It's easy to get lost in the crowd at the University of Wisconsin—Madison.
The state system's flagship school packs roughly 30,000 undergrads onto its nearly 1.5-square mile main campus in the heart of the capital city, and with each of the 13 schools and colleges operating independently, the transition can be a confusing one for incoming freshmen.
"We're obviously a very large university, and very decentralized," says Carren Martin, director of UW–Madison's Center for the First-Year Experience, whose purpose is to make newly minted Badgers feel at home through its program of orientation, academic advising and small first-year seminars.
And students quickly find ways to shrink the school down themselves and make it their own. There are more than 800 student-led clubs and organizations on campus, from the Anthropology Circle to Yiddish Culture Club.
Alex Kowalsky, a recent graduate, created his community by applying his talents to social media. He manned the university's Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts as a student intern for two years, allowing him to constantly take the pulse of the university and connect with students.
Choosing to participate in a learning community – housing centered around a theme such as sustainability or women in science and engineering – is another way to create a peer group, as well as to engage with a faculty member.
Students living in these niche residence halls typically take at least one class together, often taught in the dorm. They also have faculty mentors who are dedicated to their community and host regular dinners that often feature a guest speaker.
Only about 25 percent of undergrads, mainly freshmen, live in campus housing. The rest are scattered among apartments and houses in nearby neighborhoods.
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Thanks to a relatively friendly housing market in Madison, those who move off campus often pay less than the roughly $8,300 the school charges for room and board. Regardless of where students live, they are never far from downtown Madison and its bustling music and food scene.
"There's always a great new restaurant to try out," says Cara Ladd, a recent graduate, "or a great new place to grab ice cream."
Hangouts at UW include Union South, with its fireplaces, televisions and Wi-Fi – the "student living room on campus," says Ladd – as well as a movie theater, bowling alley and climbing wall.
In the cafe, you can get ice cream made at Babcock Hall, the university's dairy plant and research center, which is also participating in the state's growing artisanal cheese industry.
The dairy research center is one of 10 such centers in the 124-year-old College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. In total, UW–Madison houses more than 100 research programs and centers ranging from one dedicated to Antarctic meteorological research to the Wisconsin Alzheimer's Institute.
If Union South is the student body's living room, the Terrace, at the other end of campus, is the back porch – complete with live music, a bar and a panoramic view of Lake Mendota at the campus's edge.
It's a favorite spot for students, faculty, alumni and Madison residents alike. On hot days, they can take a dip off the school's swimming pier or rent a canoe and paddle the hours away.
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This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Colleges 2014" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.