How Important Is Campus Dinning?

Ah, the college cafeteria. The butt of too many jokes to count, it is often thought of as a place of gross, overpriced food and perhaps the occasional food fight.

But it is also a place of great importance.

“How’s that?” you may ask. On the surface, the importance of college dining appears to be fairly minimal – a place either has good food, decent food, or bad food, and that’s about it. But, alas, as it usually is with college, food halls are more complex than that.

That is, when deciding what colleges to apply to or attend, you need to consider their dining options and, specifically, how many dining halls a school has. Before I applied to any schools, I was sure I would go to either St. John’s College or George Washington University. With fewer than 500 students in total, St. John’s College is a tiny school. GW, meanwhile, has over 11,000 undergraduates, and an additional 15,000+ graduate students. Big difference.

When I told my guidance counselor my college choices, he told me to look at their dining options: a small school like St. John’s College has just one dining hall, while George Washington has so many, you’ll probably never eat at them all (the GW dining website confirms this with a very long list). With one dining hall, you will see every face there, and will probably get to know everyone in the school – for better or worse, you’re stuck with everyone (and the food!). With multiple options, you can get to know new faces, but you will never know every single person, and could possibly wind up a nameless face yourself. Both are fine, he said, right before he asked me what I liked.

I knew that I personally liked smaller settings, getting to know a few people really well. But on contemplating St. John’s College, I realized having just one dining hall was too small: I may not have wanted to be overwhelmed, but I wanted some choice in the matter of where to spend my breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. So I chose neither school. In 2015, I graduated from Dartmouth, whose not-too-limiting and not-too-overwhelming dining options had met my Goldilocks standard of just right.

People deciding what schools to apply to in every college admissions cycle usually base their preferences on a school’s ranking, location, academic opportunities, extracurricular options, and so on. Good! But while those preferences are important, so too are the dining halls. You can find the size of a school on Google or Wikipedia, but it won’t really sink in until you think of how that size relates to you and your campus experience. Maybe seeing every face every day is too exhausting for you, or maybe you’d feel too anonymous if every face you see is an unfamiliar face. These considerations can make a big difference in your college experiences, relationships, and social standing. The specific number of college cafeterias isn’t really important. It’s all about knowing what you want out of social dining.

The article is written by Drew Molboski. He is an Educational Consultant in the New York Office. He attended Dartmouth as both an undergraduate and a graduate, receiving his Master’s in Comparative Literature in 2016.

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