Just as college admission officers look at more than your SAT score when evaluating your application, you should consider more than a college’s rank when evaluating which schools you might want to attend.
Rank, selectivity, and prestige can be important, but they have little effect on your actual college experience – your day-to-day life on campus. And ultimately, it’s this day-to-day experience that determines so much of what you get out of college and where you head afterwards.
Fit encompasses a broad swath of school qualities outside of commonly reported statistics such as average SAT score or GPA. And while you don’t need to have a preference on everything from class size to the cafeteria food, there are three categories you should pay particular attention to. However, before we discuss these categories, let’s dispel two pernicious myths high school students often get caught up in when searching for the perfect college fit.
No matter how long you’ve had your sights set on a particular school, there’s no such thing as the one perfect school. Instead, there are many schools that will provide an academic and cultural environment where you can excel.
“Applicants who totally ingest the whole notion of ‘fit’ often assume that means they will be happy at maybe only one, two, or three schools,” says Carl Ahlgren, the director of college counseling at the Gilman School, a private school in Baltimore. However, the reality is that there are many schools that applicants will be happy at. Focusing on finding the perfect one adds unnecessary stress to the college search and application process.
As with many things in life, what you get out of your college experience will depend on what you put into it. The school you attend could have all the opportunities you hoped for, but if you don’t take advantage of them, they might have well not existed. It takes active participation on your part once you arrive at school to make the most of fit.
So now that you know that there are many schools at which you will be happy and that fit depends as much on you as it does the school, let’s look at the main categories to consider.
You want to attend a school that will challenge you academically and that corresponds to your academic interests. If you don’t know what you want to major in, that’s perfectly fine. In fact, most students don’t settle on a major until their sophomore year, and your academic interests will likely change throughout your first years of college. That said, you may already have an idea of what kind of classroom experiences you favor: perhaps you prefer small discussion groups or large lectures, for example. You may also have an idea of what sort of resources would help you succeed, such as access to tutoring services, career services, or professors with mandatory office hours.
Culture spans everything from location to social opportunities. Some questions you should consider when evaluating a school for cultural fit include: Where is the school located? Is it in a big city or tucked quietly in the countryside? Is it public or private? How large is the student body – as big as a small town or as small as your high school? Are sports everyone’s passion or is it music and coffee shops? Do students generally live on campus, in off-campus apartments, or at home and commute? Is Greek life a major player on campus?
You may not have a strong opinion one way or the other on some of these questions, but take note of the ones for which you do. Look for schools whose culture excites you and where you’ll feel comfortable or feel that you could grow in to.
The staggering cost of college can’t be ignored. Accordingly, you need to consider it when deciding where to apply and attend. Your undergraduate degree shouldn’t put you into insurmountable debt. That being said, though, don’t immediately count out colleges with initially large price tags. Financial aid can mitigate the high cost of education and make some expensive schools surprisingly affordable. Look both at a school’s cost and its financial aid options in order to get a more accurate assessment of the final costs of attendance.
What aspects of fit are important to you? Let us know in the comments.