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Attending a State University: What to Expect

By Peterson's Staff updated on Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Like many students across the country, you may be planning to head just a short distance down the road to a large state university. Perhaps it's a financial decision (in-state tuition and all that), perhaps you love the football team, or maybe you just don't want to stray far from mom and dad. Whatever the reason, attending a large state school is a great experience and a fantastic way to get a college education.

Large state universities typically enroll 7,000 or more students, are publicly funded, and offer both undergraduate and graduate work. Sure, they're big — and it's that size that provides an environment that just plain feels different than that of a smaller private school. Not better, not worse. Just different.

A state college typically has a diverse student body

Simply put, at a large state school, there's more of everything. Some of the largest schools enroll far more than 7,000 students and a few even have student bodies numbering in the tens of thousands. But we're not just talking about numbers. On the campus of a large state university, you'll find more kinds of students — in other words, diversity.

Diversity is part of what makes large state schools great. You can meet and make friends with students from all over the world, from all different backgrounds, and from all different lifestyles. At a large state college, you have great opportunities to learn outside the classroom and to gain perspectives that will prove invaluable in today's increasingly globalized world.

The diverse student population isn't limited to just geography or ethnicity, either — students with physical challenges, older students with children, gay and lesbian students, students from all socioeconomic backgrounds, and students representing the religions of the world flock to the campuses of large state universities nationwide. You'll find students who work, student who live with their parents, students who attend part-time, students who've transferred from other schools, and more. There really is no clear-cut definition of a "traditional" large state school student!

State universities offer expansive resources and a large community

So, did we mention that large state schools are often big? As in REALLY BIG. They can span acres and sometimes constitute small towns in and of themselves. Some state universities are so large that they have their own bus systems! Many don't have just one library. They may have ten or twenty in addition to the main library, which will probably house millions and millions of books, periodicals, and other research aids. Dormitories may look like skyscrapers, as may the academic buildings (and there may be dozens of them). On any given day, you may need to check to see which one of the ten gymnasiums is hosting the big game or which campus theater is showing an opera.

Large state schools are so big that in many cases, the campus becomes indistinguishable from the town it's in. Shops, restaurants, and bars are geared toward college students and professors; landlords try to attract the best college tenants; and it's a ghost town when students are on break. You'll hear students complaining about "townies" and townies griping about "those kids," but typically, large campuses and their surrounding communities are a tight knit group.

How to make your mark at a large state school

You may hear from someone who means well that, as a part of a large student body, you'll be lost in the crowd. Nonsense! Sure, you'll be one of many students, especially in your freshman year, but that doesn't mean that you won't get noticed. Take an active interest in your classes and introduce yourself to your professors. Before long, you'll be known as the student who sits in the front and always volunteers to answer questions, not just an ID number.  There's also plenty of other ways to make your mark on campus life: run for student government, volunteer to help with campus tours, or be first in line to rally for more parking spaces. If you want everyone on campus to know your name, you'll have no problem doing it.

State colleges offer unique educational opportunities

You may also have heard the myth that a state-school education isn't a quality education. Hog wash. Have no fears about getting a top-notch education at a large state university. Classes are just as academically rigorous as those at private schools and, because of their large and diverse student bodies, large schools offer a wider selection of classes from which you can choose. The only thing that can possibly limit you is your imagination.

Don't believe that attending a large research school means your value as a student fades while that of the research departments shines. On the contrary, you might even have a chance to participate in research. There are plenty of opportunities for advanced undergraduate students to assist professors with research, and you could even get your findings published!

Similarly, it isn't necessarily a bad thing if a graduate student is teaching one of your classes. These students are professors-in-training, so to speak, who have a professional interest in the subject matter as well as years of study under their belts. They're often young and enthusiastic about what they're teaching, which can mean good things for you.

Campus life at a state university

Now for what you really want to know: what it feels like to attend college on a large campus. Well, there's a lot of hustle and bustle, which is to be expected when 40,000 people are trying to get somewhere at any given time. When you have to get across campus from 8 a.m. Biology to 10 a.m. Calculus, you'll rush, too.

On the way there, you'll see all kinds of faces engaged in all kinds of activities: fraternity brothers pitching horseshoes in front of their house, campus musicians giving impromptu performances, and the latest student body candidate expounding on her platform in the middle of the campus quad. A quick glimpse at a campus bulletin board will find it packed to the gills with all kinds of information: the next meeting of the Young Republicans, advertisements for day care for students' children, information about a campus anti-fur rally, and an invitation to a concert by the school's gospel choir.

As you write down the e-mail address of someone selling a bicycle, you might notice that everyone's wearing the school colors. It's game day and you can feel the excitement in the air — your team made it to the Division I finals! With so much to divert you, it's amazing you get to class at all.

There's a lot to experience your first year at a large state college. Expect to live in a dorm, share a bathroom, and have no privacy. Expect to have big classes taught by professors or grad students equipped with microphones and overhead projectors. Expect long lines to register for classes, buy books, and to eat lunch. But most of all, expect to be confused. You'll want to get involved in campus life, but you'll be bombarded with things to do: should you go Greek, join the business students' club, try out for the campus play, or all of the above?

You may need or want to get a job, so you'll have to figure out how to fit in the time for that, too. You'll have to start thinking about what your major will be, which can be tough when there are hundreds from which you can choose. You'll also want to take advantage of all the great activities your school offers year-round — the concerts, the speakers, the festivals, the parties. It will be a juggling act, but that's life at a large school.

Adjusting to life at a state school

You'll start to settle in after your freshman year. You can choose your roommates in years to come, live off campus, or join a sorority or fraternity and live there. As you hone in on your major and begin to take more specialized courses, class sizes will drop dramatically — and then there'll be no hiding from your professors! You'll come to know the ins and outs of campus life: the best time to grab lunch, when the machines in the computer lab closest to you are free, how to beat the crowd on registration day.

You'll find your niche, make friends, and become a member of the clubs you're most interested in and have time for. You can choose not to join any of them, or you might even start your own. You'll have a job that fits into your schedule, if needed. Before long, you'll be a perfectly well-adjusted, but busy, large school student. And you'll love every minute of it!

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About the Author

Peterson's has more than 40 years of experience in higher education, and the expert staff members here are all ready to leverage their considerable knowledge and experience to help you succeed on your educational journey. We have the information, the know-how, and the tools -- now all we need is you!

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