The average size of a college class is an important consideration for many students when choosing a school. Most people do not prefer to attend classes of several hundred where their test papers are headed with a student identification number rather than a name. They want to feel that their professors are at least somewhat acquainted with them and that they have support if they need to go talk to a teacher about their work. However, freshman classes of several hundred are not uncommon on the campuses of large universities. These large classes are often taught by student aides or graduate students rather than full professors, and the expected failure rate is relatively high.

Here are some pointers about deciphering “class size” when you are considering various schools. Remember that class size is only one factor to consider when you are choosing the college that is right for you; other important factors include the cost, location, and availability of online and on campus formats for your classes.

Know the difference between “average class size” and “student-to-teacher ratio.”

Of the two, student-to-teacher ratio is much more important than class size. Class size simply refers to the number of seats offered for each section of a class. Student-to-teacher ratio refers to the maximum number of students a teacher is required to handle within a class. Some classes with very large “class size” actually have a smaller student-to-teacher ratio than small classes because teacher’s assistants are assigned to small groups of students. These assistants, who are often graduate students or part-time professors, mentor their small group and are your first line of defense when you have a question or a problem.

Remember that “averages” do not mean that a class will fit any particular size

Averages are just what they imply—the total of all students divided by the number of classes offered in that area. If you have 200 students taking freshman English, for example, and ten class sections are offered, the average class size is 20. However, your class might have 30 students and another section might have ten. Look carefully when you register at the number of seats offered and the number filled, and try to choose a section that does not seem very “popular.” However, you can also lean too far in the other direction; if you choose a class that does not “make” because only three students signed up, that section may be closed and you may be forced to register for a different section.

Remember that popular classes are popular for a reason

While freshman classes are full by necessity, upper-division classes that fill quickly are usually driven by great curriculum, a great professor, or both. It might be worth sitting in a larger class in order to get the teaching and subject matter you really want, while a tiny class may have low enrollment for a very good reason. Sometimes the tenured professors who no one really wants to keep on cannot be dismissed and are given low-level classes that are poorly attended.

Always Register Early

Classes are often capped for size due to administrative concerns over class size ratios. They want to be able to tell prospective students about the great small class sizes and student-to-teacher ratios. Therefore, popular classes will fill quickly, and no other students may be allowed to register even if the students do not mind being in a larger class. Your best bet is to register as early as possible for the sections you want and have several alternate choices in mind.

New classes may be risky but usually offer small class size

When a professor wants to pilot a new curriculum or class idea, he or she is often given a small class to begin with. These classes may not fill quickly, so it is a great time to try out a new subject or area for students who want to keep their class sizes small. However, be sure that the class brings you closer to your degree goal, either as a required class or an elective, and be sure that you understand the purpose and format of the class before you commit to the “experiment.”

Class size may not be the most important factor in your college education, but you are often better off with smaller classes, especially if you are a new college student. Look for average class size information on your school’s website and ask your advisor to point you to classes that usually have smaller enrollment.