From Private School to a Public College

What's it like going from a small private high school to a big, intimidating public university? Learn from someone who experienced it!

I like change and taking risks. I grew up in a quaint suburb and dreamed of living in a bustling city. After years of strict, conservative ballet lessons, I signed up for hip-hop classes. And even during my college search, I wanted big changes. I went to a tiny, all-girls Catholic high school, and donned the same outfit—plaid skirt, collared white shirt, and knee socks—for four years. I loved my high school and my time there, but enough was enough. I needed change. So my ideal school was not the nearby private, religiously affiliated college, but a faraway, rambunctious public university. Inevitably, I enrolled at my dream school: Penn State.

Starting off at that dream school was no easy feat. Going from a small private school to a public university with 45,000 or so students is like taking a goldfish out of his bowl and seeing how he would fare in Lake Superior. Instead of the two hallways I was used to in high school, I was navigating one of the largest campuses in the country. Having boys in my classes seemed . . . well, wrong! And picking out a new outfit every day? A three-year-old girl would have probably done a better job than I did. Regardless, I walked the long haul to my boy-filled classes wearing a drab t-shirt, jeans, and flip-flops—and I did so with my head held high.

My choice of schools truly let me experience the best of both worlds, and if I could go back and do it again, I’d do the same exact thing. My high school fostered a close sense of community, enabling us to grow together as young, mature, educated women ready to take on world. Penn State took what I learned and evolved it in two facets: one to finely tune the abilities that would launch my career, and the other to prepare me for the unexpected things that could happen in my job, my life, and in the world around me.

I was one of the few from my high school who made this big change. Most went to schools like Boston College, StonehillHoly Cross, and the like: all private, all small, all less than an hour away, and all with religious affiliation. These are all wonderful schools, but I can’t help but wonder: is the average private-school student scared to break out of her or his shell?

That might not be the case for all, but if going from a private school to a public college intimidates you, here are some things to keep in mind if considering a larger university:

Find your niche

You will hear this tip a lot when it comes to advice for attending a large college, but take it to heart. This can be interpreted in the sense that you need to find your smaller groups within the larger community, such as a student organization, Greek life, athletic team, and the like. But take this beyond the expected: Keep one (or many) smaller group(s) of friends. Meet people in your major with whom you can study, work on projects, etc. Attend events or concerts that appeal to your interests. And here’s the best part: doing all of this doesn’t exert a whole lot of energy, and you don’t need to be an outgoing socialite—rather, if you do what you enjoy and surround yourself with friends you like, then finding your niche will happen naturally.

Feel the campus

Not just see. Feel. I’m not trying to get all spiritual here, but there needs to be a certain feel to the campus where you may be spending the next four years. What did it for me was the organization of Penn State’s campus. Yes, it’s gargantuan—but it’s so darn organized. The campus is one big rectangle, making it easy to navigate. The residence halls are based on navigational directions: North Halls, East Halls, etc. And typically, classes within each academic program took place in the same building or set of buildings in one area. So yes, the size of the campus may be intimidating, but as an organized person, the layout of the university was impeccable to me. Your experience may be different: Perhaps the urban location of a particular school makes the large size less daunting. Or maybe it’s details like the comprehensive transportation system that make the spread seem more compact. Either way, don’t eliminate a college simply due to its physical size, because the feel of the campus may very well speak to you.

Reap the benefits

Big schools are big for a reason: there’s a lot to squeeze in! And it’s not just people: it’s resources, classrooms, courses, venues, and other things you can (and should) use to their fullest. Larger schools are able to have a diverse selection of classes—from statistics 101 to courses on Lady Gaga—that enable you to explore a range of areas and fine-tune your academics. There’s also a plethora of other resources that can be found at private schools too, and since large universities need to cater to a bigger student body, there’s often more manpower and funding for things like career services, tutoring, work-study programs, philanthropic opportunities, and fun stuff like entertainment or major athletic events. And last but not least, these state-funded schools have cheaper tuition than private schools. Cha ching!

So if you're ready to put away your plaid, take these points into consideration and open your college search to public universities. In my opinion, there's no better way to get the best of both worlds. 

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About Catherine Seraphin

Catherine Seraphin

Catherine Seraphin is a Multimedia Project Manager at Harvard University and a former Assistant Editor/Online Specialist for CollegeXpress. Catherine graduated from Penn State University with a degree in Journalism, a minor in English, and course concentrations in Business. She was previously an in-depth arts reporter for Penn State’s student-run newspaper, The Daily Collegian, and interned as a features reporter at a paper based in Southern Massachusetts. Catherine previously had a full-year internship with a well-known higher education PR firm. Her favorite experiences during college include her two years as a resident assistant and her involvement in THON, the largest student-run philanthropy in the world. There, she was on the PR committee that helped THON become the third-most tweeted topic worldwide. When she isn’t working, you can find Catherine shopping, reading, or running.


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