Is a public university right for you?

Arya Aliabadi/File

You’re probably used to people’s reactions when you mention the word “Berkeley.” They range from the impressed (“Wow, you want to go to Cal? You must be smart”) to the judgmental (“Oh, are you super liberal?”). If your dream school is UC Berkeley, these sentiments probably won’t faze you.

But there is a common consideration you may hear from friends, parents or guidance counselors.

“Are you sure you want to go to a large public school?”

Even if you are 100 percent set on UC Berkeley, this question might make you a little uneasy. Before you run away in fear from the idea of attending a large public university like UC Berkeley, let’s evaluate the advantages and disadvantages by breaking down a few key features of public schools.

A significant defining factor of a public university is size. When the student body seems astronomically large, going to school there might seem daunting. Public universities tend to be much larger and more diverse than the average private university. It is easier to get “lost” in the crowd when the student population is so large. However, for some students, a bigger crowd is more comfortable. Think about how you want to interact with fellow students when making your decision.

This leads to another fact: There is little to no hand-holding at UC Berkeley. If you need an academic counselor to help you decide which major to pursue or which clubs to join, a public school may not be right for you. For example, don’t be surprised to find out that the College of Letters & Science  the largest college in UC Berkeley  doesn’t assign each student student his or her own adviser. If you want help, you can talk to staff members at the advising office, or you can make an appointment with a specific department’s major adviser. UC Berkeley also has no required classes (although there are still requirements that can be fulfilled through a variety of classes), so each student essentially chooses their own path starting from day one. As a Cal student, you must be proactive instead of reactive. In other words, don’t count on others to coddle you and guide you through the process. Get ready to make it on your own.

Many public schools are research institutions, and UC Berkeley is no exception. As a “Public Ivy” and one of the best research universities in the world, UC Berkeley’s reputation is stellar in the world of aspiring professors or scientists. Unfortunately, there is a common misconception that research institutions are solely invested in producing graduate students and generating research. Admittedly, it is true that a significant proportion of undergraduate classes at UC Berkeley are huge, lecture-based courses in which many student-teacher interaction will be with graduate student instructors instead of professors. It is inevitable that you will be taking one of these classes. But it is not true that students lack opportunities they would otherwise have in other schools; in fact, private schools are not much different. Again, your education is what you are willing to make of it. Plenty of students spend one-on-one time with professors in seminar classes or at office hours. The fact that you are constantly in contact with graduate students means you can easily learn research skills and gain experience. You also get the chance to take graduate courses and network with distinguished scholars in your field of study. Utilizing all of these options can definitely give you an edge when applying to graduate or professional school.

Whether a school is private or public may make a great difference on your college experience  or it may not. Ultimately, it is all about your priorities and what you value the most out of a four-year undergraduate education.

Contact Tiffany Gong at [email protected].