Many smart, hard-working students end up studying at large public universities because it is cheaper than a smaller, private education. These large universities have a lot to offer if students take their own education in hand and make sure to get the most out of the school. I am a senior at the University of Georgia, which is home to over 30,000 students. This information is based on my experience there, but it applies to many other big universities.
A big school like UGA is usually a “Research 1” university. This means that the education may not be as good as a private, liberal arts school, but the professors are paid a lot more, because they also do research. Therefore, you will have access to very educated and often well-known researchers, if you take the time to go and see them. Get to know your professors in every class. This will help you get recommendations when you are applying for a job or graduate degree, and will often open up other opportunities for you. For example, maybe you can get a chance to work with one of your professors on a research project, which will be a great learning experience and resume builder.
I have often gotten to know my professors best that teach the enormous 200 or 300 person lecture classes. Some students don’t know how to approach them, but the truth is, many of these professors sit in their office during their scheduled office hours without a single student coming by. They will welcome a chance to help or advice a student interested in their field. I often approach my professors by offering my services as a class note taker. I get paid by the student disability office on campus for every student I provide notes for, so this allows me to get paid for going to class. I have also approached professors asking them about their research, or to give them an article I found that relates to their class. Sure, this is sucking up, but if you ever need a recommendation, this professor will remember you out of the hundreds that they teach each semester.
Joining clubs is a good way to expand your education and build your resume too. The draw-back of a big public school is that they are often very homogenous, without much interaction with foreign or even out-of-state students. This means that students are educated alongside people who generally have the same background and view of the world as them. However, big schools have many student organizations where you can meet diverse people. At the University of Georgia, we have a group for African students, for Hispanic students, Asian students, and more. Don’t be afraid to show up to a Hispanic student group if you are not Hispanic! If you are interested, most groups would love a chance to introduce themselves to outsiders. Another option is finding a student job or student group related to your university’s study abroad office.
You should definitely study abroad yourself if possible. I know at my university, there are lots of pre-arranged exchange programs to all over the world. I pay exactly the same to study in Mexico as Georgia, and I continue to receive all of my scholarship money.
My final word of advice is to study and try to do well. You can scrape by unnoticed at many public universities without going to class or reading the textbook. You will pass and get your degree, but you will not take away much. High scores will allow you to join your University’s honors program, if it exists. Usually, these provide smaller and more rigorous classes. Also, good grades may qualify you for school-sponsored scholarships, allowing you to graduate debt-free.
Unless your family has connections and a job lined up for you, your grades will matter. A friend of mine got into Harvard Law after graduating from a public school, thanks to high grades, great recommendations, some extracurricular involvement, and studying abroad. A public university’s education may not be as respected as a private school, but as long as you get top grades, you will not be held back.