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Applying to colleges is about more than just slaving over admissions essays and anxiously tapping your foot for four months awaiting the fruits of your labor. In a sense, you do have some control over this borderline-incomprehensible process by choosing where to apply, and when you make that choice, you have to consider a multitude of factors about the community you’re hoping to become a part of. There’s the classic “big fish small fish” dichotomy, but even this isn’t as simple as it sounds. A lot of big universities have smaller colleges within them that foster a tighter, more close-knit community; they’re like an ocean and a puddle at the same time.
Another thing to consider is that you won’t be the same-sized fish at any of these places. You definitely have a baseline personality, but you’ll be molded in order to fit your circumstances and respond to your new environment. So it’s hard to make a relative comparison between big and small “ponds” with regard to your own size as the “fish.”
The size of the fish sort of depends on the nature of the pond. (This is where the analogy breaks down, because that’s not how it works in nature at all. In nature, a fish is a fish. But a human can be anything at all; whether that’s inspirational or terrifying also depends on the situation, and it’s usually a little bit of both.) So you can trust that whatever happens, you will find a niche for your fish. (Depending on how you pronounce niche, that might even rhyme.) It can be difficult adjusting to both a new fish size and a new pond size, though.
So let’s pretend for a second that things are a teeny bit simpler than they are. (That’s actually Stress Coping Strategy #496.) Let’s first tackle the size of the pond. A big pond can be great; it gives you the opportunity to form a wide web of connections and offers the possibility of meeting new people literally every day. It also means that everyone won’t know your business. This is good if you value your privacy, but not so good if you want people to know who you are – because most people won’t. Your professors might not call you by name, if you’re even taught by a professor at all rather than a TA in your intro classes.
On the other hand, those same professors will probably be immersed in huge, well-funded research projects that you just might be able to take part of. But, even if you’re the star student and get a research position freshman year, you’ll still never be the “big man (or woman) on campus,” because that position literally doesn’t exist. When you are a small fish, so is everyone else.
When you’re a big fish in a little pond, though, it can make you feel like a rockstar. If you were the smart one in high school, you might get even more of what you’re used to at a small college; if you weren’t branded as the homecoming court type before college, you might have the opportunity to forge that identity once you get there. Where a large college allows you to pursue an inquisition into your selfhood with relative anonymity and quiet freedom, a small college provides a social setting to highlight your best attributes for display and appreciation.
A small college experience also cuts down on the at times overwhelming opportunities a big school provides; you may have fewer choices to sift through when it comes time to join clubs freshman year, but that just might make the decision easier – and the club recruitment process less competitive.
As a fish, you also expand and contract to fill the available space in your new environment. (Again, not a real fish thing.) The opportunities available will prompt you to explore different sides of yourself and look for both new and known activities to enjoy. It will also prompt you to address what’s really important to you, because there are a lot of aspects of the college experience that can provide opportunities for you to expand your fish-self. Athletics, extracurriculars, academics, and social organizations are all ways that you can pursue leadership or engagement, and these opportunities will be different at every school – just like you’ll be different at every school.
But you’re still a fish. And the main point of the big fish/small fish, big pond/small pond debate isn’t to affix a quantitative value to your relationship with your home for the next four years. The point of the metaphor is to make you think about what kind of fish you are, what kind of fish you’re comfortable being, and what kind of fish you’d like to be. After twelve years of high school, you should know with relative confidence what your comfort zone is, in terms of fish and pond size.
This means that you should probably know your social capabilities and boundaries, your intellectual strengths and weaknesses, and your level of adaptability. (Although it’s always good to practice mindfulness and check in on yourself once in a while when it comes to this kind of stuff.) Once you feel like you’ve established a baseline from which to work toward a decision, make sure that you add a little space for growth – you’re probably going to surprise yourself over the next four years.
Draw your comfort zone a little bigger when looking at colleges, because college is like a serum that naturally works to expand it anyway. Finally, remember that you as a fish are versatile and that you can change size and shape. Take this into account when thinking about what size and shape you want your future to be; look for a college you think will help mold you into the ideal fish.
In the end it isn’t about whether your college is a big or small pond relative to you as a fish, or vice versa – it’s about knowing your preferred fish-pond balance (either current or prospective) and setting your sights on a school that will help you achieve that balance. Do you want to add a voice to the noisy chatter of a large university? Great! Do you want to be heard above the hum of a small one? Awesome. Looking for an experience that will enrich you as a person through the social and academic context of your choosing? The choices are abundant. Go fish.
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