numerous sections and options, one might have different classmates every semester. Though, it exposes you to a larger diversity and a more vibrant culture. For me, I would like to be a part of a school which is big but has smaller divisions (based on the department, classes, etc) providing opportunity to get close to a smaller group, giving the best of both worlds.“

Says Chandra, “Being a public university (which is mandated to educate residents of that state), there are only 10 per cent international students in UC Berkeley.
However, there are a lot of second/third generation Americans with international (especially Asian) origin.
This makes it culturally diverse, so it is easier to settle.“

Says Saha, “I love meeting new people and learning about their cultures. A pleasant surprise for me was that everyone seemed interested in who I was and where I came from. They wanted to know about India and its diverse people and culture.
 Going to big universities in America means meeting people from all over the world. It has been a fascinating experience. I know students from Turkey, Jamaica, India, China, South Africa, France, England, and Columbia.“

Says Chandra, “The student body is very active at Berkeley. Especially this year, due to the economic crisis, there were a lot of protests. Being a liberal place, people are expressive of their ideas. This makes for a very lively student body with a lot of thoughts and ideas floating around for people to absorb.“

Fraternity in large public universities is often misunderstood to be an excuse for excessive partying. However, staying away from it can mean missing out on a lot of what college has to offer.
Says Saha, “Greek Life (a residential society) is a big part of public school culture.
 Lots of kids rush in their first year, it's a unique experience and participating doesn't bind you to any fraternity.

The author is an independent college admissions counsellor and can be contacted at